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A 1982 Horn Right Hand Position Survey Tips, Notes, and More.

One critical and unique variable of horn playing is right hand position. In 1982 one of my predecessors at Arizona State University, Professor Ralph Lockwood, assisted by graduate students Douglas Akey and Karen Teplik, put together a survey. How many copies were sent out is lost to history but it must have been quite a number, in particular targeting members of the horn sections of major orchestras, college professors, and well-known foreign players. The letter that was sent with the survey was dated April 15, 1982 and read,
   Dear Colleague:

   Enclosed is a brief questionnaire regarding the
   right hand position in the Horn Bell. We hope to use
   the results as the basis for a study of the effects of various
   hand positions, and publish the results in The Horn
   Call magazine.

   We hope you will take the time to thoughtfully fill
   out and return this questionnaire and that you will feel
   free to add any information you feel pertinent. A copy
   of the results will be sent to you upon completion of
   the project, so please include your address.

   With best wishes.


   Ralph Lockwood,
   Associate Professor of Music, ASU

   Douglas Akey,
   Graduate Candidate, MM in Horn, ASU

   Karen Teplik,
   Graduate Candidate MM in Horn, ASU

During this era several surveys were published in The Horn Call, in particular related to horn design. The present survey was designed to break some new ground, but unfortunately Lockwood was not able to devote the time to compile the survey results for publication or complete his intended, larger project on the effects of various hand positions.

The tabulation found with the surveys, when they came into my hands, was minimal but Lockwood certainly received a good response to the survey and the results are a fascinating time capsule. The responses are full of tips and notes related to hand position and much more.

The letter states that the information will be used for an article for The Horn Call, and this article at last summarizes those results. The letter at least implies that the results are confidential and I will not reveal the identities of any of the respondents. However, one of the respondents, the principal horn of a major orchestra, made an observation that should be considered as we begin, as it is important for readers to filter these results somewhat. He wrote, "The basic fallacy of most studies is that it assumes that the majority of opinion has some validity. Many times this seems not the case to me."

In that light, I have done my best to sort the results in relation to the career achievement of the respondents in the largest group of responses--those coming from players in the United States, a total of 76 players. These I divided into three groups:

* was a member [at some point in time] of an ICSOM [major] orchestra (40)

* had a professional career of some sort (23)

* amateur, illegible, or not easily found on Google today (13)

The rest of the over 100 total responses are divided by country into the following roughly equal groups:

* Canada/Mexico (16)

* Europe/Asia/Australia (15)

There were 25 questions and approximately half of them include answers to be written in by the respondent. Also, not every respondent answered every question, and at times more than one answer was selected or given. On to the survey!

The Questions and Results

Hand Position Questionnaire

1. Define, as you would for a student, the function of the right hand in the bell.

2. Are you predominantly a "stand-up" or "sit down" player? Low horn or high horn player?

3. Which of the following hand positions do you advocate? (Circle corresponding letter.)

Why do you advocate this position?

1. Define, as you would for a student, the function of the right hand in the bell.

This question was clear and the common threads in answers are clear as well. I find it interesting that only a small percentage of players overall mentioned acoustical stability as a function of the right hand in the bell, as that point came up in later comments fairly frequently. For space I will not quote all the comments in this article, but the following are typical and interesting.

USA/ICSOM Professional:

* a. lower pitch V step; b. somewhat soften the sound; c. stabilize high notes

* To get a more beautiful, round, smooth non brassy or too brilliant tone; to adjust intonation if absolutely needed!! (a last resort)

* To extend the length of the horn where the bell begins--to insure solid focal points for upper partials. To vary the tone and pitch as desired. To support the horn in a variety of relaxed positions.


* a. for adjusting tone color; b. for adjusting intonation; c. historical function--hand horn; d. special effects: stopped and half-stopped

* control the tone colour; control intonation; stabilize (acoustically) high register.

* Originally used to control pitch--to fill in the gaps of the harmonic series. Now it is used more to shade the tone color and to a lesser degree to control the shades of tuning.

2. Are you predominantly a "stand-up" or "sit-down" player? Low or high horn player?

This question in a sense is straightforward but leads to the question, what is a "stand-up" player? I believe for many responses it has to do with if they are primarily practicing standing or seated, as some responses clarified.

On the topic of high or low horn playing, about 60% of respondents overall described themselves as high horn players. One comment on that topic being "I play every range as I think a 'complete' horn player must play well in all ranges."

In terms of standing or sitting many said they do both. Since 1982, in terms of the choice of standing or sitting, trends have moved to standing for solo playing.

