by Karen Houghton


I began playing the horn at age 14 and, at age 16, I taught my first private lesson to a beginning horn player named Dennis Houghton! Yes, we attended the same high school and I am a year older (and wiser). My band director gave me the task of helping the "new kid," and my teaching career began! I actually took my first private lesson at age 17, and my teacher, Ed Jackson, was a patient, firm and encouraging mentor. He taught me "how" to practice: playing through warm-ups, exercises, etudes and excerpts with me. He opened up my eyes to a world of possibilities! I tutored several students while continuing my studies at California State University - Long Beach and I discovered a passion for teaching, which has continued my entire life. I can summarize my teaching philosophy by comparing horn playing to the basic Four Food Groups:

  • Group 1: Protein (Fundamentals)
  • Group 2: Dairy (Technique)
  • Group 3: Grains (Low & High Range)
  • Group 4: Fruits and Vegetables (Flexibility)

By "digesting" a healthy balance of these four "food" food groups, the student will be able to develop a strong, well-rounded approach to the horn. Since I like variety (in diet AND practice), I choose from several possible exercises in each group, changing the exercises weekly. I am also always willing to try "new foods" and encourage my students to do the same, using concepts we have learned in masterclasses, online and in workshops. With as much variety as possible, I still maintain a reasonable lesson plan, which means "small, balanced, sensible meals" during the school year.

Group 1 (Fundamentals): I always stress the importance of mouthpiece placement (2/3 upper, 1/3 lower) and remind my students to keep their chin down and corners firm & forward. Long tones,buzzing and tone exercises are incorporated to establish and maintain a strong embouchure.

Group 2 (Technique): I have my students play lots of scales (majors and minors), arpeggios, tonguing and multiple tonguing in order to solidify the coordination between tongue, fingers and air. Also, I do a little work on stopped horn and transposition throughout the year, in addition to etudes and solos from the standard repertoire.

Group 3 (Low & High Range): I am a firm believer that a healthy embouchure begins with a consistent development of the low register. I find that young students are too often impatient to play the higher notes, before their embouchure is strong enough.  For this reason, my students have a weekly assignment in the low register (chromatics, pitch-bending or bass clef). For high-range development, I advocate glissandos (buzz and play) and various other specific exercises to strengthen the middle/upper register.

Group 4 (Flexibility): Every week I have my students play lip slurs and/or lip trill exercises. I am careful to watch that they are not pulling back their corners when slurring upward, as this creates tone, range and flexibility problems.

But what about dessert? Everyone likes candy, cake and ice cream, right?
Group 5 (Dessert): Even though horn playing requires much diligence, commitment and willpower, it should also be FUN! I enjoy playing duets and fun tunes with my students...delicious treats as a reward for adhering to a well-balanced regimen. (Sometimes we even eat dessert first!)

In order to cultivate and maintain healthy, well-rounded practice habits, we must sometimes practice things that may not be our favorite "foods" (ie. brussel sprouts). I think Philip Farkas said it best in a reply to a letter I wrote him back in 1979, when I inquired about what sorts of things I should practice:

I started to answer your letter several times, but always hesitated because of your request to have me advise you on what is best to practice, and how, etc. This is a little like giving advice to a brain surgeon by mail! So much depends on what you are doing well and what you are doing wrong. About all I can do is to generalize, of course, and in doing that I have to recommend the old proven standbys. Kopprasch, scales, long tones, crescendo-diminuendo, etc. I think you are your own best teacher. What don't you do well? OK, then do more of it!  What do you do well?  Accept it and be grateful, and don't practice it too much at the expense of the things you do less well.  We all like to practice the things we do best, but that is not the way to progress.
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