How to Improve Your Low Register
By Denise Tryon
Very few horn players are naturally gifted in the low register of the instrument, but this doesn’t mean you can’t become a great low horn player!! The question I get asked most often is “how can I improve my low register?”. My first answer is always “try practicing more in the low register”! I am perplexed when people tell me they average 15 - 20 minutes a day practicing in the low register, and then wonder why it isn’t as developed as their upper register. I find most people just don’t practice down there enough - for whatever reason - they’re focused on their upper register, they’re worried it will harm their upper register, they don’t sound as good in the low register so they avoid it (just to name a few). My ideal practice session is completely balanced in all fundamental techniques (high/low, loud/soft, slurred/articulated, etc).
The next best way (besides just increasing your time practicing in the low register) to improve is to do some good blasting down there. Yes, blasting!! Sound a bit ugly in the beginning, it’s ok. It helps your air, face and jaw figure out what they need to do. I still do this every day (some days are better than others)! There are 2 exercises I routinely play. One is from the Farkas book, The Art of French Horn Playing on pages 60 - 61. He calls it his “low horn” exercise. I would rename it the “break range” exercise! If you are able to do this all the way through, quite loud - f or ff - both slurred and articulated, the low range will feel much better! The second is from my own daily routine, and it looks like this (half note = 50 - 60):
I start in this key and go down chromatically. I play this as low as I can play, and don’t sacrifice loudness for breath. If you need a breath in the middle of a slur, stop, take a breath, restart on the same note and go on. Play the slurs as smooth as possible.
The air, facial muscles and jaw work very differently in the low compared to the upper register. In the low, the jaw is more forward and a little (sometimes very little) down. Typically the corners of the lips are down as well (think of the funny pictures I have online of the low horn face, or sturgeon face). Charlie Putnam of the American Horn Quartet has the most amazing version of this technique you’ll see!! Last but certainly not least, the air. Most of us know when you are in the upper register the air is angled more down, well, the opposite is true for the low range. As you bring your jaw out (and a little down) the air starts to angle more upwards. It can really help to think about directing your air toward the mid - upper part of the wall or even where the wall and ceiling meet.
One of the most challenging pieces of the puzzle for people to figure out is sound. What is a good low register sound? There are a number of great examples out there, David Griffin, Sarah Willis, me :), just to name a few! We all have solo CDs out, which is a great way to really hear the sound we get down there. The sound needs to be round and warm, with or without brassiness. I often hear people attempting to play in the low register with a more strident tone, and typically these same people have more difficulty playing on the softer side.
I love playing out of Marty Hackelman’s 34 Characteristic Etudes for Low Horn Playing and JS Bach Cello Suites. Both are musical ways to really work out your playing in the low register. As far as pieces to play in a recital, there aren’t many, but here are a few: Nueling Bagatelle, Beethoven Sonata, Ries Sonata, Turner Concerto for Low Horn, Bissell Song of a New World, Yenque Tanguito, Miller Hunting Songs, Pawelek Irremediable Breakdown, Askim A Door Into The Dark, Clearfield River Melos.
Good luck everyone! Playing low horn is AWESOME, so join me in having some fun! Happy Practicing, Everyone!!
Denise Tryon is the Horn Professor at Peabody Conservatory. Previously, she held positions with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as Detroit, Baltimore and Columbus Symphonies. In 2015, Tryon released her debut album, SO•LOW, focusing on low horn pieces, of which she commissioned 4 new pieces. She has a series of educational videos focused on low horn excerpts and some etudes on her YouTube channel.