French Horn Boot Camp: Lip Slurs

Lip slurs are important for all brass instrument players, but especially for French horn. This is because the French horn plays much higher in its harmonic series than any other brass instrument.

Because of this, lip slur practice should be a part of every horn player’s daily routine. The careful and consistent practice of these exercises will help every aspect of your playing!

I have written two different pages of lips slurs. The basic lip slurs are a great place for beginners or intermediate players to start. These are simple but not easy, and successful execution of them is necessary to move on to the advanced lip slurs. Moving on to the advanced lip slurs too soon will only inhibit your progress!

You can download both of the slur pages here:

Basic Lip Slurs

The first page of basic slurs introduces the lip slur concept in a relatively easy range.

These appear to be simple exercises, but don’t be deceived by that apparent simplicity. If done well, these exercises can improve just about every type of slur on the horn.

Basic Lip Slur Key Points:

  • Use a metronome! A good starting tempo is around quarter note = 80, although if you need to go a bit slower in the beginning, that’s okay. What is important is that you…
  • Change notes quickly! With the metronome set, make sure that you are subdividing (think or count out loud at least 4 beats of eighth notes before starting) and that your notes change exactly on time. Slurs that are slow (usually) mean that your air speed is not changing quickly enough or you have too much lip tension. Slurs that are too fast mean that you’re not subdividing carefully before starting.
  • Volume should be equal! Make sure that as the notes ascend or descend they don’t get louder or quieter. Try this entire exercise at a volume that is just slightly louder than comfortable, to make sure you are using a healthy amount of air.
  • Know your harmonic series “neighborhood”!
    • For the front page of the Basic Lip Slurs, all these notes are only one harmonic apart. This means that there are no hidden or “in-between” notes for any of these slurs.
    • On the back page, the higher octave does have notes in-between the written slurs, so you will have to use more precise airspeed changes in order to make these slurs accurate.
    • If you don’t know your harmonic series, make sure you check out my Harmonic Series chart – this chart shows how the horn works, so it is important to know it! It is also the reference for my Harmonic Series Studies page.
  • Practice on the mouthpiece! If you’re having trouble, don’t neglect mouthpiece buzzing practice. This can be very useful to improve both the front and back slur exercises. Getting the sound to be “buzzy” and the pitches to be (close to) accurate will show you where you need to relax and use more air. Also, practice without the mouthpiece (or horn) by just blowing the air for the each 2-bar slur group, and listen carefully for the airspeed changes happening with your tongue position and oral cavity. When in doubt – think “whistling”.

Once you can play these comfortable at around 80, you should start to speed them up. However, it is very important that you are able to play them as close to perfect as possible at a slower tempo before speeding them up. If you speed them up without mastering the basic concepts and execution, you will find they get very messy, very quickly. It’s okay for it to take days or weeks between increasing the metronome setting, especially once you get them moving quickly.

Additionally, while these are labeled as lip slurs, don’t hesitate to practice them articulated as well. There are many rapid arpeggiated passages in the horn repertoire that are tongued, so it’s important to practice both equally.

Advanced Lip Slurs

Once you are comfortable with both the Basic Lip Slurs and the Harmonic Series Studies, these more advanced slurs can provide a challenge that can increase flexibility over the horn’s entire range.

I would not recommend trying to do all 8 of these slur patterns each day, but pick 1-3 that are a challenge, and try to practice them to your satisfaction before moving on to another series. There will almost always be something in these exercises that can be improved upon if you are honest with yourself!

The slurs come from Bai Lin’s Lip Flexibilities book and Max Schlossberg’s Daily Drills and Technical Studies for Trombone, with adaptations by Matthew Smith and myself to cover more of the horn’s range.

All of the Basic Lip Slurs principles apply to these! If you can’t play these advanced slurs correctly, you are either going too fast or need to take a step back and work on the basic slurs or your harmonic series studies. Practicing these sloppily will only train you to play sloppily!

Advanced Lip Slur Key Points:

  • Know your harmonic neighborhood! All of these slurs use at least some note/harmonic skipping in one or more registers. Make sure you know (via your harmonic series chart) where the skips are and the partial(s) that you are skipping over. You’ll find that although you play the same notes and intervals in the lower and upper registers, there are fewer “in-between” notes in the lower register, so the note changes can feel very different from each other.
  • Pay attention to jaw motion. Somewhat related to the above point – although there are fewer in-between notes in the lower register, lower notes are much easier to pitch-bend, and so you’ll probably have more success at doing the lower slurs quickly by incorporating some slight jaw dropping in the lowest registers. Conversely, for the higher slurs, make sure your air speed changes are very quick and your corners/chin are kept firm. Try not to squeeze your aperture as you ascend.
  • Stay in a comfortable range (in the beginning). While you should make every attempt to do these in all registers, it’s okay to hold back on the highest couple of fingerings (T1, T2, and T0) until the higher notes become more comfortable. Make sure you are still going for these high notes in other exercises, however (basic slurs, harmonic series studies, scales, etc). The low register may be equally (or even more) difficult, but make an effort to go as low as possible each time you practice these. Make sure to keep a good-quality sound at the extremes of each register.
  • Use a metronome! It should go without saying that these should also be practiced with a metronome. Since these are more difficult a slower starting tempo is advised, in order to ensure note accuracy and clean slurs. For some players, starting at 80 may be appropriate, while others may need to start at 60 or even slower. It is doubtful that you will be able to start each slur progression at the same tempo – don’t be afraid to turn the metronome down for those slurs that may be difficult, or those with faster subdivisions (triplets and 16th notes).
  • Like the basic slurs, these should also be practiced both tongued and slurred.

Need More Help With Lip Slurs?

As always, if you have any questions about these, or want to get some one-on-one help, leave a comment below. If you’d prefer, you can also send me a message via my contact form.

If you find that you need some additional help with your lip slurs (or any other playing issues) I offer French horn lessons both in-person (around Louisville, KY) or online. You can find out more information on those lessons on my French horn teaching page.