Band rehearsal does not equal practice

Well, my ten days of really good horn playing has come to an end. Bummer. I really can’t play a thing today. I’m trying to figure out why.

Was it band rehearsal? I had band rehearsals both Monday and Tuesday evenings. On Monday the rehearsal was a little over two hours and on Tuesday about an hour and a half. My chops felt okay after both rehearsals. The previous Monday I practiced for an hour in the morning and really didn’t have the chops for the two hour rehearsal that night. I decided that I wouldn’t practice before the rehearsals this time but I got to them early enough to do a warm-up.

When I picked up my horn this morning things seemed okay at first. I do low register arpeggios first and they were good. Nice rich sound, good slurs, clear notes. It was when I got to the middle and high register that I had an inkling that things weren’t up to snuff. The arpeggios starting at middle C felt stiff and lacked tone. I moved on to exercise 1 in the Singer book and those long steady notes just sounded flat – not intonation flat but tone flat. Not a good sign. I took my usual twenty minute break after the Singer exercise.

Starting up again, I moved on to Kopprash. Hmm. Things are going downhill fast. Suffice it to say that the rest of my morning’s horn playing continued moving in the wrong direction. I started to work on scales in the Pares book figuring that at least I could work on those but no such luck.

So was it the lack of practice before the band rehearsals? Possibly. (Hopefully?) I play 4th in both bands so although I play continuously for almost the entire rehearsal I play in a very limited range.  Tons of off beats between middle C and F. Occasionally there will be a melodic line or two and maybe I’ll see a top space Eb. Once in a blue moon there might be a G. I’m guessing but playing within one octave for hours may stress ones chops in very different ways than a good practice session would. Again, this is just a guess. There could be no reason what so ever for my bad day other than it’s just a bad day. They happen.

I have a lesson tomorrow and I will ask my teacher about this. Maybe she’ll have some ideas. If I’m playing poorly again tomorrow maybe she’ll see something that I’ve started doing wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.

So far, I’m not overreacting about this. I’m not going to change mouthpieces or horns or add gadgets or buy new method books describing new embouchures or… (insert any new fangled thing you want here.) It wasn’t that long ago that I would have leaped to the conclusion that I needed some new piece of equipment or needed to make some drastic change. I’d like to think I’m maturing – at least horn wise.

Nocturno –>

Horn playing, breathing, and…cancer?

Good Morning America (GMA) had an interesting topic about energy this morning. They had an interview with fitness expert Jim Karas who was touting his new book “The 7 Day Energy Surge” wherein he exposes the bad habits that sabotage energy.

One of the bad habits he talks about is breathing incorrectly. He says that we need to breath deeply all the time or we are simply recycling the old air. Karas says, “70% of our toxins are released through our breath.” Then he goes on to say that, “One of the biggest ways you can help survive cancer is through breathing because cancer cells cannot properly multiply in a well oxygenated environment.” You can see the entire segment here:

So how does this relate to the horn? (Here comes the obvious part.) We all breathe deeply when we play. But I only breathe deeply when I play or sometimes when I exercise. Even though I’ve frequently heard doctors, fitness experts and other ‘experts’ talk about breathing properly as part of improving our health, I pay attention for a few minutes and then go about my business breathing the way I always do. I bet I’m not the only one. I would never had guessed that breathing deeply has anything to do with keeping cancer cells from multiplying (or – my thought alone – occurring in the first place.)

This segment on GMA has me wondering if there is a reduced incidence of cancer in brass players compared to the general population. Some doctoral candidate may want to look into that. But more importantly, I’m going to try to remember to breathe better when I’m not playing my horn. There is no downside and if Jim Karras is right in his theory about breathing and cancer, wow.

Band rehearsal does not equal practice –>

Day 7 and counting

Last week I wrote three posts about my playing during the week. The first two discussed the poor quality of my playing, Today’s Practice Session 😦 and Yesterday’s Practice – Part 2, and the last one, It’s all about the air, talked about a revelation I had about air that lead to two stellar days of horn playing.

Well, yesterday was day 6 of a pretty dramatic improvement. I’ve put together two good days in the past though not very often. When I got to the third day I was pleasantly surprised but skeptical that it would continue. Day 4 was another great day followed by day 5 which was not quite as good as day 4 but pretty decent none the less. I figured that the run of great days was over but, lo and behold, day 6 was another truly stellar day.

