The New Horn

Late December 2008: I brought the horn home two days before Christmas. I can’t wait to play it but I am on doctor’s orders to wait for two weeks past my surgery date of Dec. 19th. Talk about frustration.

Early January 2009: Finally I can play the new horn. The valves are an absolute delight. Slides pull easily. In fact, everything except intonation is fabulous. The intonation worries me. It’s a big deal especially since I played the Yamaha in tune. The third space C is very sharp and middle C is somewhat sharp. I have spoken with Scott Bacon (the fellow who sold me the horn) and the first thing he said to do was find out what frequency the horn is calibrated to on middle C when I play it with all the slides pushed in. The way to do this is to turn on the tuner, set it at 440, close your eyes and try to center the note. Then look at the tuner. Keep adjusting the tuner (in my case up) until it reads in the center. For me, and I emphasize me, this turns out to be 452 on the Bb horn with the F horn just slightly flatter. I think we both were surprised at the value and were expecting something around 445. Scott thinks it’s up at 452 because I’m not finding the notes’ center yet. One theory is that I learned to play the Yamaha in tune but that it’s inherently flat. My muscle memory therefore is set in a way that would have me play sharp on a horn that is in tune.

A few words on finding the notes’ center for the new hornist. I’m probably a victim of brain fog but I don’t remember learning about centering notes back when I used to play. I just tuned my horn and played in tune or at least I thought I was playing in tune. Maybe I was lucky and had a horn that had decent intonation. More likely, since most horns have a few notes that are inherently bad, I just learned how to deal with them appropriately. And the appropriate intonation varies depending on the key you are in and who you are playing with (piano, chamber group, orchestra, etc.) Once your horn is in tune with itself, when playing in groups the tuner is not your friend, you have to use your ear.

Anyway, back to centering notes. My understanding is that horns have slots for each note and depending on the brand of horn, these slots vary in size. You can play high (sharp) in the slot, in the center of the slot or low (flat) in the slot. This lets you lip up or lip down notes to get them in tune. (Positioning your right hand in the bell correctly also plays a huge role in achieving good intonation.) When a beginner plays a horn with wider slots they are more likely to get the note without clamming it, but also are more likely to play the note out of tune. For horns with narrower slots, beginners are more likely to clam notes but when they get the note, it’s more likely to be in tune. I have heard that most custom horns have narrow slots.

I think my new Hoyer has fairly large slots. I can play the third space C to the point where it’s almost a C# and I can lip it down so that it is in tune when I watch the tuner. My natural tendency is to play the note quite sharp and to play most of the horn somewhat sharp. Pulling the tuning slides all the way out helps a bit but also makes a few other notes flat.

Mid January 2009: Some progress. The intonation is getting a bit better. I can play many notes in tune at 440 with the main tuning slide fully out.  Third space C is a tiny bit better. Checking the calibration, it’s now around 449 so it is also getting better. I’m starting to believe that I may be able to conquer the intonation issue.  My teacher has played the horn and she plays it in tune. However, even if she plays it in tune I’m the one that ultimately has to play this horn.

The good news is, other than the intonation issue, that I’m playing way better on it than I was even a few days ago and so much better than on the Yamaha words can’t really describe it. (Well not really but I can dream, LOL.) I have fewer gurgles between notes and I don’t clam as much.

The New Horn Part 2 –>

Buying a Horn

The horn I’ve been using since I started playing again is a Yamaha 668 that is about 15 – 20 years old. It’s somewhat beat up. The valves need some work and the slides are very hard to pull. All of this is completely fixable and by itself does not warrant the purchase of a new (or new to me) horn. But, it’s a large bell horn. Playing my teacher’s Hill, a geyer wrap, medium bell horn was definitely easier for me. I’m sure in the long run, I could become proficient using the Yamaha but I firmly believe that it would take longer and be a lot more frustrating.