Finally, some comments bring in the topic of playing on or off the leg. This was a question that it would have been good to have addressed more directly in the survey, and I believe the trend line, if we were to have that question and do a comparison to today, would be that a higher percentage of players perform off the leg now than in 1982.

A few representative comments on the topic of standing or sitting:

* Sit-down. 40 years in orchestras does not train one to play standing. On occasion I have played standing (uncomfortable!).

* Half and half. A lot of practicing standing. All solo performance standing. Many players in our horn section play off the knee allowing the same hand position for sitting, standing, or bell's up.

*I have been a professional player for 22 years; two years ago I changed to a position of the bell off the knee.

* I stand for solo playing, sit for orchestral playing. In practicing, my standing or sitting corresponds to what I'm working on.

3. Which of the following hand positions do you advocate? (Circle corresponding letter.) Why do you advocate this position?

This question is the central one to the project. Referring to the image on the original questionnaire, four of the hand position choices (c, d, e, and f) were favored and the usage was related to if players performed on (e, f) or off (c, d) the leg, which in turn relates to if the player is a sitting or standing player. The previous question did not nail down if "on" or "off" the leg was preferred for general performance. That being said, there are some outliers, but most circled multiple answers, including the more popular ones.

Certainly the differences can be heard out in a hall. The following are representative comments from the group of ICSOM orchestra performers.

D is #1. Some comments:

* Originally I did it because Schuller says in his book it's the best position from which to modify pitch with the hand, but now its just habit because I never use the right hand to alter pitch (aside from the original 1/4 step)

* It serves all functions described above as well as playing stopped quickly or playing bell up

* 18th-century hand horn methods (tradition)

* I advocate the position that comes most naturally to a player, but one that is correct and not clumsy, sloppy, or a hindrance to any musical aspects of playing. I personally use D for standing and E for sitting because these are the most natural and comfortable for me.

E is #2. Sample comments:

* nice sound and I can hear myself best

* best sound vis-a-vis body

* I feel it allows the largest and most open tone

* It is the best sound, at least for me

* It gets the tone up and out with the horn on leg

* Mostly E to aim my sound toward the ear. Avoids playing into clothing.

C is #3. Sample comments:

* Supports horn best (on knuckles of thumb and first finger) easily moved to stopped--no change from sitting to standing

* It is convenient for playing standing up and/or stopped horn

* Mostly C and D depending on whether I'm playing off the knee or not.

* My position is between C and D

* It works for sitting and standing--and is easiest for me to move to stopped horn

* Gives good open sound--carries--bells up well keeping same color generally

F is #4. Sample comments:

* To facilitate 1) the production of a tone that is open, centered, and of great breadth; 2) projection of tone; 3) playing down to A 440 as a pitch center and 4) large dynamic contrast without losing quality of sound or becoming overly edgy

* Clarity of sound

* The tone and control seem better on an 8D with this position

* Comfortable, relaxed, and in position to be able to adjust for intonation, etc. easily

* Clearest sound, hardest to close palm and muffle sound

Similar results and comments are found from the other groups of players except for Europe/Asia/Australia. For that group the top three choices were in order d, e, c--no player selected f. One particularly interesting comment:

* I usually use E out of laziness except when I want more "edge" to the sound. When I want a more covered sound I use C. Hand horn I use C with the horn braced against my hip so that there is no jarring at the mouthpiece at any fast changes of hand for the different notes.

[Ericson] Personally, I started out as e, and later switched to a hand position between C and D. I believe from the comments that some of the respondents would have also liked a choice that was between C and D as well.

4. Do you hold your fingers:

a. spread apart

b. slightly separated

c. together (no light showing between)

This was one of those eye-opening questions for me, as I was not aware there was a school of thought that seriously performed with the fingers separated at all. The vast majority perform with fingers together. Perhaps a half dozen commented that, though together, the fingers were relaxed and one noted that they performed between options b and c.

5. Do you keep your hand straight or cupped?

For this one the answer is somewhat related to the answers for earlier questions, so this data by itself is of less use to us. Also, it is based on a self perception, at what point is a hand straight or cupped? It is a bit of a judgment call. Many responses noted that their hand position was slightly cupped; another choice or two would have clarified this further. Overall, about 70% said they played with their hand cupped.

6. Do you:

a. curl your fingertips?

b. keep your fingernails flush against the bell?

This question is more black and white, and had a few comments offered as well but, in general, they related to the idea that the fingers can be curled at times to alter the tone quality and the pitch. This was eye opening as well, as I did not know there was a school of thought that said this was okay--some of the "curl" responses being from players with significant careers. A few responses marked both and one other notable comment in this regard was that they played with the fingers flush "except when playing hand horn." In general, about 80% keep their fingernails flush against the bell.

