resources for horn players

Free Improvisation and the Horn

by Pamela J. Marshall

A shorter version of this article appeared in March 2003 in Cornucopia, a publication of the New England Horn Society.

Do you noodle around while you’re warming up? Have you experimented with making “alternative” sounds on your horn? If so, maybe you’d like to try free improv. I’m not talking about the more structured improvising of a solo in a jazz tune or Baroque figured bass. The guidelines for a free improv session can be anything you want.

Who's doing it

There’s quite a community of people doing free improv. In January I attended a workshop at NEC hosted by Jean Rife. The Reveille Trio – trombonists Abbie Conant, Julie Josephson, and Sarah Kline – demonstrated their approach, which involved a lot of listening to each other and subtle interactions. I’ve also heard Berklee professor and trombonist Tom Plsek perform with fellow improvisers in Cambridge. His group was a lot more active and loud with wonderful walls of sound using novel sound production techniques.

Making noise

We horn players don’t have to leave the fun to the trombonists. The trombone is particularly conducive to “alternative” sounds, and of course glissandos are a natural. But horn players can make interesting sounds too. We’ve got stopped and muted sounds, bending tones with the hand or lip, flutter tonguing. We can also play notes with a slide removed, turn the mouthpiece around to make wind noise, and put a mouthpiece in a slide and toot on that.

You and your playing partners

Free improv isn’t just funny noises. The music you make depends on how you and your partners listen to each other. Three or four players is a good number because you can develop a variety of textures and still hear what everyone is doing. I think it’s easier to play with other wind players, because you can relate and react more directly to what you hear. However, if a keyboard player wants to join in, don’t turn him/her away!

Making a plan

It’s helpful to make a very general plan. Here are some examples of plans you might make: choose a mood, situation, or image to inspire you; choose one or more tonal centers; restrict the pitches each player uses; specify a musical quality like fast, sustained, high, low. Your plan might include a number of sections and ways to transition between sections. You can agree on a signal for changing sections or a time limit.

While you’re playing

Here are some suggestions to think about as you start playing. As you go, you’ll be able to draw on your musical training, and your non-musical knowledge too, for ideas.

Examples of improvising plans

In a recent concert by Just In Time Composers and Players, we did some improvisation with keyboard, horn and English horn. One plan involved having one player sustaining notes when the other two played faster gestures. The keyboard player started with slow chords. On signal, the horn took over the sustained notes; then the English horn; finally, in a fourth section, the keyboard player came back to sustained chords. The sections and the return gave the piece a good shape.

At the Reveille Trio workshop, we divided up into groups of three and did some short exercises. In my group, each player picked three pitches and played only them for the duration of the short exercise.

In another JIT improvisation at the Depot Square Gallery in Lexington, MA, a painting of a courtyard filled with motor bikes inspired the keyboardist to start with a low, growlly pitch bend and the rest of the ensemble picked up on that with note bending and flutter-tonguing.

Have fun

Remember to listen and leave space in the musical texture. To paraphrase suggestions from Abbie Conant and the Reveille Trio: as you play, become aware of the room, your fellows, and the audience; the point is not to show your skills, but to find a shared musical intention. Personally I relish the freedom to play what comes to mind, rather than being restricted to written music. Above all, listen…and have fun!

Improv info online

Update: These resources are no longer available.
Online you can learn about free improv events in Boston at Twisted Village.
There are also discussion lists that I’ve just learned about at

Thank you to Tom Plsek for information about online resources.

Pamela J. Marshall is a composer and horn player. She lives in Massachusetts and is a member of the Concord Orchestra and Just In Time Composers and Players ( See her music at