Holding the Horn-Right Hand

(Chapter 14, from The Horn, the horn) 

by Richard Merewether

In the day-to-day activity of assisting players of many nationalities and every stage of attainment in the choice of an instrument (whether of our own or other make), PAXMAN are in a unique position to have observed over many years exactly what is involved in moving from one type of horn to another. Most noticeable are the widely differing modes of right-hand placement in the bell-throat, not only between one country and another but even among neighbouring cities, and the striking effect this can have upon a player's performance when moving from a small-bore to a larger, or from a conventional instrument to a Descant-horn.

From this observation has emerged the clear fact that, whereas a sketchy or (in the former French and Belgian schools) non-existent hand-presence may serve for the smallest-throated bells, ALL instruments perform better, in tone and intonation over their widest range, with the use of one particular method--that traditionally employed by the great XIXth century hand horn virtuosi. PAXMAN makes no claim to have discovered this--only to have confirmed its efficacy and importance by establishing the acoustic reasons for it. The following illustration is taken from the late XIXth century Method of H. Kling, and it is precisely this position which is most effective in every type of instrument from the Classical hand-horn (for which it was partly intended) through all sizes of bell throat and tube-length down to the modern bb soprano Descant-horn--accurately encompassing some 4 3/4 octaves in range.

Placement of the right hand in the bell

This represents the hand-position for normal 'open' playing, but note that it is also an ideal starting-posture for instantly closing the bell merely by bringing the heel of the hand over to the nearer side while the nails and backs of the fingers remain against the further wall of the bell; this is essential for a good hand-stopping technique. Observe also that no part of the thumb other than the nail and top knuckle-certainly not the base of the thumb-is held against the metal. If that occurs in any but the smallest of bells, notes as written for F-horn at the top of the treble staff (e g. F and F#), no matter whether played on the F-horn or on the Bb, will be noticeably flattened and lose their tonal centre. In addition, their respective lower octaves at the foot of the treble staff will tend to sharpness, and hence vital intervals in the horn's chief melodic register will be destroyed. The larger the bell-throat, the more pronounced this effect will be. It should be noted too, that the thumb-tip must be consciously lifted up on to the base of the forefinger to close any gap there, and not be merely suffered to lie alongside it. Unfortunately some illustrated Methods are published seemingly condoning this fault, which will almost certainly bring the entire side of the hand (all of the forefinger and thumb) into contact with the bell-wall, and the consequent difficulties of intonation for many types of horn.

Thus it is that a hand-position, though admissible for the old narrow-throated 'French' horn and possibly for a modern medium bell, may well be unsuitable for any larger size; It is saddening to hear excellent players condemning a fine instrument as out-of-tune and of inconsistent tonal response, when the simple remedy may lie (so to say) in their own hands.

 Since double horns are quite heavy to hold, there has arisen a practice of resting the bell-rim on the right thigh while playing, in extreme cases directing the sound straight in towards the body. Apart from muffling the tone, this usually precludes a proper hand-position in the bell and an important part of horn-technique may well be lost, since the resulting timbre is further dulled by the lack of upper partial tones which good hand placement brings, and which are the very fabric of a musically telling sound. Although very young players will doubtless at first have to rest the instrument on their knee, care should be taken to avoid forming this as a habit, and to take the earliest opportunity of lifting it so as just to clear the body. Thus, it is immaterial to the player whether 'stands he, or sits he ? or does he walk? or is he on his horse?'--the same attitude serves all modes of performance and allows maximum relaxation for that reason; there is no doubt that a solo-instrumentalist in recital or concerto presents a more commanding figure when standing. Moreover it should be remembered that a musician must spend many hours day and night in playing, and problems may arise from the posture adopted when tucking the bell in towards the body --disorders of the neck, shoulder and arm during the course of years; incorrect and inefficient breathing can also occur. Certainly there are very many superb players who are seen to play in this way; nonetheless it is as well to be aware of the possible disadvantages.

How is it that gaps between fingers and thumb, or (more acutely) floating movements of the hand in the bell in the attempt to secure certain notes, can have such adverse effect on the upper notes of a horn? It is an acoustical fact that, unaided by a hand, a horn of any length will play accurately enough up to an octave or so above the piano's middle-C. Above this, distinct centres increasingly leave the notes as one tries to ascend, and a correctly-held hand remedies that in the following way.

 A horn falls into two notional zones along its course--a comparatively narrow, strongly-active, resonating air-column which extends as far as a reflecting 'threshold' at a point in the bell taper, and thereafter a flaring 'megaphone' largely serving to amplify and project the sound. The point of demarcation between these takes up a position in the tubing according to the pitch of the note being played, lying back towards the fingerhook for the middle-C as written for F-horn, and constantly processing out to the bell's mouth as higher notes are sounded. By the high written G it has arrived at the player's right hand, and thereafter the presence of his palm is demanded to form a confined duct in extension of the bell-throat, if the necessary support is to be given to wave-formations which will project notes higher than that. The pitches just named remain constant, with their respective phenomena, regardless of the length of the horn on which they are sounded. If this duct is carefully formed (and that is why there must be no openings other than one clear passage between the palm and the bell-wall) then the horn will render a further clear octave of well defined notes, whatever its tube length. Since a small addition of effective tube has thus been formed, the tuning-slide should be well-in, but the entire horn will be found to be relatively very well in tune over an extremely wide compass .

 In short, the hand-position here described is of advantage to all horns, critically important in those of larger bore, and (one would stress) indispensable for Descant-horns. As the prime purpose of these is to provide surety in the upper register, the carefully-formed duct between palm and bell-wall is vitally necessary, and in a very short instrument may approach a semitone's added length; it may be observed that less-skilled players of these draw out the tuning-slide much too far and also fail notably in the high range-the very hazard they sought to avoid by adopting a Descant-horn.

 It has been noted that the principal resonating-portion of the air column, starting always in the mouthpiece, occupies less of the horn's length for low notes and increases to the whole of it for very high ones. Indeed, this is the very reason for which one end of the horn is made to flare out so widely--i.e. in order to sharpen the lowest notes very markedly from what they would otherwise be, but in controlled progression ever less so, until the high notes are reached virtually unchanged.

The necessity for this-exactly what the notes of an instrument narrow for its entire length would be, together with the effect of negating the horn's flare by blocking it off almost entirely at the throat (which one does by hand-stopping) will be discussed in later sections of this book.


Newsletter Sign Up

Keep up with the happenings at Osmun Music