Bite me

I finally made a mouthpiece decision Tuesday to use the Laskey. After stupidly switching back and forth over the last few weeks I realized that I had to stop doing that and pick one and just deal with it. I picked the Laskey because I trust that Scott Bacon is right that it is the better mouthpiece for the Otto horn. I had trouble switching because I really liked my Moosewood mouthpiece. Of course that begs the question of why switch in the first place. When I was corresponding with Andrew Joy, who uses Otto horns exclusively, he told me to switch to a cup shaped mouthpiece for these horns. I mentioned this to Scott and he agreed that the Laskey mouthpiece was better for the Otto horn. The mistake that he and I both made was switching mouthpieces at the same time I got the horn. It would have been better to play the horn for a couple of months before making a mouthpiece change.

Using the Laskey this week has been frustrating. I’ve got this wonderful new horn and I can’t play it worth a damn. The first 20 minutes of practice goes quite well but then, even with a half hour break, my playing goes downhill fast. I lose my high range and notes get gurgly. I don’t just miss attacks, the entire note sounds bad. Why is it that when good things happen – e.g. my new horn – bad things always have to happen as well? And it isn’t limited to the mouthpiece change.

Yesterday while eating a sandwich I bit the inside of my lower lip. Ouch. I have a band concert tomorrow. Yikes. And then this morning while eating toast I did it again. Double ouch. I tested whether I could play earlier today and there’s no way. Not only did it hurt, I was concerned that if I tried to play through it I would inevitably change my embouchure to deal with the pain. I am really hoping that I can play tomorrow. I play 4th horn and rarely do I get to play a solo. I’ve got a nice one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If my lip still hurts tomorrow I’m going to have to decide if I want to try to play or pass the solo off to the 3rd horn. Low notes are not hurting as much so the 4th horn off beats should not be a problem.

It seems that playing the horn is always two steps forward and one step back. At least it isn’t one step forward and two steps back though some days it sure seems like it.

I’m playing better –>

Slippery slope

I’m heading down one. Rapidly. Earlier in the week I wrote about my latest mouthpiece problems. Well, I’ve managed to make things a lot worse by doing what I knew I shouldn’t do and yet I couldn’t help myself. After two good weeks with the Laskey mouthpiece my chops crashed and burned and I went back to my Moosewood mouthpiece Sunday. Of course I played much better than usual. Band rehearsal on Monday evening was pretty good too. Band rehearsal on Tuesday not so much. In fact it was awful. I couldn’t play anything above a 4th line D and I couldn’t play much in the low range either. And, just like my problem with the Laskey, my upper lip got numb.

Wednesday I didn’t play. That helped. Thursday I practiced with the Moosewood for around an hour with good results. Today I had a lesson in the morning which also went well. Lynn (my horn teacher) and I decided that sticking with the Moosewood was the right approach. Then I emailed the local pro that has been helping me test horns and described my mouthpiece problem. She said that getting numb was never good and to stop using the Laskey. Okay that validated the decision that Lynn and I made. I should have stopped there but no, I had to email Scott Bacon and tell him what was going on. In retrospect this was something I should have done before I went back to the Moosewood mouthpiece. He spoke to Scott Laskey and they decided that I should stick with the Laskey mouthpiece (no surprise).  I bought my new Otto horn from Scott Bacon and I take lessons from him every month. He switched me to the Laskey mouthpiece because he believes that they, with their cup shape, are the best mouthpiece for Otto horns.

Scott Bacon’s instructions were to put the Moosewood mouthpiece away, use the Laskey and stop switching from one to the other. He said to double the amount of flexibility exercises I do when I warm up, take lots of short breaks, massage my face to keep blood flow going to my lips and to try to back off the pressure I use as I go up in range. Yesterday afternoon I practiced with the Laskey with mostly poor results. I gave up after half an hour. I haven’t decided what I am going to use this morning when I practice. I suppose that if the Laskey really is better with an Otto horn maybe I should stick with it and suffer through the mouthpiece blues. On the other hand I have a band concert on November 1st and I need to be in good shape for that. Oh dear, I’ve really messed up big time.

