Use of the Assistant First Horn

Not there to play the boring stuff! With notes on assisting in a band setting as well.

John Ericson

A version of this article was published in The Horn Call 34, no. 2 (February, 2004) and also in Playing High Horn (2007, Horn Notes Edition). The version presented here is a combination of the texts of both versions. The font changes at the point where it switches from the 2007 version to the 2004 version.

In high horn playing, at least in the USA, a key element is the effective use of an assistant first horn. The essential role of the fifth (“swing”) horn in a five-horn section is to assist the principal horn by taking over the first part periodically, especially during tutti passages, allowing the first horn to rest and remain fresh to comfortably perform other more soloistic, exposed passages. The first horn, if there were no assistant, would have a much harder time performing these passages with a level of comfort and freedom. In addition, certain works, when performed with a competent assistant horn, are relatively simple works to perform well, but without an assistant horn, suddenly become a grueling test of endurance for the principal hornist.

Specifics as to how the part will be divided will vary depending on the players and the literature. Some principal players favor a good bit of doubling, but in general I would recommend that there should not generally be a lot of doubling in an orchestral situation, except for especially loud, climatic moments in the music. Passages where the assistant is to play should be clearly marked in the music in logical, consistent markings. These selections should be at least roughly thought out before the first rehearsal and should be at least roughly marked in by the end of the first rehearsal. Usually the passages for the assistant to play will be marked with brackets by the principal player.

In marking passages for the assistant to play in an orchestra, the principal player should be especially attuned to changes of orchestration and texture. Whenever playing, the assistant also needs to “take the ball” and lead. Anything really exposed should find the principal horn in the “hot seat” but when the assistant is playing, they should have the part and strive to match the tone of the resting principal.

In some works it may not be possible to use an assistant due to the thin orchestration or the lack of tutti passages. If this is the case, it is better to simply let the assistant off for the work. Depending on the literature, the split between the first horn and the assistant will be something between roughly 85/15 and 60/40, with a split of 50/50 possible on light literature such as marches and pops concert material. It is important for the principal horn to be careful not to “ice the chops” of the assistant; the assistant must be given enough to play to keep fresh for their entrances. This is especially true if the markings include overlaps and “sneak-ins” without attacks.

In general there are four types of passages that I look to give to the assistant horn when I am playing principal horn:

  • Passages closely aligned with the trumpets. This is especially common in Classical literature where the first horn and first trumpet are in octaves.
  • Passages where the first and third horns are doubled. Unison tutti passages are great places to lay off on first for a moment or longer.
  • Passages before major solos. The classic example is the end of movement one of Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5, where the first horn should rest for most of the page before movement two. Even for less extended solos I personally find it of great help to insert even a very short rest before exposed passages.
  • “Footballs,” long strings of whole notes (or similar) when not overly exposed. Some “pass offs” from the first horn to the assistant can be of great help.

In all of these situations it is essential for the principal and assistant to match in terms of volume and general style. It is also very important for the principal horn to have a clear sense of where the first part is doubled down the section. A combination of score study and trust for the other members of the horn section is a great aid to making best use of the assistant horn. The score study shows you where other players are covering the same parts you have and trust allows you to let them cover those parts. These are the real keys to effective use of the assistant first horn.

As a part of pacing, the principal horn should rest when suitable passages occur for the assistant to play, even if the overall range demands do not appear to be especially difficult. This rest may become especially significant in the context of an orchestral rehearsal or concert with other heavy works to remain fresh for, not to mention the possibility of other services to play. Don’t be foolish and burn your chops on tutti passages; give these to the assistant so you will be fresh for the “money” passages.

While assistant horn markings will always be very individualized, the following is an example of the opening page of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with assistant markings. Try the first horn passages with and without the assistant; the passages covered by the assistant horn will certainly give the principal horn more freedom to play the conclusion of this work with greater abandon and better accuracy.


The assistant horn in a band or wind ensemble may be treated in a manner very similar to that seen in an orchestra but frequently the function is somewhat different.

The situation where the assistant position is the most different than in an orchestra is in the large symphonic band with a section of eight (or more) horn players. In a horn section with eight horns all the parts should be doubled down the section in the same manner. The principal player on any part should play the more soloistic passages and the more thinly orchestrated sections, and the principal may also wish to lay out for some of the tutti passages. Perhaps 80-90% of any part will be doubled by both players. This will be necessary to achieve a proper balance.

In a large band the “choir effect” is very much at work. Many other parts (for example, the trumpets) are doubled or even tripled. There is a fullness of tone gained by this doubling that is considered desirable in this situation.

During the period when I performed in the Nashville Symphony I also had the opportunity to do recording session work, mainly “gospel” and “jingle” sessions. In the studios I found doubling the first horn part to be quite common; a session with two horn parts would be frequently be called for three players, two of them doubling the first part on nearly all passages. Evidently producers preferred the fatter tone of the doubled part. As an alternate, some producers had us record two passes of horns to achieve the same effect. There is certainly literature where this type of doubling really works in a band or wind ensemble as well.

A wind ensemble section with five horns is more like the orchestral horn section, but it may work better to treat the assistant horn in a manner similar to that seen in the symphonic band section described above. My experience is as a player that I would prefer to want to mark the part for the assistant very much like in an orchestra but it actually works better in terms of sound to double the part more than I would consider doing in an orchestra. It is very much like the example from the recording studios given above; doubling makes a fatter sound that can compete better with the rest of the brass with their frequent doublings.

The principal player in a wind ensemble section with five horns should certainly play the exposed solos and the thinly orchestrated passages by themselves and should certainly lay out during loud tutti passages as necessary to “save face.” But much of the typical wind ensemble part can be doubled, perhaps something like 50-60% of the part, depending of course on the exact literature being performed.

While in the orchestra the typical practices are pretty clear cut, in the band things are not nearly as set by tradition. Depending on your situation, it might be wise to consult with your conductor to note their preferences. Also, just look around to see where other doublings may already be occurring in the band. If you see six trumpets or four trombones playing all the time you can be pretty sure that they are doubling something all the time and this really would be OK in the horns as well.

Above all, the assistant player is a very important member of the horn section and is not there to merely play “the boring stuff” or to only play when the first horn wants to rest. The assistant enhances the music in many ways. With something close to 20% of all major orchestra players holding this position as well this fact alone should also remind us that to play assistant well is truly something to strive for. 

Copyright John Ericson. All rights reserved.

Return to Index

Return to Horn Articles Online