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I started French horn lessons in April and since then I've already "fired" two teachers, both for the same reason.

The reason is that they have frustrated me by refusing to explain how do to what they are asking me to do. Both of them essentially accused me of... I guess letting my head get in the way of playing, and both used the phrase "analysis paralysis", and after looking that up I realize neither one actually knows what that phrase means. But it struck me that they both misused the same phrase in the same way to justify refusing to teach me the same kind of information.

With the most recent teacher, we almost got into an argument in our last lesson. She asked me to play up major scales starting from G3 to G4 and then playing the next scale a half step higher (Ab3 to Ab4) and so on. Around C5 I start to have trouble getting the notes out. This teacher started telling me to just blow and stop thinking about the technique. What caused the near argument was that neither teacher has actually taught me any technique beyond how much of my top lip should be in the mouthpiece, so I told her I can't be distracted by technique because I don't know any. Then she went back to her mantra of "analysis paralysis" and my problem was that I was "too focused" on technique and embouchure.

This is completely the opposite of my clarinet teacher, who has discussed with me in great detail at various points in the last eight months the precise positioning of each lip, my chin, my tongue, etc. And I've progressed very quickly on the clarinet and I'm extremely happy with those lessons.

After the first French horn teacher refused to teach any technique, I decided it was just a bad fit. Now that I've had two teachers basically say identical things about not providing any instructions beyond "wiggle and blow" (literal quote from the second teacher), I'm wondering if the problem is actually me.

Have these teachers been using widely accepted pedagogy and is there something I'm not understanding about it? One thing I don't get is, if I'm just supposed to blow and try to let my mouth figure out how to play French horn on its own, why have a teacher? What am I missing?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Richard
    Sep 7 at 16:27
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    Note that a not-inconsiderable part of learning to play higher notes is about developing the musculature and control required to do so. It's like taking up running: your first task is to develop the basic fitness to go the distance; then you can work on technique. There really is no alternative to the I've-gone-half-a-mile-and-I-think-I'm-going-to-die phase, but it does pass...
    – avid
    Sep 8 at 8:10
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    As a teacher and student: We teach good teachers how to teach us, and if they're good teachers, they allow themselves to be taught. Sep 8 at 11:19
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    Oh man, this gave me such flashbacks to some Martial Arts classes I took. "Just relax and let it flow" ... I am f***** relaxed, now tell me what to do! Not everybody who can do something well is automatically a good teacher.
    – AnoE
    Sep 8 at 14:54
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    @Fattie Thanks. I think we know by now that you and I don’t see eye-to-eye on very much at all Sep 10 at 13:20
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  1. To paraphrase the familiar Duke Ellington quote, if you learn from them, they're good teachers for you; if you don't, they're the other kind. No, a sample size of two isn't too big for it simply to be that they maybe don't communicate well, or are unable to adapt their teaching style to your needs. A good teacher, yes, does explain better than "wiggle and blow," or better yet uses nonverbal ways like modelling, gestures, metaphors, and motions, but also recognizes when their current approach isn't connecting with this student and tries something different. Keep looking! But,
  2. Yes, it's wise to ask yourself whether there's anything you can change as a student to maximize your benefit. Adult students can be some of the most challenging to teach. Without a video of a lesson, I can only read between the lines and generalize about adult students I've taught, so forgive and disregard anything that doesn't apply to you, but there are some tendencies that most adult students can benefit by consciously counteracting.

First (as long as we're making blanket generalizations): There are two types of students, and they could both stand to take a page out of the other type's book. The first—let's call him Billy—is energetically, sincerely, joyfully, blithely oblivious to his mistakes. He loves to play and hates to stop. He starts at the beginning of the piece and charges straight through to the end, and if he has any sneaking suspicion that the joyful noise he is creating is in any way divergent from the printed material, the still small voice of misgiving is steamrolled by the juggernaut of his zeal. As Billy's teacher, you remind him of the same things every week. You have to stop him constantly, and it's like stopping a train. Billy will gladly perform for strangers at the drop of a hat, has no concept of a piece being "ready," and is utterly unfazed by a disastrous performance. In short... Billy is always ready to leap before he looks.

