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 –>