How To Hold The French Horn: A Beginner’s Guide

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Written by Lisa Taylor
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To the beginner horn player, holding the instrument for the first time seems to be awkward. Many beginners make common mistakes because of its round shape and backward-facing bell, from carrying it outside of the case to sitting and standing while playing. Holding the instrument properly not only makes the musician look more professional, but it also prevents damage to the horn or injury to the hornist.

In this post, we’ll walk you through how to hold a french horn correctly so that you can have good technique and not damage your horn. Let’s get started.

How to Carry a French Horn

Before we can talk about how to hold a french horn it’s probably best to cover how to carry one as holding the horn starts from taking the horn out of the case to playing it.

The first thing to say is that while taking your horn out of the case, be sure to lift it by the bell and the large tubing.

Then, there are several ways to hold the horn properly when you are walking and standing while not playing:

The first way is to tuck the horn under one arm with the bell facing back and hold the instrument securely with the rest of the arm and hand.

Or, you could hold the horn with one arm with the bell facing up and the leadpipe facing toward the front (this is for people who have a more extended reach who could securely hold the horn).

Another way to carry it is to hold the horn with both hands, with the left hand securely holding the large tubing and the right hand in the bell supporting it or cradle the horn securely.

When you are sitting and not playing your horn, be sure to place the horn on your lap with the leadpipe and mouthpiece facing up on your left side and the bell is facing toward your right.

Holding A Horn While Playing Seated

Whether in an orchestra, chamber ensemble, or concert band, Horn players generally play while seated.

Step 1: Sit up Straight

As with any other instrumentalist, good posture is essential for practicing, rehearsing and performing music.

Poor posture often leads to back, head, neck, wrist and arm problems, diminished breathing capacity and a less than stellar performance and muscle strain.

There are a few elements to proper playing posture and they include an erect body free of slouching or bending and a straight neck with the head resting naturally, free of any tilt up-to-down, side-to-side, or a variation of the two.

These elements help maximize breathing function, reduce muscle tension and enhance the sound of your instrument.

To achieve the proper playing posture, be sure that you are sitting on the chair’s edge and your feet are flat on the floor.

Pretend that a string comes from your head, pulling you up toward the ceiling to achieve a straight and relaxed torso.

Step 2: Feet placement

Sit with your legs apart with your right foot on the right side of the chair.

Be sure that the right leg is not directly in front of you.

To make sure of this, place the heel of your right foot around the chair’s front right leg, angling your foot diagonally to the right.

Doing this prevents the horn’s sound from becoming muffled by your torso and the leg is free to up or down
to properly angle the horn to your face.

Your left foot should point straight ahead.

Step 4: Left hand Finger placement

Put your left hand’s fingers in place by Cupping your left hand and placing your thumb on the thumb lever or ring.

With your index, middle and ring finger, place them on the first, second, and third lever of the horn.

Your pinky finger should go through the pinky ring of the instrument.

Be sure to curve your fingers to depress the valves as curving your fingers help in playing fast passages of music.

Step 5: Right Hand Placement in the Bell

The right hand is an essential part of horn playing, as it controls intonation and sound.

However, it is also crucial that the right-hand does not obstruct your sound.

To achieve the proper right-hand position you should hold your hand flat with the fingers held together, so there is no space between them and your thumb should be along the edge of your hand.

Cup your hand lightly as if you are taking a drink of water out of it ensuring that your thumb is on the side of the index finger and be sure that there is not an opening between the two.

In a vertical position, insert your right hand in the bell of your horn and make sure that the backs of the fingers and the top of the thumb touches the horn’s metal.

Imagining that your horn’s bell is the face of a clock, the right hand’s position should be between one and five o’clock but most players prefer the two o’clock position.

It would be best if you position your right elbow slightly away from your body to keep your right hand far enough in the bell to control pitch and tone without obstructing the sound.

Step 6: Lifting the horn

It’s important to bring the horn to your lips and not bring your lips down to the horn.

While bringing the horn to your lips, be sure to have it angled down to allow your top lip to vibrate freely.

This position depends on the angle of your teeth, even though the standard is 45 degrees.

The leadpipe of the horn should be in the center of your body.

Use the bell and the right leg to adjust the placement of your mouthpiece and leadpipe.

Step 7: Resting the Horn on or off the leg?

There are two ways to hold the horn depending on the player’s preference.

One is on the leg and the other is with their horns raised above their right leg or “off the leg.”

Many hornists do both depending on the circumstances.

You must maintain a proper horn playing posture whether you play on or off the leg.

Holding a Horn While Standing

As with singers and other instrumentalists, horn players also stand when they are soloists, whether it is a full ensemble such as an orchestra or a piano accompanying them.

To play to your full potential while playing standing, you must also maintain proper playing posture and horn position.

Stand with your back and neck straight as a straight back and neck will help maximize your airflow while maintaining a full sound.

Relax your shoulders and do not lock your knees.

When one thinks of standing up straight, sometimes their shoulders go up toward their heads and their
knees are locked.

As a result, their shoulders end up feeling stiff and if their legs are locked, the blood flow from the lower limbs to the heart is impaired, resulting in fainting.

As with playing while sitting, make sure that your horn is angled down to allow your top lip to vibrate freely.

Make sure that you keep the leadpipe of the instrument should be in the center of your body.

Other Tips

Here are a few other tips when learning how to hold a horn properly:

  • When playing off the leg, be sure that it is close to your hip joint
  • If you are wearing a shirt with buttons down the front of it line the leadpipe up with the shirt’s buttons
  • Practice your standing posture while playing in front of a mirror
  • Incorporate both sitting and standing during your practice times to be more comfortable for you to do both

What Not to Do When Holding a Horn:

Before we finish we’ll cover some things you must not do when holding a horn and other common mistakes.

Don’t Carry the Horn one Handed – Never carry the horn by the leadpipe or bell only, or hold it down so that it dangles by your side. Not only does it look unprofessional, but it will also increase the chance of accidentally damaging your instrument.

Do not play with the horn’s bell turned inward – Turning the bell inward while you are playing will muffle the sound of the instrument.

Do not play with the horn sitting flat on your lap – Not only will you be unable to see your music, but you will also put a strain on your back and neck muscles.

Do not twist or lean your body to play – Twisting and leaning will impair your airflow and put a strain on your muscles.

Do not tilt your head when playing your horn.

Do not play with your right hand outside the bell or on the wrong side of the bell -Remember that the right hand serves the purpose of controlling the tone and intonation of the instrument.

Summing up Correct Grip for a French Horn

Playing the horn is an enjoyable experience and should not put any strain on your back or neck, nor should it put your instrument in a position where it might become damaged.

Holding your horn correctly and having the right posture to play is an essential part of being a horn player.

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Lisa is a professional musician who has been playing french horn and various other brass instruments for the last 20 years. She has an undergraduate and masters degree in music and now teaches and performs all over the US with orchestras, brass bands and chamber groups.