Watch a French Horn player for any length of time and you’ll probably be left wondering, ‘why do French Horn players put their hand in the bell?’ And it’s a good question to ask, especially when you consider that no other brass instrument copies this quirk.
Have you ever seen someone stick their first in a trumpet? We haven’t. Or thrust their hand inside a tuba? Nope – if they have, it’s new to us too. And for a Trombonist, well, they’d need to sprout another arm before they even think about it. So what makes this instrument fisting exclusive to the French Horn? Why don’t we stick our hands inside all brass instruments? We decided to find out.
And you know what, there’s good reason for it – more than one actually! So read on and we’ll tell you just some of the reasons why French Horn players put their hand in the bell + all you need to know about playing the French Horn.
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What is the bell of an instrument?
The bell of an instrument is just a fancy way of saying ‘that flared bit at the end’. The place in a wind or brass instrument where air escapes and sound is produced. Everything from a French Horn and Trumpet, right down to a Clarinet and a Harmonica has a bell.
On the diagram bellow the bell is labelled number 9 – shout out to Wikipedia for the image by the way!
If you’re interested in learning more about the anatomy of a French Horn, the other parts of the instrument are as follows…
- 1 = Mouthpiece, which is detachable and usually interchangeable too depending on the horn.
- 2 = Lead pipe, which is basically the mouth of the instrument, as it’s where the mouthpiece is inserted.
- 3/4 = Valve levers that are usually operated with the left hand.
- 5 = Hand rest to help support the player’s left hand and allows them to hold the instrument steady.
- 6 = Rotary valves, which usually need oiling from time to time.
- 7 = Water key used for draining excess fluid + cleaning out the horn when it’s not in use.
- 8 = Bell pipe, which is where the sound of the horn starts to build.
- 9 = The bell itself.
- 10 = 1st and 3rd slide assemblies, which allow the player to fine tune their instrument.
- 11 = F pitch tuning slide. Another way that the horn can be tuned!
How do you put your hand in a French horn?
Putting your hand in a French Horn isn’t just as simple as sticking it in. In fact, there’s actually quite a lot to it. Safe to say it’s a technique that any French Horn player will have to master if they want to call themselves a pro.
It all starts with your right hand, which you you cup (only slightly). If you look like you’re about to pale water then you’ve cupped your had too much. Not only that but your thumb, while resting against your forefinger, should be loose. None of your fingers should be tightly clasped together.
Once you’ve perfected the shape of your hand though, the next step is to to take the French Horn in your left hand and slide your slightly cupped right hand along up into the bell, sticking to the bottom with your palm facing upwards. The only part of your hand that should be touching the brass of the French Horn is the back of your hand.
To find how deep into the horn you should go all relies on your thumb. Slowly keep moving your hand inside the horn until your thumb comes into contact with metal. this will usually be somewhere close to the point where the bell meets the bell pipe (see diagram above).
At this point your hand should be at the right depth, so the only thing left to do is double check the shape of your forearm. It shouldn’t be bend. Your elbow should bent at more or less at 90 degree angle and your forearm should be flat. Much like how you do when you’re trying to flex your muscles, apart from don’t tense up!
This is because while your forearm should remain straight, once you come to play, you will have to flex your wrist back and forth. And that’s because doing so actually tunes the sound that comes out of the horn. Yes, you’re hand in effect like a pedal to a piano. All of which allows you to easy match the pitch of other instruments and also tweak the volume too.
So yeah, that’s partially why French Horn players put their hand inside the bell.
Can I play French Horn without putting my hand in the bell?
Yes, you can, however we wouldn’t advise it.
Reason being that removing your hand from the bell actually makes a surprising amount of difference. With the hand, the sound is warm and soft, but take the hand away suddenly the audio becomes far more direct. A sound that in most settings can be too harsh or overpowering.
Then again, putting too much of your hand in the bell can be fatal too, as it can cause the sound to muffle and come across as unpolished. If you’re worried about this, a good tip is to listen to your fingers. If you get the feeling that they’re being crunched inside the bell opposed to just resting, then chances are pulling your hand ever so slightly back will aid your comfort, as well as the sound.
Equally, cupping your hands too much can also result in a muffling of the sound, so unless you’re doing some fine tuning, be sure to keep your wrists straight.
What happens when a horn player places their right hand completely into the bell of the horn?
Placing your right hand fully into the bell of a French Horn is known as hand stopping. A technique that’s been used when blowing horns since the 18th century!
In essence, what hand stopping does is much like the name suggests. The French Horn player would put their entire hand inside the bell of the horn, so that it more or less blocks the bell pipe. Then, providing the continue to blow, this will cause the sound to change, due to an increased buildup of pressure.
As a result, the instrument would emit a slightly more metallic tone that’s about a semitone higher than standard. Great for creating a certain type of mood in a song or instrumental.
Why do French Horn players put their hand in the bell?
There isn’t just one reason why French Horn players get all up in their bell – there’s many. Exactly why the question of ‘why do you put your hand inside a french horn?’ is so frequently asked. So to help you get your head around why French Horn players opt for this method over some sort of musical paddle, here’s 3 reasons why…
- Supporting the instrument – Unlike the majority of horns which point forward and are played upright, the French Horn has a backwards facing bell and is played on its side. So having a right hand inside the bell makes life a lot easier for the left hand, which has the equally complex job of playing the notes.
- Hunting roots – Like with most horns, the French Horn originates from hunting, where horns would be used to guide a hunting party towards the game. Think of them as a beckoning call or musical arrow. Either way, with these hunters being on horseback, they often required one hand to be free to hold the reigns, which is a common reason why initially horns were only played with one hand. Look back and they only really turned into a two-hand job once we started designing them to have fancy musical valves and bulbous brass bells. Hence why you could say the right hand placement on the French Horn is more of an afterthought.
- Funnelling the sound – Aside from tuning, the hand inside the French Horn is also a great way of player being able to funnel the sound in the desired direction. Especially useful for those in orchestras or brass bands, where the idea is to accompany other instruments and not overpower them. Call it a tactical sound advantage.
Enjoy this review on why French Horn players put their hand in the bell, & eager for more? Be sure to check out the rest of the gossip around the Brass Family & Musical Instruments. We also did a full-fat guide to the Most Popular French Horn Mutes + another on Good French Horn Cases, which may also be a good read.
Or, if you’re still wondering more about why French Horn players put their hand in the bell, keep reading for even more answers to your burning questions…