7. Do you ever consciously alter the amount of cupping in your right hand? If so, when and for what reason.

This question received answers that either were a straight "no" or "yes" with an explanation. The "no" responses were often rather emphatic about making no use of this technique. Turning to the "yes" comments, about 70% of respondents, some are most interesting and are quoted below. In the bigger picture, to me personally, this was eye opening as I would have answered the question "no." Apparently, I am in a minority --but many of the "no" responses were from fairly big-name players, so I am in good company. My feeling is that if your tuning is consistent and you are playing with good players you should almost never need to adjust your pitch with the right hand. It is a topic further explored in question eight. Some ICSOM pro comments:

* To increase impedance for high register

* Possibly to more readily match another instrument, usually, woodwind either in quality, or intonation, or COLOR of sound.

* No (except perhaps to match another player who is using a more closed hand position).

* For extreme tuning only

* No, other than stopped, occasional soft effects and occasional pulling out of hand for better response on a few notes above low C. Never for pitch.

8. To what extent do you use the right hand for correcting intonation

a. always

b. sometimes

c. never

This is a good follow-up to the previous question and mirrors the same general results. As written, the question was found too limited by many who responded in shades of meaning that boil down to something like "rarely." What does "always" mean? Some respondents, based on a few short comments that were added, took it to mean that there were notes that had to be adjusted with the hand constantly and consistently. Personally, that would be the point when I start shopping for a new horn. Comments were limited on this question but one player related, "I play a Conn, which has no intonation problems; however, with German instruments, one must correct a bit."

9. Do you alter your hand position for evenness in tonal quality when using the Bb horn fingerings?

This one again was an interesting question that I had not considered. Apparently I was not alone in this assessment as there was not a straight "yes" or "no" response from many. "Yes" and "occasionally" received about 40% of the results with 60% being a straight "no."

10. How would you describe your ideal sound (tone color and quality)?

This subjective question received a huge range of answers. For this one I made no attempt to quantify the answers given, although if you are looking at the raw data there clearly is a relationship on an individual basis between this answer and choices made in many of the other answers on the survey. Sample results follow:

USA/ICSOM Professional

* Clear center or core. Dark outer aura.

* A dark sound that is clear and ringing and centered 2. A bright sound that is full, big, and round

* Smooth, singing, velvety, but well-focused--the sound that projects

* Clear and unmuffled, without being outright brassy and as even as possible

* Dark in lower dynamics--bright in upper dynamics with clarity

USA Pro--teachers and non-ICSOM performers:

* Mason Jones/Jim London/Kruspe/8D

* Something like Clevenger in the orchestra and Seifert in chamber music. Solos tend to differ depending on the piece ranging from Baumann when doing Rosetti (which is difficult to do with my equipment) to Tuckwell on Strauss

* Extremely bright and extremely dark with ample resonance for good projection

* Round, full, no trace of "too much hand in the bell" even as much as possible in all registers

* Warm, pure (somewhat dark)--also open!

USA--amateur, illegible, or not easily found on Google:

* Clean, crisp, occasionally dark for solo passages

* Full and round (not too dark and not too bright); seemingly relaxed and flowing, mysterious, veiled, elegant, enchanting--that's a tough one!

* Dark, but clear and ringing

* Mellow to rich with out sacrificing lightness and facility

* Prefer dark sound usually, not brassy


* It should sing. Not stuffy, tubby, uncentered, or obstructed.

* It should resonate and have slight variations of tone.--It isn't a baritone.

* A very open sound, tending to brassiness in loud passages. Never muffled or choked or apologetic. Always proud and noble, even in soft music

* Clear, rich, or full tone

* Dark and resonant--great variations should be possible in dynamics and tone colour. I like a little brass in the sound at top dynamic levels. Most of all I like a lot of clarity always

* Bright with a bravura--romantic--with vibrato

* A dark sound but not tubby. A sound that has "weight" to it but isn't muffled

Europe/Asia/Australia/South America

* I like a clear sound, although I prefer dark (American) to bright (German)--a good sound should resonate and be unmuffled--not dampened too much by the hand or the body

* Full round tone, nevertheless light transparent sound during technical passages

* Round/warm and not too large

* Quite bright with very brassy sound when very loud

* A warm but light sound--mixture of Viennese and English schools

11. In what way do you feel your hand position contributes to your ideal tonal concept?

Another highly subjective question with quite a variety of answers, I made no effort to quantify, except to say that many were opposed to a tone quality that is perceived to be muffled by the hand. These ICSOM hornist comments are representative:

* Very little. Pretty much sounds the same when my hand isn't in the bell

* It doesn't

* Hand should not be too cupped--makes sound too diffuse and woofy--will not project. Hand is mistakenly used as a crutch to achieve a dark, rich sound. The hand should round out the sound slightly, the rest involves concept of tone production.

