Facts of Life
02 Tuesday Feb 2010
Death. Taxes. Transposition. Current high school band practices to the contrary, there are some things that a horn player can’t – and shouldn’t – avoid. It’s just a simple fact of horn life. Many (if not most) high school bands (and worse, high school orchestras) don’t use music that requires horn players to transpose, so players very often come to transposition late. But until that fine (?) day when every last piece of horn sheet music on the planet is in F, horn players with any pretension to ability beyond school band have to be able to transpose. Well-meaning teachers of horn with pre-college students add to the problem by allowing students to play, say, Mozart concertos from F horn parts. But they really are not doing the students any favors. Transposition is like learning foreign languages – the earlier you begin, the easier it is. Not learning to transpose imposes limits on what the students can play. Not being able to transpose is like only learning the alphabet up to the letter m. Not being able to transpose closes the door on playing many solos, orchestra works, chamber music pieces, opera (especially!), and even some older horn ensemble works. So start now. Start early and repeat often. But start easy – transpose simple tunes, beginner’s methods, music without accidentals. To amass the quantity needed to become fluent in one of these new “languages,” it’s a good idea to play duets – transposed.
Trill. Another essential technique is trilling, i.e. whole step lip trilling (usually from overtone 8 to 9). I’ve seen many high school players who consider the Mozart concertos too easy for them, but it’s very hard to come up with even one of them who can do a satisfactory lip trill, and – let’s face it – if you can’t trill, you’re not ready to perform Mozart. Trilling is another early-and-often technique, but you can work on the same motion between any two adjacent overtones, such as between overtones 5 & 6 (E-G).
Bass Clef. A lot of the band music, methods, etudes and solos that a high school player encounters has little or no bass clef, leaving the deceptive impression that a horn player is just fine without being able to read or play in the bass clef. Many don’t even know the fingerings in the low register or have ever experimented to see how low they can play. They may have learned to read bass clef in piano lessons, but haven’t had to play in bass clef on the horn. Fast forward to college and the student quickly discovers another deficiency that he will have to remedy. Horns are responsible for playing over a huge range, and we need to speak fluent bass clef for access to a good bit of it.
Stopped horn. Another essential technique (that also requires transposition) that many come to too late.
Multiple tonguing. Trumpet players are practically born into the world double tonguing, yet many horn players arrive at the ivy-covered walls of their alma mater innocent of the experience of double or triple tonguing. Another essential earlier-the-better technique for teachers to take note of. You don’t need to spring for a copy of Arban for DT material; it’s easy to construct your own multiple tonguing exercises. Just play your regular scales and arpeggios multiple tongued, or take a familiar tune (Mary had a little lamb, et al.) and turn it into a string of double-tongued notes.
There are other techniques that horn players have to face. Best is simply to get started. Better late than never. The obstacle is the path. Identify the deficiency and go after it!