A lesson in basics

You’d think that after a year I’d be past needing a lesson in the most basic parts of horn playing. Alas, such is not the case. Yesterday I had my monthly lesson with Scott Bacon and it was illuminating to say the least. I was there for about three hours and we covered some warm-up exercises, Singer exercise #4 and Kopprash exercise #2. 

Between my lesson last month and yesterday, unbeknownst to me, I’ve adopted some bad habits. I started my lesson with the low slurs that I do to warm-up.  These start on the C below middle C and go C – up to G – back to C then C – G – up to middle C – and back and so on up to hopefully, for me, third space C. Well, I got to C – G – C – E – C – G – C and Scott stopped me. I was closing my throat to force myself to get to the higher notes. I wasn’t using air properly. We went back to just the first C – G – C so I could understand what my throat feels like doing it right and then continued on. Eventually I did it correctly.

It’s hard to describe what this sounds like when it’s wrong but it’s sort of like a huff into the higher note instead of a smooth slur. I was not doing this last month and I didn’t realize that I had started doing this until he pointed it out. Lynn, my weekly teacher, noticed last week that I was doing this a bit on the highest notes when starting arpeggios on middle C but I hadn’t realized that I was doing it on the low slurs.  Because I warm-up on my low slurs before my lessons with Lynn begin, she wouldn’t have noticed the problem on the low stuff. 

Scott and I then moved on to exercise #4 in the Singer book. This seems like a very straight forward exercise. Start on G on the staff and slur quarter notes (quarter note = 60) up from G to A to B to C, repeat and then smoothly drop from C to A and go from A to B to C to D, repeat, drop back to B and go to E and continue this pattern all the way up to high C if possible. To do this exercise correctly, the notes need to be dead on with the metronome, even in volume, rich in tone, with seamless transitions from note to note. Breaths need to be planned so they don’t happen during the four note slur. For me, this whole exercise is hard. Really hard. What’s worse is that Scott will say, “do it again, do it again, do it again” for what seems like endless attempts. Then he’ll say, “yes, that’s better” and even an occasional “very good’ and I can’t always tell what it is that I have done to get there. 

Somewhere in the middle of this exercise he stopped me, asked me to stand up, and we worked on posture. Another area where I didn’t realize I had a problem. He stood me in front of a mirror, had me balance properly and hold the horn differently that I had been. In particular he wanted the lead pipe in line with my sternum and tilted down a bit more than I was doing. Then, while I’m standing there, we started on this exercise again. I did it over and over as he repositioned my body. Well, amazingly enough, it got easier and easier to do it right. This was a real eye-opener for me. The changes in my posture were subtle and they made a really big difference. The next challenge was to take this new posture and make it work sitting down. We went through the same playing and positioning routine and I got to the point where I could play the exercise while seamlessly changing from bell on the knee, off the knee and standing. I hope that I can remember enough to continue doing this right. This would have been a great time to have a video camera, or at least a recorder, at a lesson.

What can I say about Kopprash #2. Sigh. Scott expects the same diligence (rightfully so) with this exercise as he does with the Singer exercise. Add to that musical phrasing. Rhythm must be impeccable. Missing a few notes here and there is not the issue. It’s putting the whole package together – rhythm, phrasing, precise dynamics, breathing – that’s important. He has me play 16th notes for each quarter note to try to get the precision he is looking for. I think we spent at least a half an hour just on the first phrase – 4 measures. My assignment for next month is to just get this phrase and the next phrase of 4 measures as close to perfect as I can. 

I also talked to Scott about the intonation of my horn. If you’ve been reading some of my posts you know that I find the horn to play sharp, especially third space C. Well, Scott played my horn a bit while I had the tuner on and, of course, he played in tune. He made some adjustments of the tuning slides and then I tried the horn again. Murphy’s law kicked in here and I couldn’t play that darn C out of tune. Problem solved? Hardly. I got home and tried the horn and the C was as sharp as ever. I’m not talking just a tad sharp, it’s halfway on the tuner to C#. Easily hearable to anyone who has any kind of ear. 

If I’ve learned anything from this ego-bashing experience, it’s that it is just not possible to learn to play this beast of an instrument decently without a teacher. I was developing new bad habits even after playing for a year. Heck, I’ve got two teachers and I still developed these bad habits.

I know the notes. It’s all that goes into the notes to make music that requires a teacher. I would never have discovered the posture issue. I would always be sloppy with rhythm. I just don’t notice it if I’m slightly off when I’m playing by myself. I am a master at avoiding the metronome entirely and when I use it, completely blocking it out of my consciousness. When I’m practicing I don’t notice all the little things that need to be better. When I play back recordings of myself I can hear all these things that need work but often I don’t know what to do to correct them on my own. I’m very thankful that I have the luxury of having good teachers close by and of being able to afford to take lessons.

Two teachers –>

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