YouTube Symphony

In the days of the struggling orchestras in the US along comes the YouTube Symphony.  When YouTube first announced this endeavor I really didn’t pay much attention, in fact I paid so little attention that I thought they were going to try to play together over Skype or some other online technology.  A live performance? What a fantastic idea. Now I wish I had paid more attention. After all I live in Long Island and Carnegie Hall is a mere 2 hours (and lots of practice, LOL) away. Ah, missed opportunities….

One of the goals of the YouTube Orchestra was to expose young people to classical music. Halleluliah! Maybe there really is hope for our beloved orchestras. There were 3000 auditioners and 15 million voters during the audition process. Carnegie Hall was sold out last night and the concert was reviewed favorably by all the major news groups and broadcast networks.

The auditions were open to anyone. An opportunity to play in an orchestra was given to some who would never be able to do anything like this in their lifetime. I was a bit surprised that only 3000 auditioned. But, I have not heard whether the selected musicians were given travel money. That would be a big show-stopper for most musicians.

I’ve heard two negative comments – One, the auditions were only open to technically savvy people. Well, technology runs our lives now and I don’t have a problem with this. If it takes uploaded video auditions to bring classical music to the younger generation I say go for it. Two, the entire pieces weren’t performed. With the diversity of the musicians in the orchestra and the audience, I think this was a smart choice. A broad spectrum of music was selected and the best of this music was performed.

Thank goodness someone at YouTube had the brains and the courage to promote such an event. After all, as one of the reviewers commented, they could have picked basketball.

Too bad the reviewers and the news networks couldn’t have added one sentence, “If you enjoyed listening to the YouTube Orchestra and would like to hear more of this wonderful classical music please support your local symphony orchestra.”

Today’s Practice Session 😦 –>

After the meltdown and the Balanced Embouchure

How to recover from a day like my meltdown day? I tried to analyze what went wrong and went through the usual litany of horn problems – wrong mouthpiece, bad embouchure, bad warm-ups, bad posture, too much practice the day before, too much high register work, etc. I zeroed in on my recent work on my embouchure. (Amazing that I didn’t blame the mouthpiece, but of course I had to blame something.)

In my never ending quest to fix playing problems that can and will be fixed by practice, (If only I would listen to myself) I had been trying a new technique called the Balanced Embouchure (BE). It was originally developed for trumpet by Jeff Smiley and then adapted for horn as a collaboration between Jeff Smiley and Valerie Wells (

I’d been dutifully practicing BE  – I believe correctly – for a few weeks before the lesson meltdown. The specific targeted exercises for the embouchure use rolling in and rolling out techniques that are, to quote Jeff Smiley on his website, “a specific and practical method for developing a more efficient and successful trumpet embouchure.” He goes on to say in a separate interview, “I developed exercises designed to exaggerate the normal lips range of motion, thereby increasing the lip’s ability to form more complex combinations of opposing motions (shapes) which more effectively promote a continuous state of balance within the context of dynamic activity. In other words, through the repetition of relatively simple exercise targets, the lips become more intelligent, more able to move far enough and morph into more complex shapes to match the task at hand.” For more information please see Jeff’s website

Valerie Wells adds in a post on the Yahoo Horn Group, “If BE is used as designed, there are no ‘set backs’ or ‘trade offs’ but a solid and fairly rapid improvement in tone, range, and endurance.”  Hooked yet? Is this the magic elixir for horn players? At this point I have to say it’s not for me. I also have to add that although I don’t think this method is right for me at this point in time, this is not a pan of the technique. I believe that some hornists have greatly benefited from it. If you read the posts on the Yahoo Horn Group you will find very positive reviews about BE from some of the members of the forum.

At the time of my meltdown I felt very confused about BE. I wondered if BE wasn’t for me or if I started it too soon. Did working on it just finally culminate in the lesson disaster? I thought that it was a method where working on it wouldn’t hurt existing playing. It is promoted as such. Maybe the meltdown had nothing to do with BE and I was just having a really bad day. Maybe I’m jumping to a “BE isn’t for me” conclusion too quickly. But the ability to play double pedal notes and high C’s isn’t worth a darn if I can’t play in a normal range.

