When I started playing the French Horn, or Horn, I was never told – that I recall, to buzz without a mouthpiece. In fact, when I first started I still remember that it was in a typical brass class where we were just told to try to play whatever notes the first few sessions, even though he was also teaching us the fingering to try and the note on the staff to play. Most of us could read music, some more than others. We had all been playing Song Flute or a type of Recorder in 3rd grade. That was many student’s first introduction to music and reading notes. I had, however, had piano lessons prior to 3rd grade, so the reading and counting were already relatively simple to a degree and I didn’t have to think about it that much. Thus, my experience with Song Flute was super easy for me.
But getting back to the first notes of playing Horn, I remember somewhere around the first few weeks or so these many years ago, when I was a 4th grader in elementary school, with many fellow students, that we would sit there trying to make sounds and play what was on the page. In reality, we were just hitting random notes, squeaks, and squawks! One of my fellow students was attempting to play, either Baritone or Tuba, I can’t remember exactly. But I do remember his squawks were a lot louder than mine because of his instrument. And for whatever reason, we both look at each other and we would start laughing and cracking up every other note the first few weeks. I do not know what the teacher thought at this point. I wonder if he thought I’d quit soon. I wonder if he didn’t bother with mouthpiece buzzing or free-buzzing because he wasn’t taught that or didn’t think of it or because he just thought we were a bunch of goofballs he was just trying to finish the class with. Whatever the case, we did end up doing the typical beginning band concerts and playing the typical Christmas tunes, and so on. So whatever he did, we were able to accomplish the normal level of beginning band. By the time that rolled around, many of the kids playing brass had dropped out.
Teaching beginners on any instrument takes a lot of patience! But especially Horn and other brass instruments. It’s not like beginning piano, ukulele, or a woodwind instrument where it is press a key, get a note, or press a string at a certain point, and get a pitch. Nope. With brass instruments, there are normally 3-4 keys to press and only the combinations of these and eventual muscle memory is what gives you the ability to eventually find and pick out notes. I apparently have had really patient teachers over all these years when I first started. And thank goodness, or would never have had so many amazing experiences with music and my Horn!
And let’s really get back to the point. Because when you begin to play an instrument such as the Horn you normally are starting out with no sense of where the notes lie the first few times at least. There have been a couple times over all these years that required me to relearn how to buzz and play my horn. More on that another time. Still…I did not have teachers telling me to free buzz without the mouthpiece. So, in recent years, I’ve started to come across this concept more. I’ve been teaching privately and coaching for many years now. I’ve watched some amazing world-renowned players using it teach and put videos up online. And then as I play and coach with more people…(yes I teach and perform, but yes I still study with others)…that I’ve again heard and learned other successful musicians doing this.
When I first tried to free-buzz with no mouthpiece, I thought this is nuts! I did not think what was coming out of my mouth sounded like the world-renowned Julie Landsman, retired Principal
Horn from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, that uses this method of teaching, especially after I’d seen some of her videos using this principle of what is called the Caruso Method to teach this. The other thing is I was expecting was immediate perfection. After all, how many years had I been playing horn, and why have I not been taught this before? Is this why I haven’t______(fill in the blank here as my negative little voice takes hold and comes up with a myriad of reasons I have not been able to do whatever). I had been doing mouthpiece buzzing for many years. I did it without any tools, I’d also used a B.E.R.P. (Buzz Extension Resistance Piece) to emulate the same resistance in the horn. But then I had more experiences and different ones with free-buzzing later. Negative self-talk is always something I try to get rid of and even in an instance where I hear most students or colleagues alike say “I can’t do that” when asked to try this, but it is always something I continue to work on, and I try to have my students work on turning things around and change their thought method when I am able to catch them in this. As I came to realize there is more than one way to use the free-buzzing method. And while I still do not sound like others I’ve heard do this, the idea behind it in my opinion is to get the blood flowing and warm up your lips. The second thing that I’ve had to realize is that the way I use it is not necessarily that it has to be pitch-perfect, although others of you may disagree. I don’t feel like the point of it is perfect pitch but warming up and using it first thing in your playing.
I have found a combination of alternating between free-buzzing, mouthpiece buzzing, and playing the note, and if it’s not too low for my voice, also singing the note, gets my mouth, my air, and my ears warmed up. This is something I’ve started with some of my students. This is not for the student that wants to learn their band music in their lesson and move on. This is something for a student who is ready and willing to work on things in more depth. But, you can still sneak it in even to the student who is the least patient. Just a little less time spent, but not in vain by any means. When I do any of this prior to playing more in the day I feel better, I play better and I realize it’s working for me. I try to share these things with those I’m teaching. We are all lifelong learners. I find I’m a better player the more I teach, and a better teacher the more I play.
Happy buzzing in whatever means you choose!