French horns are typically made of brass or other metal, usually silver-plated or lacquered. Besides orchestras, they are played in bands, woodwind quintets, and brass ensembles.
The French horn rests on the right knee of the player. The player puts the right hand into the bell of the instrument. The hand acts as a mute for the instrument and can adjust the pitch. The French horn is fingered with the left hand.
On a French horn, the sound is made by buzzing the player's lips. The mouthpiece helps the sound become clearer. The rest of the French horn makes the sound louder. The French horn is a difficult instrument to play. You need to have an excellent ear for music to know if you are playing the right note.
The horn comes from a long tradition of instruments first used in ancient China (2000 BC), Egypt (1500 BC) and Scandinavia (1000 BC). These instruments were used for signaling and ceremony. However, because they had no valves, only a few notes could be played. By Roman times, and for centuries thereafter, valveless natural horns were common at military and civilian events.
In the 1600's the natural horn was used in the royal mounted hunt. The instrument was coiled and fit over the arm of the player who rode with the hunt, playing fanfares and horn calls.
The horn became a regular member of the orchestra during the 1700's. Early in the century, a horn pitched in F was made in Vienna. This instrument had five detachable pieces of tubing called crooks. Crooks lengthened or shortened the horn so it could be played in the best key for the music. By employing crooks and using the right hand in the bell to stop certain notes, a skilled musician could play any noted of the scale.
The invention of valves in 1815 made the awkward crooks obsolete. Two type of valves were developed: rotary (revolving cylinder) valves, and piston (up and down) valves. The French made smaller bored horns with piston valves, while the Germans created larger bored horns with rotary valves. It is the German version that is referred to in North America as a French horn.
In 1898, a German named Fritz Kruspe introduced the double horn. The double horn combines the single F and single Bb horns into one instrument. It is widely accepted and played by virtually all professional players today.
Before you play: There is very little to assemble on a French horn. All you have to do is place the mouthpiece into the lead pipe. Do this with a gently twisting motion. Do not hit or pop the mouthpiece into place. Oil the valves every couple of days you play your French Horn. Remove the rotary valve covers one at a time and apply three or four drops of oil. Alternately, remove each valve slide, apply oil inside the valve tubing, replace slide, and wiggle the valve.
Tuning & Playing: To lower the pitch of the French horn, lengthen the instrument by pulling the main tuning slide out. To raise the pitch, push the main tuning slide in.
If your mouthpiece gets stuck while playing, do not attempt to remove it yourself or have anyone yank it out for you. Forcibly removing it can break the braces on the French horn. Your teacher will have a special tool to safely remove the mouthpiece.
Cleaning: Once a week clean the mouthpiece with warm water and a mouthpiece brush. Once a month, give your French horn a bath. Remove all the valves and slides and run snake brushes and valve brushes through the instrument with warm soapy water (hot water may damage the finish). Put the French horn back together. Oil the valves and grease the slides.
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