Holding the Horn-Left Hand Position

by Bob Ashworth

Principal Horn, Opera North
Horn Tutor, RNCM

(Reprinted by kind permission of The Horn Magazine)


      Despite reading many articles and having discussions with students and fellow professionals on the positioning of the right hand in the bell, to my knowledge, very little has been said about the crucial role played by the left hand.

      I don't mean just fast finger technique, but the player's general awareness of tension in the hand, which can lead to other very disruptive tensions in the wrist, forearm and shoulders. If any of these areas are unduly tense, problems can be encountered in several different ways. This article is intended simply as an outline of some basic principles, in the hope that it may lead on to more general awareness of several other topics relating to playing posture.

      Tension patterns become habitual over time. All musicians should be constantly alert for telltale signs of tension: aches and pains in the back, arms, neck, etc. - often due to some form of bad posture. Rather than accepting them as 'part of the job', action can be taken to alleviate these symptoms and sometimes cure them completely! Left alone, the tensions will very likely worsen, leading to possible long-term damage and the dreaded RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury).

Weight and Grip

      The weight of the horn is always a problem. Of course the horn has to be held out in front of the body. This inevitably leads many players to take all the weight of the horn in their arms which can create an intense grip on the horn with the left hand between the thumb and little finger.

   Many players may say at this point that the use of a 'flipper' or 'duck's foot' negates the use of a finger hook at all, thus avoiding the grip on the horn. Whilst this can be of help, it is not the whole answer and anyway many players still feel more comfortable with the standard finger hook.

Necessary action

      As well as the weight, there is the simple fact (especially for youngsters) of not wanting to drop an expensive instrument and hence the 'vice-like' grip is tightened even further. If this is not spotted in the early stages it quickly becomes a habit and feels 'normal'. I frequently come across this problem with college students who have had this habit for six or seven years - it can be kicked!

      One of the first actions to take must be to have the finger hook moved, if necessary, so that the distance between little finger and thumb is neither too large or too small - both can be as bad as each other. The hook can always be moved back again when the child's hand grows in size. The adjustment is not a big job for any reputable repairer, either in his time or in your cost.

      The slight damage to the lacquer is a small price to pay for the increased comfort and difference in your playing that may result. Another solution of course would be for all manufacturers to supply horns with adjustable finger hooks (or fourth valve levers), as Yamaha do on some of their models why not make this a standard on all makes?


      A simple experiment is now called for without the horn.

1.Raise your left arm up into playing position and tense it up on purpose - into an iron claw horror movie style!

      If you attempt to move your fingers you will notice how stiff they are - as if they have seized-up - they are certainly not very mobile. You will also notice how your whole arm has stiffened causing an immense overuse of all the muscle groups that are holding up the arm.This is the sort of tension with which we try play the horn.

2. Now - relax the arm - let it fall to your side. Feel all the muscles release completely and shake your arm loosely, gently freeing up the wrist and fingers as you do so.

3. This time when you raise the arm use only the minimum amount of effort required - it is not much at all - and cycle your fingers around without any of the previous tension.

      The difference should be quite noticeable - what a pleasant surprise to find the fingers moving very fluently and easily with no tension in the arm. Notice the angle of the wrist - ideally it should not be too bent. If there are bunched up creases in the skin on the outer part of the wrist the angle is probably too severe.

      Only a slight easing back from a straight line is required. The weight of the horn should go straight down the forearm.

Add the horn

      Now, when you pick up the horn, in the normal way with both hands, bear these same actions in mind, ie

Don't let the left hand grip the horn (iron claw) between little finger and thumb

Just let the horn hang by the little finger - no, it will not fall!

Remember the ease with which your fingers moved when you were not holding the horn

      You should have this same mobility in the fingers when you are holding the horn. It will lead eventually (miraculously you may say) to better co-ordination, a better sound and far less anxiety in performance.

Daily life

      Try to put the same sort of thought of reduced effort into other habitual actions - like picking up a book/magazine or a cup of tea (pint of beer). Many professional horn players place far more importance on these activities than anything to do with horn playing!


      Releasing excessive tension in the left hand and arm often has a direct bearing on other muscle groups in the shoulder and the sides of the chest. And so it goes on .....

Further reading

Body Learning by Michael Gelb - An Introduction to the Alexander Technique (Aurum Press).

Alexander Technique by Glynn Macdonald (Hodder & Stoughton).

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel


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