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You slide it out of the hard case. Its gleaming curved pipes sensuously arc around, flaring provocatively out to the broad and shining bell. The embossed valve-caps catch the light and shatter it into brilliant fragments. You insert the conical mouthpiece into the narrow aperture with a dull chime and raise it slowly to your lips, inhaling deeply, focused, prepared... BLAARTHP! Drains gone wrong. Congratulations, you have started to play the French Horn, not only the most beautiful, but the most difficult of all the brass instruments. So why is it so much more challenging? Why can amateur trumpeters, trombonists, euphonium and tuba players often make a reasonable sound, while a horn section of a similar standard misses notes, splits, splats and sounds frankly dire? GETTING BACK TO BASICS ( WITH A BIT OF PHYSICS - SORRY ) The Horn is designed from the same basic idea as every other brass instrument. This is best exemplified by a hunting horn or bugle - a hollow metal tube, with a mouthpiece to rest against the lips at one end, and a flared bell to amplify the sound at the other. The sound is produced by "buzzing" (i.e. blowing a raspberry) into the mouthpiece, which causes the air inside the tube and the tube itself to vibrate at a certain frequency, producing a note. Each length of tubing can produce a set of notes, or harmonics, depending on how fast or slow the speed of "buzzing" is. Different tube lengths produce different base frequencies, but the pattern of harmonics that is built on the base frequency is always the same, just shifted up or down in pitch depending on the length of the pipe. The valves on brass instruments capitalise on this by altering the tube length when each valve is depressed ( "I can't take it any more! snif!" ;o) ), therefore allowing access to enough different "harmonic series" to produce all the notes needed for Western music. BUT WHAT'S THAT GOT TO D
O WITH THE HORN SECTION SOUNDING DIRE? Well. The area of the harmonic series that Horns play in is much further up the sequence than other brass instruments. As you get higher up the harmonic series, the notes that can be produced are closer together. So even a slight misjudgement of "buzzing" speed can land the player on a note just above or below the desired one. Other brass players have this problem too when they have to play high in their range, but because the Horn's "normal" register starts so much further up the sequence, greater difficulty in pitching is present throughout. SOUNDS LIKE YOU'RE MAKING EXCUSES TO ME. It's all true. Not only that, but Horn players have additional problems in tuning, due to the fact that the lovely mellow sound that practised French Hornists make is caused by the right hand being partially inserted into the flared bell of the instrument. Slight shifts of hand position can make the world of difference to the pitch of the note. This is good for the experienced, who can use it to keep everything in tune. It is bad for the amateurs, who often inadvertently use it to make everything out of tune. GOOD GRIEF. ANYTHING ELSE? I suppose I could mention the fact that once you get past a certain stage it's standard to use a "double" Horn, which is basically two Horns of different lengths sharing the same bell. In effect it's two instruments, which doubles both the weight, and the fingerings you need to learn. Oh and the cases are often a really awkward shape. THAT'S IT. I'M BUYING A BANJO. Of course, once you've worked at it a bit, it all clicks, and you start being able to lift it to your mouth, and produce "Whoorms" rather than "Blaaarthps." The French Horn when played well is by far the most expressive brass instrument, and can punch out fanfares and sing out melodies like no other. It's not
easy, and it takes perseverance, but the end result can be spectacular. You don't believe me? Try listening to some of Mahler's orchestral works or Shostakovitch's 5th symphony, and I guarantee you will soon agree that being Horny certainly has its benefits.