* Second most important influence--next to embouchure usage

* Not a lot. Darkens it a bit. Provides resistance to achieve centered upper range

* I doubt that my hand position is very involved--I think my concept is the key to how I play, and I think that is probably true of most professionals.

12. Do you ever use hand vibrato? If so, please explain how, why, and when you use it.

While we could look at all the detailed statistics and comments on this one, I will leave the short answer as a resounding "no" on hand vibrato. A number of players answered with a quite emphatic NO! A few mentioned French literature or maybe jazz for possible serious usages, but this comment from a major orchestra pro I think sums up the general topic pretty well: "Very rarely. Joking around, pops."

13. Do you use the right hand to control dynamic contrasts?

Answers to this question have been hinted at in previous answers. Personally I never make use of this effect so I was surprised by the number of somewhat positive (rarely/ sometimes/etc.) responses--all positive comments combined were about 60% of the responses. Also, I initially thought that underlying the question was the idea that the hand might be used for soft effects. I was surprised to see it also mentioned as a manipulation for loud dynamics. Players who make use of either technique will need to be ready to adjust for the intonation shift as well. An ICSOM comment: "Once in a blue moon--close more for sudden, soft note after loud--increases resistance--can sustain better."

14. Do you ever play with the right hand out of the bell completely? If so, why and when.

Exploring another angle, I was surprised to note that some players actually do play with the hand out of the bell when performing "bells up," as will be seen in the comments. This was not my training--bells up, so far as I knew, was and is always performed with the hand still in some position resembling the normal hand position for intonation. However, some recognized players apparently play bells up without the hand in the bell. Of course, some other pros took this as an answer to joke around with a little orchestral humor. A few ICSOM comments:

* Yes, when I have to scratch my right leg

* Only when pointing at a pretty girl in the balcony

* Sometimes for loud and low notes

* (Recommend marching horn players pull slides and hold horn on edge of bell. I also use this position for 8-9-10 year old students).

* Only when I am extremely flat to anyone

* Only rarely in bells up sections in music when it calls for extreme ff and brightness. Also there needs to be time to adjust the tuning slide.

* In orchestral works calling for bells up and as loud as possible

* If tuning to another player who is very sharp

15. Many students unconsciously allow for their hand to "creep" shut. How do you deal with this?

With this question we turn to a more pedagogical angle on the topic of what I like to call "hand position drift." Some of the players had very definite thoughts on the topic, and there were a number of answers where I hope they are just joking. Most serious answers boil down to reminding students to be aware of the sound not being optimal. A typical, thoughtful answer: "My teacher told me a thousand of times to not let my hand creep shut. So, when I do it now, unconsciously, I still have the reflex to put it back in the 'right' position." Other answers were given, not as serious (I hope), such as "Smack them on the side of the head; publicly humiliate them, and threaten to do harm to their families."

16. What modification(s) of your basic hand position do you use, and for what purpose? For example: woodwind quintet; orchestral; solo; brass quintet; band; etc.

This was another interesting question for me as I make no alterations of my hand position for any different group or type of piece. About 60% said they did not change their hand position. My personal bias in fact would make me question if some of the answers given were positive just because that would seem to be the right answer? In any case, the thrust of the comments was that, if changes were made, they are more closed for woodwind quintet and more open for brass. However, players I recognize as very fine performers often answered more along the lines of "No!" and "Never!" Summing it up, one performer who named professional orchestras and brass and woodwind quintets they had performed in stated "I always use the same hand position and horn and mouthpiece." Although I should also note that a player who also performed hand horn frequently noted that there was no change on valved horn but "when playing on a hand horn, I tune sharp and use a more 'closed' hand position." Finally, I treated, for purposes of the statistics, an orchestral hand position as being the default.

17. Do you alter your hand position when you play standing, or when seated for "bells up"?

This one is really two separate questions, probing a bit more into topics already covered. As such, the responses are not surprising and trend strongly toward "no" with the exception of some altering position between sitting and standing. For this question I will skip the detailed statistics and comments except for one well-known professional who commented, "It is essential to keep normal hand position when playing 'bells up' unless you want to sound sharp and loud at the same time!"

