Power Up! French Horn Tone

French Horn Tone

Characteristic tone

Horn is such a versatile instrument, thus the concept of characteristic tone is actually quite situationally dependent. But for our purposes as teachers, horn sound should be really round, warm, open and resonant. I talk to my students about what the sound would look like, and often think of it as a giant bubble that comes out of the bell and then sweeps out into the room, growing to fill up all of the space.

Characteristic Tone on Horn

Selecting horn players and switching from another instrument to horn 

I believe the most important factor in successfully switching to any instrument is that the student likes the sound of the instrument and really wants to play it. If real desire is there, anyone can figure an instrument out and teachers can guide their path. For horn in particular, there will be challenges—many unique. Different from other instruments is how the partials lay on the instrument and the need to maneuver across both the F and Bb harmonic series. Students have to be willing to play some wrong notes as they work to gain pitch confidence and discern intervals. It can help if a student is fairly laid back, ok with the belief that they will not be perfect all the time, and accept that mistakes are opportunities to learn.

Selecting Horn Players

Switch students to horn alongside a buddy 

For new horn players, it’s especially awesome to have a buddy. Pairs are great when learning horn, as it gives you someone to lean on and helps create a safety net. It’s great to learn alongside an experienced player, but that is not needed. It’s just helpful to have someone to go through the process with, and it helps take off some of the individual pressure.

Switching to Horn: Buddy System

Posture is very important in developing the best tone on horn. You HAVE to bring the instrument to you! I help students get set up in a relaxed position to avoid tension and muscle strain. If they are on the smaller side, it may be helpful to place a block or book under their right foot, or to put a rolled up towel on the chair beside their leg on which to rest the horn bell. You can also experiment with sitting on the corner of a chair, rather than straight on. There are lots of options on how to set up, but the starting point is that students have to get set up in a way that enables the horn to come to them and allows them to stay relaxed. 

While I do like starting students on double horns when possible, single horns are great options for students who cannot comfortably support the horn due to the weight or size of the instrument or the student’s size, particularly torso length. And while hand position in the bell is so important, it really does not need to be a non-negotiable from the start. Teachers just need to keep visually assessing students to make sure they are set up on equipment that allows them to stay tension-free and will help them experience success rather than make it harder – i.e. left hand grip width, weight of horn, tightness or openness of instrument wrap. Teachers need to figure out what individual students are ready for, make accommodations as needed, and then adjust and refine placements and grip as they grow.

Horn Player Posture


One of the big habits to keep checking in on with horn students is their right hand position. Students can get laxed on this while teachers assume they are all set. It’s important to keep peeking into the bell or asking students to show their hand position outside of the bell to check for the proper shape. And for this, assess needs for adjustment and refinement as they grow. If they are smaller when they start playing and cannot demonstrate a correct right hand position while maintaining a relaxed posture, keep watching them and assess when the right time to add the proper hand position is. The back of their fingers must be against the bell, with a slight curve at the palm of the hand. Also, it’s important that students push slides all the way in when they put their instruments away, and pull the slides out when they play. They can forget these important steps when unpacking and packing up quickly.  

Right Hand Position

Horn Embouchure 

Where embouchures are concerned, my general belief is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, this is something important to address when starting students or switching students. I focus on a mouthpiece placement that is ⅔ top lip and ⅓ bottom lip. I often find it easier to switch flute or clarinet students to horn, rather than brass students. Woodwind students are more of a blank slate embouchure-wise, while most brass players are likely used to a ½-½ mouthpiece placement that they will need to adjust (unless they fall into the “if it ain’t broke” category!) Using mirrors to help students see placement is so useful, as are mouthpiece visualizers. The roundness of the mouthpiece rim should connect across the bow of the top lips, not sit in the lip.

Horn Embouchure

Common Performance Errors 

Fingering charts for horn players are COMPLICATED! I think teachers really do need to offer more guidance here to help students “decode” fingerings. Most fingering charts show two fingerings, one for F horn and one for Bb horn. Without guidance, students often just pick a fingering – and not always the one that is best in tune, part of the easiest fingering patterns, or that provides the best tone and most resonance. Teachers can highlight the appropriate fingerings in a chart or provide them with a “no choices” fingering chart for their instrument. 

