Close this search box.

The Switch to Horn

Heather Pettit-Johnson | February 2011

    Sometimes it is difficult to find students willing to move to another instrument to improve the instrumentation of a band. A change of instruments entails embouchure changes and the intellectual challenge of learning new fingerings. In the case of finding future horn players, I have found it best to choose a strong student in some other section. If weak clarinet or trumpet players make the switch, they simply become weak horn players.

Pick the Right Students
    I try to identify students who can produce a proper buzz on a horn mouthpiece. Some students struggle with this and have a difficult time on horn. The quick test I use is to explain and demonstrate the technique and simply ask students to match this. If they fail, I move on to another candidate.
    It is important for a student to have the right mental attitude about making the switch. It will take dedication and hard work to do well. Some students are unwilling to take private lessons and devote the extra time necessary to catch up with others in the section, and should be passed by. A good attitude is more important than whatever their current ability is on another instrument.
    A common fallback by directors is to choose a trumpet player to make the switch to horn. The obvious allure is that the mouthpiece rims are close in size and both entail blowing and buzzing. In fact, horn mouthpieces are quite deep and have a much thinner rim. This is often uncomfortable for trumpet players, and there is the additional problem of changing the upper-lower lip ratio. The standard balance for trumpet players is 50/50, but on the horn it should be 2⁄3 upper to 1⁄3 lower lip.
    Woodwind players do not have this baggage to hamper them, and they often make the switch quite easily. The clarinet and saxophone embou-chure is completely different, but does use the same general muscle sense. A flute embouchure is surprisingly similar to a brass embouchure and avoids problems in shifting the mouthpiece placement. Woodwind players have no preconceived notions about how to form a brass embouchure and are simply a clean slate to draw on.
    The change from any instrument to another has some common problems. Regardless of what their past level of proficiency was, these students are suddenly beginners again. The horn is probably larger and heavier than what they are used to and the inevitable fact is that they will miss many notes for awhile. Suddenly, they are at the bottom of a section and their confidence may fade. It helps greatly if the director and other students are enthusiastic about gaining a horn player and offer encouragement from time to time.

Embouchure and Position
    After selecting a student, the first step is to form a proper embouchure. This is basically described as holding the corners of the mouth in a tight very slight smile. The center of the lips should remain relaxed and very slightly pursed to produce a buzz. The mouthpiece should be 2⁄3 upper lip and 1⁄3 lower lip. Moisten the lips before blowing.
    The horn can be an awkward instrument to hold. It is not held in front of you and many students have a hard time remembering and understanding the mantra of correct position: bring the instrument to you, do not force your body to accommodate the horn. In doing this the lead pipe/mouthpiece angle will be correct. With small students a horn may be impossible to play with the instrument on the leg. Instead they should put the bell on the chair between their legs.

Range and Instruments
    The horn has a large range compared to the trumpet, and the partials are closer together. Student trumpet players find it difficult to hit a note on horn because the gap between notes is narrow. Muscle memory may interfere at first, and a single F is the biggest challenge because the F side uses the longest tubing (about 12 feet). Several problems can be avoided with a single Bb horn; its shorter length (approximately 9 feet) increases accuracy. If a student has a traditional double horn, it will almost certainly stand in F until the thumb valve changes it to Bb. However, the thumb valve can be reversed on many instruments to put the horn normally in Bb.
    This is done by reversing the string-linkage on the thumb valve. To reverse an American instrument is generally more complicated, but horns from overseas are easier to reverse by changing a screw. European horns with mechanical linkages can be reversed, but most American horns with mechanical linkages cannot. It is generally best to leave this change to an instrument repairman.

Right Hand Placement
    Older students have an easier time learning the proper use of the right hand in the bell, and this technique should be taught from the first lessons. This is done with the right hand extended as if shaking hands with straight fingers that are not spread. Place the tip of the right thumb on the middle knuckle of the index finger and cup the hand. Insert the hand into the bell of the horn until the thumb and knuckle can support the weight of the instrument. The back of the fingers should contact the bell. With smaller students this should be postponed until they grow and can comfortably hold the instrument properly.
    For many years horn was an instrument that many directors were afraid to teach. Few educators played the horn and there was a bit of mystery surrounding it. In the 21st century things have changed dramatically. Almost every band method includes diagrams, written information, and a DVD/CD to guide new players. YouTube has a variety of videos online. The Army Field Band ( has a comprehensive guide to horn playing. John Ericson at the University of Arizona runs a site called Horn Matters ( that has information about all kinds of horn and related issues.    