The other type of student—let's call her Nelly—is determined to get it right. She doesn't leap without not only looking, but first commissioning a thorough structural analysis of the landing site and testing the wind speed and direction, and in fact she'd really prefer not to do any leaping at all thank you, why not just step carefully and deliberately. You start the first lesson with "Ok, you hold the instrument like this," and she puts it down to take notes. When preparing to play a piece, first she puts the violin on her shoulder, then adjusts her bow hold, then decides maybe she should move the violin slightly to the left, then turns her attention to the bow hold again and specifically the curvature of the thumb, then the pinky, then whoops the thumb had straightened again, then perhaps the violin should be a bit more to the right after all... And when she actually places the bow on the strings, she starts with a small, timid sound and is immediately appalled at the poor tone and stops, then adjusts everything again, takes a deep breath, and tries again. As Nelly's teacher you never have to stop her to point out a wrong note, but you do often have to ask "Wait, why did you stop?" Although this attention to detail doesn't always correlate to performance anxieties, it often does. Many iterations of Nelly must be coaxed into performance, and then only of a piece that she has absolutely mastered (though she despairs of that possibility). For Nelly, bad performances are traumatizing, and frankly so are good ones.

The thing is, I've never taught an adult student who was a Billy. (It's refreshing to imagine—maybe adults would have to be drunk or stoned to be so absolutely careless of outcome.) And every adult I've taught has had varying degrees of Nelly. Since two teachers now have suggested that you overthink or over-analyze (perhaps, over-prepare?), there is a chance that there's something to change here. With bowed strings as well as winds, simply making a palatable sound is half the battle (who am I kidding, it's 99% of the battle for at least the first year). It's important to give yourself room to make some truly horrible noises while learning how to make a good one. Sometimes, to teach most efficiently, you have to teach in "chunks." Even if it were possible to lecture at you for hours, with diagrams and charts, in such a way that you were fully prepared to play a perfect note on your first try, it's often easier to give you 50% of the picture and then build on that knowledge. If you find yourself erring on the side of "making sure you're right before going ahead," consider this: you can learn in preparation for an action, or you can learn in hindsight by assessing what you just did. Since the practice of music is not just a conceptual but a physical skill involving the nervous system and muscles, learning in hindsight is able to correlate the incoming concepts with recent physiological data ("I went like this, it sounded like this. To sound like that, I should go more like that.").

Another dynamic that can complicate adult learning is the balance of authority. Children are taught to carry out their teachers' orders instantly and unquestioningly, or else they're in trouble. For adults, when some twerp half your age tells you to try something, there's a strong instinct of "Oh yeah? Why should I?" Don't get me wrong; if you're not getting the notes out and their response is "I dunno, keep trying,” then you're not imagining things, that's bad pedagogy. But in general, unless they're asking you to do something physically damaging, try to err on the side of humoring their requests even if you don't see the point in it (wax on, wax off...). There's nothing wrong with knowing the "why" of what you're doing; that provides motivation. But a really good teacher will have planned the lesson and its timing, and it could be to your own detriment to get onto a tangent of explanations. Sometimes what is asked of you is impossible to comply with immediately ("Relax your embouchure; don't try so hard." "RELAX?! If I knew what to stop doing, I’d do it!”). But give yourself a certain grace period of failure before concluding that the approach isn’t working.

TLDR:

  1. "A good fit" is not just a euphemism. Keep looking for a teacher who you learn well from.
  2. Give their requests and lesson pacing the benefit of the doubt.
  3. You can learn not only by finding out how to do it and then doing it right, but also by doing it wrong and then finding out why.
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    Regarding being whatever amount of Nelly, both my guitar and clarinet teachers say I’m an excellent student, and I’ve progressed very well on both. My guitar teacher actually treated me more like a Billy since he told me to just pluck for the first week (there was a whole breakdown of exactly how to pluck). Then it was “boom chick” for another week (or more, I’m not sure). And so on. Extremely slow and methodical. Maybe there are two extremes of teachers as well? Sep 7 at 22:59
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    @ToddWilcox Well, as far as I know (playing none of the above), there's no mystical force that makes French horn impossible to explain clearly! Yes, teachers definitely fall all across the spectrum (though really good ones can move across it at will to suit the student's needs). Sep 7 at 23:38
  • As a brass player, I'm at a loss for how to explain how to make the noise. It's not like a woodwind or a stringed instrument where you have a complex technique and you can see what other people are doing. You just blow while vibrating at the required tension. There's no trick to going higher or lower than just "do it tighter or looser". You just have to train your muscle strength (to get higher) and control (to get accurate and clean harmonics) over time.
    – OrangeDog
    Sep 10 at 21:55
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While these teachers appear to be missing the fact that mechanical aspects (like embouchure) matter, I can't help but wonder whether you are also having difficulty conveying exactly what you want to learn. For example, brass instrument embouchure changes relatively little with pitch. Maybe if you tried asking "do I need to change anything besides breath control and lip vibration rate?" you might get answers more useful for you.
For example, I do know some trumpet players who warm up & practice hitting a couple octaves with just the mouthpiece, to train your lip speed independent of supporting the full column of air thru the entire horn.

