Sunday, 13 September 2009

On "cheating" when you play the horn

Not all horn parts are actually playable. Not all composers have enough of an understanding of the horn in order to write horn parts that are practical in terms of the effort and the technique required to achieve the desired effect.

Among the composers and arrangers I have spoken to, they are mostly only too happy to have you make minor adjustments to the part if it achieves a fairly close approximation to their intended effect and enables security to be enhanced.

So you shouldn't hesitate to do the same if you come across a part from a composer who is dead or otherwise unavailable for consultation. You do what is necessary. You find a workaround. You cheat.

A typical example is from "Limoges", the 7th movement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (orch Ravel). The passage I mean is available at the Horn Excerpts website.

At this point, the whole orchestra is playing demisemiquavers (32nd notes). The horns aren't particularly prominent. If your double-tonguing isn't good enough to keep up, it doesn't matter all that much, you really don't need to play the demisemiquavers.

Many many years ago, I was playing the piece in the Norfolk County Youth Orchestra. We were all trying our best to do the double-tonguing but falling a bit behind. The conductor Lawrence Leonard called out to us "Horns! You're late! Do something about it!"

I leaned across to the first horn and said "Let's just play semiquavers - he will never be able to hear the difference." So that is what we did next time round.

Lawrence's response was "Horns, that was marvellous! What did you do?"
I called out "We're not telling you!"

Other cheats you can do:

Change the slurring as appropriate to make the passage more secure.
My teacher Douglas Moore was very keen on the technique of "soft-tonguing", tonguing a note for security, but so gently that nobody in the audience would particularly notice that the note wasn't legato. This works particularly well for wide slurs of a sixth or more.

Shorten a note in order to take a breath.
This is such standard practice that it almost doesn't count as a cheat.

In rapid tongued passages, slur an occasional pair of notes, especially at the start of a bar.
You may be astonished at how much easier this can make a passage. And the conductor would far prefer an occasional note pair to be slurred than for you to get behind the beat because you can't tongue fast enough.

If the passage is covered by other players, simply leave one or more notes out!
This is a perfectly valid approach. A few years ago, I did a short course with the Rehearsal Orchestra, we did Mahler 6 over a weekend with an informal performance at the end. I was playing 1st and had no assistant. I knew that my lips would never make it to the end unless I rested as much as practicable. So for much of the weekend, I listened out for passages where I was doubled by one of the other horns (usually 3rd or 5th), and I marked my part indicating notes that I could safely leave out.

The conductor congratulated me over a drink in the bar after the performance and asked how my lips had managed to last the weekend. I explained what I had done, and how even with notes left out, I had been running pretty much on empty by the end of the performance. He hadn't noticed anything missed out, and said that I had been extremely sensible to conserve my energy.

Take notes up or down an octave.
This won't do for solos or exposed passages of course, but if you are in the middle of the texture, nobody is likely to notice. But only do this as a last resort if no other measure will serve.

Use alternative fingerings in rapid passages.
You can do this even if it results in an occasional note using a harmonic that is somewhat out of tune. The note will flash past so quickly that nobody will hear the tuning.

Hand over a note or two to another player
If you are principal and have an assistant, then you can freely do this as much as you want. But even without an assistant, don't hesitate to hand over some notes to another part if that for instance gives you time to negotiate an awkward page turn, or grab a vital two bars rest to give your lips a break and to catch your breath.

Alternatively (and this works particularly well if you are playing on music that has two parts on the stave) you can have 1st and 2nd swap parts for a few bars to give yourself a bit of a break by playing the lower part. For instance, in Strauss waltzes, I'll frequently suggest that the horns swap parts for the repeats. It gives me a break and gives the 2nd horn a more interesting time. It's important that these swaps are marked in to the part so you don't find yourselves accidentally playing in unison!

You may notice that all of these tricks or cheats have the same sort of effect - they sacrifice some degree of rigid adherence to the written music in order to maintain the spirit of how it should sound. The score is not intended to be a work of art in its own right, it is intended to be a set of instructions or guidelines for the performance which is the work of art. Don't confuse the two.

And if you think this is not proper horn playing, fine. Get your technique good enough that you don't have to cheat. But no matter how good you get, I can guarantee that you will one day come across a passage that just doesn't work as written, and you will have to make some adaptation. Better that you know ahead of time what sorts of things will work. Everybody cheats to some extent. Think of it as exercising musicality.


  1. Very, very helpful. I'd sort of figured out some of these, but not all. The overall point of going for sound over exact obedience to the writing is a great one. Fits well with your musicality posts.

  2. Great post. I would retire the word "cheating" in this context. I would say that you are finding an imaginative and effective solution to get the job done. There is no virtue in being the musical equivalent of a suicide bomber. Get the job done, live to play another day. See my response to your comment in my blog.