For many horn players (me included) French horn tonguing was a mystery. One of my biggest personal struggles in learning to play the horn and one that I notice a lot in students and younger players is a lack of consistent and strong tonguing or articulation. Since the tongue stroke sets up essentially everything else (timing, air speed, and air intensity) it’s important to get it right!
Since the horn sound is most often heard indirectly, articulation needs to be exaggerated slightly (from the player’s perspective) in order to come across to the audience as crisp and precise – especially in large concert halls.
This is especially difficult (and important) in slower music. The slower tempo means that much more attention needs to be payed to a strong and steady subdivision, so the notes are produced on time and not late – slow doesn’t mean to drag! The following video, taken by Robert Lauver of the Pittsburgh Symphony of principal horn player William Caballero, does a really great job of demonstrating how good articulation will sound a little bit “poppy” or “percussive” to the player (and anyone seated next to them).
If you’re not familiar with the horn solo in the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, here is a copy of the music. Follow along – and notice the variety of articulations used by Tchaikovsky and produced by Mr. Caballero.
When you’re practicing remember the sound (and feel) of good articulation, and strive to have that pop in every note that you tongue!