Minimizing the Frustration of Learning the Horn

Minimizing the Frustration of Learning the Horn:

How to Set Up Your New Horn Players for Long-Term Success


By NAfME Member Rachel Hockenberry


While the horn operates fundamentally the same as the other brass instruments, the qualities that make the instrument unique can be very frustrating for the young hornist. Use these tips to help your horn players experience success from the beginning and avoid having to correct bad habits in the future!

French horn
Photo: Victoria Chamberlin |

1. The Ear Test


You don’t need to have perfect pitch to play the horn, but the potential to develop a good ear is of utmost importance. If a student is interested in playing the horn, see if she can sing or hum a simple, well-known tune (“Happy Birthday,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” etc.) and stay relatively on pitch. You can also sing the song together and see if the student is able to match pitch with you fairly well. If the student really struggles with these tests, horn is likely not a great choice of instrument at this time.


2. Begin with the Buzz


Watch this lesson:


The easiest way to teach proper embouchure and mouthpiece placement is with the mouthpiece alone—only bring the horn into the picture once the mouthpiece is placed properly and a buzz is produced!

When teaching budding hornists to properly form an embouchure, the first element to be addressed is the firmness of the corners of the mouth. Have the students imitate spitting a watermelon seed onto the ground. This results in firm corners and small aperture. Another technique is to have the students say the words “M&M,” freezing the lips on the last syllable; or, students can say, “Mmmmmm,” as though they have just eaten something really delicious. This should result in firm corners with lips pressed together. From here, have the students make a small opening in the center of their lips (use simple instructional language, such as, “make a little hole”). While inexact, this gives the basic formation of a horn embouchure.

brass instrument | Bouillante


Once the embouchure is formed, students can learn to buzz on the mouthpiece. It is often best for the teacher to place the mouthpiece in the proper position on the students’ lips. The approximate ratio for mouthpiece placement is 2/3 upper lip, 1/3 lower lip. In general, the bottom outer edge of the mouthpiece rim should be placed in line with the bottom part of the lower lip, just where the lip color changes to skin color (for students with thicker lips, the bottom part of the lip may still be showing). Once the mouthpiece is placed, have the students take a deep breath and pretend they are strongly blowing bubbles through a straw. This should set an appropriate aperture size. Make sure the chin is flat throughout this process, not bunchy, as this will affect range and tone quality.

If none of that works, try this: 



3. Holding the Instrument, and, “Where Does My Hand Go?”


Watch this lesson:


For young players, it’s often easiest to hold the instrument with the bell of the horn resting on the right leg. It’s important that the legs are separated, and the right leg is spread far enough to the right that the bell goes away from the body, not directly into the stomach. Make sure the student is able to have the mouthpiece in the exact same setup that it was when she was learning to buzz! This should put the leadpipe at a downward angle, NOT parallel to the ground. Students who are very small can place the bell on the second chair to their right instead of on the leg, to avoid the mouthpiece being too high. Very tall students may need to prop their right foot up on the leg of the chair to get the mouthpiece a little higher.

The position of the right hand in the bell is SO IMPORTANT! It affects pitch and accuracy—two skills you want your horn players to nail!

Just like embouchure, creating the correct position for the right hand is best done without the horn. Have the students hold out their right hand, palm facing up. Instruct them to form the hand as though the center of the palm is holding a tiny pool of water, and they are not permitted to let any water slip out. This should create a slight curve in the hand, with fingers sealed together. Fingers should be straight, with the thumb sealed tightly against the index finger. The top thumb joint should be approximately in line with the bottom knuckle of the index finger. Generally speaking, the picture below demonstrates the LARGEST curve desirable—the hand can be straighter than this!

hand position

cupped hand

Once the hand position is created outside of the bell, place the hand on the right side of the inside of the bell, with the back of the hand making contact with the instrument. Generally speaking, place the hand inside the bell until the bottom thumb knuckle makes contact with the bell (this will vary based on the size of the student’s hand). The bell brace can be used as a guide, with the thumb just to the right. This could be uncomfortable for the student at first; it is likely that, without constant monitoring, the hand will slide into a position that is more relaxed. Constantly check in on your students’ hand positions during the first year! Explain to the students that, while it feels uncomfortable at first, they will soon grow accustomed to the position and it will feel natural.


4. The First Notes (and Secret First Ear Training Lessons!):


Watch this lesson:


Strive for students to hit middle C, E, or G (middle C on horn = F below middle C on piano). For some players, the G will be too high for the first day; for others, the C will be too low. Within the first several weeks of playing, stay within this exact range of a 5th. D and F can easily be added in. Since the fingerings for all five notes are either open or first valve, many easy melodies can be played without any complex finger patterns.

