There are few parts of French horn technique that are more mysterious or debated than the correct French horn right hand position. Indeed, the wide variety of hand sizes and shapes and the wide variety of horn designs and bell throat sizes means that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.
So, while my specific right hand position won’t work for every person or every horn (although I believe it will work for a large number of people and instruments), the act of thinking and being aware of your right hand does have one huge advantage: consistency. Consistency is the single most important characteristic of a right hand position – without consistency, it’s essentially useless to worry about tone, intonation, or accuracy for notes above the staff.
Richard Merewether’s (and my) right hand position
The hand position I use is best described in Richard Merewether’s book “The Horn, The Horn”, with the following illustration and text:
From this observation has emerged the clear fact that, whereas a sketchy or (in the former French and Belgian schools) non-existent hand-presence may serve for the smallest-throated bells, ALL instruments perform better, in tone and intonation over their widest range, with the use of one particular method–that traditionally employed by the great XIXth century hand horn virtuosi. PAXMAN makes no claim to have discovered this–only to have confirmed its efficacy and importance by establishing the acoustic reasons for it. The following illustration is taken from the late XIXth century Method of H. Kling, and it is precisely this position which is most effective in every type of instrument from the Classical hand-horn (for which it was partly intended) through all sizes of bell throat and tube-length down to the modern bb soprano Descant-horn–accurately encompassing some 4 3/4 octaves in range.
This represents the hand-position for normal ‘open’ playing, but note that it is also an ideal starting-posture for instantly closing the bell merely by bringing the heel of the hand over to the nearer side while the nails and backs of the fingers remain against the further wall of the bell; this is essential for a good hand-stopping technique. Observe also that no part of the thumb other than the nail and top knuckle-certainly not the base of the thumb-is held against the metal. If that occurs in any but the smallest of bells, notes as written for F-horn at the top of the treble staff (e g. F and F#), no matter whether played on the F-horn or on the Bb, will be noticeably flattened and lose their tonal centre. In addition, their respective lower octaves at the foot of the treble staff will tend to sharpness, and hence vital intervals in the horn’s chief melodic register will be destroyed. The larger the bell-throat, the more pronounced this effect will be. It should be noted too, that the thumb-tip must be consciously lifted up on to the base of the forefinger to close any gap there, and not be merely suffered to lie alongside it. Unfortunately some illustrated Methods are published seemingly condoning this fault, which will almost certainly bring the entire side of the hand (all of the forefinger and thumb) into contact with the bell-wall, and the consequent difficulties of intonation for many types of horn.
This is just an excerpt from Merewether’s chapter on hand position. You can find the complete chapter available for free can be found here on Osmun’s website. Unfortunately, this book is long out of print, but you’ll occasionally see copies for sale on eBay or in estate sales. Be aware, the picture is from a different, older, source – the hand should be a little bit more curved (both in the knuckles and at the fingertips) than the illustration suggests.
Special attention should be paid to making sure there are no gaps between the fingers, thumb, and palm and (as much as possible) no gaps between the back of the fingers and the bell wall. It’s also worth noting that a correct hand position becomes increasingly important for F- or Eb-alto horns (whether descant, triple, or single models) and horns with larger bell throats (Conn 8Ds, Yamaha 668’s, etc).
Englebert Schmid’s Right Hand Position
While I believe the above position (I’ll call it the “Merewether hand position”) is the best for me and most instruments (especially Paxman horns, since they were designed by Richard Merewether), this is not the only approach to right hand position that you will see.
One that has gotten lots of attention recently was demonstrated in a video by horn maker Englebert Schmid.
You should definitely watch the video since Herr Schmid does a good job of explaining his approach and his reasoning, but here’s the TL;DR if you’re interested enough to read this article, but not interested enough to watch the video!
Schmid recommends a hand position that is fairly straight (similar to the Merewether position), but placed almost in the center of the bell flare, instead of the far wall, so that just three fingers (thumb, index, and pinky) touch the bell. His reasoning for this is that touching the back of the hand to the bell throat/flare actually deadens the sound, and reduces the resonance of the bell flair. His experiment for proof – playing a horn with a bell with about 1/4 of the flare missing, is certainly interesting. While it’s hard to tell exactly the difference that is made between the two hand positions in the video it certainly appears that Schmid’s hand position is a bit brighter and edgier – although it’s difficult to say what change it has in person.
I’ve tried Schmid’s hand position on my horn (Paxman 75M), and while it was certainly different and interesting, I went back to the Merewether position after a couple of weeks. While the intonation wasn’t bad with the Schmid position, it was a bit less predictable than I was used to, and supporting the weight of my horn – which is quite heavy – wasn’t as comfortable.
Right Hand Approaches For Other Horns
Like any custom horn, though, Schmids play best when you play them as they are designed to be played. Things like extended use of the Bb horn, using a compatible mouthpiece, and even a different right hand position all go into making a custom horn play its best.
If you have a custom, hand-made horn that you can’t play in tune – it may not be you or the horn maker at fault. Most custom horn builders are very responsive to horn-related questions, and will be happy to talk to you about how they play, mouthpieces they recommend for their instruments, and if you can meet them in person (perhaps when picking up your instrument) maybe you can even talk to them about things like right hand position, to make sure the horn they make plays as well for you as it does for them!
If you play a “standard” or “mass produced” horn, then generally speaking a standard (Merewether-like) hand position will work the best, but don’t be afraid to experiment. There are some very fine players who use unconventional techniques, and while tradition and standard approaches are important, quality results are the true goal in music making!