Thursday, 2 July 2009

Your throat and playing the horn

In my experience, more high-register problems happen as a result of throat contraction than any other cause. I remember on an orchestral course I attended some years ago, another of the horn players, an amateur who had been playing in community orchestras for a great many years, made a very strangled sound for any note above about E or F.

Once I had gained his confidence, it was but a few minutes work to explain the problem and suggest a new way of thinking about upper register notes and a few exercises to establish a new habit. He was bright and quickly understood what he had been doing wrong.

He came back the following year with a vastly improved upper register, a better overall tone, and an offer to buy me a drink to say thank you!

His problem was that he was tensing up almost everything in order to get high notes, and as a result his throat constricted so much it was a miracle any air got through at all! Because there was so little air getting through, he found himself having to tighten his embouchure even more to try and get the note high enough.

The solution was a bit of relaxation and improved posture. If you have this kind of problem, I suggest you proceed as follows:
  • Sit straight in the chair, upright but relaxed. Have your head nicely balanced at the top of your spine so you only minimally use your neck muscles to keep your head still.
  • Practice taking a couple of deep breaths in that position, "filling up from the bottom". In other words, let your abdominal muscles expand before your ribcage as you fill up with air.
  • Keeping your head and torso in position, bring the horn up to your lips. Adjust the position of the horn (NOT your head) until the mouthpiece is in a comfortable embouchure position.
  • Keeping the angle of the leadpipe to your head constant, rotate the horn until the bell is touching your torso, with the edge of the bell probably just above your right hip. Most of the weight of the horn should now be being supported by your right hand, while the left hand is mainly being used to keep the mouthpiece in place.
  • Take another of those deep breaths, and hold it by closing your mouth with your tongue.
  • Place the horn to your lips, and tense your abdominal muscles as if you are providing air support to play a note - but don't play it just yet! Keep the air dammed up behind your tongue.
  • Get used to that feeling, then let go the tongue and play a nice long mid-register note. Think of blowing all the way through the instrument, and not merely getting the air past your lips. Don't try to force the sound, just let it sing. All the time, make sure you keep that relaxed and balanced posture.
If you find that this gives you a sound quite radically different from what you were achieving before, then it is quite likely that you have the kind of tension problems I described. If this is the case, then I would recommend cutting down on practice on difficult technical stuff for a while. Instead, spend your time on playing long notes and simple studies which allow you to concentrate on posture and relaxation. You can't build good habits at this if you are concentrating on sorting fiendishly difficult passages. The temptation will be too great to slip into old bad habits just to get you through the passage. Once you start getting used to playing relaxed like this, you can progress to harder stuff with a wider range.

The trick is to avoid increasing the general tension as you move up the register. When you play a high note, there should be only two changes in you compared to playing mid-range. Your abdominal muscles must provide more air support, and your lips tighten a bit to increase the frequency they oscillate. Nothing else should tighten up at all. Easy to say, not so easy to do if you have got into bad habits.

I came across a similar issue with another orchestral colleague recently. In this case the throat tightening was particularly pronounced when doing ascending slurs - an ascending fourth from C to high F for instance. The underlying cause this time was probably lack of confidence rather than faulty technique, but the effect was much the same, the high note came out cracked and extremely tentative. Once I explained what was happening and how to provide air support with the abdominal muscles to rise to the higher notes, the slurring instantly improved.

If you're an amateur horn player, and you feel that you aren't getting all you should out of the instrument, it may be that just one or two consultation lessons will help tremendously. There's nothing like having an experienced player & teacher take a quick look and point out any bad habits that you have got into. It may well be that you were told in lessons you had at school the practice techniques needed to overcome the problem, and you just need reminding about them.


  1. Farkas writes about throat control for metering the air. This requires constriction at the larynx. This is a controlled constriction and should not be confused with "throat contraction" resulting in the playing problems that you describe in your article.

  2. I use no throat control what so ever. One teacher (pro) practically ruined my playing trying to get me to use throat in my playing. I am a pro Principal.

  3. Someone called my playing "athletic looking" and I also had this problem until I worked on the suggestions and it no longer sounds like I'm being strangled above G. Thank you.

    1. I have that same problem. What did you do to change that?

  4. Lips feeling. What when you play and feel the center and focus of the note in your lips but you are constantly told you are out of tune and you are playing a ESchmid horn, it is a pro horn one of best in market

  5. A good horn can be tuned badly. A good horn tuned well can be played out of tune. Just because you have a Schmidt is no guaranteed of playing in tune.

    My first two blog entries from back in 2009 are about making sure your horn is in tune.

    But even if you have your horn as in tune as it is possible to get (no horn is ever perfectly in tune across the entire range) when playing in ensemble, you should be ready to instantaneously adjust the tuning of every note to fit in with what is going on around you. These two blog articles explain why.

    Whether the note is centred on the lips does't matter all that much. What matters is whether the resulting sound is in tune with everyone else. Getting the horn in tune will simply make sure that centred notes are mostly in tune and so make playing in tune much easier.

  6. Thank you so much for this! I was tending up so badly before and as a first year player I have always had this bad habit of tensing up. I tried this and it worked so well, I had no issues at all. Thank you so much for this. I am so glad I found this!!!