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 –>

Practice gone wrong

I don’t have any answers for why I occasionally have very bad practice days. I actually don’t have any answers for why I have very good ones either. I’m just very happy with the good ones. It’s probably worth examining both sides in an effort to try to learn what’s going on. 

Yesterday morning was one of those very, very bad practice sessions. It started out okay which they usually do. I always start my day with low register warm-ups and I can’t remember the last time I had trouble with those. I’ll get an inkling that maybe I’m going to have a bad day when I start the arpeggios from middle C and my chops feel a bit stiff and the tone is off. I’ve started off like this and ended up with a really good day so it’s not a sure thing that it will be a bad day which is good because I don’t want to end up talking myself into a bad day by over judging the first half hour of practice. 

I get more than an inkling about the day when I start on the Kopprash exercises. I know from keeping pretty copious notes what I would consider a baseline for each exercise. I establish my baseline when I first start working on an exercise. The first baseline is just reading through the exercise. It doesn’t matter how bad it is. If I miss almost all of the notes I’ll rate it a 1 or 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 and whatever that number is it’s my beginning baseline. As I work on the exercise that rating goes up as I improve usually to a 6 or 7. A 7 would be decent. Once my baseline gets to a 7 then I feel like I’m having a bad day when I give that exercise a 4 and a good day when that exercise gets a 9. If that same exercise starts getting 8’s and 9’s consistently then that’s the new baseline and dropping to a 6 or 7 would be a bad day. I’ve never given myself a 10 but I have some 9.5’s.  

I don’t consider any day a bad day if it’s only one or two exercises that get lower ratings. It’s when they are all down for the day that it becomes a bad day and if they are significantly lower then it’s a very bad day. Yesterday my 7’s were 2’s and 3’s. There was even a 1. I couldn’t even get the notes out. Yesterday this wasn’t just true for the Kopprash exercises, it was true for everything I tried to play. So it’s officially a very bad day.

The question is why. What’s different, if anything, to cause a day like this or, for that matter, a really good day? Last week I talked about a bad day after two evenings of band rehearsals without my usual practice routine before them. I did have a band rehearsal last night but this time I did my usual warm-up routine in the morning. I had no problem with chops at rehearsal. 

At first glance, it does point to the day with a band rehearsal as a possible culprit. However, I looked through my notes and I have had stellar days after band rehearsals. The only difference is that I practiced for a whole hour before those rehearsals and I ran out of chops at rehearsal. Could it be that not practicing enough is the problem? My notes do lead to that conclusion both for good days and bad days. 

What about other things? I didn’t sleep well Tuesday night. Hmm. Unfortunately I haven’t been documenting my sleep patterns in my horn notes. Maybe I should. What about nutrition? I am continuously on a diet so I don’t think that has any impact. I eat almost the same thing everyday. Exercise? That could have some relevance. Circulation is important for hornists and my exercise habits have been sporadic at best. Another thing that probably should be added to my notes. 

There’s always some discussion on the forums about drinking something hot or cold after practicing. Well I tried both yesterday during breaks and I didn’t notice any difference. I usually have a cup of tea during practice breaks but again, that’s not something I’ve been writing down. 

Then there’s proper breathing and posture which I try to pay attention to when I practice, especially on a bad day. I also wonder if I’ve unconsciously changed my embouchure just slightly.

These are all questions I have no answer for. The one thing I do know is that the more you have written down, the more likely you are to be able to analyze problems. Hopefully, today will be a better day.

A lesson in basics –>

The first year, a retrospective

May marks my first year anniversary of re-learning the horn. I’ve been thinking about how far I’ve come and what I did right and what I would do differently now that I know more.

I spent from May to August trying to learn on my own. Looking back, I should have gotten a teacher sooner. I did a lot of random playing during those months but other than getting sound out of the horn and then developing about an octave and a half range, I didn’t really improve. I played the same stuff over and over. I think I would be farther along now if I’d spent those months more productively.

