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A Rant on the Difficulties of Horn Playing

By: Ming Sun

Though I play many instruments, I am mainly a horn player. In my opinion, band is the best, screw what the orchestra and choir kids say, I simply don’t care. Despite band being great, there are certain problems with my instrument of choice that make life hard. In this article, I will lay out a few I have experienced.

As with playing almost all instruments, a horn player needs to own a horn, which is a nuisance for some families, as a good quality instrument does not come cheap. A reliable beginner horn will set you back around six or seven hundred dollars, compared to the measly one hundred it costs for a usable student trumpet or two hundred for a trombone. Horn players also outgrow their instruments quickly -- my first horn only lasted about two years before I was advised to step up my equipment game, most people will do so within one year. The price of the instrument grows exponentially with experience level – my second horn came in around two thousand dollars, which is almost enough for a full-blown professional-level trumpet or trombone. This price tag prevents many families from being able to support a serious horn player.

Owning the instrument is only the tip of the iceberg, however. A good horn player will also need to maintain their instrument, or else they will be faced with an outrageously expensive repair bill. The average good quality horn will need at least two types of oil, one type of grease, and a set of good pipe cleaners to keep it in working condition. Additionally, there’s the monthly bath, which requires the player to pump water and cleaning agents through at least 14 feet of pipes and somehow drain all that liquid out. Sounds tedious and time-consuming, no?

I am lucky to have a supportive family that provides me with good instruments. But having the instrument is not enough, I still need to play and practice it. Learning to play as a child, however, was extremely difficult since almost all horns are adult-size, no matter the skill level they are marketed for. My first horn gave me a bad hand technique – 6-year-old me was just too small to hold the instrument properly. I am now 14, and this bad hand technique still plagues me. Playing the horn is also quite annoying. Most band members know the horn is notorious for producing split and cracked notes and generally for being out of tune. The science behind this is beyond the scope of my article, but there are numerous sources online, such as the website Horn Matters, that do a great job explaining.

Finally, horn players are prone to being alone in their section. As previously mentioned, playing the horn is both expensive and hard for the average family, so many people quit. Lots schools around the US are facing a major horn shortage. I experienced this firsthand in seventh grade. Even though I was automatically first chair and received solos more frequently (since any horn lines are played by only me), being the only horn player was difficult sometimes. For example, I once played a piece that had a unison line played by horn and clarinet – normally four horns would be accompanied by 8 clarinets for this piece, but, being the only horn player, I had to play with a section of 12 clarinets singlehandedly and somehow make sure I was heard without sounding like an elephant having indigestion. It can also be bland to be the only one in your section. I had no competition in 7th grade, so my skills didn’t improve that much, something I regret to this day.

After a year of playing in a section of 4, I am once again faced with the prospect of potentially having to play by myself. I guess I’ll deal with it, who knows, maybe I won’t be alone after all. Just to be clear, this article is not meant to scare people away from playing the horn. The horn is a beautiful instrument, and most schools loan good instruments to their students, resolving the price issue. This article is meant to be a funny read, at least for me, who finds ranting or seeing other people rant about things that they care about to be a good way to release stress after a long day. Anyway, good luck to all the aspiring horn players out there and I shall shortly resume my practice.

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