Improving tone quality, endurance, and range

This is my response to a request for advice on improving tone quality, endurance, and range:

“Dear Jonathan,

I am a junior high school student currently on his 2nd year of horn. What would you recommend horn players on how to improve their tone quality, endurance, and range (lower and upper).

thanks,

J”

Hi J,

Thanks for your interest. Here are a few thoughts which will hopefully be useful to you:

If you aren’t already taking private lessons, I highly recommend finding a teacher in your area. It’s well worth the cost.  I will suggest some exercises and advice to help you, but it’s hard for me to teach you anything without being there in person.  A good teacher can show you how to do things, and can watch you to make sure you do them right.

Now, to your specific questions:

Tone quality:

Long tones:

  • Take a deep breath, and play a middle C on your instrument. Start at a pianissimo, crescendo to a comfortable forte, then decrescendo back to a pianissimo before releasing the note. How fast you do this is up to you- find a pace at which you can comfortably finish on one breath. Focus on the feeling of allowing your air to flow through your embouchre and into the instrument. Try to maintain a steady pitch and beautiful tone as you change volume.
  • Repeat this exercise going up by half steps to the G above middle C, then start on middle C again and go down by half steps to the G below middle C. This should be a comfortable exercise. You can expand the range when you feel ready, but don’t force it.

Endurance:

Your endurance depends on how consistently you practice. Start by making sure you don’t miss a day. Slowly build up your daily practicing until you are playing at least an hour each day. You don’t have to be playing every minute of that time- make sure you take time to rest when you need to.

Be careful when you increase your practicing. It’s normal for your embouchre muscles to get tired.  Don’t try to play continuously for a long time- a single practice session should include both playing and resting.  When you get tired, rest for a minute or two, then play some more.  When you get tired again, rest again, then play some more.  If you get to the point where you can’t maintain firm corners anymore, stop and rest. Don’t use extra mouthpiece pressure as a substitute for firm corners.  Your muscles need time to adapt to what you make them do.  If you are coming back to the horn after several weeks without playing, you will have lost much of your endurance.  You won’t be able to play as long or as high as you could before.  Be patient as you rebuild your endurance.  There are no shortcuts.

High Range:

Scales are a good way to develop your high range.  I’m going to tell you a specific way to play scales for this purpose.  Please be careful with this.  Make sure you are fully warmed up, take time to rest as your chops become tired, and don’t try to force yourself higher than you can go.  Don’t use pressure as a substitute for firm corners.  Expanding your range takes time and patience.

  • Start with one octave major scales in the mid range, such as from the G below middle C to the G above middle C.  Play each scale twice slurred and twice tongued, pausing for breath when needed.  Don’t rush- maintain a moderate steady tempo.  Focus on consistency of sound.
  • Take a few moments to rest, then move up a step and play another scale in the same manner as before.  Continue playing progressively higher scales until the highest notes you play begin to exceed your comfortable range.  When you are exceeding your comfortable range by one or two notes, you should stop trying to go higher and spend some time on producing a steady, beautiful sound as you play those scales.
  • Once you start to be comfortable on your new notes, you can move up to the next higher scale and repeat the process.
  • If you start to play a scale, but can’t play its top notes, that means you are trying to go too high and you need to back off.  Rest, play some lower scales, and give yourself time to adjust.

Low Range:

Scales can also be used to develop your low range- you just have to do the reverse of what you did to develop your high range:

  • Start with a comfortable midrange scale.  Start and end at the top instead of at the bottom.  Play each scale two times slurred and two times tongued.
  • Repeat on progressively lower scales until you start to exceed your comfortable range.  Take time to get used to the new notes before you continue moving lower.
  • Don’t change your embouchre to play low.  You should drop your jaw and frown a little, but try to keep the mouthpiece in the same place on your lips no matter what range you play in.

Have something to  add?  Tell us about it in the comments.

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  1. Claire’s avatar

    Thank you so much! I am also in junior high and I play French horn, but I do not have private lessons. These tips really helped my range!

    Reply

  2. Helena’s avatar

    I have a question for you, what level of improvement should I be at in playing my french horn? I’m a freshman in high school and transfered from alto saxophone to french horn at the beginnning of the year. I’m still having a lot of trouble playing the french horn. My tone quality is pretty terrible and my endurance isn’t very good either. I know I need private lessons and I’m working on getting them but should I be a lot better than I am regardless?

    Reply

  3. Chuck Guerrero’s avatar

    I have resumed playing horn after having set it aside for several years. This is the result of having become involved with a community band. I am in the process of rebuilding my tone, technique and endurance and have just read your blog. Is there anything that you might add that would be applicable to my particular situation? I realize that it will be a long slow rebuilding process and that I will need to exercise patience.

    Reply

    1. Marilyn’s avatar

      Love your story! I didn’t play for well over 30 years, and now I’m starting my 5th year. I took private lessons for a while, and then I joined a community band 3 years ago. I also got to join a brass quintet about a year ago, which has really helped my improvement. I suggest taking some lessons and try to find an hour a day to practice. Then focus your practicing on those things that need improvement. I alternate between scales, Kopprasch, and embouchure-building books. Then I practice my band and quintet music. Having a reason to practice really makes a huge difference and is a great motivator. I’m still not the player I was 30 years ago, but I am getting close. Be patient and most of all, enjoy the experience. I still have to pinch myself because I’m playing again, and I hope your story will inspire others to to the same. It’s been a year – how are you doing?

      Reply

    2. Madi’s avatar

      Thanks! These were really helpful. I am a horn player and I have been playing a double horn for 2 years and my tone quality was pretty good, but I recently had to switch to a single horn and I sound pretty horrible on it, compared to how I sounded on my double.

      Reply

    3. Jessica’s avatar

      Hi im in my 3rd year of french horn and my last year in middle school. I recently went on a trip over the summer and I lost the gret tone quality that i practiced hours a day for. Are there any tips on speeding alone the process and also to get higher notes? Thanks!!

      Reply

    4. Anna’s avatar

      No, I don’t think you should be worried. When I first started playing the French Horn i had similar problems. I just kept practicing and now I an hear the difference in my tone. Of course I am not fully satisfied, I am sure that I have gotten better. All the best!

      Reply

    5. Nicole’s avatar

      Hi , i have been playing for the third year , now i have juniors coming in but they keep buffing their cheeks .. What can i do to help them no to buff their cheeks ?

      Reply

    6. Brittany’s avatar

      Those tips were helpful. I love the French Horn and its sound. Im so sad how not many people play it. One tip i have is that I put chap stick on it helps me play higher notes on my scale and on my slurs.

      Reply

    7. Michael’s avatar

      When you cant practice your horn use the eraser end of a pencil and place it between your lips and hold it straight out just using your lips. Only 3 to 4 minutes at a time. This will help develope your muscles in your embouchre. Also…do octave slurs starting with the C below the staff and work your way up. Concentrate on hearing your pitches before playing the pitch. Work your way up the chromatic scale and also down the chromatic scale. Quarter notes should be used. Also…concentrate on doing each thing you practice musically. Vary between pp and ff for each exercise.

      Reply

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