Here is a link to a demonstration of one part of the BE exercises for trumpet. I think Jeff or Valerie should post a video demonstrating BE for horn especially since it is pretty impossible to find a teacher that will teach it at a private lesson.  Although I believed that I was practicing BE correctly, maybe I wasn’t. Is it possible that damage can be done to the chops if BE is practiced incorrectly or too frequently? I ran into lots of chop trouble very quickly after I started BE. I think some (most?) people will want to use BE as a panacea for embouchure problems instead of using it as a method to improve upon already mostly correct playing. Again this is my opinion based only on my experience.

I understand about over practicing and I know that there is a fine line between doing enough to get tired and doing too much and I’m sure there are days that I do too much. I am only questioning working with BE because that is the only significant change I have made to my practice routine in a long time.  Of course new horn, new mouthpiece, plus BE all in the same time frame was more likely the impetus to the meltdown. Kind of like the perfect storm.

My immediate problem was to fix what was wrong. I backed off BE and went back to my basic warm-up – low long tones, slurs, arpeggios, scales. Although I didn’t have another meltdown day I certainly wasn’t playing as well as I had been a few weeks before and I was very frustrated.

I decided to take a lesson with Scott Bacon (Siegfried’s Call), the fellow I bought my Hoyer from. When I bought my horn he spent a considerable amount of time on revamping the beginning of my warm-up – the first horn to face time of the day – and I felt very comfortable turning to him for help. (This is not to say that my teacher I see every week wasn’t helping. I was looking for a fresh opinion.)

My first comment as I walked in the door was “My embouchure is shot.” I played a bit for him and he said, “No it’s not.” He did acknowledge that I was having some significant problems since I couldn’t produce a note below the G below middle C. We worked on re-establishing my low range and after about half an hour it was getting better. My marching orders when I left were to spend at least fifteen minutes doing only low range work followed by slurs from low C. He gave me a lot more to work on which I will get to in another post. The really good news is that it took less than a week for me to make significant improvements. At the moment, BE is off the table. This doesn’t mean I won’t try it again sometime in the future.

All this meltdown stuff occured back in January. Today the best way to describe my progress is to relate what my regular teacher has said to me over the past few months. I started working on Mozart 3 in December 2008. She said, “I played this in 7th grade.” Translation – I play like a 7th grader. Hmm. Sometime in February she was talking about one of her other students in 10th grade. She said, “You and she are at about the same level.” Well you know what the translation is. Last week we were working on Strauss 1 and she said I was playing like a good college student! YES!

YouTube Symphony –>

Bits and pieces

Some non connected things I have learned:

Screwbells – If you are a klutz like me don’t get one. Just kidding, well only partially kidding. My Yamaha is a fixed bell horn so this screwing on the bell thing is new to me.  My bell from my new Hoyer has recently spent too many seconds flying through the air. I was trying to insert into the bell sleeve in my Marcus Bonna case. Fortunately I caught it but there is now a thumb and finger squeeze type dent in the bell and a ding in the body of the horn where the bell hit the horn. I also find aligning the body of the horn to the bell difficult. The horn is heavy and if I don’t get both sides lined up quickly I have to put the horn down, rest for a second, and try again.  However, If you are going to travel with your horn, a screw bell is almost mandatory.

Horns on the floor – Don’t do it. It’s so tempting to just set it down and go answer the phone or whatever. But until you take a flying leap over it and just barely miss the horn you may not appreciate this advice.

Grease those slides – You will inevitably ding the bell as you try to yank out the third valve crooks.

Don’t eat and blow – Be nice to your lead pipe please.

Be careful snaking – If you try to use a snake to clean out your horn, don’t push it so far into the valves that it gets stuck. It’s really, really hard to yank it back out. And the heart attack you get as you ponder what you’ve done isn’t pleasant.

Horn to mouth disease – Be careful bringing your horn to your mouth. Banging the mouthpiece on your lip is painful. Two times and counting so far.

Watch those risers – it’s not that funny when your chair falls backwards off the riser during the Star Spangled Banner.

Sleeping on the job – Watch to at least 50 seconds. Just in case you can’t tell, this is not me.

Lesson with a pro – Make sure you know your F horn fingerings – yes, all of them. Nuff said.

