The trials, problems and satisfactions of playing the horn.
Does it deserve its reputation as a "difficult" instrument?
By the way, call it a horn rather than a French horn.




 Another of my many disguises, this time getting ready to play in a concert with the WLO.



The horn has been called "God's Musical Instrument"
This is because you blow in one end and only God knows what will come out at the other.





I think it's an unexpected after-effect of the chemotherapy although that finished in August 2012.
I am having trouble pitching notes correctly and lately my horn playing has gone from bad to worse.
Have other brass players had similar problems? Maybe we should tell the doctors about it. 
On the other hand maybe it's an effect of the Parkinsonism that I am now told I am getting.
Either way it's not very much fun !!


This is the problem they don't tell you about when you first start on the horn, but it is a big part of the mystery of horn playing and can be used to frighten players of simpler instruments. We all seem to have different ways of transposing and I have yet to meet someone who uses my method. Not being highly trained or versed in music theory, I simply put down the horn and pick up another one in the new key with the appropriate fingering for that instrument - all in my imagination - it's the same horn but a different mind-set.
Other people do clever things like read each note up a third or down a fifth, which is beyond me. I sometimes transpose and print difficult pieces to F, the standard key for the horn. For most music paperwork I use the music processor programme "Mozart" but I recently also started using "Music Processor 7" from Braeburn Software, which can scan printed pages and put them on screen for editing and transposing. It does this surprisingly well and can also separate parts when more than one line of music appears on the stave (for example when both 1st and 2nd horn parts are printed on the one page, which can be confusing to read).

However, musical purists will tell you that it is wrong to transpose in this way because it alters the way the music is heard and played. Theoretically there are subtle differences in tuning between different keys. In practice they don't get heard and any work with an "even tuned" instrument like a piano defeats this in any case, since its tuning is a compromise with evened out spacing between the notes.

Don't let your horn sieze up! If you don't remove and replace the tuning slides regularly they will corrode slightly and may become very difficult to move, so dismantle, grease and clean on a regular basis. We have found "Spit Balls" very useful and a lot nicer than their name. They are pieces of foam soaked in cleaning/lubricating solution. You remove the mouthpiece and cram one into the lead pipe. Then blow hard to send it through all the tubes at high speed. It's surprising what colour they come through the first time you do this.
Take special care if you take out a slide to put in some oil for the valves because it's easy to wash grease from the slide into the valve, which can slow down the valve action and make playing difficult. A regular wash through with warm slightly soapy water can do a lot of good. Most long thin brushes that work fine in trumpets and cornets are useless in a horn because the tubes are so much longer and more tightly curved.

From the left: 1. my chinese copy of a double (German) Alexander;  2. Cheap single Bb horn with fourth valve a "stopping "valve: 3&4. two slightly different American Holton doubles. You can see that the three "double" horns have two decks of slides attached to the valves (the row of four round things) but the single has only one deck. On the doubles the top, larger, deck is the F horn and the shorter slides below are the Bb horn. Another difference is that the single has a detachable bell - it screws off at the ring around the "neck" - so that it packs away smaller.
The stopping valve on the single horn allows you to play stopped, that is with your hand blocking the bell, without having to transpose. Stopping makes the strange faraway nasal sound and on a double horn you have to play the F side and transpose a semitone from F to E to get the right notes.

Different horns. I play a full double horn in F and Bb normally but tend to play everything on the Bb side, so a single Bb horn would be all I really need. It's a cheap chinese copy of a german Alexander, but works very well for me. I am not a good enough player to warrant spending thousands on a top class instrument.

Difficult?  They tell me so. The main problem with a horn is that when you blow it any one of about 8 different notes may emerge for any one of the 16 or more finger positions. This means you have to train your mouth to send in the right note rather than relying on finger positions (imagine a piano on which every key may give any of 8 notes depending on how you press it!). It also means there are several finger positions for any one note, not all of which are equally in tune, giving you a wide choice. Added to this is the problem that your music is often written for a horn in a different pitch from the one in your hands, so you have to read the music higher or lower than it is written. Sometimes the movements in a single piece are written for different horns, or you may even be asked to change horns in mid-page. Confused? You should try doing it at speed!

