how to play the French Horn

Teaching yourself to play the French Horn

Hopefully, you’re excited that you’ve purchased your French Horn – what’s next? Figuring out how to play the French Horn would be a good start… This portion of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning the French Horn’ will start you off in the proper route.

How To Play The French Horn

How to hold the horn

Left hand:

  • Your left-hand index finger, middle finger and ring finger go on the three valves
  • The thumb goes behind the instrument to support it
  • The little finger goes around the little finger hook
How to play the French Horn

Right hand:

  • Bend your right arm at the elbow to bring the hand straight in front of you
  • Put your thumb on top of your hand
  • Balance the bell of the horn on this right-hand thumb knuckle – it might hurt briefly to start with but you will get used to it! 
  • Remember to keep the hand straight and not fold it over or cover the bell – there should be space visible on either side of your hand, like this: (|)
How to play the French Horn
How to play the French Horn

Buzzing a note

We don’t blow into the horn to make a note – we have to create vibrations, which the horn then amplifies. So we buzz our lips together.

  • Start without the horn
  • Blow a raspberry with your lips (not with the tongue out!) 
  • If you can’t do that, try saying puh but keep the lips closed
  • Next, do this into the mouthpiece 
  • And finally, add the horn! Put the mouthpiece in the centre of your lips.
  • The tighter you buzz, the higher the note 
  • The looser you buzz, the lower the note
How to play the French Horn

Breathing

There are lots of different ways to approach breathing and whatever works for you is the right one! Try some of these ideas…

  • Count a bar of four and breathe on the fourth beat – so 1, 2, 3, breathe, play
  • Relax your stomach, shoulders, etc, open your mouth and allow the air in
  • Try and make a low “ho” sound rather than a high “ha” sound when you breathe in
  • Imagine taking in air from the other side of the room

Extra tips:

  • Whatever you do, try not to breathe in with tension and try not to hold your breath! The air you breathe in should go straight down the horn. Also, don’t breathe in by raising your shoulders – let them come up naturally if they want to as you inflate the lungs, but raising them by themselves won’t. 
  • Gadgets such as a breathing bag can also be useful to get you breathing fully – you blow into them like a balloon, but you can also breathe in the contents of a full one, which will help you feel what a full breath is like! 
How to play the French Horn
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Troubleshooting

Trouble changing notes:

  • Make sure you’re playing loudly enough (and taking a big breath!). If you’re playing very soft as a beginner you might not be blowing fast enough air to change notes
  • Think of moving the teeth closer together (higher note) and further away (lower note) from each other
  • Imagine blowing fast air for high notes and slow air for low notes 
  • Relax your stomach for lower notes 

Muffled sound:

  • Open your hand and make sure it’s straight

Can't hold a note very long:

  • You need to breathe deeper and longer! Some people need to make the breaths more active (ie suck air in a little more than you think you need to) but try and keep the breaths deep and relaxed. 
  • Some people find it helpful at the beginning to breathe in over a longer period of time (2 or 3 beats rather than 1)

Can't get higher or lower:

  • Imagine playing the highest note or the lowest note you’ve ever played. Then play it! This gives you an idea of the difference in feel (and effort!) between high and low.

How To Play the French Horn - Summary

By now, you should be able to:

  • hold the French Horn
  • do proper breathing so you can make a sound. 
  • buzz a note. 
  • do a little bit of troubleshooting 

Now it’s time to improve your technique…

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