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!!!    

To smother just a little, to smother for longer or to smother completely? Bouché...


Are there any tricks how to achieve, from the point of view of sound and intonation, that you play high - quality „bouché“?

(A question from the Japanese horn clinic)


The laws of interpretation of muted tones have quite individual nature. Approaches which work for one player do not neseccarily have to work for another player. This, in fact, is valid for the hornplay in general. It depends mostly on the size and shape of the hand of the particular player, as well as on the measurement of the bell of his/ her instrument. Neither can we disregard the extent of abilities of mastering the breathing system. Therefore you will have to carry out at least a short series of your own experiments. However, as a first impulse, some rules may serve you with general validity :


1) Within possibilities, it is ideal to play „bouché“ passages on the basic F tuning. Its sound and intonation are most stable and it has the most typical colouring. The intonation shift upward (which, in fact, you can never avoid – see the point 4.) is smaller and it can be more easily corrected. During the more mobile passages, you will not probably be able to avoid occasional use of B tuning for more comfortable fingerings, but verify it for yourself what difference it makes in the player‘s comfort and in the sound force.


2) Many hornplayers have a mistaken idea that the more they block their instrument the better „bouché“ sound they will achieve, so they push their hand into the body of the instrument with such a force that their fingertips almost stick out from the mouthpiece. Why is this act mistaken? You have certainly already seen the special „bouché“ mute used in the orchestra operation because of the advantage of its stronger sound and easier speech in a more low - pitched register. Then you know that there is a closed space consisting of a tube and of the walls of the mute tightly adhering to it, from this space a little tube leads out - about 10cm long and hollow - which is ended by a miniature bell. Try to block it by your finger when playing! The instrument will choke and it will not give out a tone. The reason is that the vibrating air that is responsible for its sound has nowhere to escape. It is the same with the hand. If you put it into the inside of your instrument, some sound will arise (because the body of the instrument is hardly hermetically sealed), but it will not have any quality, nor force. Strictly speaking, mere tighter covering with the palm proves best. It is very advantageous as you can execute it by a minimum move from the usual position, in which the horn is held nowadays. The player can alternate the play of open tones and closed tones in a quick succession and no undesirable vibrations occur.


3) As for the previous point, another rule is related to it. When playing „bouché“, do not attempt to push the most possible air into the instrument – to „overblow“ it. The air has not enough time to escape through your hand and at worst the instrument will choke again, at best the excessive overpressurre in the instrument will disrupt sound vibrations and the resulting tone will not have the desirable parameters. It is necessary to achieve much with little effort, that is to find a way when the instrument will generate the most possible strength with a minimum effort. This prerequisite is in fact valid even in the common playing, if you want to preserve your health at least until your middle age. The means to do this is the work with sound colour, conditioned by the ability to control the breathing system. The diaphragm and the adjacent muscles (air pump), throat muscles (regulator of pressure and flow of the air column), head cavities (resonators) and labial opening (final microcorrector of the air current) – these are means that are available to the player to control tone colours. An analysis of principles and countless combinations of the mentioned factors which can be used to change quality of tones would make for a separate study (and I am not mentioning their absolutely crucial significance for easy play in the high register). Briefly : the air column may have a different volume, different pressure and different speed of the flow which will of course reflect significantly in the behaviour of the instrument, in its strong and audible response. The mechanisms of the breathing system may effectively influence these variables. The greatest impact on the sound colour have their combinations. For example a great pressure and a medium - fast flow (a full force of the diaphragm, slightly narrowed throat and labial opening) does not mean the same thing for the tone colour as a great volume and a fast flow (a full force of the diaphragm, open throat and slightly narrowed labial opening). The first manner is characterized by a sharp, metal, brass sound, firm and strong fortissimo in a high position, emphatic staccato in an extremely strong dynamics etc. The second one can be defined as a mighty but round, elevated and airy forte for the Strauss` 2nd concerto... Possibilities are countless! Maybe this all being analysed so theoretically makes you laugh, but the players who are not content with just one universal tone colour when playing know what I am talking about; although they may perceive the mentioned principles only as subjective sensations.

Substantial is that a bitter - sweet, melted tone without a firm core can hardly create a strong, sharply defined and typically buzzing „bouché“ sound.


4) Some didactic publications about the hornplay advise to transpose down a semitone, others to transpose up a full tone. In fact, both ways work, while neither is ideal. I personally use the first way, for the more flexible transposition. Most „bouché“ passages are prescribed in a higher dynamics in the case of orchestral parts. When you take into account in advance the necessity to intonate somewhat lower and to correct thus the usual shift of intonation upward, transposition a semitone down usually works reliably from the point of view of both intonation and colour. However, in the solo parts, the muted parts are often rather used contrariwise – that is as an „echo“ effect. For such cases it is usually necessary to find a special solution in the form of often surprising fingerings which save chops manoeuvres and „looking for“ the right height. Thus for example d2 will (in piano) best sound with the fingering ½ in F tuning etc. etc.

You will surely soon find even more effective solutions, in addition tailored to your own individual needs. Do not hesitate to make them public in the horn clinic for your other colleagues!

I wish you much amusement with smothering :-)

Ondřej Vrabec