For the past two months I have been alternating playing either the Yamaha 668, a Conn 8D which I borrowed from my teacher, or a Holton 180 which I just bought to try to figure out if the horn has anything to do with my problems. I have about 21 more days to return the Holton.  I have the most trouble playing the Yamaha – it requires lots of air, I have lots of missed attacks, clammed notes, and tone that goes fuzzy very quickly. I also gurgle between notes a lot. I feel like the Conn is easier to play, however, I can’t seem to play the Conn in tune and this drives me crazy. Also, the position of the keys and thumb causes pain in my hand. I do find the Holton easier to play than either of the other horns, I have more range, and my husband and mother say I sound better. This horn, however, has at least one solder joint broken somewhere and has very sluggish valves so I am considering returning it. Though, it still may be a good horn for me and I should just get it fixed. However, I bought this from a very well known music store and I don’t like the fact that they didn’t take care of these obvious problems before they put it up for sale. It makes me wonder what the service for this horn will be like. All of these horns are similar to each other and none of them are as easy as the Hill.

So how do I pick the right horn? I started by asking questions on the Yahoo Forum. I asked for some suggestions about playing characteristics of different horns with maybe some insight on better choices for me. I don’t feel that I play well enough to go play lots of different horns, nevermind finding them to play (I have since learned about all the horn workshops that have tons of horns to test), and make any decision.  I did a search on the web and found an article on buying a horn by Dr. Eldon Matlick. This article was extremely helpful.

Here’s my criteria / considerations:

‘Easiness’ – I don’t know how to describe this except to say that I found my Yamaha ‘harder’ to play than the Conn. I found the Holton easier than the Conn. Easiest of all was my teachers Hill. Easy to me is what range I get, how much air I need, can I play in tune, are the attacks clean, how are the slurs, etc.

Intonation – Is there a Bb tuning slide. Reputation of brand for intonation.

Sound – Warm, dark

Quality – reputation of brand, known or rumored faults (like Holton’s have bad valves or where the Conn’s were manufactured.)

Type of music most likely to play – chamber.

Bell throat size – medium.

Physical Characteristics – Type of wrap. Location of thumb trigger. (I can’t play the Conn 8D without lots of pain in my hand.) Adjustable pinky ring or alternative.

Recommendations – Is there one brand that get more recommendations than the others.

New / used – no preference.

Location of vendor – Local (within a days drive), or web based.

Budget – under 5K (for new horns, not list but typical selling price.)

The recommendations played the biggest role in my final decision. I narrowed my choices down to a Holton Geyer Merker 192 or a Hoyer 6801 PMAL. I have a sentimental attachment to Holtons because I played a circa 1960’s nickel silver 179 in school. The Hoyer, a medium bell model, comes highly recommended by many people. The decision between the two came down to where I had to buy them. The Holton was available from a web based store or by special order from a semi-local music store chain. The Hoyer was orderable from an extremely reputible vendor, Siegfried’s Call, who would get the horn in for me to try without my paying for it first. I decided to buy the Hoyer assuming that I liked it once I played it.

I went up to Seigfried’s Call, about a three hour drive from my home, two days before Christmas 2008 and four days after I had surgery and doctor’s orders not to play for two weeks. This was not the most appropriate time to buy a horn but I had ordered it before the surgery and didn’t realize that I would not be allowed to play it. Well I played it anyway but very carefully.

I have to say that it was not love at first note. I didn’t really like the sound too much when I played it but I really couldn’t put any chops to it. I asked Scott Bacon, the owner of Siegfried’s Call, to play the horn for me and I liked it a bit better. Again, no love yet. So why buy it? I heard so many good things about Scott and spent enough time talking to him that day that I decided to trust him when he told me I would love the horn soon enough. So I bought it. Stay tuned for more about the horn.

The New Horn –>

Progress? Fall 2008

I’ve been taking lessons since August 2008. I practice daily. I try hard to practice correctly. However, on many days I feel like I’m going downhill or stuck in a rut. If I am having a good day, my chops will last about 45 minutes. In the very beginning it was about 20 minutes so there is some improvement but 20 minutes turned into 45 minutes very quickly and I’ve been stuck at 45 minutes for months. Very occasionally I can get to an hour. It’s frustrating. I actually have the time to practice more. Moreover, I don’t have enough chop time to work on the things  – warm-ups, scales, etudes, and actual music – that might actually help me improve.

