I had the great fortune of visiting the Museum of Musical Instruments in Phoenix, Arizona last month. This well-designed museum is an enormous treasure trove of instruments from around the world, tastefully displayed by country and with great recordings accessed via bluetooth headphones.
I was intrigued to discover a bamboo French horn (along with many other bamboo marching band instruments). The accompanying signage explains that the prohibitively expensive cost of instruments led the people of the Philippines to create these beautiful bamboo replicas of European instruments. Bamboo bands are featured in town fiestas and other community events, and symphonic orchestras are also a big part of the musical culture, which has strong European influences. I wish I could have tried it out-- what sort of tone could one get on a bamboo horn? Perhaps better than we imagine: Alphorns have a beautiful tone!
Lip Slurs are an essential part of practicing. They keep our lips strong and flexible. Lip slurs help our embouchure stay consistent as well (ie, we have the same embouchure for all notes), so as a student's range expands, the lip slur exercises' range can also expand.
Below are three lip slurs for beginning, intermediate, or advanced students.
1). Breathe in, breathe out. Imagine that your breath is always moving in one direction or the other. Never "hold" your air stationary. Correct breathing keeps your body relaxed.
2). Your ideal air stream (the air you move from your lungs into the mouthpiece when you play) is a very narrow stream of very fast air. Imagine the diameter of your air stream as the diameter of the end of your mouthpiece (it is not the diameter of the mouthpiece cup, but the back side).
3). Arch your tongue as you move up to higher notes to create the smooth lip slurs. Say "ee" in your mouth (not with your lips) as you move higher up, and "aah" as you move down to lower notes, gradually dropping your jaw and your tongue.
Beginners can practice one lip slur a day, switching to a new lip slur every few weeks. More advanced players can practice at least two different lip slurs each day, with increasing complexity and range and switching more frequently between different exercises.
I also encourage advanced students to make up their own lip slurs-- it can add a fun, new dimension to your lip slurs if you create your own pitch order and rhythm!
I have included links to Amazon because it is often the easiest option for families picking up supplies. However, you may want to shop around for the best price. There are many online resources besides Amazon (see my resources for students page).
Al Cass Oil
Use this very light oil often and regularly. Apply one drop under each valve cap, and 1-3 drops into each slide. Apply every day or at a minimum twice a week.
Use this heavier oil only on the back side of your rotor valves (NOT in the slides or under the valve caps). Place the needle in the crevice at the base of the large screw that rotates (in the space between the axle and the bearing) and squeeze the oil bottle to apply 1-2 drops for each valve.
Schilke Tuning Slide Grease
Use this grease on all of your horn’s slides. There are many great grease choices out there; this one is one I like because it seems to “stick” well. I suggest you apply grease every other week. First, remove slides from your horn. Then, wipe off slides clean with a paper towel (not facial tissues). Apply a small amount of grease to your thumb and finger and lightly coat slide with grease.
There are several different companies who make mouthpiece brushes that should be fine. If they look like this one they should be fine. Yamaha, Bach, etc all make similar ones. Use with warm soapy water every other week. Scrub the brush in your mouthpiece to clean it, but avoid scratching the mouthpiece with the tip of the brush.
Use the snake brush to clean your lead pipe. First, remove your mouthpiece and first tuning slide. Then, push the brush through the length of your lead pipe to remove “gunk.” Clean every other week. Brushing your teeth before you play will also help minimize junk in your horn.
You may want to consider getting both brushes in one package if you need both.
All maintenance supplies:
If you need everything, you may want to pick up this handy kit that includes it all. Please note that the oil is synthetic. Since synthetic and natural oil don’t mix, you must first completely wash the inside of your horn if you switch between the two.
Where To Oil Your Horn:
A drop on top beneath the cap
In the slides on the side
In the crack at the back
Often, students and their families have a string break on their French horn, making it impossible to use the horn properly.