So what do I mean by a stellar day? In the context of my capabilities, my tone is excellent, there are very few gurgles, and some missed notes but not too many. The arpeggios, slurs, and scales that I always work on are clean. 16th notes are playable at close to the correct tempo and tongued or slurred properly. The pieces that I’m practicing – Mozart 3, selected solos from the Mason Jones book and the first two movements from Strauss 1 are played well, despite the inevitable clams here and there, all the way through. I’ve been able to play individual passages decently before this but I was never able to string them together into a cohesive unit – i.e. the whole piece.

I had a lesson yesterday (day 6) and Lynn, my teacher, and I were talking about what’s changed. In addition to my discovery of using air better, two weeks ago she had me add what I call high harmonics to my warm up routine. These start at third space C on F horn and are lipped up to G, then back down. (Not fingered.) Then second valve down B up to F#, first valve down Bb to F and so on. The notes need to be evenly spaced, smooth, and clean. Last week we added Bb horn up from C# to G#, D to A, finishing with F to high C. At first I could barely do the F horn side. Now I can do them all well.

My warm up routine starts with low C slurs up to G back to C, then C to G to middle C and back and so on up to third space C which is a hit or miss affair. After that I do arpeggios starting at middle C. After these I have added the high harmonics to the warm up. Then I go back to another round of low C slurs.  My complete warm up and practice routine, other than the high harmonics, is covered in A lesson and practicing.

I can’t guarantee that adding the high harmonics to my warm up made the difference but it certainly points to that. It could be that all my practicing has finally led to recognizable improvement. The good news is that it didn’t occur because of a change in equipment. It is actually me that improved. I’m cautiously optimistic that this improvement will continue and that this week hasn’t been a fluke. And yes, today, day 7, was another good day.

Horn playing, breathing, and…cancer? –>

A lesson and practicing

This is the sequel to Practicing May to Dec. 08. It’s late January and nothing seems to be going right. I’ve got the new horn. I keep switching among my eight different mouthpieces (bad idea). I buy a weight that goes on the mouthpiece and is supposed to improve playing (not). I work on the Balanced Embouchure exercises. It’s so frustrating. I have the occasional good day but overall my playing is mediocre or bad.

As I mentioned in After the meltdown and the Balanced Embouchure I decided to take a lesson with Scott Bacon (Siegfried’s Call), who I bought my Hoyer from. I was lost and trying too many different things. I was struggling with endurance. My low range was poor. I was also still worried about the intonation of my new horn.

The first thing we did at the lesson was work on my low range. I could play the G below middle C but nothing lower except pedal notes. After about a half an hour he had me down to low C. My warm-up marching orders were to start every day trying to hit this note as the first note played. Then play long slow slurs from low C to G and back with the goal of increasing the range. C – G – C then C – G – middle C – G – C then repeating up to E, etc. By the end of the lesson I could just eke out C – G – middle C and back.

Scott set the metronome at quarter note = 60. It’s on for the rest of the lesson. The next thing we worked on was Exercise #1 in Embouchure Studies for French Horn by Joseph Singer. This exercise looks deceptively easy and is anything but. It’s a series of half note, half rest, half note, half rest, whole note starting on 1st space F and going to G above the staff. All breath attacks, no tonguing. Brutal.

Then out came Kopprash and we started on #1. I’m not a fan. Another exercise that looks deceptively easy. Well not only is it not easy, it’s a real lip killer. We’ve been working for about an hour and fifteen minutes and we are working in the order that he wants me to practice.

Next up is the 2nd movement of Mozart 3. Scott is meticulous. We worked on the first two measures – only – for about half an hour. By this time my chops are done. Really done. It’s the longest I’ve played since starting up again. The last time we did those two measures it sounded like gibberish.

As I left we reviewed my practice routine – warm-ups starting on the low C. Then Singer #1. Rest for a minimum of 20 minutes. Then Kopprash #1 followed by the Mozart. In addition scales, slurs, and tonguing (I’m sure I’m forgetting something.)