Simplifying Horn Fingering Charts

As I mentioned earlier, slides do need to be pulled out. Too often students think the instrument is play-ready when it comes out of the case, but they need to be told to pull the slides out. For horn, pulling slides out approximately a pinky width is a good start.

Bell placement is another big issue for horn players. While this was referenced earlier, it is important that bells are not held off of legs before students are physically able to hold the horn weight, as this may create tension in arms, back, shoulders, and sometimes an arch in the back. The most important bell issue in any set-up is that the bell is pointed out and away from the body (not turned in and pointed directly into the player’s body.) You want the sound to come out of the bell into the space around the player, and the right hand should guide the sound behind you. When you listen to students play individually, you can often tell if their hand is in the bell too far (uncentered sounds) or if the bell is pointed directly into the body (muffled sounds), so listen regularly! 

Supporting young horn players

I absolutely love the “horn only” pages in method books. It’s so helpful for students to have options, as some find it easier to play in mid-high ranges, while others prefer mid-low ranges. Drawing on the concept of the “horn only” exercises, rewriting parts to help students access their most secure, confident, and comfortable range is a great way to help them grow. In an effort to meet the students where they are range-wise, I often give horn players the trumpet parts in unison exercises, and then rewrite alto and/or tenor saxophone parts so the horns have buddies to play in unison with. Helping horns more regularly access their preferred range helps students focus on mastering all the fundamental parts of playing before they are asked to play in other growing ranges outside of their comfort zone. It allows the setting of a solid foundation that focuses on air and relaxation and eliminates pinching and tension.   

Along these lines, it is so helpful to guide students to audiate pitches and discern patterns. Is that next note higher or lower? Is it a lot higher or a lot lower? Maybe it’s only a step? I use “home base” (C-E-G-E-C) as the foundation for pitch target practice because they are generally comfortable pitches for all players and the intervals have an even-ness about them that is missing if you start too low or too high. In this way, students can use “home base” to find their first pitch before they play, and combine that skill with their pattern knowledge to set a great course for pitch accuracy. 


I am a big proponent of modeling for students. I keep almost every instrument at my teaching station so I can quickly pick it up and play. It’s important that teachers understand what students are dealing with on each of their instruments, and building skills to model helps the teacher know what is behind a particular issue and how to correct it. It’s also vital that students listen to professionals play on their instrument. Teachers can provide a playlist or students can search to create their own. Students need a concept in their head of what that sound should sound like, and we want them to aim high toward a great pro sound! Students can more easily replicate characteristic tone when it is the sound they hear in their head. Play music for them and encourage them to attend live performances. 

Modeling and Listening

MakeMusic Cloud resources  

Scale patterns are great tools to help horn students develop their pitch skills. When patterns are present, it is easier to know if you are correct or incorrect. Also playing songs that you know is key, since, again, you can tell if you are correct or incorrect. Sing or buzz songs even without playing them on the horn so that you have the freedom to focus on the sound and the musicality of the tune. I encourage young horn players to seek out music to songs they know and love, use the MakeMusic Cloud first pitch tool so they can hear the starting note and match it before they begin, and have a great time developing their ear and playing skills while playing songs they love!  

MakeMusic Cloud Tuner Demo

MakeMusic Cloud Pitch Reference Tool


Explore More Power Up!

Tiffany Hitz is Director of Middle School Bands at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, VA. She received her Bachelor of Music in Music Education from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and her Master of Music in Music Education from Boston University. In addition to teaching in Fairfax County, VA since 2001, Mrs. Hitz maintains an active schedule as a clinician, guest conductor, and adjudicator throughout the United States. Mrs. Hitz is a 2023 recipient of the Bandworld Legion of Honor from the John Philip Sousa Foundation, an award given to only eight band directors across the country annually. She is also a former nominee for the Grammy Music Educator Award and was previously recognized by School Band and Orchestra Magazine as one of the Fifty Directors Who Make a Difference. She is an inducted member of Phi Beta Mu International Bandmasters Fraternity and American School Band Directors Association. She is particularly proud to have received the 2018 Outstanding Music Education Alumni Award from her alma mater, VCU School of the Arts.

Get the best from MakeMusic

Discover practical music tips, delivered directly to you!

Sign up