Count rests – Don’t come in a measure early when playing Fanfare for the Common Man.

Watch what you say – Don’t ask the 1st horn player what brand of ear plugs he uses when he’s actually removing his hearing aids.

Taking practice notes –  If you are going to review what you’ve written write more meaningful notes than ‘yuck’.

Watch for part 2. I’m sure there will be more.

After the meltdown and the Balanced Embouchure –>

How much is too much?

Practice, practice and more practice. But how much is too much? Is there anyway to know for sure when to stop playing and put the horn down?

This is a question that I struggle with all the time. If I’m having a good day and actual music is flowing out from my horn I want to keep playing. The pieces I am working on just click. These are the days that make all the hard work worthwhile. These are the days when I know that I can play this instrument. Too bad they are so few and far between. On a good day I stop practicing when the good day starts going south, typically around two hours of playing with lots of breaks.

If I’m having a mediocre day (the norm for me) with missed notes here and there, sloppy slurs and fuzzy or constricted tone then I keep going because I know I should. I am trying to increase my endurance so as my playing deteriorates I start dropping the range that I practice in so that I can keep going. Again, I take plenty of breaks and try to get about two hours of practice in. On these days I don’t practice beyond two hours. Maybe I should. Or not. I just don’t know.

If I’m having a bad day – most notes are cracked or completely missed, tone is awful, range is shot – I pay attention my breathing to see if that is the problem. Usually it isn’t. I try to push through for a half hour or so but a day like this is so bad that the only thing to do is put the horn down for the day and resist the temptation to try again later in the day.

I should point out that none of these instances involve pain. I very rarely have any pain in my chops but when I do I stop.

So for the really bad days I stop out of frustration and because I feel like my chops are rebelling. But I don’t know this for sure. Maybe I should keep playing anyway. Or maybe two hours of practice on the good and mediocre days is too much even with all the breaks. Probably if I practiced less I’d have more good days, fewer mediocre days and even fewer bad days. But, how does endurance get better then? And with shorter practice sessions how do you get better technically?

The long term goal is to increase endurance by strengthening the muscles in the embouchure without causing harm. The short term goal is to have good practicing days while increasing endurance. When there’s no pain, where’s the point that tired chops turn into harmed chops and how do you know if you are at that point?

One simple answer is to ask your teacher. I have two teachers (more on that in another post). Before I started with the second teacher I would practice for about 40 minutes straight and then fade quickly. If I managed an hour that was a really good day. The interesting pearl of wisdom here is that the first 20 to 30 minutes were almost always good. I was at this level of time for months and months. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress.

When I talked about this endurance issue with my second teacher he said to practice for twenty minutes and then take a minimum 20 minute break and go on from there. He said to drop the range as I got tired. I’ve been using this approach for about two months now and I got up to about two hours of actual playing daily almost immediately. Adding the breaks was a huge help.

On my good days I can see that I have improved significantly over the past two months. But those mediocre and bad days sure are frustrating. I have the luxury of plenty of time to practice all day if I had the chops. Maybe I should push to three hours, accept that there might be even more bad days, but then see improvement at a faster pace.  Those good days where I see the improvement are really rewarding. Or, maybe I should drop back and enjoy more good days and just deal with improving more slowly. I’m not a particularly patient person so I like option one better.

It’s a conundrum, not only for me but I think for anyone returning to the horn. We remember, or think we remember, where we were when we stopped and we want to get back there fast. We forget that back then we had been playing for years – junior high, high school, college – and that our endurance developed so gradually that we didn’t even notice it was happening.

So what to do? What did you do to develop endurance? Thoughts?

Bits and pieces –>

Twitter, Huh?

WordPress – the host of my blog – is proudly announcing that I can add Twitter to my blog. My first reaction was oh, how interesting. Everybody is tweeting these days. Then I started to think about it and what would I say? Should I ‘tweet’ that at this very moment I am writing the first paragraph of my post about Twitter? I can’t imagine for the life of me why anyone would want to know this. Okay – maybe, just maybe, someone might want to know at which instant I am practicing Strauss 1. I could put my horn down and tweet that I just missed the high Bb.