The lesson with Scott was really worthwhile. I didn’t need an embouchure change. Phew. I did have to promise that I wouldn’t switch mouthpieces anymore. I learned how to practice developing my low range. I learned how to get more out of practicing – breaking down the problem areas into the smallest steps and repeating it and repeating it and…..I still had issues with the intonation but I’m pretty convinced it’s me since Scott can play the horn in tune.

By following Scott’s practice routine my low range improved dramatically in about a week. I changed to practicing in twenty minutes chunks followed by twenty minute rests. By doing this I was able to increase my actual practicing time to about two hours. Now there is enough time to actually work on everything I want to work on.

Since my first lesson I’ve had two more lessons with Scott. I ‘graduated’ from exercise 1 to exercise 2 in the Kopprash book. He added exercise 4 in the Singer book – quarter  note slurs starting from G going to C, then A going to D, B to E, etc. – and we’ve gotten to the 16th notes in the 2nd movement of Mozart 3. Boy I really struggle with those. If I set the metronome to eighth note = 110 (really slow) I can just about play them. Usually I’m either lagging behind or rushing ahead or sometimes just tuning out the metronome altogether (my favorite).

I’m now taking lessons with Scott every four to five weeks and with Lynn once a week. I think of lessons with Scott sort of like a master class. Lynn and I work on the nitty gritty stuff that has to be worked on week to week. We also finish each lesson playing some duets which I really enjoy and it helps my sightreading. It also ends each lesson on a positive note – pun intended. Scott is about a three hour drive from my home so weekly lessons with Scott are not an option. If both of them lived near by I would have a really tough time choosing one over the other. They complement each other very well and I learn so much from each of them.

Day 7 and counting –>

Practicing – May to Dec. 08

When I started playing again last May I didn’t have any routine for practicing. I’d blow (I can’t call it buzzing yet) into the mouthpiece for a minute or so and then just try to play stuff. I tackled the C major scale, just one octave, and I bought the Rubank Soloist Folio book and started with Shenandoah.  My mother, who lives with me, is a well known composer and pianist and we’d just play what I could in the book. Nothing like having a built-in pianist who cheers me on even when I don’t get any notes right. On the other hand, she has perfect pitch. All of you hornists out there have to know what living with that must be like. (Voice from upstairs …. your A is flat… two minutes later….your F is sharp… and so it goes. Today she told me that my F was sharp but only a little bit – progress!)

After the initial weeks of just blow and try to play, I got out my Farkas book and added the first warm-ups he recommends but within the range I could play. At this point I managed about 20 minutes before my chops gave up. I was hoping that in addition to the technical improvement warm-ups would provide that my endurance would also increase. Alas, no such luck.

Over the next two months I did increase my practice time to about 40 minutes a day but only 20 minutes of it was decent. I was using some Farkas warm-ups, The First Practical Book of French Horn Studies and some of the pieces in the Rubank book. The Andante Cantable from the Tchaikovsky 5th was one of my favorites. Who doesn’t try to butcher that when they start playing? Occasionally I’d add some fun stuff from a Beatles book and a Phantom of the Opera book I bought.

After another month or two I felt like I wasn’t making any progress and I decided to get a teacher. My endurance was still at around 20 minutes (of decent playing) and I was still playing the same stuff maybe slightly better. I started taking lessons with Lynn at the end of August. My first two lessons are described in Time for a Teacher.

Around October I was practicing for about 40 to 45 minutes a day before I had to stop. I’d try to do another 15 – 20 minutes later in  the day but usually only managed 10 or less. I really wanted to do more. 70% of this time was spent on long tones, slurs, scales from the Peres book, and etudes from the Preparatory Melodies for Solo Work for Horn book that were relatively easy. I spent a bit of time on some of the easier works in the Mason Jones solo book and I started working on Franz Strauss’ Nocturno. I tried to maintain good air support, a big problem of mine, good tone, and intonation. But most of the time my air support was non-existent, my tone was fuzzy, and my intonation marginal at best. Once upon a time I had a good ear. Nice fairy tale.

By December I was really frustrated. I felt like I was stuck in a rut. No increase in chop time. No improvement in playing that I could detect. I was still working on most of the same etudes. I started blaming equipment instead of me. So I go and buy a new horn and a bunch of mouthpieces. Will this ever get better?

