Starting on horn in 4th grade–yea or nay?
Tagged: french horn
September 4, 2013 at 1:09 pm #28320
I am considering offering French to my 4th graders this year as their first instrument. In the past, I have not offered that choice because I’ve heard that it’s too difficult an instrument for 4th graders. And a band director whose main instrument is horn told me that I’d be crazy to do so.
But I am having second thoughts. I realize the reason why I have no horns in my higher grades is because no one starts on it. What is your opinion about starting 4th graders on horn?September 5, 2013 at 9:36 am #28345
I’ve never taught at the elementary level – but here’s my opinion (coming from a high school band director and trumpet player):
I went to a band director’s workshop here in WV last year (hosted by the Phi Beta Mu Bandmaster Fraternity) – specifically to an Oboe clinic. The clinician made a point that she saw no reason to not start a student on Oboe as their first instrument (instead of learning clarinet or other woodwind instrument first). She said as long as the student is bright enough and will work hard at it, it can be done.
I tell you that to say this – why not start them on Horn? Having a lack of horns is a big problem around here, and it is exactly the same reason – nobody starts them on it (of course my district doesn’t even have instrumental music in the elementary school – another can of worms for another day). I personally think all instruments have their difficulties, but we start students on those.
I would think that if you have a student that is willing to work at it (and if you are willing to work at it), try it out. I’ll admit, horn is difficult because the harmonic series is so close together, and extremely easy to play wrong notes with what you thought was the correct fingering. I’d say if they can match pitch with moderate ease, give it a try.
Like I said – I’m have never taught at that grade level, so you might wait to hear from others that have more experience at it. But my vote is go for it.September 9, 2013 at 8:36 am #28415
I think you can make a case for either way. Personally, my thoughts are that I want to make sure I have a solid horn section, which means I like to recruit them from our best/brightest, and make sure they will be sticking with the program. Impossible to do with beginner students since you never know how a kid will turn out or progress. We usually wait a year or so, and pick a kid who is smart, dedicated, and can play the instrument they are on fairly well. Nothing will destroy your horn/baritone/tuba sections faster than taking a terrible trumpet player and switching them. Unless it is embouchure related, there is usually a reason why they are terrible on their beginning instrument….they don’t work at it. I want hard workers in my switch over sections.
Hope that helps. It’s always a crapshoot, but I feel this way, I can control the odds a bit better.September 11, 2013 at 11:51 am #28519
I have made a policy and a challenge for kids with piano experience to choose Horn, Oboe, Bassoon, or tuba as beginners. I do have a .5 size tuba that works for that. This has worked great for me in that while all the other kids are learning about how to read they can spend all of the time managing a challenging instrument. For Oboe and Bassoon, which I am a horrible player, I strongly push lessons from day one. I have had an oboe and horn in the all state groups for years because of starting kids with piano experience this way.September 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm #29199
I think the risk you run starting young kids on horn is that the frustration level can be very high and their ear is not likely developed enough to catch errors in terms of embouchure, which might mean that students that otherwise might be dedicated, engaged musicians in your program will quit when they aren’t able to be successful early like their peers on trumpet. I only start my beginners on trumpet, trombone, and baritone. I find that switching to something new, special, and exciting like horn in middle school is a great motivator for kids to work hard, and can be a good way to give a new challenge to your best and brightest brass players who may be moving faster than their peers anyways, and will be able to work hard to make the adjustment. I think that learning how to manipulate the embouchure on trumpet is a huge advantage when switching to horn where the partials are a lot closer together.October 3, 2013 at 1:49 pm #29898
I think it’s important to consider the student…we require anyone who starts on horn, oboe, or bassoon to study privately instead of in our group lesson program because of the specific needs for those instruments. Piano experience DEFINITELY helps too!October 19, 2013 at 5:11 pm #30882
As always, I feel the question is highly subjective to the point where it has a lot to do with your students. If a student desires to play an instrument, I’m the last to discourage them from doing so. An ambitious student? That’s fantastic! Get them on the horn because they love the horn so they already have an advantage. Students who took piano, singing, anything lessons in which they have some sort of an ear? Awesome, work with that because partial changes will come easier with use of the ear.
I think back to when I took french horn methods and my professor encourages starting on horn, primarily because not doing so faces the same challenges as you: no one plays it. If you have the students who have the ability and/or desire to start on horn, go for it. Students are a lot smarter and more capable than we often think them to be.October 22, 2013 at 12:09 am #30907
I really think that finding the ambitious player is the key to starting an early horn. As far as beginning band literature goes, horn is a difficult instrument because they’re either playing significantly lower or higher than the rest of the students playing in Bb, or F, or other common band keys. But I don’t think that means the kids can’t start on it. They’ll just have to work harder initially.