Without a teacher I spent my time playing, not practicing. There really is a huge difference. I’d play everything from start to finish. Occasionally I’d repeat a measure that I messed up and inevitably I would repeat the same mistake. You’d think it would be obvious to slow the measures down to the point where they are playable correctly, to break the tricky passages into tiny chunks until they were right, but no, I’d just plow through everything. Now I’m close to meticulous about practicing correctly and, lo and behold, it works.

Of course there are always two sides to everything and if I had gotten a teacher before August I wouldn’t have the teacher I have now and that would be a shame. Lynn, the teacher I see every week is perfect for me. I learn a lot and I have fun. For an adult who is not trying to get a principle horn position I think fun needs to be part of the equation.

A year ago my sightreading was atrocious. The pieces that I played over and over again I played because I knew what they sounded like. I rarely tried something new. I avoided 16th notes like the plague. At first, when Lynn and I used to play duets she would say, “It’ll be ok, you can do it.” Then I couldn’t get through more than a few measures without stopping. Now I’m much, much better at sightreading. I think playing in the band had a lot to do with that but I’m also much more confident about what I can do and I’ve learned just to keep going and play through the missed notes.

I’m very happy with my new horn but I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy one so early in the learning process. I was convinced that my Yamaha was causing a lot of my problems and it probably was to some extent but I should have dealt with it until I was capable of trying horns myself so I could make a more informed selection. On the other hand, maybe sticking with the Yamaha would have slowed down my progress. My new Hoyer is definitely easier for me to play but maybe there is something out there that is even easier.

I am also still having intonation problems with the Hoyer. I think this is most likely me but I tend to play sharp on the Hoyer even with the slides pulled almost all the way out. In particular middle C and third space C are very sharp. I don’t remember having those issues with the Yamaha. I didn’t play the Yamaha at all after I got the Hoyer but I should have. Once I did pick it up to try it the valves were stuck solid so it’s been up at Siegfried’s Call for repair. I am going to try it once I get it back. I’m hoping that I will still find it harder to play. I’m also hoping that the intonation isn’t as good as I remember.

One thing I can say with absolute certainty is to never buy a horn if you can’t play it at all during the trial period when it’s still returnable. I had surgery in my neck four days before I bought my horn. I was under doctor’s orders not to play for two weeks. This surgery was scheduled for months and I had told the doctor that I played the horn. He never mentioned anything about his ‘don’t play’ order before the surgery and it didn’t occur to me that playing would be a problem though clearly it should have. I had special ordered the horn based on recommendations that it was the right horn for me before the surgery and I felt pretty obligated to buy it (and I really wanted a new horn) and I don’t really like conflict. I’m not saying that it isn’t the right horn for me, just that I should have tried a few others first and I’ll always have that nagging question in the back of my mind.

At my lesson with Scott Bacon a few weeks ago I tried a geyer wrap Hoyer that he had just gotten in. I didn’t really notice anything that different except that it’s above the staff Ab was really, really flat and I couldn’t lip it into tune. When I went back to my Hoyer it was like putting on that comfy old flannel shirt that feels so good. This was a very reassuring feeling.

I am glad that I tried different mouthpieces. (See My Mouthpiece Saga.) The custom one that I bought from Tom Greer is excellent for me. It really feels good and I am playing better. I got one with a screw on rim so I can change shanks without changing rims. The custom shank I got from Tom is slightly fatter than a standard mouthpiece to try to help with the sharpness of the Hoyer. I think it helps just a tad. It’s interesting that the Hoyer mouthpiece is a touch sharper. I don’t really know if it’s the mouthpiece that is making the difference with my playing, I could just be getting better.

I’m really glad that I joined a band. It has given me a lot more confidence and I should have joined sooner. Lynn always told me that I played better than I thought I did and she was right. I was terrified that I would screw up at the first rehearsal but it went reasonably well. I got better at each rehearsal and now I can play almost all of the music we are working on. One of my big problems when playing something is starting, messing up the first few notes and stopping and starting again. Band has almost cured me of that bad habit.

I wish I could say that I’ve worked on lots of music over the year but I really haven’t. It takes me awhile to learn new music. I’ve been working on Mozart 3 for months. I worked on Nocturno for months before that. I’m close to finishing with Mozart 3 now which is a good thing because I’m pretty sick of it. I’m also working on Strauss 1. I’m progressing slowly but steadily with the Strauss. Now that I’ve put lots of breaks into my daily practice sessions I can practice longer each day and I’m improving more quickly.