I can’t believe that these news people who say they are on Twitter – so please tweet them right now – actually spend their days tweeting. (Notice that people tweet now, not just birds…of course there are those birdbrains…) Hopefully they have more important things to do. While you are at work, say at a rehearsal, would you tweet? I hope not. As an aside, at my band rehearsals there are a few folks who keep their bluetooth headset in their ears and answer their phone. Geesh.

Twitter is all the rage these days so I must be missing something. Yesterday on “The View” the ladies said (all of them) that they take their Blackberries into the bathroom so they don’t miss a tweet. I guess that’s not quite as bad as when you are on the phone with someone and you hear the toilet flush.

I did a search for French Horn Music and found a hornist that tweeted that she burned her lunch. Now that’s something I really need to know. However she also tweeted that she needed a violinist to do the Brahms Horn Trio. This makes sense to me. A great idea. Burned lunch, not so much. Maybe I’m just too old to get it.

So what do you think? Do you tweet? Should I add twitter to my blog? I’m going car shopping this afternoon (yes, I’m stimulating the economy). Do you want to know what I think? Maybe I’ll tweet at a traffic light during the test drive. You can find me on Twitter as newhornist. No guarantees that you’ll see too many tweets.

How much is too much? –>

Ice Cubes, Oh No!

January 23rd, 2009: After a fairly strenuous practice session I decided to try putting some ice cubes on my chops. Well, I got them from the fridge and didn’t think about what I was doing and put one up to my lips. It stuck on my lips and I stupidly pulled it off taking some skin with it. Ouch.

The tear on my lips couldn’t have come at a worse time – I had a lesson and band rehearsal the next day and my new custom mouthpiece arrived that day. (Please read ‘My Mouthpiece Saga‘ for more info on the mouthpiece.)  I asked for help on the Yahoo Horn Forum and got many valuable suggestions. These included applying Close-up toothpaste, Vaseline, and Blistex. The suggestion that seemed to work the best for me was to apply Vitamin E oil by breaking open a capsule and putting it directly on my lips. This was messy but my lips felt better immediately and by the next afternoon I was playing again.

On the days when I don’t do something so stupid, I use Chop Saver to prevent chapped and split lips. This is my personal choice. I’m sure there are other products that also work well. One caveat, I have heard that some lip balm products contain ingredients such as phenol, camphor, and/or menthol that may dry out the lips and may become habit forming requiring constant reapplication.  I’ve also noticed that I play better when I stay hydrated.

But why use an ice cube at all?

My chops were tired on the day of my ice cube fiasco. At the time I thought that applying ice was the right thing to do. I’ve had cold drinks after playing and it feels very good. Now that I’ve done some reading and asked some questions I’ve come to the conclusion that ice was most likely NOT the right thing to do. Most of us know the RICE acronym. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. I’ve had enough sports injuries to know that this is what is typically recommended for an injury. But if you run a marathon, go for a long bike ride or  – insert your favorite sport here – your muscles get tired. You want to massage the muscles, creating warmth, when you are done. i.e – you want to stimulate blood flow not compress it. So with my tired chops increasing blood flow with a hot drink would have been more appropriate, not ice. Bear in mind that I am not a physician. This is my opinion based on my experiences only. Now I drink a hot cup of tea after I practice. Even if it does nothing else, at least it’s relaxing.

Twitter, Huh? –>

The Meltdown

January 16th 2009: I had about the worst lesson I’ve ever had. A friend of mine called it my meltdown which is a very good description. I couldn’t play at all. I had been practicing double pedal notes for a couple of weeks because I heard about a technique called the Balanced Embouchure (more about that in a future post) on one of the forums and I bought the method book. I’m no different than most beginners who grasp for solutions that we hope will be the magic elixir to solve playing problems.

Back to the lesson. I demonstrated how good I’ve gotten at the double pedals but I couldn’t play a scale starting from the C below middle C and just starting on that C was almost impossible. From middle C to third space C wasn’t much better. Clam C – splat – burp – hiccup – G – A – splat – C. I’m sure you get the idea. Lynn, my teacher said that I am dropping my jaw way too much and thinks it may be due to working with the double pedal notes before I was ready to do that. The lesson here: Talk to your teacher or someone you trust before you embark on some technique that, although it might work for someone else, may not be right for you. I think there is huge value in reading what both the amateurs and the professionals have to say on the horn forum. I just think it’s not wise to dive into something without evaluating it carefully.

