French Horn Boot Camp: Lip Trill

Say the word “lip trill” to a moderately advanced high school or college player, and the reaction is almost universally negative.

While lip trills are an advanced technique, with a good fundamental knowledge of the horn and the harmonic series they are relatively straightforward to learn. The real challenge with them is that getting a reliable and consistent lip trill requires consistent practice over a sustained period of time.

In this article, I’ll be discussing how you should start (or continue) learning to develop a good, reliable lip trill.

I’ll be referring to exercises from my Lip Trill sheet – if you haven’t downloaded them you can do that below.

Lip Trill History

Lip trills have been a required technique on the horn for hundreds of years. While they were predominately used by soloists, there are a few orchestral excerpts that also employ lip trills.

All the trills in the Mozart horn concertos would have been performed as lip trills (since it’s impossible to do valve trills on a natural horn), for example. The same principle applies to the trills in Haydn’s Horn Concerto #1 and Horn Concerto #2, and the solo part in Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Orchestra horn players weren’t out of the woods, either. Lip trills are required in both Horn 1 and Horn 3 in Haydn’s Symphony #31 “Hornsignal”, and while it’s not a trill per se, there are many acrobatic low horn excerpts (like the end of Beethoven’s Symphony 3) that require a technique very similar to trilling for rapid arpeggio figures.

With the advent of valves and the double horn, it seems like lip trills became a luxury, especially for orchestral players, in the late-19th and 20th centuries. Nowadays, though, auditions and competitions that include Mozart concertos expect performers to have a reliable and consistent lip trill.

Lip Trill Execution

The primary motivators in starting…a good trill are the air and the tongue.

Lip trills are unfortunately named.

While the lips are indeed involved in the trill (like the lips are involved in almost everything on the horn), the primary motivators in starting and maintaining a good trill are air and the tongue.

While a strong air stream probably doesn’t come as a surprise, I find that lots of students are entirely (or mostly) oblivious to the role that the tongue plays in airspeed (and therefore note) changes.

Remember that when you’re doing the harmonic series studies, you focus on tongue (and jaw) positions to speed up or slow down the air stream. For a trill, the notes are much closer together (usually a whole step) and so the tongue motion must be more subtle. Too much tongue (or lip) motion and the trill remains sluggish and never gains speed. Too little tongue motion and the pitch won’t change consistently or in time.

The exact tongue motion varies by the specific range and note(s) involved, but an “AH-EE” motion (or something similar) is what you’re looking for most of the time.

If you can whistle, practicing this “AH-EE” motion while whistling any two notes can be an excellent way to practice this without worrying about the other aspects of horn playing. You can also do this kind of tongue motion while mouthpiece buzzing to get a sense of what it feels like without the partials to “lock” you in.

Learning Lip Trills

There is no magic bullet or shortcut to learning lip trills.

Maybe more than any other French horn technique, a successful lip trill is the result of focused and dedicated practice over a long period.

Lip trills are a result of correct technique in a number of areas – air support, airstream, balancing embouchure tension and relaxation, tongue control of the air, and familiarity with the harmonic series. Lip trills often take years to develop into a technique that is consistent and effortless-sounding.

Many students start practicing lip trills by trying to dive into the deep end and work on trills for 10 or 15 minutes (or more) per day. After two weeks or a month, when the trill is no better than it started, they assume that they can’t trill and quit practicing it. If instead, they focused on a solid foundation of technique and practiced trills for 3-5 minutes a day (but kept at it every day for three months) they would probably have much more success.

We’ll discuss some ways to practice lip trills below, but remember that like any learned skill, once you acquire a lip trill, it still takes some consistent work to maintain that trill. Maintaining them is usually more enjoyable than learning, but make sure you remember to touch on them regularly!

Lip Trill Practice Plan

The first step to learning to lip trill is making sure that you are comfortable moving back and forth between partials that are close together.

My harmonic series studies (used with the harmonic series reference) cover these but make sure you practice moving between the 7-8, 8-9, and 9-10 partials. Since these are higher up in the register, it’s better to start on a longer horn (123, 13, or 23) so you can keep your embouchure as relaxed as possible. Once you’re comfortable moving between these partial pairs in this register, you can use a shorter horn (and higher notes), just make sure to the motion air-focused.

For these initial exercises, don’t worry about speed. Set a metronome to between 60-100 bpm (start slow!) and play each partial as a quarter note. Speed will come later. The important thing now is to make the note changes quickly and in time.

Once you’re able to do between 5-10 steady quarter notes on a fingering, there are two approaches to turn that ability into a trill.

The first (and most common) way is to speed up the rhythm of the note changes gradually. I call this the Slow-Fast method. Go from quarters to eighths, to triplets, etc., until you’ve got a trill going. This is a long process, of course, and you won’t be able to go from quarters to a trill in a week! Just like before, it’s more important to be steady than fast. Speed comes when the coordination improves.

The second way is to practice a trill, but start with only a single (faster) trill repetition and try and build on that. I call this the Fast Reps method. So instead of setting the metronome to 60 and playing two quarters, four eighths, six triplets, etc., you would set the metronome to 60 and try to play two sixteenths and an eighth note perfectly cleanly and in time.

Depending on your skill and comfort level, you can start by holding a long tone for a few beats to establish your air support, or enter the trill “cold.” Remember to start with the more comfortable way until it is reliable – don’t make learning this technique any more difficult than it needs to be!

Once you can reliably do a single trill repetition, add another. Make sure that the note changes are still well-timed and clean, though. As you get comfortable doing 4-8 reps at the slower tempo, you can increase the tempo.

You can see both of these methods written out in my lip trill studies. Download them here:

Common Trilling Issues

Some things to consider as you practice your lip trills:

  • Divide time between both of the above practice methods. The “slow-fast” method is important to develop air and embouchure control, while the “fast reps” method helps to get the trill started and helps with maintaining air support through longer trills.
  • There will likely be specific notes, partials, or fingerings that are easier for you. In the beginning, focus on getting these polished and take that quality of trill and air to other notes. Don’t spread yourself too thin in the beginning.
  • Slow progress is not unusual with trill learning. If things are consistently not working, take a step (or few) back: slow down your tempo, use different partials, use different fingerings, or make other adjustments. Working harder will not work to develop a lip trill – you can’t force this technique.
  • Once you start getting the first trills, they will often be a bit unpredictable. This is normal. See the above instruction for slow progress and taking a step back if needed.
  • Don’t forget to maintain the trill once you’ve learned the technique! Trills can be incorporated in a variety of other warm-up/daily routine activities like scales, harmonic series studies, lip slurs, and long tones. Be creative, but don’t ignore them!

Hopefully, this has given some ideas on how to begin (or continue) working on your lip trills. If you have any questions about trill practice, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below or you can use my contact form to send me a private question.

Don’t forget that I also offer French horn lessons online and in person, if you’d like some more hands-on help with your trills. If you’re interested in lessons, you can find my online signup form here.