Having a Child with Down syndrome, Part LXXXII: Musical Adaptation

Copyright © 2015 Stephen Hawley, all rights reserved.

Alice is looking forward to middle school. Very much so. It helps that summer school for her is in the town’s middle school, so she’s getting a taste for it a little early.


In prep for middle school, the elementary school highlighted the availability of the band program to middle schoolers. I asked Alice if she wanted to do this and she said yes, very enthusiastically. I asked her what instrument she would like to play and she said, “French horn! It goes toot, toot, toot!” When she said that, I relaxed a lot. Alice is not just left-handed, her right hand has very little fine motor control and barest gross motor control. This is all left over from the stroke she suffered when she was born. There are precious few instruments that can be played under these conditions: left hand for the fine work and a little support from the right. French horn is one of the very few. Trombone can be played by flipping the slide over, but Alice would need something like a P-Bone to cut the weight, but even then the slide will be too long for her and would need a stick or a trombone with a folded slide. Trumpet can be played left handed, but Alice would need a stand to hold it for her. There are some adapted woodwinds, but they’re all custom.

Alice’s speech therapist expressed some concern about Alice being able to make a buzz to play. I have already had her buzz on a trumpet mouthpiece, so I know the ability is there. I spoke to the band director and listened to her suggestions and concerns. She is fantastic and is looking forward to helping Alice to meet her abilities. When I left, the biggest question was whether or not Alice could handle playing a full-size horn. I found that there are two common sizes which are more or less the same size – single and double. There are also two uncommon sizes: piccolo and 3/4 (or compact or kinder).

Since I have played trumpet for (eep!) 29 years and love the smaller-sized horns, I have a fair amount of experience with what happens when you try to shrink a brass instrument. All brass instruments are an exercise in compromise and as the horn gets smaller in size or in bore (the diameter of the tubing), the instrument gets harder to play and harder to play in tune. I contacted friends I know who play French horn to find out if they have had experience with either. Nobody had.

The local band instrument store did an open house at the middle school which was for signing up for rentals. I asked one of the reps (daughter of the owners) questions that stumped her, but it opened a dialog. I asked them if they had or could get their hands on either of these horns so we could try them out. To their credit, they said they’d have a look. As it turns out, they did. They had a Besson 602 hidden in their stockroom and we set up an appointment for Alice to come down with me and try them out. I tried them out too.

Here’s Alice with the Besson:


Her fingers aren’t on the keys, but they will fit and there is an adjustable pinky hook which makes for a good grip. Alice can hold this on her own and needs very little help (although we’re going to have to work on care). The fit is about as good as you could hope for.

I tried it out. It’s, frankly, a terrible instrument. Student instruments are the product of cost-cutting and this is no exception. The tone center is bad and the intonation is laughable. It might get better with some slide adjustments. Maybe.


This is Alice with a Yamaha single horn. Her fingers barely span the keys and there’s no way her pinky will reach the hook. Without a stand to support it on the side, there will be no way for her to hold this instrument independently and have a solid embouchure.

Given a barely playable instrument and an unplayable instrument, the choice is clear.

So we rented both of them.



Yes. Alice is going to learn to play on the 3/4 horn and I’m going to learn the single horn side by side. Horn is not a huge stretch for me. For the most part, I’m going to be the parent who sits down with her and works a little bit on technique at home.

I don’t have high expectations that Alice will be a French horn player. I do expect that she will get the experience of playing a French horn and will grow from that experience. Then again, if you asked me when she started ballet if she would stick with it as long as she has (it’s been 6 years now), I would have laughed.

The moral here is: understand your options, tap into expertise, talk to people who have a different view, be open to be surprised.

3 thoughts on “Having a Child with Down syndrome, Part LXXXII: Musical Adaptation

  1. Brian Cole

    Fingerings are same as trumpet an octave up.
    You could also try a single Bb horn. They aren’t especially common, but they exist. The fingerings would be different from what’s in the F horn book says, though.

  2. Kimberly Calvi

    Hi. I know its been two years but I was wondering how your daughter was doing with the french horn? My son has had his first year in a public school beginning band program on baritone and is doing well. He also has DS and i was hoping to find other young people with DS that were successfully playing wind instruments in a band setting. Id love to hear from you.


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