During my lesson I was overshooting or missing completely almost every note. Forget about playing any scales, slurs or arpeggios. You would think I had just picked up the horn last week it was that bad. Really, it was that bad. Absolutely nothing went right. Lynn was very patient, but oh my gosh this was embarrassing.  She said that my tone was very constricted all through my range and nothing at all like the good tone I had last week.

Last week was the first time Lynn heard my new horn and she said it was a huge improvement. I was leaning in that direction too. The day before this lesson I was working on the first movement of Strauss #1 and I think I was doing pretty well with it for me. In general after a more strenuous practice session, and for me Strauss 1 is strenuous, the next day isn’t stellar, but it’s never been as horrid as it was during my lesson.

Confusion and frustration are clogging my brain. What did I do to cause such a bad day? Did I do anything to cause such a bad day? I know that we all have good days and bad days, however this was so bad I actually thought about giving up for about 60 seconds. Fortunately my recent purchase of a new horn squashed that thought pretty quickly.

Ice Cubes, Oh No! –>

Joining a Band

Right after Christmas 2008 I started thinking about joining a community band. Lynn, my teacher, was encouraging me to go ahead and try to get in one. She is always telling me that I am better than I think I am and that I should just stop worrying and go do it.

The first challenge was to find one. I did a search and came up with a page of Long Island community music organizations but there was nothing anywhere near me. Then Lynn heard about one near me just by chance and I got up the nerve to contact the director. My email said something like; “I haven’t played in 36 years but I just started again. I can mostly play Mozart’s 3rd Horn Concerto. I would like to audition for your band if you need any horns.” Much to my surprise his email back said that the first rehearsal for 2009 was in a couple of days and that he would love to have me join. Directions to the band room in the high school followed. What? No audition? Wow.

January 13, 2009: My first rehearsal with the local community band. I’m playing 4th which is fine with me. The last time I played with any group was back in college. It felt very strange yet at the same time so familiar. I am sitting right in front of the trumpets so it is a bit difficult to actually hear what’s coming out of my horn. The seating is, from center stage, 4, 3, 2, 1 so I’m in the center. (I have since learned that the seating is set up this way because the 1st horn is mostly deaf and doesn’t want to sit in front of the trumpets – go figure.) And this way the poor 3rd horn gets to hear all my goofs. Since this was the first rehearsal for the new year we got new music so everyone was sightreading their parts. I don’t think the composers actually wrote all the dissonance.

The band music handed out was mostly marches. The 4th horn part is almost all offbeats. I have to say that my first rehearsal was pretty hard for me. A gazillion measures of 8th note rest – 8th note – rest, etc. I got lost more often than not. I also struggled with playing the offbeats. Then there were the 16th notes in cut time. Yikes. And the intonation – unmentionable.

Fast forward to last week – I am pretty good now. I struggled through the rehearsals getting a little bit better at each one and then a few weeks ago everything just clicked. What a feeling. It made all the struggling worth it. I also got into another band with a referral from the 2nd horn. Progress!!!

The Meltdown –>

My Mouthpiece Saga

You beginners out there undoubtedly want to blame your playing struggles on your equipment. I’m no different. Wouldn’t it be great if finding the right ‘thing’ turned you into a legitimate candidate for a principle position in a decent orchestra? Ha.

So is there ever a time when an equipment change is warranted for a relatively new hornist? I’d like to think so. I did see an improvement in my playing when I got my new horn. Did I need a new horn? No. Is it a placebo effect? Maybe. I’ll never know but I can say that I’m very happy I bought the horn. If your horn is in really bad shape in my opinion it’s a good idea to replace (or possibly repair depending on the damage) the horn. A bad horn can make it very difficult to move forward though it’s said that professionals can make any horn sound good. If you are playing a single horn maybe it’s time for a double. If you can afford a new horn AND your expectations are realistic I say go for it. You will make some vendor very happy. Just remember that for the large majority of you it’s you and not your equipment. Also, if you don’t have a teacher, get one before you buy anything. A teacher is far more valuable than any change in equipment.