18. Do you support the horn with your right hand at times other than those described in question 16 [17]? If so, when?

This question a number of respondents felt had a typo that they corrected by marking out the 16 and marking in a 17. The question I think does refer back to question 17 rather than 16, but it actually works for 16 as well, as, for example, some mentioned holding the horn free for brass quintet or other situations. The confusion of whether the question refers back to 16 or 17 taints the responses a bit but, as with question 17, the strong trend of answers was toward "no." For our purposes I will leave it at that.

19. Is your horn normally dampened by your torso?

This question elicited very clear responses. The majority opinion is "no"--around 70%--and I think a number of the "yes" and "slightly" answers are slightly grudging, related to body shape, as implied in this "no" comment: "I weigh 330 lbs. and, like [name omitted], yes, I have to play out quite a bit--but I have long arms."

20. What kind of equipment do you most commonly play? Horn_Mouthpiece_

21. What size bell throat does your horn have?__ small_medium_large

As these are related questions we will look at them together. The size of bell throat is subjective to a point and, turning to a comment from a principal horn of a major orchestra, who wrote "I don't know" in response to question 21--surely he knew the size of his bell, judging from the type of horn on which he reported performing.

There is probably a relationship that can be triangulated between the size of bell, mouthpiece, and choices regarding hand position and holding position. I am not sure, however, there is enough hard data in this survey to meaningfully make those connections. So below is a simple look at the data of question 20, in relationship to the most popular horn models used in 1982, to show the trends. I believe the results of a similar survey today would be noticeably different. The following list shows all the horns owned/used by four or more of the 100+ players who responded to the survey. Also note: many pros especially listed more than one horn. The Conn 8D was number one by far with 40 instruments reported, the nearest competitor being Alexander with 15 double horns reported. Horns are listed below by frequency of ownership.

Conn 8D

Alexander double



Conn 28D

Alexander descant


Paxman descant



22. Do you use a fixed or a detachable bell?

23. What effect, if any do you believe a detachable bell causes?

As with questions 20 and 21, these are also related. I will withhold the detailed data again but suffice to say, looking at it today when screw bells are so common (and nearly universally used at the professional level), the horn students of today would be surprised to learn there was some very strong bias against screw bells in 1982. This overall topic, however, I think lies a bit outside of the study, other than to say there is no relationship between screw bells and choice of hand position.

24. Do you have any special hand techniques to increase security in playing?

While many players had no suggestions, among those who did, the replies are incredibly varied, ranging from the very insightful, to the hard core, to the humorous, to ideas that border on being "head games." Serious answers from pros:

* Keep hand straight and put deeply into bell for security in high register

* I practice no less than 4 hours a day and concentrate on the repertoire (especially exposed solos) I'm performing with the orchestra. I force myself to play each exposed solo (no matter what it is) 10 times absolutely perfectly in a row. One bad note, slur, or whatever I start back at #1 and try again. Sometimes playing along with a recording or taped orchestra cuts down on the boredom, but my accuracy is nearly 100% all the time. Playing with recordings helps fight nervousness, I find. Practice is the only way to increase security.

* To move fist and little fingers closer together toward and over the middle finger seems to improve high entrances.

* Not exactly--but sometimes use "muffle technique" to please some conductors in pp. Also occasionally in chamber music.

* Definitely hold the horn off the knee! This can improve posture (especially for tall people), allows for ease in playing while standing, and can alleviate some embouchure pressure problems.

* If a conductor is especially demanding on a note to be played extremely softly I use a 2/3 stopped position with altered fingering.

* Only to leave it alone. Manipulation of the hand alone will not increase security--only practice to obtain a free, round sound with good definition can lead to security. The hand should only be used as a modifying agent to further refine the playing.

* I consider study of natural horn and hand horn very important. After playing hand horn, valve horn seems so secure....

* Hold on for dear life with the left hand and mash the horn against the lips

* None except using both hands to pray before concert

* Yes

* HA HA--I wish!

* Wish I did!!

25. Any suggestions or comments about this proposed study:

There were some suggestions and comments. Those I will leave as well for anyone who takes a future look at this data. It would be interesting to see a study that was done with a tweaked version of these questions, set up in a way that would allow a more complete analysis of the data.

My personal thanks go again to Professor Lockwood and to his students who put together the original survey, with yet another thank you to Professor Lockwood for passing all the raw data on to me. I hope that this look has provided at the least some useful tips--for me it certainly provided a great deal of food for thought.

John Ericson is horn professor at Arizona State University, cofounder of the online magazine Horn Matters, and has served as artist faculty at the Interlochen Center for the Arts and the Brevard Music Center.
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Author:Ericson, John
Publication:The Horn Call
Date:May 1, 2015
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