French Horn Boot Camp: Buzzing

Just about every professional player has a strong opinion about buzzing.

Some are for it, some are against it.

Others think that you should only do buzzing practice on a mouthpiece, while others think that both free buzzing and mouthpiece buzzing are equally useful.

Additionally, some think you should do it every day, some use it only as a special tool to fix specific problems.

While others certainly disagree, I am generally a fan of it as regular practice (and teaching) tool.

What Buzzing Can Show

For me, buzzing exercises are one of the quickest ways to see how efficiently and effectively students are moving their air.

Buzzing can also very clearly show the difference in tension between the corners and chin (which should be fairly firm) and the center of the embouchure (which must be somewhat relaxed to buzz clearly). This balance of firmness and suppleness is necessary for a resonant sound on the horn.

Buzzing on the mouthpiece often shows students that they are either not using a focused airstream (producing a “cloudy” sound instead of a “buzzy” one) or they are not centering the pitches that they should be. This is often apparent in something relatively simple like a major scale exercise. Usually, students use too much embouchure tension too soon – and go too high, too fast. Simply trying to get a resonant buzz by slurring the first 3 or 5 notes can open up the rest of the scale.

Free Buzzing

While mouthpiece buzzing is used by probably 80-90% of brass players, free buzzing (buzzing without the mouthpiece at all) is less popular as a teaching tool.

However, I think for an instrument like the French horn – which encompasses a wide range – having the ability to form a good embouchure and move it around without the mouthpiece as a “crutch” is beneficial for most students. It’s certainly not required – I imagine there are fantastic players who can’t free buzz at all – but for many students, a little bit of this goes a long way.

Buzzing without the mouthpiece requires not only a strong, directed air column but also requires an embouchure with a good, balanced, firmness. If you have flabby corners, the lips won’t buzz clearly, and if the aperture of the embouchure is too tight, the buzz will sputter and can’t be sustained.

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 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!

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 tightening the embouchure too much, too soon, as they ascend.

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, 6th, and octave) “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 somewhat controversial and not for everyone. However, I think it is generally useful to do at least a little bit of this for intermediate students. If it doesn’t help we can always move on to something else, but I find that most students benefit some (or greatly) from this kind of practice.

Some great players can’t (or don’t) do any of this, but I’ve found that it’s quite helpful for me 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 (like Julie Landsman) recommend not going very high – I don’t do any free buzzing over 3rd-space C (horn pitch). Because of the limited range, I only use it 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.

I haven’t transcribed these, but what I do follows Julie Landman‘s Lips-Mouthpiece-Horn exercise from her Carmine Caruso Method.

Need More Help?

As always, if you have any questions about these exercises, or want to get some one-on-one help, leave a comment below. If you would prefer, you can also send me a message on my Contact page. I’ll do my best to answer it quickly!

Since it’s not always easy to diagnose buzzing (or other playing) issues via text, I also offer French horn lessons in person AND online. You can find more information about my teaching here!