“Hot Cross Buns” is a wonderful choice for a first song. Learn it here: 


Since middle C, E and G are all played without valves, these first notes provide critical practice within the overtone series of the instrument in an extremely simple way. Because of the closeness of the partials on the horn, it is important that players become familiar with the overtone series at a young age. It is not necessary (and usually not helpful, unless you have a student who is particularly interested in physics) to explain the science behind the overtone series, but it can be extremely helpful for them to understand the feel and sound of it. In the first few weeks of class, have the students slur slowly between C and E, so they can feel the different placement of these notes. Then have the students slur from E to G. Then, slur from C to E to G, followed by the descent of these intervals. Work up to having the students slur from C to G, blowing right through E along the way. Throughout each segment of the exercise, be sure that the students are aware of what notes they are playing. Taking the time to point out these different partials can be extremely helpful with accuracy. As the students listen critically to the differences in pitch between C, E and G, they can also begin to associate these different pitches with different facial placements, which will help with accuracy in the future.

It is CRITICAL that range is built slowly and efficiently, particularly when increasing the high range. For the first year of playing, consider middle C to 3rd space C as home base. Some players will not be able to play outside of this octave in the first year. When expanding the range from this octave, it is critical to make sure that the student is doing so in a safe way, avoiding using excess mouthpiece pressure in the upper register. Expand chromatically, making sure that each new half step achieved is done so without strain. When expanding the low register, most young players will attempt to do so by loosening the corners and bunching the chin. These are habits to be avoided! Instead, the jaw drops and juts forward as the register descends, while the corners stay firm and chin flat.


One-sentence tips to remember throughout the first year:


checklist | Dragonian
  • Give your horn players a chance to find the correct first pitch before you start the song.
  • In any given song, have the horn player use the note they are most reliable on as an anchor to help them return to the correct pitch if they have gotten off.
  • Stick with small intervals—it’s better to have your horn players play only a portion of a scale than to try to make them jump an interval of a 7th in the middle to stay in range!!
  • Sing, buzz, play!
  • Your horn students will definitely miss lots of notes—the key is to help them hear the errors and learn how to correct them!
  • Ask simple questions to assist with ear development, such as, “Was the note you played too high or too low?”
  • You cannot smile and play the horn at the same time—keep the corners forward.
  • Check out that right hand position!
  • The palm of the hand does not touch the bell!
  • Check the right hand position again!
  • When in doubt, use more air!


About the author:

French hornNAfME Associate member Dr. Rachel Hockenberry enjoys a busy career throughout Southern California as a horn performer and music educator. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2014, Rachel has performed with the Santa Barbara Symphony, Fresno Philharmonic, Redlands Symphony, Pacific Opera Project, Opera San Luis Obispo, Golden State Pops, Wind Orchestra of the West, Southeast Symphony, and the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay. She has also performed with artists such as Billy Idol, Pete Townshend, and Jon Batiste, and has recorded for television series. Before moving to Los Angeles, Rachel was based in the Cincinnati area, where she was an associate musician of the Columbus Symphony, 4th horn in Orchestra Kentucky, and performed with the Lima, Ohio Valley, Richmond (IN), Evansville, and Kentucky Symphonies, and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. She is principal horn of the Queen City Opera, where in October of 2015 she had the pleasure of performing the infamous “Long Call” from Act II of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried. 

Rachel is currently the horn professor at Pasadena City College and Los Angeles City College. Beginning in August of 2018, she will assume the post of Assistant Professor of Horn at Illinois State University. She also keeps a large private studio of young hornists throughout Los Angeles County, who have successfully auditioned into the California All State and All Southern Bands and the Colburn Youth Orchestra. She incorporates elements of El Sistema—a music education philosophy based on the belief that music is a transformative and fundamental human right for all people—into every aspect of her teaching career. Rachel is a graduate of the Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory of Music, and has completed residencies with El Sistema programs in Venezuela and across the United States.

A Virginia native, Rachel received her bachelor’s degree in horn performance from James Madison University. She earned her masters and doctoral degrees in horn performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Her teachers include Randy Gardner, Tom Sherwood, Liz Freimuth, Duane Dugger, Abigail Pack, David Ohanian and Roger Kaza.


Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Catherina Hurlburt, Marketing Communications Manager. July 20, 2018. © National Association for Music Education (