I feel like 3 months ago I was playing longer before tiring but I suspect that what’s really happening is that I am better than I was 3 months ago for the first 20 or so minutes and then I revert to how I was playing for the whole time back then. What starts to happen over the hours’ time is that my notes get more and more fuzzy even though I work hard to keep my breathing and air support the same as at the beginning of practice. It’s frustrating.

Around mid October Lynn, my private teacher, started me working on Franz Strauss Nocturno. I’ve been at it for weeks. I keep struggling on the same passages. The piece starts on Ab (Horn in F) and goes down a half step to G, then back to Ab, up to Db, then down to C. I’ll be darned if I can play a clean transition from the G to the Ab. It’s a gurgle or a clam every time. Geesh. If I break the passage down and only play the G to Ab it’s usually ok. If I add the opening Ab, not so much. Of course this is not the only passage that I have trouble with, I seem to gurgle consecutive notes fairly frequently. Intervals of 3rds and up are better. When I say ‘gurgle’ I mean that there is not a clean transition from one note to the next. It’s note – gurgle – next note. Once I get to the next note it is clear. I wouldn’t exactly call it a clam. To me that is more like a splat – note combination or just missing the note entirely.

My range hasn’t improved either. I can play from the G below middle C up two octaves. I’m sure some of you are thinking that’s great for playing for about 6 months. But again, I got there months ago and haven’t improved since then.

So I start trying to analyze the problems – endurance, range and sloppy playing. I want to blame equipment. Lynn tells me it’s most likely poor breathing. She works with me on that continuously. I usually start playing and it’s “Stop. You didn’t breathe. Take a deep breath from the diaphram. Put the horn down and let’s practice breathing. Then use the mouthpiece and buzz. Now pick up the horn.” On goes the metronome. 1,2, 3 – take deep breath on 4 – and play. What Lynn keeps harping on is that breathing properly is critical. My opinion – It helps all three problems I have. More air = better endurance, less pressure. Faster air = better range. Better air support, less gurgles between notes. All that being said I still think I have a problem playing my horn. Back to the Nocturno. I try Lynn’s horn, a Hill, and I don’t gurgle. It just feels easier to play. I guess I don’t really need to get a new horn but if it can help, even a little, it will be worth it.

Buying a Horn –>

Time for a Teacher

August 2008: It’s time for a private teacher. I’m improving very slowly on my own but I need guidance and goals. I also need to make sure I’m not practicing and therefore learning bad habits. Fortunately for me, my daughter has a good friend, Lynn,  who is a doctoral candidate in horn performance. Lynn lives about 5 minutes from my house and will come to me for my lessons. This is fantastic. I don’t have to go through the find a teacher routine. We talk on the phone and I make sure she knows what she’s in for. I tell her I was competent once but now I’m probably playing like a good 6th grader. Or maybe a not so good 6th grader.

My first lesson is okay. We start with doing a simple warm-up routine that I will continue to use. I play stuff from the Rubank Soloist Folio. I’m really nervous and I clam more than my usual number of notes. We talk about my embouchure and Lynn thinks it’s good. Phew. So what’s with the lack of endurance I ask. I’m still at the twenty minute mark. After that my tone, such as it is, gets fuzzy and I miss more and more notes. Patience! More patience.  We talk about maximizing the value of practice within the time frame my chops are giving me. Don’t just play through things. Work on the problem spots by slowing them down. Slowing them down means go as slowly as necessary to play the passage correctly. Play it correctly for at least three times and then pick up the speed just a bit. Repeat this again and again slowly getting faster. If you start making mistakes at the new tempo slow it back down again. If you don’t do this all you do is learn your mistakes.

Lynn asks me if I know how to count beats in 6/8 time. Of course I say. Ha. Turns out my counting isn’t so great. I don’t hold notes long enough. I rush 8th notes and I slow down 16th notes. I guess my mother, my accompanist, is adapting to my bad rhythm. How nice of her. LOL. I don’t remember having trouble with this when I used to play. Lynn says I need to use a metronome so I go buy one. She also asks me to buy Preparatory Melodies for Solo Work for Horn by Pottag which is the etude book we will start working with.