A lesson and practicing –>

It’s all about the air

A few days ago I posted about one really bad practice day and one mediocre practice day. Today’s Practice Session 😦 and Yesterday’s Practice – Part 2. In fact, the past week or two hasn’t been that good. Kind of plodding along practice days. You keep at it because you know you should but there’s no real sense of accomplishment and it gets discouraging. Fortunately yesterday and today were stellar.

I’ve always had problems with air. In the beginning I just didn’t have enough of it and I had to learn how to breathe properly. Now I have plenty of (hot?) air, I know how to breathe but I frequently forget to do it (horn breathing that is).

My teacher is always harping about air. During my lessons I get reminded frequently and then passages go better. Usually it’s ‘use faster air’. Yesterday I had a revelation. If you’ve read any of my previous posts that talk about my playing you’ll know that I have a problem with ‘gurgling’ between notes during slurs. It drives me crazy.

For some reason – one of those thoughts that just arrive and you don’t know why but are glad they did – yesterday I thought ‘push’ air instead of ‘faster’ air and lo and behold the gurgle in the measure I was working on went away. The notes didn’t get louder, just nice and clean. So as I played every time I had a gurgle I wrote ‘push’ above the notes. Guess what? All the gurgles went away. I still think ‘faster’ air if I want to play higher.

It’s times like this that make all the plodding along days worth it. The breakthroughs are few and far between but when they happen, oh boy is it a nice feeling.

Missing Blog Entries – Updated 05/02/09

Note: A list of all my posts in located on top right side of of the page. I will not be updating this page.

The first entries that I wrote for my blog have disappeared from the list on the right. They are:

The Beginning

Time for a Teacher

Progress? Fall 2008

Buying a Horn

The New Horn

The New Horn Part 2

My Mouthpiece Saga

Joining a Band

The Meltdown

A complete list of my posts are at: All My Posts.


In my effort to find everything I can about the horn and music in general on the web, I came across the Adaptistration site written by Drew McManus. TAFTO, Take a Friend to The Orchestra month, which is in April, is his brainchild and is a wonderful idea. But as I was reading about it I realized that even more important was to take me to the orchestra. Ahem.

I’ve been very lax about attending orchestra concerts. In fact I haven’t been to one in my area in many years. Shame on me. (I did go see La Boheme a few years ago in NYC but that doesn’t really count as local.) In my defense, when I was gainfully employed in a marketing career, I traveled extensively and did attend a few concerts in cities that I was visiting.

Why not when I was at home? Two reasons (excuses?). One, basically I’m lazy and since I live in Long Island, NY I thought that the NY Phil was my only choice. A trip into Manhattan is at least a two hour drive and it just didn’t seem worth the effort. Two, with all the traveling for my job and raising four kids, I was perpetually exhausted and the last thing I wanted to do was go out. Sometimes I had to head out of town without much notice so buying advance tickets to anything was risky.

I’m being brutally honest here. Local orchestras near me weren’t even on my radar screen. I just didn’t realize there were any close by. (I define close by as a maximum 45 minute drive.) I know many of you are thinking how could this be but I think of LI as a sprawling suburb of NYC and if I want to do anything cultural I have to go into the city to do it. I lived in Manhattan when I was a kid and then in the suburbs about twenty minutes commute from Manhattan so that’s what my mindset was. Once I took up the horn again I did search out who the local orchestras are but I still haven’t attended a concert.

I come from a family of musicians. My grandfather founded the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and my mother was a professor of composition for something like 50 years and chair of the department for many of them at the Manhattan School of Music. I did attend concerts at MSM but that really isn’t supporting one’s local orchestra. Growing up in that environment exacerbated my NYC only mindset. Everything we did was in the city. Granted when I was a kid my parents had to drag me to concerts but that evolved into a true love of music and attending concerts was a big part of that. You’d think that with my family history I’d be going to concerts all the time.

I’ve been reading about the financial problems that are plaguing our orchestras. It’s heartbreaking and to think that my lack of attendance contributed, even in a very small way, to this makes me feel even worse. To those of you who read my blog and play in an orchestra, which I suspect is almost everyone, I offer many mea culpas. I hope that my revelations here don’t stop you from reading my blog.

