Valves have certainly made our lives as horn players easier in many ways, but their presence has also unfortunately engendered a gap in contemporary horn education. Here’s an example. Hand over heart: if I called out a number or several numbers of overtone series notes, could you, without looking at the illustration above and without hesitation

1) Know what notes the numbers refer to

2) Play them – i.e. be able to find them quickly on the overtone series

3) Make up an exercise with them, and perhaps extrapolate a series of exercises with them

4) Know pitch tendencies for each note (flat/sharp) vs the tempered scale

If I called out a note in the upper register, could you tell me the alternate fingerings for that note and what overtone on what “horn” (a horn being a certain length of tubing) it is? Could you figure it out?

Valves – our overtone cherry-picking device – are nice, but they have a grievous fault: they are not how the horn works. The overtone series is how the horn works. The best aid to horn technique is a thorough familiarity – both mental and physical – with the overtones series of the horn, and then overlay valves on top of that.

Quick: how many horns do we have in the horn you’re holding right now?

Two? F and Bb? [sound of loud, rude buzzer]. Nope.

Fourteen. Each fingering adds tubing. Each length of tubing is another horn. F horn is no valves. Second valve adds enough tubing to lower the pitch of the tubing a half step – now you have an E horn. First valve: whole step = Eb horn. And so on. Same story on the Bb side of the horn. Each side has seven “horns”. Two overlap on the Bb side: T:13 = F horn; T:123 = E horn, which gives us 12 different “horns”.

There are a lot of horn warm-ups out there – Farkas immediately comes to mind – that use the overtone series. What puzzles me is that it’s very hard to find any mention or diagram of the overtone series.

The overtone series is how the horn works. To be able to “speak horn”, a horn player needs to be very familiar with every note and its number. This is basic “horn literacy.” Although the use of valves has over time distanced players from this Ur-knowledge, nothing is gained by remaining ignorant of this fundamental basis of horn playing, and much is lost.

Why learn to speak horn? Some thoughts:

•While valves enable us open (not hand horn) access to selected overtones in different “horns”, they do much less than we think they do in helping us physically get the note. Playing the OTS (overtone series) is challenging. They represent in a way “smaller bullseyes” to hit. Acquiring fluency and accuracy between OTS notes pays handsome dividends when valve work is overlaid. The OTS is the operating system of the horn. Valves are just the user interface. The OTS is the way the horn works. Valves are the way music theory works. Start with how the horn works. Then add music theory later.

•Knowing the OTS means playing with understanding rather than just blindly playing the ink. If you know the principles of the OTS, you can quickly and easily construct a near infinite number of patterns and exercises to suit what you need right now, rather than play the same damn thing over and over every day (as I did for decades…), always the same, Ground Hog Day every day. My students know their OTS’s. To begin lessons, we do quick OTS warm-ups by calling out OTS numbers with perhaps some basic instructions or reference to patterns: “5-6, slow to fast”. “6-8-10-8, 3 speeds. Slurred; repeat tongued.” “171, slurred, 4-13, F to C horn.” Once you can “speak horn”  – know this basic vocabulary of horn playing – you don’t need ink, and you can quickly go through many useful and effective exercises and focus (eyes closed, often) on the kinesthetic sensations of aperture and breath support that make it happen.

•Knowing your overtones can help you choose alternate fingerings to get the job of the moment done. One example: you have to hit a high “G#” [G#5]. If you use T:23, you will be using the 12th harmonic (or overtone) of the Gb horn. The 12th harmonic is very slightly sharp, but very useable. But it has the disadvantage of having 11 and 13 very close nearby. Longer horns (more tubing) are dicier in accuracy than shorter horns.

You could also use T:2 for that note, which is the 10th harmonic of the A horn, a distinctly shorter horn. A 10th harmonic has the disadvantage of being flat and the advantage of being easier to hit (the lower the number or harmonic, the farther apart are its neighbors, i.e. it’s easier to hit). Depending on the context, you might use one or the other. You could of course memorize alternate fingering combinations without understanding, but knowing principles will enable you to act and react more quickly and to “store” a lot more information and use it more effectively than mere rote memorization, the same way that real (even if imperfect) fluency in a foreign language will serve you better than memorizing phrases from a Berlitz phrasebook.

Start today. Throw away your phrasebook and learn to speak horn.