As a once-in-a-while teacher (not of French Horn), I would say it's much easier for the teacher if you can learn to produce the notes and then the teacher can observe and correct your embouchure in real time. That's much more accurate and productive than trying to describe the multidimensional space of muscles+hornposition+airflow etc.

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    'Brass embouchure changes relatively little with pitch'? Isn't that how we form the next harmonic?
    – Tim
    Sep 7 at 15:57
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    That’s funny I change my embouchure on horn a lot as i change pitch. Maybe my problem is I shouldn’t, but I’d have a range of about a fourth if I weren’t changing things. How does one change lip vibration rate without changing some aspect of the lips? Sep 7 at 16:05
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    @Tim Tests using high-speed film and crystal mouthpieces have shown that the lip flutter speed matches the output frequency. My comments about embouchure were meant to suggest that (and again, I don't play brass) the overall lip positions change very little. Sep 7 at 16:07
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    @ToddWilcox I suspect with the right teacher observing, you'll find you need less and less "contortion" to get the notes out, using breath control and very small adjustments to your lip positions. Sep 7 at 16:08
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    I'll hold off dv for now. Some folk are very quick with that button.
    – Tim
    Sep 7 at 16:10
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You‘ve got some very good answers here. I don‘t know whether I understand really what analysis paralysis means. Do they want to say that you are thinking too much? Let it flow?

Playing an brass instrument may be - like all other instrument - quite intuitive. I‘ve learnt almost all of them autodidactic. But there are some points that should be able to be transmitted and that a teacher should be able to explain:

  • breathe- and pitch controlling is importantly needed and naturally requires a high level of reflection.
  • Buzzing and vibration of the lips can and should be practiced with instrument, with mouthpiece and only with the lips.
  • Embouchure is very individual depending of you lips, mouth, teeth position, jaw.
  • The tone has to be hold by the lungs, supported by the diaphragm.
  • The angle of the lips depends a great deal from the anatomic building of your mouth as described above.
  • You should train to play higher pitches without pressing the instrument on your lips.
  • The coordination of the air pressure in the mouth, also in the lumbars and with the diaphragm is elementary and fundamental for a good sound, coordinated with an adequate tension of the lip muscles muscles - with a minimum of pressure of the lips on the mothpiece.

This latter combination of airstream, bodywork and support is a very complex process of interaction and body-sound-feedback and difficult to describe. But a horn teacher should be able to demonstrate it and show how to do it, if he is not able to explain it - also to adult students. You can find it out yourself by training and practice and listening (and watching = studying) to other musicians.

Because I have learnt myself - well, I was in music camps and in the army and got some inputs there - I have some bad habits: I need more pressure with the lips and I change the embouchure position for higher and lower pitch. What I‘ve learnt is that hamster cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie are a no go - but he is a good example that there are different individuell ways to get to a goal.

To your comment: How does one change lip vibration rate without changing some aspect of the lips?

Try to buzz melodies without instrument by forming a reservoir of air between your lips and teeth - combined with the muscle tension of the ring muscle of your lips, of course! - this will change the tension of the lips which will be finally responsible for the change of pitch.

I‘ve written this answer right of my mind, but I know there are many - controversial- teaching videos on youtube and here I‘ve just googled this wiki site:

google: embouchure -

players who place the mouthpiece higher on the lips, so that more upper lip is inside the mouthpiece, will direct the air downwards to varying degrees while playing. Performers who place the mouthpiece lower, so that more lower lip is inside the mouthpiece, will direct the air to varying degrees in an upward manner. In order for the performer to be successful, the air stream direction and mouthpiece placement need to be personalized based on individual anatomical differences. Lloyd Leno confirmed the existence of both upstream and downstream embouchures.

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    yes, "analysis paralysis" means "thinking too much" Sep 7 at 21:49
  • :) thanks, michael Sep 7 at 21:50
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    This is helpful. I have not yet once buzzed my lips without a mouthpiece not matter how I try. That is definitely not at all intuitive and I can’t figure out how to do it on my own. Which I think is part of my frustration with teachers telling me to stop thinking about it and do it. Sep 7 at 22:37
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    Analysis paralysis is more than just thinking too much - it's thinking so much that you are unable to act.
    – AakashM
    Sep 8 at 11:25
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    Yes, the phrase is often tossed around as a cliché in the business world to mean "Hey, if we spend to much time on preparation we won't get anything done." But in music (and, I imagine, sports?) it can be actually literal. It's possible to "freeze up" by trying to focus on too many aspects at once. One remedy can be to attempt a cathartic, Zen-like moment of spontaneity and so accidentally stumble on success. But another can be simply to narrow the field of analysis: for piano, to play only one hand, or to focus on rhythm rather than pitch, etc. Sep 8 at 13:56
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...not providing any instructions beyond "wiggle and blow"...