I also don’t particularly see the benefit in starting them on an instrument before hand. I’m a bassoonist that started on the saxophone in 5th grade, and switched in 6th. As much as I enjoy playing saxophone on the side now, in all honesty it has only negatively effected my bassoon playing (saxophone embouchure is a terrible bassoon embouchure, and will really screw up tone if not monitored). I think that what’s important is that the student is aware that he’s going to have to work harder at first, and that he’s willing to do so. The attitude to learn is what will decide the students’ success.October 30, 2013 at 9:11 am #32746
I had a few beginners play french horn years ago with no success. I am a flute player, and while I did well on the french horn in my undergrad training, it was not enough for me to teach others. Even my trumpet playing co-worker had little success. It would have been a different story if the kid had been a trumpet player I think. If you can find a real french horn player, or are a very competent player yourself, you might give it a try on one student to start. Also, be aware that there are different kinds of horns that look very similar. One student could only get the desired pitch by fingering a different way, and then I found out that there is a second way of fingering the french horn? Perhaps a horn player can explain this. At that point, we were done.November 1, 2013 at 9:20 am #32904
Horns do come in different keys- the most common are the F, the F/Bb double horn, and once in a while you’ll come across an Eb horn. A lot of students start on the F horn, but I try to start mine on the double right away whenever possible. Eb horns are occasionally called for in older band music, but usually the parts are also written for F horn.
Was the horn your student playing on one of these? Also, if you don’t feel confident enough to teach horn to your students, you should try to find a way to get some practice on it, using a school instrument or renting one if you can. Students shouldn’t be limited by your limitations on an instrument, and I think you’ll find that you’ll be much more successful in helping students once your own playing improves.November 5, 2013 at 6:21 pm #32944
I am a mother whose children have been involved in public school music programs for almost 20 years. I have been a school choir accompanist for nearly 15 of them. It is through my work as an accompanist that I now am a choral music education major. I add to this post because my youngest child began the horn in 4th grade. However, it was not through public schools, because they didn’t offer horn. “It’s too hard of an instrument to start them on.” Not only that, there weren’t any horns available anyway. But, readers need to understand this. We are a musical family where all sing, play the piano and at least one other instrument. Well, when our youngest was 9 months old, we got the news that he had suffered a stroke and they didn’t know what he would be able to do, or not do, as he got older. Among other things, the stroke caused for a lack of fine motor skills in his right hand. How would he be able to feel a part of our family in regards to music? THE FRENCH HORN!! This instrument was our answer for him and thankfully, a private teacher didn’t consider it too hard for someone of not only his age, but his deficit. We were gifted a double horn and off he went. He was able to join band in middle school. The last two years he has been in our County honor band. (Last year he was first chair.) He is now a freshman in high school. He is second chair and his teacher has made accommodations for our son to march, competitively, playing the horn instead of some other brass instrument. As a mother, I am grateful to his private teacher who was willing to take him in the first place and his public school teachers who have helped him become part of a community of musicians. He LOVES this instrument and has announced he wants to earn a Masters in Horn Performance. So, what’s the point of our story? As music educators, either choral or band, we have the opportunity to influence many young lives. Through music, we also influence our communities as they come in support of our concerts and performances. Is learning the horn hard? Frankly, I don’t know. I haven’t tried it. But, I do know that kids can do hard things. Why not give them the chance? We may be pleasantly surprised. I know I was!November 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm #32972
“But, I do know that kids can do hard things.”
That says it all. Thank you.
RobNovember 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm #32974
It’s definitely a debate, and coming to a decision depends on a number of factors. If you feel comfortable enough teaching horn, go for it. Also, in my experience it works out okay if you have small group pull-out lessons. Where I teach now we only have “full band” for beginners, so I do not start horn players. When I did teach in schools with pull-out programs, I did offer horn to beginners, and (I know this will sound odd) I put them in the alto saxophone group. The reason I did that is because the timbre of saxophone, and the ease they can get a pitch made it much easier for my beginning horn players to hear and match their pitch. It’s still a challenge, but doable.
That said, when I’ve taught high school I just would switch good players over to horn to fill my section. It was not necessarily a trumpet player either. One of my best horn players was actually a flute player, but he was a smart and talented kid and picked it up really fast.
Good luck with itNovember 12, 2013 at 2:25 pm #33176
After reading these posts and considering the situation, I’ve decided that there is no good reason for a kid not to start horn in the 4th grade.
Sure, it’s difficult, but all instruments are difficult when you first start out. If a kid wants to play the horn, then chances are good they’ll succeed. It’s only the adults like me who would be telling them that they can’t.
I wish I hadn’t asked that band director who was a horn player for advice. She said I’d be crazy to start a kid on horn in the 4th grade. I now realize that that was merely her opinion, and her opinion was ill informed. She may have been a good horn player, but I’ll bet she wasn’t a good band director.January 8, 2014 at 10:07 am #34266
I have gone both ways on this debate. It’s a personal decision between myself and the kid and their parents. I have two beginning horn this year and both get private studio lessons on the side. Personally, I wouldn’t start anyone on horn. But if a kid has ambition and desire I’ll make the best of the situation and use their ambition to overcome the reality that starting on horn is insanely hard. My spouse is a professional horn player with several local symphonies and studio teacher and she goes back and forth on it too. It’s a tough choice. (BTW-with one exception, all the horn players in the 3 nearest pro symphonies started on other instruments and switched in middle school).
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