Although you can take it to a local music shop to be repaired, you may want to consider repairing it yourself. It takes a bit of time the first time you do it (I would plan on about 30-60 minutes if you've never done it before). You also need string and a few tools.
However, once you've learned how to do it and have all the tools and supplies you need, it will take you only 5-10 minutes in the future, and will save you a trip to the repair shop.
This youtube video posted by a band director provides a great tutorial on how to do the necessary repair. You can buy the string you need for the repair online, including at Amazon.
The other day I visited the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego's Balboa Park with dear friends who were visting from Canada. The place practically vibrated with a peaceful beauty-- seemingly every plant was singing it's own song of beauty, life, and serenity. I really enjoyed spending time with friends in this special place.
I didn't realize it when I took this photo, but lemons symbolize similar things in many cultures, including wealth, plenty, good fortune, longevity, good health, purification, love, and friendship. Often, lemon is used to refresh, cleanse, or renew. In all things moderation, however: the lemon can also symbolize bitterness and disappointment. I wonder if "too much of a good thing" applies here? The lemon is well known for the adage, "if life gives you lemons, make lemonade." But I say, look at that beautiful lemon! Let's enjoy it!
It's a bit off topic concerning "all things horn," but not really-- part of being human is experiencing life's ups and downs, and these experiences shape and inform us as musicians. When we have the chance to experience beauty, love, friendship, and peacefulness all at once, it is truly a special moment to be cherished. I was so happy in the moment I took this photo.
These are the moments that that give us strength in our music and our life when we need it. These are the moments (and then memories) that transform who we are, as people and as musicians. I hope you "stop and smell the flowers" in your own way today and everyday.
The single most important key to success at horn or any musical endeavor (or life for that matter) is creating the time to let it happen. This concept sounds easy, but it is not so easy to execute. Making practice part of your daily routine requires commitment.
Daily (or nearly daily) practice is critical to becoming a great horn player. To accomplish anything, other things must be set aside. There will always be something else to do or take care of, so you have to prioritize practicing.
Create-and schedule- a specific time for your practice each day. It can change from day to day, but have a set practice time. Treat your scheduled practice time as if you are meeting up with a good friend. Remember, you are investing your precious time and energy into this beautiful music because you love it.
For example, a student's weekly practice schedule might look something like this:
6:00-6:30 PM Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday
5:00-5:30 PM Thursday
7:00-7:30 PM Friday (optional)
10:30-11:00 AM Saturday & Sunday
Many students set timers to remind themselves to practice. Excuse yourself from other activities, including texting and phone calls, and remind everyone that now is the time you have committed to your horn playing.
In my experience, the earlier in the day you practice, the better the practice quality. Most of us are more alert and have more energy, focus, and patience earlier in the day. When your body is relaxed you breathe better, which also improves your playing. Plus, you may be able to add a practice session later in the day if your first session is early enough! :-)
For the true young beginner just starting to play the horn, I recommend only 5-10 minutes of practice a day for the first few months. Older beginner students will profit from 10-20 minutes of practice per day.
After a few months, beginners can gradually build up a repertoire of simple exercises, solos and etudes to practice regularly, so 10-20 minutes a day is a better goal. After the first year of playing students can practice 15-40 minutes a day, depending on their age. More advanced horn players may practice between 45 minutes and several hours a day. Longer practice times are most efficient when divided into several sessions.
Expectations need to align with the experience of the player: Playing a musical instrument involves so many different parts of your brain! Practicing is not only playing and having fun: it's also hard work. Be patient and celebrate each little step. Remember that in the beginning, the brand new player is akin to an infant, learning to roll over, sit up, crawl, etc. Walking will come soon enough....
In addition, I ask students to try their best to practice every day of the week. Daily (or nearly daily) practice is essential for building beautiful tone and lasting endurance. If you plan to practice 7 days a week, when "life happens," we usually still manage to get five good days of practice per week. Of course there are weeks when that doesn't happen due to holidays, illness, scheduling conflicts, etc., but trying to practice every day often gives us the ability to average five good practice days each week.