How to Have Fun on the Horn

By Jeffrey Agrell

With Printed Music
1. Play chamber music: woodwind quintet, brass quintet and most especially horn ensembles (duet, trio, quartet) – regularly. If you don’t have a group, start one.

2. Buy music, build your personal music library. A wise man once told me, if you have music, you can play.

3. Sight read daily. Sight read anything, everything you can get your hands on – it doesn’t have to be for your instrument. Duets work well; you each spur the other on.

Without Printed Music

1. Every time you pick up the horn, play a familiar tune by heart. After a few times through, when you have found most of the notes, play it in another key. A familiar tune can be a children’s song, camp song, Christmas carol, cowboy or folk song, rock and roll tune, classical theme, ad jingle, anything. When you can find all the notes in one key, start again in another key.

2. Take a very simple familiar tune (like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Mary Had a Little Lamb, etc) and see how many ways you can decorate it or vary it. Add grace notes, fall offs, fluttertongue, trills, play it in minor, play it very high or very low, play it like a march or a lullabye or a fanfare, etc., sky’s the limit.

3. Make up your own music with one or more friends. It doesn’t matter what instrument they play. Make up musical games, for instance:

a. Pick one Music word and one Life word, put them together and create a piece. Goofier is often better. Examples: F major + skunk; Fanfare + Pudding; Blues + Old Shoes; Waltz + Duck

b. Put an interesting noun with a vivid adjective and portray that in sound. Examples: The Jealous Pickup Truck; The Greedy Kangaroo; The Pickle-Faced Barn Owl, The Angry Buttercup; The Foolish Blimp.

c. Do the same, but add a musical style or form: The Purple Monkey’s Jig; Elegy for a Dead Bug; The Green Apple Boogie-Woogie; the Sassy Lobster March; The T-Rex Polka; Lullabye for a Moose.

d. Do the same, adding the type of scale and/or key:
Rhumba for a Cool Kittycat in Bb major. Mambo in D minor for a Dancing Hippopotamus. Elephant’s Etude in E major. Worm Wiggle Blues in Bb.

e. Instead of practicing your scales and arpeggios alone just up and down, find a partner and play the scales together. Notice how interesting it sounds when you’re not playing the same scale. Don’t just go up and down the scale – explore all the ways you can get around a scale by leap and step and doubling back, etc etc. Adding styles is good; for example, take any arpeggio and make it into a fanfare.

f. Have someone rap out a steady beat on a drum, a pot, a dog, a knee, anything, and play along on your instrument. Sing nonsense syllables, do mouth percussion, or rap on a table when you get tired, but keep going. Trade places: you play the drum, etc.

g. Have somebody bang out a chord in a steady rhythm on a guitar or piano. Make up a song on your horn to it.

h. Get a bunch of friends. Have someone start playing a repeated rhythmic figure; others come in one by one and you build a (sound) Machine. You can do this with homemade (or real) percussion instruments, body percussion, or on whatever instruments people play.

4. Think of a time when you were really happy or sad or had some strong emotion. Give the feeling a title and play the feeling on the horn.

5. Find a bad old black and white action movie on TV. Turn the sound off. Make up the soundtrack with your instrument (instruments if your friends are there).

6. Put on a music CD – could be anything: pop, rock, classical, folk, jazz, anything – turn up the volume and play along. Try different things: try to play bits of the melody. Play a rhythmic accompaniment. Play the opposite of what you hear (e.g. if they play staccato, you play legato, etc). Play your own melody that goes along with the music you hear. Figure out a bass line. Play the tune over and over until you know it really well.

7. Keep a tape recorder or minidisc recorder on a lot when you are making up your music. Transcribe the coolest stuff you do and save it in a notebook. Use standard notation or you can make up your own notation: it might look like a mountain range or a tree or it might be a paragraph of words.

8. At some point, take your collection of cool snippets and experiment with making a composition out of them.

9. Collect small, inexpensive percussion instruments (hand drum, shaker, maracas, claves, etc) as helpers to start your music. Spend some time enjoying playing them. Make up your own cool rhythms. Make friends with a percussionist and have her show you some cool stuff.

10. Have someone read a story, a fairy tale, or a poem. Or make up your own on the spot. Improvise music to go along with it. Use lots of special effects: stopped notes, glissandos, growly low notes, big crescendos, sforzandos, accents, trills, fluttertongue, sing or blow air through the horn, anything goes.

11. Write down a series of 6 – 12 notes. Use them to make up a song, adding rhythms as you go along. After you go through it a couple times, try it backwards. Then select small groups of notes and spend time messing around with them before you move on.

12. Make up a song using the rhythm of your name.

13. Take the rhythm of any familiar tune and use different notes to the rhythms, i.e. make up your own melody. Start by staying in one scale. Example: Play ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ using an F major scale. Try it with one or two friends. To make it ‘farther out’, have each player pick their own key independently.

14. Take any familiar tune; pick the most interesting rhythmic and melodic ideas in it and see how many ways you can vary them or play them in different styles: rock, baroque, lullabye, dirge, fanfare, march, ballad, Celtic, bluegrass, children’s song, and so on.