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 –>

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 –>