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A bunch of Razor Wire atop a chain link fence

Braces! I never had them as a kid (so my lower teeth look like a derailed freight train from the air) and can only empathize what it must be like to have to try to play horn. Pressing that hunk of metal against your lips with that razor wire decorating your front teeth slicing your lip from the other side. Ow. Ow. Ow!

My 7th grader, N, just got braces and is in that situation. I told him that there are products (like Braceguard) that provide something of a cushion on the brace metal for brass players. He says it doesn’t hurt and doesn’t think he needs it. But it’s clear that his range has clearly suffered. Playing a third space C might as well be a high C. He loves to play the horn, but is very much limited. What to do? How do you keep a young player busy until the braces come off in a year and a half?
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Well, I don’t know what we’ll do for the whole year and a half, but I can tell you what we’re doing right now. I generally spend the first half of the lesson with younger players working on warm-ups and technique without any sheet music – all aural. That way they are in much better contact with how things feel as well as hearing better (sight is the great bully of the senses). Today I handed him a natural horn with an Eb crook and we did some call and response. I played a measure on my valve horn, playing it as an Eb horn – overtones only (i.e F:1) and he played them back. We went no higher than Overtone #8 (written C5, a Bb on the F horn. Easier to say #8). Fun!

After a bit we switched to regular horns – i.e. valves. We chose some abbreviated scales, i.e. Power Scales (1 2 3 4 5) and made up some duets. C major. Db major. B major. B minor (his idea). D major. This way we were able to stay in a braces-friendly area – not too high – but have fun making up duets.


(Photo credit: phossil)

Next: we switched to C minor pentatonic: 1 b3 4 5 b7. We got a catchy groove going on a couple notes and traded off soloing. You don’t need a lot of pitches to make up music. In fact, the fewer notes you pick, the easier it gets. We imitated each other, and tried some lower register excursions. Very fun! Then we added the #4 to the minor pentatonic and messed around with the blues scale.
After that, we played some familiar tunes by ear, first finding the melodies, then decorating theme or making accompaniments. Wheels on the Bus. Yankee Doodle. Mary Had a Little Lamb. We tried them in different keys: C. D. Bb. B. Db.

For the last half, we did two things. First, we took some very easy beginner etude books and played a bunch of them. They had in common that they were all in (printed) C major. Except that we didn’t play any of them in F. I told N. that since he was limited in what he could play, we were going to make him the transposition king by the time the braces came off. By doing lots of transposition of all kinds. Lots and lots. We started with Bb basso. Good! Now: Horn in B natural. Pop quizzes on how you figure out the “mental” key signature (if it’s a sharp horn key, add a sharp; if it’s a flat key subtract a flat). He did very well on the B natural horn. Then more in horn in C, in D, in Eb, and in E. He had no problem reading in all the keys. What’s more, he stayed low enough so that the braces didn’t really bother him.

The last part of the lesson was duets. I dug out three books of easy duets (see below for a list). These duets stayed pretty low, which helped. At his urging, we sight-read a number of these short duets as fast as possible. We even did a couple in horn in E; it was clipping along, but our F version (we finally stopped transposing and when to the horn) was the fastest of all, as expected. But if he keeps this up, his transposition reading will catch up to his F horn reading. And that is pretty good for a seventh grader.

PS: List of very easy duet books:

Just for Two, arr. by Elburz Sorkhabi, Eighth Note Publications. These have one flaw: they are a bit high – most are in F, which is not a good beginner key. In fact, these look like they were directly taken from a trumpet version. They should have been transposed down to be in C – a much better key for beginners.

11 Petit Duos for trumpets by Christophe Loup, Billaudot Editions. In spite of being for trumpet, they stay mostly in a narrow range from B below middle C to around G or A in the staff.

I love just about anything that Philip Sparke does. His Starter Duets are great for beginners. He thankfully does not go above a G4 (G in the staff) until #19 (of 60), making this good brace material.

An oldie but goodie is the Moravian Brass Duet Book for Trumpets or Horns (I only have Vol. 1 – is there a Vol. 2?) ed. by Ed Tarr and Stephen Glover, Brass Press (now owned by Editions Bim). Caveat – these are written from C4 to C6 for natural instruments, and as such, are only useable for young players in the lowest transpositions. I start young players transposing almost right away – like foreign language study, there is no reason to wait. My 7th grader (who has played for about 2 years) can transpose easy material at sight pretty well for horns in E, Eb, D, C, B natural, and Bb basso. I almost always assign him some very easy charts to transpose as homework plus some time on it in lessons.

I’d love to hear more suggestions for easy duets from you (plural).