Written by Philip Farkas
Originally published in 2010 with permission from Conn-Selmer Keynotes Magazine

It is often said that the string instruments are, because of their tone quality, the easiest to listen to for long periods of time without tiring. This is evidently true, as the strings make up the major part of our symphony orchestras, and composers have for centuries considered them the “bread and butter” of orchestral tone.

If they can be considered such a staple, the woodwinds and brasses, with their intensely individual tones, must be considered the appetizers and desserts of our orchestral flavors. Composers use them in just this way – sparingly. Too much of this dessert would cloy the ear.

However, we, as horn players, have one major means of avoiding this tendency to tire the listener with the richness of horn tone: dynamic range. The horns can come down to almost the same pianissimo as the woodwinds. They have the power to dominate the entire orchestra with sheer, thrilling power. This exciting dynamic range of the horn is a feature of which much artistic use should be made.

While there is some danger of over-exaggeration in its use, the average player is usually guilty of not using enough dynamic contrast. Listen sometime to a horn solo in which the soloist tends to lay about mezzoforte, never reaching either a real pianissimo or a solid forte, and you will realize how monotonous even the most beautiful tone can become. Great dynamic range is also needed in orchestral playing. Consider the horn parts in any well-known symphony.

Let us take the Symphony in D Minor, by Cesar Franck. One moment the horns are shouting the great chorales fortissimo along with the other brasses; a moment later providing some of the pianissimo voices in the delicate woodwind passages; much of the rest of the time providing subdued chords as a background for the strings.

Two things are necessary in using the full dynamic range:

First, the ability to play very loud and very soft in all registers, with all the shadings between; second and very important, the artistic intelligence to use this ability with good taste Do not forget musicianship in endeavoring to show a phenomenal command of volume.

On the other hand, don’t become a solely mezzoforte player who constantly plays safe. Perhaps the best way to increase the dynamic range is to practice some suitable etudes with very exaggerated dynamics; that is, the pianos should be played very softly and the fortes very loud. It should be constantly borne in mind that this exaggeration is for practice only, so that it will not become an unmusical habit.

Here are a few valuable etudes for this purpose of exaggeration:

  • Kopprasch, 60 Etudes: No. 29
  • Gallay, Opus 27: Prelude 7. Opus 43: Etude 3
  • Maxime-Alphonse, Book 3: Nos. 21, 39, Book 4: Etude 2, Book 5: Etude 1
  • Schantl-Pottage, Preparatory Melodies: Nos. 25, 45, 85
  • Franz, Complete Method for Horn (30 Exercises section), No. 19

Pianissimo:

When working to develop a fine pianissimo, remember that the very small amount of air going through the lips makes the size of the lip opening of critical importance. If the opening is too large, the weak air-stream gets through without the friction necessary to produce vibration. If too small, it can completely clamp off the weak air-stream. Experiment to make this opening exactly the correct size and tension.

There will be no doubt in one’s mind when it is just right, as the softest pianissimo will then seem to float out of the horn without effort. Be particularly alert against pressure, as the slightest bit too much can now crush the sensitive vibrations down to the stopping point. Be sure to use a small but concentrated stream of air while playing pianissimo.

To review what was stated earlier, in the chapter on breathing, the correct support of the diaphragm is the means by which we get this concentrated stream. A steady, moderate pressure is used, not so much as in playing forte but considerably more than might be supposed by the volume of sound being produced. This pressure is resisted in the larynx so that exactly the amount or air needed is let through. This will result in a pure, concentrated tone even when playing pianissimo. This is in sharp contrast to one common faulty means of obtaining pianissimo.

This method is what I would call “pianissimo by dilution”. The player uses fairly large, “safe” quantities of air but produces such a fluffy, unfocussed sound with the lips that the tone is actually being diluted with large quantities of air. It is pianissimo simply because there is no core to the tone – no carrying power. Avoid this type of playing as you would the plague and strive to develop the clear, pure pianissimo which has real tone but little volume.

I should remark at this point that a really fine pianissimo is the scarcest quality among brass players.

Players continually experiment with instruments, mouthpieces and methods to enlarge the tone, and then revel in the fact that they have such a big tone. All this they do while conductors the world over gnash their teeth and frantically wave the brass down! A big tone is a wonderful gift to have. Revel in it if you wish but please, not at the expense of your pianissimo.

Perhaps the importance of this is not fully realized until one is in the middle of a very delicate composition being conducted by one of our sensitive, demanding tyrants of the baton. At such a time there is no more wonderful feeling than to have at your command a pianissimo which can drop you to blessed anonymity at the slightest scowl or flick of a finger.

In the hope that the above has made the deep impression that it should, let us sum up again the important aspects of producing a good pianissimo:

  1. Adjust the lip opening to accommodate the air-stream so it will produce the maximum vibration. The air will go through the lips without vibration when the opening is too large. Too small an opening and the weak air-stream is in danger of being cut off.
  2. Avoid mouthpiece pressure. The delicate vibrations of pianissimo must not be “pressured” out of existence.
  3. Keep steady diaphragm pressure but control it with the larynx to let out a relatively small stream of air. This air-stream, though tiny, is characterized by immense steadiness and control, the result of the quite definite pressure on the diaphragm.

Some excellent etudes for controlled soft playing:

  • Gallay, Opus 43: Etude 6
  • Maxime – Alphonse, Book 3: Etude 24, Book 4: Etudes 6, 12, 19
  • Schantl-Pottage, Preparatory Melodies: Nos. 4, 20, 21, 79

Fortissimo:

Fortissimo is the other extreme in our dynamic range; and although it takes more sheer strength than skill, it has its important place. It differs in importance from pianissimo in one respect. Conductors realize there is a human limit to fortissimo and seem satisfied when the fortissimo is very big (and the face very red). However, they expect pianissimo to diminish right down to infinity, and woe betide the player who can’t achieve this!

Even while realizing that fortissimo is limited, the conductor does at times demand tremendous volume, and this great volume should be developed if for no other reason than to make ordinary forte seem easy by comparison. The secret of fortissimo is in relaxing the lips so that for any given note, they are doing much less work than ordinarily. This comparative relaxation will permit the formation of a large lip opening when the huge amounts of air necessary for a fortissimo are forced through it.

Needless to say, the diaphragm must be supported with all intensity to give the necessary force to the air-stream. Make this air column support the notes almost entirely; let the embouchure tension contribute but a very small share of aid. This carries out to the extreme the theory advanced earlier in this book that any note equals the total of embouchure tension plus air pressure, and that when one is increased the other must be lessened.

In developing the dynamic range, practice the “extremes” as suggested earlier. When actually performing, of course, keep the dynamic within the range of good taste. When this musical range is produced easily and without conscious effort, think back and give the credit to diligent practice of the dynamic “extremes”.