Music

The French horn maestro who plays using his feet

French horn player Felix Klieser was born without arms, but that hasn't stopped him becoming one of the world's major musical talents.

Felix Klieser. Image: Maike-Helbig

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

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

While it doesn’t have the range of solo music that, say, the piano or violin does, the French horn is by no means neglected. There are concertos written by Mozart, Schumann and Haydn, a sonata by Beethoven and glorious chamber music such as Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Despite its richly resonant sound, the French horn has been classed as an ‘endangered instrument’ in the UK, alongside the likes of the bassoon, oboe and double bass. Several music services offer incentives for students to take up the French horn – there is a concern that there might be a shortage of players in the near future. As well as the economic factors that preclude so many pupils from studying orchestral instruments, there are practical reasons why the French horn isn’t an obvious choice. Compared to the flute or clarinet, it is heavy – both to play and to lug around school. It also requires physical strength and fine technique, most of which comes from the lips (the ‘embouchure’). These considerations make it all the more extraordinary that Klieser would independently choose this instrument – aged just four. Progress was slow but steady; over time he developed a specific way to play the French horn using his toes to move the valves.

Klieser kindly met me over Zoom, where I euphemistically asked him about his particular approach. “I actually haven’t had to make many adaptations,” he says. “About 95 per cent of playing the horn comes from the mouth – it’s about lips and airstreams. 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 this; there was no book to read. I tried many different things and it was very complicated. 

“It’s funny when I hear people describing my ‘special technique’ as though it is something others could learn or use as a teaching device,” he continues. I wonder whether my blush is noticeable on screen. 

“Of course seeing the feet using the valves seems completely strange to most people but to me it is normal. I don’t find it complicated. I have no idea whether it is more difficult to play with feet or hands.” The penny drops. I have been guilty of ableism: like many others before me, I have assumed that the typical musical technique is the ‘right’ one, and that alternatives are ‘adaptations’.

In fact, although there are clearly many challenges to working as a professional musician born without arms, Klieser identifies possible advantages to his playing. He explains how, when he first played Weber’s concertino, he found it more accessible than most. “The key of E minor requires complicated fingering,” says Klieser, referring to the denotation of which digit to use on which valve. “But I realised that what was difficult for fingers was not for me.” 

When Klieser joins the BSO principals for the programme of Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds K.452; Horn Quintet K.407 and Brahms’s Horn Trio Op.40, the event will be unusual – not because of Klieser’s technique, but because hearing principals in this type of chamber music is a rare treat. And, as his biography states, “Felix Klieser is an exceptional artist in several aspects.”

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community
Soweto Kinch
Music

Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community

Grassroots music venues need your help to survive now more than ever. Here's why
The Nefarious Picaroons play at Fiery Bird in Woking
Venue Watch

Grassroots music venues need your help to survive now more than ever. Here's why

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'
Bruce Dickinson
Letter To My Younger Self

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'
Ardavan of The Unknowns
Music

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know