Even a quick search of "french horn embouchure" brings up many results like this one. So, of course, there is more to it that "wiggle and blow."

...telling me to just blow and stop thinking about the technique...

I think it's fair to consider that embouchure technique can deal with subtleties and a deep dive into the topic may be more about refining details rather than basic skill. That's just playing Devil's advocate for the teacher's perspective. On the other hand I can see how some fundamental level of embouchure technique is needed to just get a basic clear tone. FWIW, I tried to play french horn in fifth grade, but gave up after getting a sore on my upper lip. Some embouchure technique probably would have been helpful for me at that beginning stage.

The only thing I can compare embouchure with is hand position (left hand, chord fingering hand) for playing chords on guitar. The beginner often squeezes harder, and harder trying to get clear chords, not realizing hand position technique is the problem and an iron grip isn't necessary and usually counterproductive.

I imagine the beginner horn player's embouchure will have similar issues. If the embouchure is horribly wrong, you won't be able to play. But, again playing the teacher's Devil's advocate, you may be past that kind of beginner's issue. Your basic embouchure may be OK.

... I'm wondering if the problem is actually me. ...What am I missing?

Actually, I don't see where the actual problem was given. I assume it was about getting into a high range.

Around C5 I start to have trouble getting the notes out.

Given your description of the lessons, it seems the teachers do not think the issue is embouchure. Maybe that's true, maybe not. To the extent it is true, I think it's fair to expect them to provide you exercises for extending range that aren't about embouchure.

I suspect increasing range will end up being like anything else. Despite all kinds of detailed discussion about range which you can find online, practicing in gradual steps over time will be the path to getting there. Experimenting with embouchure surely will be part of the process, but there may not be a "scientific" approach to it.

Being an analytical type and a self teacher I would think some things like this would be helpful:

  • practice playing just the harmonics of the horn without using the valves
  • practice with just the mouthpiece
  • play in your manageable high range, not your absolute highest pitch, and work on long notes and articulations
  • try to work daily and allow for rest, after working in the high range, go back to a relaxing range to be sure to end a session with good clear tone, don't end practice with a frustrating sputtering out in the high range

Clearly, you're an experienced musician so you're probably doing all those things. So, this may be nothing more than encouragement. At least consider that your embouchure and technique so far are OK. Also, your range is around an eleventh, and that is at least a beginning level accomplishment. An eleventh or twelfth will cover a lot of melodies. Are you just playing tunes for fun, or hoping to play real orchestra parts?

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I am familiar with this problem.

Not so much from brass playing, where I've had little professional instruction (though I surely could do with it!), but from dancing, where I've had the experience of many different teachers.

What I've discovered is this: many teachers are not very good at putting precisely into words what exactly they do.

To some extent this is perhaps not surprising: people who teach a skill are often people who are good at it, and likely it has to some extent come naturally to them, without them having to do too much analysis. And for many people it doesn't matter: there are different ways that people learn, and the words that the teacher uses are only one part of that (e.g. they will also watch the teacher's moves, the teacher may move their arm/leg to the correct place, they may dance with the teacher and with other students and see how that feels, etc).

But for some students, at some stages, it can be really helpful to have a teacher who can give them precise direction in words.

One common thing that I've found is that teachers often associate a specific phrase (perhaps what their teacher used to tell them to do) with a particular muscle-memory movement, and just repeat that phrase, expecting their students to do the same - which fails, because the muscle memory just isn't there.

To give a specific example, I once attended classes by a teacher who was an excellent dancer, and in many ways a very good teacher - but there were some things he was not good at explaining, and he'd try to correct one common mistake that beginners make by telling them "Feel your steps".

Now, "Feel your steps", translated, actually means "Ensure that, on each beat, you transfer all your weight fully from one foot to the other (don't just tap your foot in the right place without standing on it)." And some students would somehow "get" that - either from what he was saying, or just figuring it out from watching etc - but many wouldn't.

Other teachers (the minority, IMO) are much better at saying explicitly what needs to be done differently.

