A Common Horn Story

Today I had one of the best lessons I've had all semester. We only played about two scales in the entire thirty minutes, but I left that lesson with a great big bounce in my step. 

He is a new student, and today was our first lesson. Without giving too much away about the kid, I'll just tell you he recently switched over to horn from trombone - even though he started on horn as a sixth grader (and that was his instrument of choice as a beginner). I wanted to get to know him in this first lesson, so I asked why he switched to trombone in the first place. He told me what is one of the most common stories for a lot of 6th grade horns. 

"Well, I really sucked, and everyone told me I sucked. I had no idea how to play the horn, so I switched to trombone because my brother plays it and he could help me."

GOODNESS. This happens so often. I've written on here before how difficult that first year is for a horn player. French horn is HARD for crying out loud. Every year I get 6th graders who contemplate quitting because that first year is so hard. But it's doable. Very doable. 

What do you need to do for a beginner to help them start off well?

  • Exposure to pitch and instruction on how to hear pitches. 
  • Instruction on the logic of musical movements. Ups and Downs. Steps and Skips. (scales and arpeggios)
  • Space to hear themselves. 
  • Space away from other instruments. 
  • Space WITH other french horns.
  • Space to fail. 
  • A patient teacher. 
  • A teacher who really understands horn. (Sorry Woodwind people. Horn is not a Clarinet.)
  • Lots of encouragement, so their musical spirit doesn't die (and then they give up). Horn is more high maintenance than any thing else in band.

What a 6th grader doesn't necessarily need in their first year.

(That is, unless the other stuff is covered pretty well.)

  1. Extensive time spent on 'tuning' and 'adjusting' the horn - and I mean pushing in or pulling out the slides. (Again, a Woodwind sort of technique.) I'll admit this theory isn't super grounded yet - it's just an early theory of mine. However, I believe if you make a 6th grade horn 'tune' in band you do a couple things to hinder their early days on the instrument. A) You cause them to change the length of their instrument consistently, thereby making it even harder to learn where their center is. B) You teach them that tuning problems are only instrumental issues when instead it's probably embouchure or right hand technique.
  2. They probably shouldn't play the stuff everybody else in band is playing. Horn is literally not like any other instrument in band. For flutes, clarinets, saxes, and even trumpets: you put a fingering down, you pretty much will get the note you want. (Ok, ok. I'm being a little tongue and cheek. A little.) For horn: you put your first finger, second, or even no fingers down, then you will have a choice of about 5 different notes to hit. Take your pick. But I bet it won't be the one you want. I bet you, poor little 6th grader, won't even know whether or not it's the one you want. I have seen a few times, just in this semester, music that is way too complicated for my beginners. But dang it, that music is in the beginner horn book because other instruments in the band can play it. A young horn player needs more time than his/her colleagues to know where Middle C is and where all of his surrounding friend-notes are. It's not a 'fingering' (or slide position) issue like it is for everyone else. It's an embouchure/air/ear issue. 
  3. They probably shouldn't even play with the band (or even a brass section). At least for awhile. ALL of my younger ones say they can't hear themselves when they play with the whole band. This isn't good. Man, I can't stress this enough: we horns are NOTHING without our ears. Teach a young horn to hear themselves first before throwing them into a full band setting. If they know where they are, they will know how to find themselves in a sea of other instruments. 

That's it for tonight. Yes, it's a bit of a rant. Once again, just my two cents.