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French Horns, Unwond and Entwined

French Horns, Unwond and Entwined (Photo credit: meg_williams)

One great thing about horn camp is that you have time to do all sorts of things that you seldom get the chance to shoehorn in the narrow time slots available to you back at school. I luxuriated in the three hours we had at KBHC (Kendall Betts Horn Camp) every morning to get deep into various topics (my favorite topic this summer was constructing a thread to organize all of horn technique in a progressive way, using video games as one model…). Also fun were the “Open Studios” that were special times when the faculty member could visit other topics and participants could switch from their regular routines to sample the various offerings. My open studios were on Classical Improv, and attendance was the greatest ever. We had a lot of fun working on horn technique and musicality in the context of classical improvisation. I was delighted to work with some wonderfully talented folks, especially high schooler Nikki La Bonte, who, in spite of being a novice at this, instantly seemed to acquire a very experienced ear, which is often a great challenge to classical players – they have to listen in a very different way than they are used to, and quickly understand what they hear and respond. Kudos, Nikki! I also had the pleasure of jamming with Ian Mayton (college sophomore from the U of NC-Greensborough, a student of my friend and colleague Abigail Pack), who was a terrific jamming partner as we made stuff up for about an hour (I also enlisted him to join me in an improvisation on stage that very night. He didn’t hesitate and did great).

Below I want to share with you one of the games we played with the group. In one version of it (not listed here), the soloist played the alphorn! (courtesy of Gretchen Zook).

What’s great about this game is that you can work on your low/long tones, overtone series flexibility, and really get inside of a scale rather than just playing it up and down (which gets you ready only for scales that only go up or down; scale come all kinds of ways).


3+ horn players (adaptable to other brass). This game works well with larger groups of horn players. Each player chooses (independently) one of the following roles:

1) Drone

2) Overtone series only

3) Scale notes only, played as a short ostinato pattern (take a short idea and repeat it and repeat it)

The group chooses a key; the key must be one that can be used by one of the available overtone series. Example: C major (i.e. concert F).

The drone would be low C. For groups larger than three, change the drone from a unison low C to a low C plus G a fifth above and possible also adding middle C.

The overtone series would be the F horn overtone series.

The scale would be C major, but because of the quirkiness of the overtone series, C7 or C Lydian-Dominant (1 2 3 #4 5 6 b7) would also work just fine.

Hint: Add this restriction for groups of six or larger: everyone has to be silent one-third of the time.

Variation 1: One player (take turns) solos over everybody.

Variation 2: Have two soloists. They should be encouraged to steal melodic and rhythmic ideas from each other as much as possible.

Variation 3: Now and then and at will, change from a static drone to a pulsed drone (i.e. give it a rhythm).

Variation 4: In larger groups, assign some player to percussion, which could be body percussion, mouth noises, room percussion, found percussion (e.g. stuff brought from home that makes some kind of noise), or small normal percussion (e.g. shakers, tambourines, maracas, etc.).

Variation 5:  Repeat all – in another key. Remember the key has to match an overtone series. That is:

Scale – Horn Key (Fingering) – Overtones only

C major – Horn in F (F:0)

B major – E horn (F:2)

Bb major – Eb horn (F:1)

A major – D horn (F:12)

Ab major – Db horn (F:23)

G major – C horn (F:13)

Db major – Gb horn (T:23)

D major – G horn (T:12)

Eb major – Ab horn (T:1)

E major – A horn (T:2)

F major – Bb alto horn (T:0)

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