French Horn Boot Camp: Buzzing

While there is a good amount of debate about buzzing – either on the mouthpiece or without – I am generally a fan of it as a teaching tool. Buzzing is one of the quickest ways to see how students are using their air and it can also show how little physical “effort” goes into making a resonant sound on the horn. It’s also easier for students to hear things like a pinched sound or an airy buzz when they are just using the mouthpiece alone.

Mouthpiece Buzzing Exercises

Probably the most common buzzing exercise for brass players involves buzzing on the mouthpiece. Using the mouthpiece, you can buzz just about anything that you can play on the horn – scales, slurs, etudes, and even “real” music.

When buzzing on the mouthpiece, make sure you are making a strong and buzzy-sounding buzz with a steady and definite pitch (use a tuner)! The sound quality of the buzz is very important, and make sure to strive for the fullest sound no matter which of the exercises you are playing!

First, you can download, view, and print my buzzing exercises right here.

Initial Warm-up

I like to start students (especially younger students) mouthpiece buzzing from the very beginning, so they get used to the “buzzy” sound and the air necessary to get that sound.

My “pre-warmup” buzzing usually starts with a sustained mid-register note (whatever is comfortable for the student), followed by some ascending and descending glissandos to get the student used to making a “buzzy” sound both high and low. The actual high and low note(s) reached doesn’t matter – the point is to keep the buzzy sound to the “extremes” of both the high and low range.

Scale and Interval Studies

I really like buzzing scales with younger students, since it shows them how close the notes in a scale actually are. Usually, students that have trouble with higher notes are going too high too quickly within the scale.

For beginning students, I use a tuner app to sound the note I want them to buzz (like middle C), have them buzz it, then move the drone up to “D”, have them buzz it, etc. I start with 3-note scales (up and down), then move up to 5-note and 8-note scales as their range increases.

For more advanced students, you can use buzzing to help with intonation. Using a tuner app to sound the root of the scale as the drone, slowly buzz up and down the scale, making sure the consonant intervals (3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th) “lock-in” with the tuner.

For both of these exercises, focus on doing them slurred – moving smoothly from one note to another. Tonguing can be added later, but make sure to blow through the articulation.

Once scales become easy, try arpeggios and even lip slurs!

Buzzing Short Musical Passages

This is a great way to see what your air, embouchure, and articulation are actually doing in the horn. Practice buzzing both staccato and legato passages, and you’ll likely find spots where the air intensity and buzziness are uneven or lacking. Buzzing can also help in practicing large upward (or downward) slurs. If you make sure that the starting and ending notes are correct in the mouthpiece, and that the slur takes on a “buzzy glissando” character, and they practically pop out of the horn!

Free Buzzing

Free buzzing, or buzzing without the mouthpiece, is controversial and not for everyone. Some otherwise great players can’t or don’t do any of this, but I’ve found that it’s quite helpful to focus the embouchure’s aperture and learn how to keep the corners firm in both the upper and lower register.

That being said, most free-buzzing advocates recommend not buzzing very high – I don’t do any free buzzing over 3rd-space C (horn pitch). Because of the limited range, I only use free buzzing for warm-ups – not to practice specific passages.

I like to do some free buzzing up and down intervals ranging from a half-step up to a fourth (not going higher than C), followed by buzzing the same intervals on the mouthpiece and then playing the same intervals on the horn.

Final Thoughts

Smartly done, free and mouthpiece buzzing can be a great tool in a horn player’s toolbox! If you haven’t tried incorporating buzzing in your warm-up or practice routine, give some of these exercises a try!

If you have any questions about these, leave a comment below or contact me. If you’re interested in some one-on-one help with mouthpiece buzzing or any other aspect of French horn playing, I offer horn lessons both in-person and online!