Advice from Dale Clevenger and Alice Render
    There are no absolutes on embouchure placement, but 2⁄3 of the rim on the upper lip and 1⁄3 of the rim on the lower is a good target. Another way to think of this is to put the bottom of the rim just inside the fleshy, pink rim of the lower lip, letting the top of the rim touch wherever it may. For most students this will put about 2⁄3 of the rim on the upper lip, but lips, teeth, and jaws come in various sizes and call for different solutions.
    Beginning horn students should buzz with the mouthpiece alone right from the outset, especially given the bulkiness of the instrument. The air is the most important thing to work on. Children are usually uncomfortable taking in a full amount of air. I often use Arnold Jacobs’ fight or fright image. The kind of breath you need every time you play the horn is the kind you would take if there were a guy behind you with a big knife. Don’t worry about whether the shoulders, stomach, or chest move. Any kind of movement is fine. Don’t even bother talking about the form of breathing, just the fact that it has to happen naturally and there has to be a big breath taken in every time.
    The buzzing sensation will seem foreign to beginners, so encourage them to make any noise at first. It helps to buzz along with them; start in the middle register and move to lower notes. Play a glissando for them to match, moving over the full range to find out where they are most comfortable. Explain that by making the aperture smaller and closing the jaw up a little the notes will go higher, while a wider aperture and lowering the jaw slightly is the way to get a lower note. If a student puffs out his cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie, correct this at once. Explain that the fleshy part of the chin should be firm, to act as an anchor, and that the lips are tiny muscles to alter the tone. In addition to perfecting all of the physical aspects of playing horn, it is crucial to be sure that air, or wind, is always passing through the horn. The intake and outflow of air is absolutely crucial because in the grand scheme of things the simplicity of the statement “wind and song” should be the main focus.
    Watch for any shifting or movement of the mouthpiece in anticipation of playing a note after breathing. Some beginners use almost no pressure between the lips and mouthpiece. They play with flaccid lips and sometimes blow their lips right out of the mouthpiece because there is too little pressure. Very few beginners will use too much pressure at first. You have to tell students to press a little more, but demonstration and experimentation is so important.
    Most small children have a lung capacity of only 1-11⁄2 liters of air, so the object is to get them to use the maximum they can push out. Students rarely breathe too much, so it often helps to suggest wasting more air and taking another breath. Point out how much better the sound is if they use more air. When they can get a good sound on a home base note, such as C, try using this as a reference point throughout the lesson. Then add a G and use these both as reference points from which to gradually develop an octave of good notes.
    It is so important for a beginning horn student to see how someone else plays a note and have an example to copy. Even if the teacher only studied horn for a few weeks in college while learning to play all the instruments, it helps to demonstrate everything for a beginner. An alternative is to bring in an advanced student from high school or college. Every beginner should have a mirror on the music stand to observe where the mouthpiece meets the lips. If a beginner can see how a good position looks, he will be able to match this during practice sessions at home and relate how it looks to a beautiful tone.
    It is unfortunate that 50% of entering college freshmen have bad embouchures to correct. Either they did not receive good instruction at the outset or developed bad habits, but it is very difficult to change embouchure at this stage. A beginner should not use a mouthpiece with a very deep cup. A middle-of-the-road mouthpiece works best.
    The cleanest and clearest articulation is produced when the tongue meets the bottom of the upper teeth. This position always provides good potential for varying the articulation. The attack (the initial articulation or the start of the tone in the case of non-tongued notes) is fuzzy if the tongue contacts higher up on the upper teeth or the roof of the mouth. Arnold Jacobs recommends practicing without tonguing at all because it forces the player to move the air, which is what produces the tone in the first place. This is a good technique for starting solos and can be practiced on the mouthpiece alone. Beginners can quickly hear and sense the value of playing and performing without tongued attacks
    To play the French horn, students have to put the mouthpiece on their face while holding one hand inside the bell. Many beginners are simply too small to do both, but it is far more important to put the mouthpiece on the face correctly than to worry about the hand. Sometimes a child is too small to hold the bell on his leg because his torso is so short that the mouthpiece will hit him in the middle of the forehead. The best solution is to rest the horn on the chair instead of the leg, using a towel or a book to cushion and raise the horn to the correct level. Most people put the horn on their leg because this is where they think it belongs. They do this even if it means craning their neck to reach the mouthpiece. The opposite should be the case. Put the mouthpiece where it has to be to form a good embouchure and let the bell sit wherever it can. Embouchure problems are much trickier to correct than the hand position in the bell.

The above is excerpted from First Lessons on Each Instrument, available at