The French horn maestro who plays with his feet

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Felix Klieser’s biography follows the same format as the promotional literature of most classical musicians. There’s a bit of his early studies – in this case, at the Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media – and a reference to several awards, including the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival’s Leonard Bernstein Prize. The German horn player was recently named one of the artists in residence of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO).

He returns to the UK next month to perform pieces by Mozart and Brahms at the Lighthouse in Poole (February 16). But you’ll have to search the backing material carefully to find mention of Klieser’s distinctive — and probably unique — technique: he plays the French horn with his feet.

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Although it lacks the range of solo music that, say, the piano or the violin has, the French horn is by no means overlooked. There are concertos written by Mozart, Schumann and Haydn, a sonata by Beethoven and glorious chamber music like that of Britten Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Despite its richly resonant sound, the French horn has been classified as an “endangered instrument” in the UK, alongside the bassoon, oboe and double bass. Several music services offer incentives for students to learn the French horn – it is feared there will be a shortage of players in the near future. Besides the economic factors that prevent so many students from studying orchestral instruments, there are practical reasons why the French horn is not an obvious choice. Compared to the flute or the clarinet, it is heavy – both for playing and for moving around in school. It also requires physical strength and fine technique, most of which comes from the lips (the “mouthpiece”). These considerations make it all the more extraordinary that Klieser chose this instrument independently – at just four years old. Progress was slow but steady; over time he developed a specific way of playing the French horn using his toes to move the valves.

Klieser kindly met me on Zoom, where I euphemistically asked him for his particular approach. “Actually, I didn’t have to do a lot of adaptations,” he says. “About 95% of the horn playing comes from the mouth – it’s the lips and the air currents. The biggest problem is that most horn players put their right hand in the bell – I had to find a way to create the same sound. No one could teach me that; there was no book to read. I tried a lot of different things and it was very complicated.

“It’s funny when I hear people describe my ‘special technique’ as something others could learn or use as a teaching tool,” he continues. I wonder if my blushing is noticeable on the screen.

“Of course seeing the feet using the valves seems completely strange to most people, but to me it’s normal. I don’t find it complicated. I don’t know if it’s more difficult to play with the feet or with the hands. The penny falls. I was guilty of ableism: like many others before me, I assumed that typical musical technique was ‘correct’ and that alternatives were ‘adaptations’.

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