Michael Thompson: Elegant Simplicity of Horn Playing

Michael Thompson, a British horn player, is probably best known for his (along with fellow British horn player Richard Watkins) fantastic CD the Golden Echo (now out of print, but available here), but in this Youtube video, he gives some great tips for horn players of all ages:

You should definitely watch the whole video, but if you don’t have time (make time!), here are some selections I thought were particularly worth noting.

Improve your playing with NO EFFORT OR PRACTICE

Of particular importance were his several statements about the correct hand position. At the 4-minute mark he briefly shows the correct right hand position and then at the 24:18 mark, he goes much more in depth about why the right hand is so important (something else that I’ve written about). However, one of his most compelling statements is probably this:

If I had to give one lesson, it would be this. It would be, sort out your right hand position. It’s the only thing I know of in horn playing that will massively improve your playing with absolutely no effort or practice. It’s the closest thing to “the magic bullet” that I’ve ever come across. (Emphasis mine)

If you’re not going to listen to me, then at least trust the guy that recorded this:

(Seriously, buy this CD!)

Some Additional Thoughts

Really, you should just make the time and watch the whole video – it’s a little bit over an hour, but there is so much good stuff it’s worth watching in little chunks so you can really pay attention and absorb as much information as possible. In case you’re visiting this website, you’ve read this far, and for some reason you don’t want to spend that time, here are some of the other parts that I found particularly interesting.

Mr. Thompson has some great thoughts on getting a good, natural breath without too much thinking or obsessing at about the 5:25 mark.

He also discusses the role of air speed in producing notes in varying ranges at about the 12 minute mark. While my students know that I’m fond of using the idea of syllables and tongue position to change the air speed (“Tee” for high notes, “Tah” for middle, “Toh” or “Thoh” for low notes), Mr. Thompson uses the imagery of a candle flame at varying distances. One thing that is important to notice is the intensity of his air stream when he blows the air for the upper notes.

I find that for a lot of students, “how” the horn works in terms of the harmonic series and valves is somewhat of a mystery. Mr. Thompson does a great job of demonstrating the basic principles of the harmonic series (at 18:40) and gives a quick primer on how the valves work (and how they are less-than-ideal) at about 21:30. If you want to see all the harmonic series of an F/Bb double horn written out, they are here.

He also (somewhat) settles the old question of “does the pitch go up or down when hand-stopping” at 28:50. I won’t spoil the answer for you, but he not only explains it well but he also demonstrates both schools of thought quite nicely.

The second half of the video is him working with students and I did like his rhythm and guess-the-interval games. Things like that can be good to encourage (force) a horn section to really listen and pay attention!

One Final Thing:

If you’ve read down this far, here’s a little bit more from Mr. Thompson's The Golden Echo:

In searching for a copy of this recording, I found this blurb from MT himself about the recording (from here):


I love your recording “The Golden Echo”. Can you tell us about the recording sessions and recording process? What horn did you use?

Dan Hrdy

Michael Thompson’s answer:

Dear Dan,

I’m glad you enjoyed the Golden Echo recording. It’s been deleted for some time and consequently quite hard to get hold of. I am planning a limited re-issue on a double CD, along with the Strauss concertos.

We recorded The Golden Echo over two days at the end of 1985. The recording took place in a large church, which you might guess from the recorded acoustic. The record company was a small independent called Nimbus and they had a very definite philosophy of what their recordings should be about. In their words, they would “use editing to save a performance, but not to create one.” In practice, this meant very long takes; usually entire movements. It’s interesting that they considered the CD as a recording of a performance. In many respects, what we did was similar to many “Live” recordings. Usually, these “Live” recordings will include takes from more than one performance and also the general rehearsals. In addition,there will usually have been what is called a “patch” session, to cover anything that didn’t go well in either performances or rehearsals. The reason many orchestras are bringing out “Live” recordings is that they are much cheaper to make than the traditional recording in a studio. That kind of recording has largely disappeared from the classical music scene; they are too expensive and the market is flooded. To return to The Golden Echo; that was an old fashioned, expensive recording, so for us to do it as a quasi “Live” recording was just inefficient. Professional musicians are trained to play with total commitment whenever required, regardless of whether that is in a five hour opera or a thirty second jingle. In my opinion, a performance is a performance and a recording is a recording. That said, I was happy to have the chance to make the record and it was a really enjoyable experience.

The instrument I used on the recording was one a Paxman Model 40. At that time I was using a large bore, since that was what I had used when I had been Principal horn in the Philharmonia. Shortly after that time I switched to a Medium bore Model 40, which is what I still use alongside my Paxman compensating double horn.

Best wishes,
Michael Thompson.