Second lesson: I have the book and the metronome. The metronome arrived in the middle of the week and I start to use it and it drives me crazy. I discover that I have a new skill. I can completely ignore it. It goes tick, tick, tick…. and I play tock, tock, tock so to speak. In fact, it takes an amazing amount of concentration for me to play in time with the metronome. I have to really force myself to practice with the metronome and for the most part I don’t use it. (Sorry Lynn.)

I play a few notes before Lynn arrives. Then we do warm-ups together. I don’t have the chops yet to do significant warming up before a lesson. After the warm-ups we take out the Pottag book and start on the first etude. At first glance it looks easy. Then I try to play it. It isn’t that easy. I miss a bunch of notes. Some of this is nervousness about playing for Lynn. We work on the etude for a bit and then move on to a piece in the Rubank book called The Victor. In my case we should call it The Clam. I don’t think I have to say anymore.

Progress? Fall 2008 — >

The Beginning

So why start playing the horn again after so many years? Well, now I’m retired from a really good marketing job that I had for 24 years and I’ve got time on my hands. I have always missed playing. I got married, got a job, had kids and got really busy. My marketing job took me around the world and back many times. Whenever I thought about playing again the realities of work and just life in general struck home. I just didn’t have the time. I would have been hard pressed to find an hour a week and that’s just not enough. Now I have the time to devote to the horn and really learn to play again. I’m committed. This will not be just dabbling at it. My goal is to play better than I did back in college and I was a pretty decent hornist even if I do say so myself.

I’m playing catch up with this blog so I have to rewind back about a year to get back to the first days of trying to play again.

May 2008: I’ve decided to start playing again. I haven’t played for about 35 years. My horn’s been in it’s case for about 20 years. I bought it back then for my daughter who wanted to play in band in junior high. Needless to say, that didn’t last long, the horn took a beating, and then my poor horn sat neglected. So the decision to start has been made and – ta da – I open the case and with great excitement pick up the horn. I’m wondering if I remember the fingering for a C major scale. Well, hopes are dashed because the valves barely move. I blow a few open notes, play (attempt is the better word)  an arpeggio or two and put the horn back in the case and into the car to go off to the local music store. It takes a week before I get it back. Aaargh. Once I make a decision to do something I want to do it. Not wait. I use this time wisely by ordering some music books. One of the pieces I order is Strauss 1. What am I thinking? Is this hope or insanity? I haven’t played a note in decades.

Okay – the horn is now back and I try to play a scale. What were those fingerings? Hmm. I go grab one of those books and look at the fingering chart. What? No fingering chart? So I sound out a C major scale and figure out the fingering.  I play the first etude in book 1 of The First Book of Practical Studies for Horn. I miss half of the notes if not more. It’s frustrating but the excitement of starting again outweighs the frustration.  I try a few more times and it gets better but after about 15 minutes it starts to get worse again. My lip has had it for the day. I keep at it practicing every day for 15 to 20 minutes. It does get better.

June 2008: I’m playing simple etudes now and some easy pieces. Of course, as a beginner again, I have most of the usual problems that people talk about. Hardly any range. Very little endurance. Sometimes the tone is good. Sometimes I can play several measures in a row without clamming a note. (Fast forward to April 09 – same sentence applies. Only the music is a lot harder.)  Then there’s the age thing. In June 08 I’m 56. Fingerings get confusing. More about age issues later.

My mother is a pretty well known musician and composer. She lives with me so I have a built in pianist to play with. We muddle through Shenandoah, the famous Andante Cantable in Tchaikovsky 5, Liebestraum in Rubank Soloist Folio (this is actually a good book to have because the parts are in both F and Eb to start learning transposition.) Fortunately she is very patient – well she is my mother after all.  Even with all the bad notes, I’m having fun. Wow. Fun helps get past the bad notes. It keeps me going.

Time for a Teacher ->