How does a Horn Work?  It Looks so Complicated!
All the energy and the vibration comes from your lips, which you buzz into the cone shaped mouthpiece. It's a deeper more conical mouthpiece than other brass  instruments, which contributes a lot to the special tone.
If you Buzz into a length of garden hose, you can produce the same sort of sound - and the horn unravels to about 4 metres in length, so try a 4m bit of hose. You soon discover that altering the tension in the lips moves the note up or down the scale. The notes you can get are spaced apart in a pattern called the harmonic series. Old horns used just to have this series, so they were not able to play many tunes.  Then in the early 19th century someone invented valves and these are used to add various short lengths of tube to the middle of the horn so that you get other harmonic series lower than before. So now you can find all the notes of the scales by combining the right valves with the right lip tension.  A lot of the time much of that shiny tubing is out of use, waiting for you to select it to get a particular note. 
Why is your right hand shoved up the spout?  That's a relic from the no-valve days because you can alter the note by shutting down the bell with your hand. It means the modern horn can produce wierd strangled sounds unlike any other instrument.  The other result is that the horn is the only brass instrument on which you work the valves with your left hand. It's also the only instrument that gives its best output backwards, so horn players are often accused of being "late" by conductors.  The bane of horn players' lives is being put at the back of a cramped orchestra space so that you are playing either against a solid wall that reflects the sound or into a cupboard or some curtains that absorb most of it.  Worst of all is being put in front of the timpani because the horn bell collects the drum sound, concentrates it, and sends it into your lips, which then won't play the note you want. It's like being hit in the mouth.

I have been having trouble playing the horn lately as my embouchure won't work like it once did. I put this down partly to lack of practice but also as a side effect of 6 months of chemotherapy with capecitabine.

The Alphorn

The Alphorn is a relic of the past in that it is just a straight tapered tube of fixed length with no means of alteration such as valves or slides. It therefore can play only the harmonic series and  its length dictates which key it is in. So the tunes you can play are very limited due to the gaps in the scale.  However it is instructive to compare it to the horn and see what a straightened out horn looks like.  

I always wanted an alphorn but they cost thousands and are a tricky piece of woodwork involving the precise hollowing out of tree trunks split in half - not easy!. My solution was to make my own from paper.

DIY Alphorn.
How to make your own alphorn, using only scrap paper, wallpaper paste and a couple of bits of metal tube.

  Here is the completed
  and assembled horn
  ready to be played to my
  unsuspecting dog
The Alphorn comes in three pieces.

In this picture you can see my addition
of the sliding tube at the mouthpiece end
which allows the horn to be tuned
by shortening or lengthening.

Finish it with a decorative gloss paint coat or two and use a french horn mouthpiece to play it -Yes, it really plays! I have made three so far. 

The first job was to make a mould to build it on, using carefully tapered wood, with two different pieces of  water pipe as joints. This mould is the shape of the inside space in the finished horn and repays some careful work or the tone and pitch is wrong and the mould won't come out of the horn. Don't try to model the bell end until the mould is out as this can be done free-hand after the mould is removed.
The mould on which you build is made in three re-usable pieces. Each is about 120cm long and the joints consist of metal tube of two sizes. The nearer one is 15mm diameter water pipe about 25cm long and the second is much wider- a piece of the metal suction tube from an old vacuum cleaner would be quite suitable. The three bits of wood that push into the joints are tapered so that you have an even conical increase from one end to the other, starting from the size a horn mouthpiece fits into and ending about 10cm in diameter. I made mine from a length of 15mm dowel, a broom handle and a fence post.  Once you have assembled the wooden mould with its two pieces of metal tube as  joints, you can start building.

   A close up picture of the copper pipe which forms the wider joint of the horn. The black is paint, covering many layers of paper stuck with wallpaper paste.

The big problem I have had is getting the mould out of the horn when the paper is dry. You may come up with a better method but mine was to wrap the whole mould in polythene by cutting some big bags spirally into long ribbons and then winding these round and round the wood in layers.  You need a non-stick material that gives you just enough of a cushion that the mould can be freed. A couple of times I had to cut the narrowest tube into sections and then join them up again when freed from the mould.
Building is simple but boring. Cut a lot of old paper into strips, mix some wallpaper paste and stick strip after strip on the mould going spirally both ways until a thickness of about 4mm is reached. I dried mine overnight on a radiator after every few layers, taking about a week to build up enough paper.  My first (and best) alphorn is made from the beekeepers association committee minutes from several years back. A good way to clear out your filing cabinet!
The bell end is built up little by little by adding smaller bits of paper to the edge and bending each a little further into the bell-shape. Do it in several stages, drying each time, or it gets floppy and is hard to shape. Thicken the edge for extra strength and include a couple of screws of paper on the underside well covered with many layers to make the "feet" of the horn .

Finally when it is thoroughly dry paint it, inside and out, with gloss paint.  I tried filling the sections with paint but the stoppers always leaked making a mess so the easier way to paint the inside is to pull paint-soaked bits of sponge through the tube repeatedly. The inside MUST be waterproof.
Tune your alphorn when dry by sliding the joints in or out, or in extreme cases, sawing a bit off the mouth end.
Real alphorns come in groups, each a different length, so that they can play chords and share a tune to find all the notes. There are a few pieces of orchestral music written for alphorn, but really it is at its best outdoors in the mountains on a still evening, the sound reflecting from the hillsides.
The best piece I have found to demonstrate the ability of the alphorn is the first part of Benjamin Britten's piece for Tenor,Horn and Strings. The introduction is played on a solo "natural" horn normally, using no valves.