players are called upon to play English Horn from time to time.
For many, these are frustrating occasions as they struggle with
an unfamiliar instrument, poor pitch control, lack of projection,
and other problems.
Like a beginner on any instrument, the beginning English Horn
player is often unsure as to why it sounds bad, even if he or
she is a fairly competent and experienced oboe player. Many times,
players blame the instrument when in fact they aren't blowing
enough air, or blame themselves for deficiencies that are due
to a useless bocal, etc. Everything on English Horn works a little
differently from the oboe, so let's take a look at each piece
of equipment (including the player) individually.
Owning an English Horn is an expensive proposition, so most occasional
players rely on borrowing an instrument from a school or a colleague.
Because of intermittent use and a larger bore less sensitive
to minute distortions, English Horns tend to stay in service
much longer than oboes. It is not uncommon for schools or universities
to own instruments that are more than thirty years old. There
is nothing wrong with this, of course, providing the instrument
has been well maintained. Unfortunately, public schools often
buy cheap, inferior instruments and keep those for
a long time. If you aren't certain of the instrument's condition,
bring it to your teacher or an expert and get advice. If it needs
repairs, get them done. Schools frequently have no budget for
this, but try. It will save the school money in the long run,
especially if you succeed in having the instrument sent to a
repair person who specializes in oboes. General repair people
at full-service music stores don't always have the necessary
Since oboes don't have bocals, the importance of this piece of
equipment is often overlooked by oboists. A bad bocal can make
a good reed and instrument useless. On the other hand, a good
one can distinctly spruce up even a mediocre horn. If you play
English Horn more than once or twice a year, a good bocal is
a wise investment. Bocals made by John
Symer, Hiniker, Ross Woodwind Specialists, and the Dallas Bocal Company are all excellent.
Most dealers will send you several to try for a week or so. Cost
is around $200-300. There are other excellent makers, also. It
is helpful if you are able to match the bocal to the instrument
- a great bocal on one horn is not necessarily a great bocal
on every horn.
A few signs of a bad bocal are:
- A general
lack of resonance and focus, particularly on high notes.
- Pitch instability
(usually flatness) above the staff (high G to C). G-sharp just
above the staff is usually the worst note.
sagging when making diminuendo on C in the middle of the staff
completely at the mercy of the people loaning you stuff. Buy
your own bocal.
English horn reeds differ from oboe reeds in two important respects:
they are not as "finished" as oboe reeds, and they
generally carry a wire.
Many oboe reeds have extremely thin tips and a rather thin back,
especially just below the heart. If you make an English horn
reed this way, it will sound small and dull, and may well be
flat. Instead, make a reed that works well with good balance,
but with less contrast between the three main areas. In other
words, build your reed with a slightly thicker tip, slightly
lighter heart, and a slightly thicker back. In addition, the
difference in thickness between the top of the back and the lower
portions is not as pronounced. If viewed from the side, the "waistline"
of the reed that appears just below the heart is lower down.
If you want to think in terms of oboe reeds, make a reed that
plays well but is not "refined" it should still have
a little bit of raucousness.
English Horn reeds should be wired. The wire is not used to control
the opening of the reed. If the opening is wrong, the wire may
help a little, but the reed will still have problems. Rather,
the wire stabilizes and focuses the notes above the staff. Often,
this allows you to remove more wood from a reed that's a bit
stiff but that would be too flat without the wire. Use #24 gauge
brass wire, wind it around twice, and tighten with needlenose
pliers. You can buy the wire in the hardware or crafts store - it's cheaper
than "reed wire."
Many reedmakers put the wire on the blank before scraping at
all. I prefer to add the wire later if necessary, mostly because
it gets in my way during the scraping. Don't wind it on so tightly
that it grips all the way around the reed; stop as soon as you
feel it gripping the sides. Don't put it up too high on the reed:
5-6 mm from the string (in other words, just into the beginning
of the scraped area) is high enough. The wire will usually slide
around when the reed is dry, but return to its proper position
when the reed is soaked.
Much of what we do physically on the oboe could be characterized
as damage control. We're trying to prevent the sound from becoming
too shrill, too raucous, too piercing. Most people, when their
oboe playing isn't working well, sound too thin or harsh.
Horn players in trouble have the opposite problem: the sound
is fuzzy, wooden, dull and won't project at all. The position
of the English Horn in the orchestra (amongst the violas, who
are usually playing in the same range) doesn't help. So, two
things are vital: blow firmly, and don't cover very much with
your embouchure. If you played oboe the way English Horn sounds
good, it would sound unpleasantly rough and raucous. If you reverse
it and play English Horn with the correct oboe technique, the
EH would sound stuffy and tiny. It is quite easy to overblow
the oboe; it takes real power to overblow the English Horn. Or,
at the opposite extreme, it is possible (though not desirable!)
to "peep" on the oboe and get away with it. On the
English Horn, you can forget it. Don't be shy. Blow.
thing: the English Horn is a different instrument. It needs practice.
Only the fingerings are familiar. Strive to play the English
Horn with the same facility and flexibility that you have on
the oboe. Don't restrict your English Horn practicing only to
English Horn repertoire. Most of the orchestral excerpts are
technically very easy. Play Ferling etudes, Mozart concerto,
baroque sonatas, technical warmups - whatever you can think of
until the instrument feels comfortable and familiar to you.