Ondřej Vrabec became teacher of horn at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague!!! He will conduct two performances at the Leoš Janáček Music Marathon in October!!! A brand new CD of Benda Chamber Orchestra will be baptised on 16th of October. It contains virtuoso concerto for 2 horns by F. X. Pokorný recorded by Ondřej Vrabec and Hana Sapáková!!!    

Pull out or not to pull out?? Tuning the instrument...


I saw a DVD with Mr. Radek Baborák and I noticed that during the play he was not manipulating the slides of his instrument at all. Is it possible, when the player is very advanced, to regulate the tuning without it?

(A question from the Japanese horn clinic)


I thank you for the very thought - provoking question directed into the clinic. Allow me to recast it into a short or almost a dry and brief answer : If Radek Baborák had manipulated with the slides at the concert, he would have hardly played so crystal clear as we are used to hear him play.


Imagine a violinist playing and someone else randomly moving the pegs of individual strings of his/ her violin. A capable person would maybe resist for a while and would manage more or less successfully to correct the intonation deviations in slower melodic passages. However, with growing tempo and span of interval degrees, more and more inaccuracies would undoubtedly occur, directly proportional to the growing disorientation of the player. The tone system is a system as any other system and it has to comply with certain rules. If you want to orientate yourself in its structure safely and successfully predict situations that may occur, first you need to know its laws in advance – that is its internal relations of constant quantities. Moreover, such a predictable situation can only occur when its structure is permanently fixed.

In other words : you must be perfectly familiar with your instrument and preset parameters of its tuning. In addition, you must not change this setting in the short - term horizon.


The basic prerequisite for a violinist's play to have a clear intonation is a careful tuning of strings - a fixed calibration of their interval proportions. The violin adjusted in this way will play absolutely clearly, if the fingers on the fingerboard will measure out exact distances and use adequate fingerings. A perfectly tuned violin does not have any responsibility for possible deviations of intonation. And with the French horn it is roughly the same. If it has correctly predefined relations of individual transposed overtone (harmonic) series (in a simplified way : if the slide valves are adjusted in the correct proportion), the player has at his/ her disposal a fixed and relatively precise (depending on the quality of the instrument) portable skeleton on which his/ her intonation can rest. While the violinist has to tune his/ her violin again and again before each play and occasionaly in the course of it, intonation parameters of a brass instrument can be effectively set immediately when beginning to use it. Players of an orchestra sometimes joke at the expense of bows that they do not need to be tuned, they were already tuned in the factory. In fact, it is almost true.

In first days after receiving a new instrument, the player should pay attention to its (given) intonation potentials and should try to find an optimized setting of individual slides so that the proportions of individual overtone (harmonic) series are the most precise. Some enlightened producers specify these necessary adaptations already in the manual delivered together with the instrument, including the metric data by which it is necessary to move the individual slides. Although probably no instrument will be faultless (owing to its very physical nature) in cases of all tones, which are at one`s disposal within the whole register, players will get accustomed to the set intonation characteristics of the instrument in the following weeks and monhts and they can correct naturally possible micro - deviations. You certainly know from your own experience that this process will became absolutely instinctive one day and it will not require any conscious attention – you will simply learn to be very familiar with your instrument. It is interesting that the behaviour of the instrument is also developing during such a process of „getting familiar“ with the instrument and the tones that show some deviations at first or even the so - called „pitfalls“ can be often corrected by an adequate procedure or can be at least enhanced.

An ideal state when the intonation parameters are set, unfortunately is not a definitive state in the case of the French horn. There is also the embouchure disposition which is unfortunately different each day (especially in the case of beginners). Once the muscles are tightened, second time tired, next they are not warmed up enough etc. This all has a great impact on the quality of intonation. A fight with this adversity is something that the player has to carry out almost every day of his active music life. To be successful, the player needs to have a firm support for the intonation and this consists just of the fixed tone (intonation) structure of the instrument, whether it is adjusted in the partial proportions more or less exactly. The embouchure and the whole play mechanism is very adaptable anyway. I know players that do not have permanently sticked out any slide valve even though the particular model of the instrument objectively requires it (also according to recommendations from the producer) and in spite of that they intonate very well. This occurs due to the fact that their playing mechanism grew adapted to the permanent conditions, even though they might be seemingly unfavourable.

In consideration of the fact that the same height of the standard „a“ (442 - 443hz) is accepted today almost all over the world, players with a high - quality instrument which is pre - tuned to this value from the factory, in 95 % do not have to mechanically correct its tuning in any way, wherever they perform. As for smaller deviations, it is always more adequate to balance them in the natural way by the playing mechanism. For instance : if the muscles are tightened and the resulting intonation increased, the player should consciously push the whole tone grid (that is all the tones of the register) down with the help of the embouchure. Besides the result, also the cause will be solved, since the tightening of the muscles will thus return more quickly into the normal state. If players respond to the said conditions only by pulling out a slide, usually after a while they will get themselves into an absolutely opposite situation (their intonation will be low), until the muscles will release due to a warm - out or rest.

In case of greater deviations (caused by a low or on the contrary high temperature, too low tuning of the organ etc.), you will not probably be able to avoid mechanical correction by means of the main tuning slide of the instrument (that is only that one which is common to all in - built tunings!!). Some instruments enable you to change the overall tuning by means of a retractable mouthpiece adaptor. An adjustment of this kind shifts (the whole!) intonation grid (tone structure) downward by a certain value, or upward, but it does not change its internal arrangement in any way – mutual intonation proportions of overtone series and thereby also of individual tones remain the same. However, in accord with the above mentioned facts, only a change of a more permanent nature can be recommended.

A temporary adjustment of the position of the valve slides and main slides, superior to only some of the in - built tunings (F, B, possibly f) will just bring chaos into the fixed order of the intonation structure. A long - term change is not excluded (for example if all the tones played by some of the valves share an increased intonation), but it is always necessary to take into consideration an individually long time period lasting until the player will grow familiar with the new setting. Arisen deviations will have to continue to be corrected consciously for some time, until the correction will become part of playing „instincts“ and inaccuracies will thus be practically canceled. By moving valve slides directly at the concert you will therefore not save the situation, on the contrary.

All this mania and sorcery of manipulations with the slides of the instrument represent a rather welcomed psychological dummy for the player. That is, an objective change of intonation occurs only when changing the position of the slide by centimeters. Players, however, shift only by few millimetres and even though, for their psychics it represents a great effect. It is similar as if the doctor gives a placebo to the patient and the patient swears that he/ she feels better…

If players are having the proportions of individual tones and interval degrees permanently disrupted, even though their instrument is of high quality and objectively correctly adjusted, they have to search for the fault only in their playing technique! If it moreover concerns a more advanced player, correction of this state will be possible only at the cost of a great and long - term effort, for it will be necessary to rebuild over the necessary playing habits from the foundations. It is therefore essential to learn these rules already from the very beginning.

I wish you many successes

Ondřej Vrabec