I'm guessing that, in a similar way, "Wiggle and blow" could well be the translation of "Hold your lips a little (higher/lower) and (tense/relax) your (lip/cheek/jaw) muscles, and use a lot (more/less) air, supporting the air from your (chest/diaphragm/aqualung"). Or something completely different, who knows.

So in summary I'd advise looking for another teacher. I'm not sure how to tell quickly which teachers are likely to be good (as opposed to spending lots of money on lessons), but you may be able to get a sense from a chat with them. And it's probably worth mentioning that one of the best dance teachers I've experienced came from an engineering/technical background, where he was used to having to specify things very explicitly and precisely - it's no guarantee that anyone with such a background will be good (I know plenty of engineers who are terrible at communication!), but it may be worth looking out for.

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    You can also judge a teacher simply by their track record of actually successfully teaching, especially beginners. The misconception "Because I can play it, I should be able to teach it" is all too common, but such a teacher says stuff like "feel your steps," then gets frustrated when their students don't learn, and conclude that a teacher of their caliber is wasted on beginners. They then take only advanced students, who already have the fundamentals mastered anyway, and have fun helping them win competitions. Look for someone who actually turns out competent beginners regularly. Sep 8 at 14:03
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    By the way, I also want to challenge a notion that is not mentioned in this answer, but that came up in some comments, that a teacher to whom "it came naturally" might be worse at explaining, and you should look for a teacher who struggled when learning. I'm not sure there has to be a correlation; for one thing, it is much harder to teach what one has never mastered. But also, even to the teacher for whom "it came naturally," if they have much teaching experience they know that it doesn't for others and know how to communicate it. Sep 8 at 14:06
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Perhaps your embouchure is basically OK. Your lips and jaw are positioned well, you aren't trying to go higher by pressing. But you need to use more air - possibly more than you're used to using on the clarinet. What happens when you TRY just 'blowing harder'?

Or perhaps you're physically better suited to trombone or tuba than horn. Do you make a pleasing sound on the lower notes?

How much daily practice are you getting in?

One bad teacher? OK. Two bad teachers? We have to consider the possibility it might be you.

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    I practice about 30 minutes every day because my chops give out after that much time. Considering the possibility that it might be me is the motivation behind this question. So the question is, is it me? I’ve tried using a lot of air. That’s the same thing my brother said. Notably neither of my teachers suggested I need to use more air. Sep 7 at 22:39
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As an adult who has been learning french horn for 5 years as my first instrument. I had classes from a french horn teacher for 8 months at the begining and on the rest of the time I've been playing at the church, self-teaching myself and taking group classes with other wind players at church.

Looks like the approach of your teachers are in the lines of "try to play this however you can, once you can do it we go back and refine embrochure technique and other concepts." - First you learn to do it badly and then refine a little bit of each concept. That would oppose to learn "in chapters": first you learn everything on the instrument mechanics and harmonic series, then we go through everything on embrochure, then dynamics and so on.

My teachers also do the "play and refine", I remember my first teacher giving me advice on how to separate the notes and that flew over my head at the time, it only stuck with me years later when another teacher said the same thing. This is just one anectode on how you create awareness over time and might give a clue on why teachers don't explain too much at the begining.

One thing I don't get is, if I'm just supposed to blow and try to let my mouth figure out how to play French horn on its own, why have a teacher? What am I missing?

Yes, you have to figure somethings yourself, every person has a different mouth and you might have to explore different things to achieve your high notes. Some benefits of having a teacher is to stop you from creating bad habits, to guide you through the next logical steps and to have experienced years following your improvement.

Try to ask yourself and your teacher what is the goal of the current exercises. For example, if the goal is to strengthen your embrochure, it may be fine to play right up to C5 and the get above notes wrong for now.

And remember french horn is regarded as a hard to play instrument. As a hobbyist I still have difficulties playing above C5.

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    The only thing about the “play and refine” plan is what I can play has never been discussed for refining and what I can’t play I can’t play. Sep 8 at 4:42
  • Are your teacher a french horn player or does she play another brass instrument? Sometimes other brass players underestimates how hard it can be to play above C5 on a french horn. If I remember correcly it took me two weeks or more of constant practice to advance each semitone after C5. And if I stay two weeks without playing I lose the hability to play them. Sep 8 at 16:46
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Been a long time since I played brass, but I am a singer, and from what I recall it is similar. I would guess that you might need breath support training to comfortably get higher notes. If your brass trainers dont know about that, it might be because they were some of the lucky people who just do support right and always have - and were therefore never taught about support either and dont know how to teach it (or even that it could be an issue). Find a different teacher.

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