On to mouthpieces. Most hornists, no matter what level they play at, are on a quest for the perfect mouthpiece. It’s like the quest for the Holy Grail. Typically they have an arsenal of mouthpieces stashed away somewhere. At this point in time I have eight.

When I first got my Yamaha out if its case, there was one mouthpiece in it; the Yamaha mouthpiece that came with the horn. I used this mouthpiece for months. Then I found an old Bach 11 mouthpiece lying around. Hmm. Maybe this mouthpiece will help my playing. I tried it and, guess what? I played better. In fact it was a ‘wow’ experience. But (there is always a but), a few days later I was playing almost exactly like I was before the change. So I put the Yamaha mouthpiece back in the horn. Another ‘wow’ experience. I spent a couple of weeks going back and forth between the two mouthpieces and didn’t really see much of a difference. The mouthpieces themselves are different. The Yamaha has a pretty thin rim and the Bach has thicker rim. This is visually obvious and they feel different as well.

Then I talked to Lynn, my teacher, about mouthpieces. This was in November 2008 before I bought the Hoyer. She was well aware of my constant frustration – lots of clams, no endurance. I didn’t think I was making any progress and my tendency is to try new equipment. She suggested a Farkas MC mouthpiece. The Farkas MC and the MDC are mainstream mouthpieces and are recommended frequently.

I bought the Farkas MC mouthpiece and I also bought a Bach 12. (I have no idea why.) I tried both of them, had the ‘wow’ experience with both of them, and settled on the MC with the admonition from Lynn to stop switching. The ‘wow’ experience is typical when changing mouthpieces. My guess is that it has something to do with slightly changing the way the muscles are used by the embouchure. Whatever the reason, it leads to a false sense of success.

I used the MC mouthpiece until I got the Hoyer. The Hoyer came with its own mouthpiece and Scott Bacon, the proprietor of Siegfried’s Call where I bought the horn, said to use the Hoyer mouthpiece. Sometimes, especially with European horns and US mouthpieces, the horn and the mouthpiece just don’t work well together so it made sense to try the Hoyer with it’s own mouthpiece.

I used the Hoyer mouthpiece for about 6 weeks through the middle of February. It has a narrower rim than the Farkas MC and I felt more fatigued with it than with the MC. When I use the MC with the Hoyer the intonation problems get a touch worse and the horn gets sharper.

At the end of January I ordered a custom mouthpiece from Tom Greer. I spoke to Tom at length about the Hoyer playing sharp and he suggested making the mouthpiece shank a touch fatter. When the mouthpiece is inserted it will sit slightly farther out extending the length of the horn just a tad which will make it play a bit flatter. I ordered a rim closer to the MC in style than the Hoyer mouthpiece. My new mouthpiece showed up in mid February. I’m forcing myself to only use it and to stop blaming my bad days on any mouthpiece.

Joining a Band –>

The New Horn Part 2

Late January 2009: I’ve been playing my new Hoyer for about three weeks now. My intonation issues with it are getting better slowly. For the most part it’s the third space C that gives me trouble by sounding consistently sharp. I have been working on developing the correct muscle memory to play the C in tune. I play the C repeatedly holding the note steady while watching the tuner. I make sure that the needle is dead center. I do this for several minutes every day. It’s boring but it does seem to be working. Did I mention that it’s boring? If I play the note with my eyes closed and then look at the tuner it is much closer to center this week than it was last week.

When I first tried the horn I wasn’t sure I loved the sound of the instrument. In fact, I was pretty darn skeptical. That has changed now. I love the sound. I think I had to learn what the horn wanted me to do. I needed a lot more air support for the Yamaha and I was overblowing the Hoyer. I’ve learned how to control my air better and now on good chops days I can make the Hoyer really sing. In fact, on good chops days I’m pretty happy with how I play.

Of course, I still have more bad days than good days. That makes those rare good days all the better. The new horn certainly wasn’t a quick fix for all my playing problems but I never had good days with the Yamaha that are as good as they are now with the Hoyer. My bad days with the Hoyer are more like the good days with the Yamaha. Now it’s time for a new mouthpiece.

My Mouthpiece Saga –>