I’ve learned a lot this year and I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished. I hope that I can take what I’ve learned and use that knowledge to continue to improve throughout the coming year. Mostly I hope there are a lot more good days than bad days.

Practice gone wrong –>

Nocturno

When I first started taking lessons back in August 2008 I was playing some etudes from Practical Studies book 1, some pieces from the Rubank Soloist Folio for F Horn book, Traumerai in the Master Solos Intermediate Level book by Louis Stout and I had a few other easy books that I looked at now and then.

I played, or more appropriately tried to play, these pieces for Lynn, my new teacher, at my first lesson. The first thing she did, in addition to setting up a warm-up routine, was have me start working on exercises 1 and 2 in Preparatory Melodies by Pottag and to stop playing all these different things and just focus on The Victor in the Rubank book and Traumerai in the Stout book.

After about a month or two of this – including moving on in the Pottag book and the Stout book – she suggested starting on Franz Strauss’ Nocturno. I jumped on the chance to work on what I considered a ‘real’ piece.

When we first started working on the piece I had trouble with both the notes and the rhythm. Rhythm has always been a bugaboo for me. In fact, early on in my lessons when we were playing duets she said, “You do know how to count in 6/8 don’t you?” Well of course I do. (She actually asked me that same question at my lesson the other day but before we started the duet rather than during it. Yikes. Fortunately I did just fine.) I just tend to worry more about the notes than the rhythm. This is not a good thing and I try hard to pay attention to both the rhythm and the notes at the same time. Of course there is always something that suffers and when I focus too hard on notes and rhythm the musicality tends to go into the toilet.

I have since learned from Scott Bacon to divide up measures into the smallest beat and play all notes at that beat when I practice. For example, in Mozart 3 second movement first measure – play, not think but actually play, three eighth notes in series instead of the dotted quarter note and continue on like that with the metronome on set at eighths. This method works very well for me.

As far as the notes go in Nocturno, I consistently had trouble with the first measure. (Not that I didn’t have trouble elsewhere, this just annoyed me the most because I knew that I could play those notes correctly.) The opening notes are Ab – G – Ab. I couldn’t seem to play this without missing either the Ab to G or the G to Ab. It was never clean. It was this measure that got me to ask Lynn to try her Hill (I had to blame my Yahama of course, not me) and ultimately purchase a new horn. See “Buying a horn” for more on that. In this case, I finally played the measure correctly with the Hill. It immediately felt easier.

I worked on Nocturno for months. I think I was driving Lynn crazy. I tend toward being a perfectionist (why, oh why, am I playing the horn?) and I didn’t want to stop working on it until it was ‘perfect’. Well that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon (still hasn’t, LOL) but I was getting much better with it and Lynn tried hard to get me to move on to something else which eventually I did.

So why am I writing about Nocturno? I use it as my litmus test for both gauging improvement and how I am playing that day. As far as improvement goes, I recorded it back in November and I record it once every six weeks or so. When I play the recordings back in sequence I can actually hear the difference. I am really improving. It’s a really good feeling to actually know this for myself rather than having Lynn or someone else tell me this.

As far as the daily practice grind, I’ll pull out Nocturno and I’ll know pretty quickly how the day is going to go. I don’t do this every day but If I’m struggling, for example, through Mozart 3 or Strauss 1 and then I struggle through Nocturno I have learned just to chalk it up to a bad day and move on since I know I can play Nocturno well. If Nocturno goes well, I wonder a bit more about what’s going on. I have to admit that if this is the day’s scenario, I have to work a lot harder emotionally to stay calm (almost wrote clam there) and not go through the change the mouthpiece or add a gadget mentality.

Nocturno is now getting pretty easy for me. On a good day I still clam some notes here and there but the gurgles are gone and I almost never miss the opening or subsequent Ab – G – Ab. I usually get through the whole thing where I’m happy with the result. Soon I’m going to need to pick a different piece for my litmus test. Maybe Strauss 1?

The first year, a retrospective –>