My search to find the orchestras near me was not easy. Most of the ones I now know about I learned of through word of mouth.  Some of them have a web presence but none of them showed up in Google, the Long Island Philharmonic notwithstanding. I wonder how many more people, especially those not part of the inner circle of musicians, would attend concerts if they knew about them.  I know when I was promoting my band concert a couple of months ago almost everyone I spoke to was thrilled to hear about a nearby concert and at least ten of the people I spoke to attended.

Back to TAFTO. As I read more and more about many orchestras’ need to reduce their concert schedule for budget reasons the voice in my head said ‘you should go.’ It’s reading and thinking about TAFTO that has changed that voice to ‘you must go.’ Not out of obligation but because I love music and want to go. It’s the impetus that will get me there. I will find and attend at least one concert in the next several weeks and I’ll bring a friend.

All of this begs the question of why would I write this blog? Actually I’m wondering myself. But even if only one person reads this who hasn’t been to a concert lately (in the audience) ends up going it’s worth it. And if they bring a few friends with them, even better.

Very sincerely,

Click here to find out more about TAFTO.


It’s all about the air –>

Yesterday’s Practice – Part 2

April 18th, 2009: Yesterday afternoon’s practice session was better than the morning’s session. Not good yet, but better. Instead of working on my usual set of scales and etudes, I just played through some of the pieces I am working on. I also did some work on tonguing, something my teacher was harping on at yesterday’s lesson.

I didn’t play anything really high – nothing higher than Ab above the staff which is not a problem for me. I sometimes have problems with A and Bb. High C happens, but it’s rare except for my first set of scales for the day. My frustration is not with range but with poor attacks and sloppy slurs and in particular gurgly note to note slurs. Those drive me crazy because I know I can play them correctly. If I’m having a good day maybe I’ll gurgle a few notes here and there but most of what I play is clean. It’s the reverse on bad days. My interval slurs – thirds and up – are decent. If I miss one of those it’s more likely because I didn’t hear the interval correctly. I think my problem with note to note slurs is a lack of concentration causing a relaxation of air support. Just because you know what the issues are doesn’t mean that you can fix it right away. Aaargh.

I decided to record yesterday’s practice sessions. What a humbling experience that was. My teacher keeps saying that I’m better than I think I am. Well, that was not the case yesterday. I was definitely worse than I think I am. My ego took a beating. Maybe the morning was so bad because I was nervous. I knew that recorder was on. It shouldn’t bother me and I need to find a way to forget that the recorder is on.

I think recording pratice sessions is important. Not too often, maybe once a month. Between laptops and those handheld recorders it’s an easy thing to do. It is the only surefire way to track improvement. I probably should have stopped recording once I realized how badly I was playing. Yes, I know I just said I was nervous but I really do think it was more than that and the bad playing exacerbated the nervousness.

Today’s another day and I have to put the bad day behind me. It’s a busy day for me so putting in two hours is probably not in the cards. Maybe that’s a good thing – we’ll see.


Today’s Practice Session :(

Friday April 17th: Ugh. I was very surprised that this morning’s practice session was so poor. It’s been a really busy week for me so I didn’t practice as much as usual. Usually I get in about two hours everyday. Tuesday I only played at band rehearsal. Wednesday I didn’t practice at all and yesterday I had a lesson but didn’t play other than that. I didn’t play that well at my lesson but I usually don’t. Something about playing in front of my teacher makes me nervous. It shouldn’t but it does.

I expected to play really well this morning considering that I didn’t play much during the week. Instead it was almost another meltdown day. Major frustration. I practice in chunks of 20 minutes – play, rest, play, rest, play etc. My first 20 minutes was ok but it’s basically a warm-up. Lots of easy low notes and long tones. The second and third 20 minute sessions, not so much. In fact it’s been months since I have played so poorly. I couldn’t even play a scale without clamming a few notes. Nevermind Kopprash. I completely butchered Mozart’s 3rd concerto something I usually play decently.

I am going to resist the temptation to overanalyze this. I’m going to practice for another hour later this afternoon and I’m hoping it will be better. If it’s not then I have to decide to lay off tomorrow, play just a little or just practice as usual and play through the slump. Hmm.

Yesterday’s Practice – Part 2 –>