Friday, June 15, 2012

A Trumpet Players Guide to Playing the French Horn

Although I have been playing the trumpet for over twenty years my first instrument was french horn which I played from the ages of 10 to 14 before switching to euphonium and then trumpet when I was 19. Many years later I was playing in a theatre production  where the first trumpet player was getting a doubling fee for cueing in a missing french horn part. This got me thinking about the possibilities of doubling and as the years have gone on I have tried various combinations of instruments and mouthpieces. The advantage of being able to play the horn well enough for the simpler parts is that I get to play in orchestras that play repertoire that has no trumpet parts. Transposition is similar to the standard ones used on the trumpet.

The first problem that any trumpet player will have with the french horn is that the valves are  played with the left hand. It is the only brass instruments with the valves that way. The reason is arcane - the original natural horn needed stopped with the right hand and most people are right handed. The first valve horns were natural horns with removable valve sections so they put them on the left. There are American horns with the valves on the right but these are usually piston valved and pitched in high Eb or F - the same pitch as a brass band tenor horn, so they are not true french horns. Usually these instruments are called “tenor cors”.

The french horn is a very long instrument with a far larger range of notes than the trumpet (around five octaves compared to the trumpet’s usual three). This means that orchestral horn parts range from the very high parts in the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 1 to the booming tuba like sounds in the romantic German repertoire. This is tough for any trumpet player to emulate so what I have done is develop a solid mid range from around bottom C (concert F) up two octaves to the C on the ledger line. The sound can get very squirrely and hard to control above G because the horn is played in its upper partials like a natural trumpet. The notes are very close together and its easy to misspitch or hit the note out of tune.

The valve fingering for the french horn in F is the same as for a Bb trumpet but one octave apart, so a D just below the stave is played 1st valve not 1 and 3, just like the fourth line D on the trumpet. Once you have got this into your head and dealt with the pitching issues you will realise how hard the upper register can be. This is where the Bb side of a double horn comes into play. It is completely different to the fourth valve on a four valve trumpet or euphonium. On a double french horn, holding down the fourth valve switches to different, shorter, main and valve tuning slides pitched in Bb (higher than the F horn). This requires slightly different valve fingering, but improves security.

Here is a link to a french horn fingering chart:

French Horn Instrument Choices for the Trumpet Player
Any trumpet player wanting to double presumably doesn’t want to spend a lot of money or end up with a horn that is too hard work to play. For this reason a good student horn is probably the logical option. However, a lot of these are now “mini horns” wrapped up smaller and usually only in Bb. These should be avoided by adults as they don't play the full range of required notes.

The horn I use is an Anborg Bb/F cdouble compensating horn made in Italy in the 1980’s. It's a former school instrument I bought on Ebay for £75. The price included a brand new, good quality, leather carrying case so it was a real bargain. After a couple of years I paid £120 to have it serviced and this has improved it considerably. Its a well made horn and they are quite well respected. For a while they were sold by Paxman with their name on them as a student horn and lots of good players learned on them. It produces a nice tone and is not too difficult to blow. These can be found quite easily for £150 to £200 in better condition than mine.

My Anborg Como French Horn

French Horn Mouthpieces for Trumpet Players
Horn mouthpieces typically have narrower rims than trumpet mouthpieces and can be difficult to switch to. Generally speaking, if you play on a larger trumpet mouthpiece (3C or bigger) you will find it easier to use a horn mouthpiece. There are a couple of mouthpieces on the market which have more forgiving rims. Kelly make a plastic “MC” model which is not as deep as most horn mouthpieces and has quite a comfortable rim. Denis Wick make french horn mouthpieces with wider rims, which are probably the best option.
The 7 has a rim that’s fairly compatible with a Bach 1.5C. I play on a narrower 5N because I like the flexibility of the narrower rim. I use a Kelly MC for outdoor playing at Christmas or for extra security in higher parts.

Do give the horn a try if you can. Its a very versatile instrument with uses in shows, popular music and orchestral repertoire.