There are a variety of different bell-shaped brass instruments out there, from tubas to trumpets. However, the often overlooked French Horn, cousin of the trumpet, is an irreplaceable part of any orchestra.
They’re about twice the size of an average trumpet and are known for their deep yet versatile sound that can range from high to low.
The most common type of French horn, usually employed in orchestras and bands, is actually called a “double horn.” This type of horn employs a fourth valve, which is used to play different notes through a separate set of tubes.
This is what gives the French horn the widest range of notes out of any brass instrument.
Navigating your way around a French horn isn’t always easy. If you’re a beginner to brass instruments and horns in particular, you may find it tricky to position your hands correctly. Read on to learn how to hold your French horn like a pro.
Where do I put my hands?
French horns consist of a channel of pipes, turning slides, and valve slides. They almost appear knotted together, so it’s no surprise that newbies find it difficult to adjust to holding a horn.
To wrap your head around it quickly and easily, we recommend focusing on one hand at a time.
Firstly, place your left hand around the main large valve pipe. Some horns will have a specific thumb valve, and some horns will not.
If yours does have a thumb valve, you guessed it- We recommend placing your thumb on it.
Next, put your fingers on the three other valve levers. Some horns will have a specific rest for your pinky finger. If your horn does, simply hook your little finger into it.
If your horn doesn’t have a pinky finger rest, not to worry. You will just need to place your pinky finger with your other three fingers and find a position that is comfortable for you.
Once your left hand is in the correct position, it’s time to focus on your right hand. Firstly, make a scoop with your right hand.
The best way to do this is to imagine that you’re attempting to carry water in said hand without any spillages between the gaps in your fingers. The aim is to make your right hand appear as bowl-shaped as possible with your fingers pressed firmly together.
Next, take your scooped right hand and turn it 90 degrees anticlockwise. If you’ve done this correctly, your knuckles should be facing outside and to the right.
Take your scooped 90-degree hand and put it into the bell of your French horn. Musicians don’t just place their hands in French horns to hold them in position.
It actually affects the pitch of certain notes, meaning the musician uses more than breathing techniques and lip tension to stay in-tune.
At this point, your knuckles should be on the right side of the inside of the horn. It’s extremely important that you keep your knuckles on their correct side of the horn. This is because when the
French horn is played, the air is blown through the mouthpiece which then circulates through the different valves and slides. The pleasant sound that a French horn creates comes out of the bell of the horn.
Because of this, if you put your scooped 90-degree right hand into the bell the wrong way, it is likely to block the air which will prevent the music from escaping. If your hand is positioned incorrectly, expect the sound created by your horn to be muffled and unpleasant.
These steps can seem a little complicated and overwhelming if you’re reaching for a French horn for the first time. So here’s a quick rundown of how to position your right hand:
- Form a scoop shape with your right hand
- Turn your scooped right hand 90-degrees anticlockwise
- Put your scooped, 90-degree hand into your bell.
- Keep your hand on the right hand side of the horn when it is inside
How should I hold my French horn while I’m playing it?
Now that you know how to correctly position your hands on a French horn, it’s time to consider how you should hold yourself and the horn as you play.
Firstly, whether you practice playing the French horn standing up or sitting down, it’s imperative that you keep your back straight. We recommend bringing the horn up to you, rather than you hunching down to reach the horn.
This is important because when you’re sitting or standing up straight, you’re able to breathe more air into the horn, which will in turn result in a better sound.
Next, ensure that you have a nice, firm grip on the horn with your left hand, but not so tight that it is making your arm ache or hurt.
If you’re a beginner, a great piece of advice is to make sure that during the moments you’re not playing your horn, you rest it on your lap instead of holding it up.
This will help to alleviate any aching and straining in your hands. While you’re having your lessons, it’s likely that you’ll be sitting down. If so, be sure to utilize your lap by resting the weight of the horn on it.
Top tips for playing the French horn
- Use all of the air- Don’t ever be stingy. Air is just as important when playing softly as when playing loud, if not even more. Always take deep breaths to supplement this.
- Sing each note in your head before you play it. This will help your lip know how to place it, and if it doesn’t know quite yet, it’ll help it learn. Alternatively, you could sing the piece in small chunks, then learn to play it.
- Try not to use too much pressure to force out high notes.
- Consider using a metronome. It can often be your best friend when practicing. When you’re learning a difficult passage, set the metronome very slow until you can play it perfectly at that tempo. Then, very slowly, speed the tempo up as required.