Bite me –>


Frustration is nothing new for me as I learn to play again. I’ve had my share of bad days and bad weeks and I deal with them much better now than I used to handle them. These days I usually just shrug my shoulders and know that this too will pass. Early in my quest to learn this beast I would try different mouthpieces if I was having a bad day. I had four or five of them sitting on a table next to me and I would try one after another until I found one that helped just a tad. Then I’d use it for a couple of days until it didn’t help anymore and I’d go back and use the old one. Even when I was doing this I knew it was a bad idea and then when I had my first lesson with Scott Bacon early in 2009 he said no more changing mouthpieces. I’ve stuck with the same one, a Moosewood B12, until about three weeks ago.

One of the horns I was testing (and the one I bought last week) during my quest for a new horn was a Dieter Otto 180K. Andrew Joy plays on them professionally and I contacted him about the horn. He suggested that, for the Otto horns, I go to a mouthpiece with a cup shape rather than a cone shape that the Moosewood has. At my latest lesson with Scott Bacon he switched me to a Laskey 75G mouthpiece.

For the first week I played really, really well. My term for this is new mouthpiece euphoria. Then two weeks ago I went to an audition and although my warm-up right before the audition went fairly well, I played poorly at the audition. I was suspicious that my mouthpiece euphoria had ended but my playing improved again and didn’t really deteriorate until this past Thursday. Some of this is due to the new horn but I had this horn on loan for at least 6 weeks and generally played very well on it. I think that the stiffness in my chops, poor tone quality, and most likely my loss of endurance is due to the mouthpiece change. The other thing that I’m experiencing is some numbness in my upper lip and a touch of numbness in my lower lip after I warm up for about 20 minutes and right after I started using this mouthpiece I noticed that the feeling of my skin on my upper lip is smoother – almost like I lost a minute layer of skin – and I have two subtle ridges where the mouthpiece touches my lip. These ridges were more pronounced last week but the difference in the smoothness of the skin hasn’t changed.

So…..yesterday, being very frustrated, I tried my Moosewood mouthpiece again. I played a few phrases with it and then the same phrases with the Laskey and back and forth like that for about 15 minutes. The two things I detected were a subtle change in tone – the Moosewood sounded a tad brassier – and the Moosewood felt a little funny. It didn’t have that aah factor like when you put on your favorite comfy sweatshirt. For the rest of practice –  I toughed it out for about 45 minutes – I used the Laskey.

I’m not sure what to do. Visually the rims on the two mouthpieces look very similar. The shanks are different. Is it possible that the change in shank style could cause this change in my chops? I suspect that the culprit is the rim. My Moosewood has a screw on rim and the Laskey doesn’t. I don’t think Moosewood has a cup shaped mouthpiece. Are there manufacturers that have cup shaped mouthpieces that I can screw on my Moosewood rim? Should I stick with the Laskey I have and hope that my chops get better? I’m tempted to use the Moosewood today and see how it goes though it may just add to my problems.

Slippery slope –>

Horn decision

Well, I finally have my new horn. All of you who have been reading my blog from the beginning know that the new Hoyer that I purchased at the end of December 2008 played sharp. After months of aggravation I received a new tuning slide from Hoyer in August. The tuning slide solved the problem in that the pros that I took it to gave it a clean bill of health. I was still struggling playing the horn in tune and I had to decide what I wanted to do. I have to say that during these months of frustration with the Hoyer I really stopped liking the horn. Because of the intonation issue I played other horns at IHS and at the Barry Tuckwell Institute and got a feeling for what else was out there and there were definitely horns that I liked better.

I had several options:

1. Keep the Hoyer and deal with fixing my intonation problems and my general feelings about the horn.
2. Sell the Hoyer and go back to my Yamaha for a while.
3. Sell the Hoyer and my Yamaha and get a better horn.

Although keeping my Hoyer and learning to play it in tune probably would make me a better hornist I just was not enjoying playing it and that is the most important thing to me. 95% of the time I play by myself and it was just too frustrating dealing with it so about a month ago I left it with Scott Bacon, the dealer I bought it from, for him to sell it for me. I’m sure it’s a great horn for someone, just not me.

While I was going thru all this with the Hoyer I got my Yamaha 668 back into tip top shape. I spent some time playing both the Hoyer and the Yamaha and decided that I did make the right decision to buy the Hoyer. Although the intonation on the Yamaha is good, there were other things about it that made it harder than the Hoyer for me to play. So I brought the Yamaha up to Scott’s to sell before I left the Hoyer there.

When I dropped off the Yamaha Scott loaned me a gold brass Dieter Otto 180K horn to try for a few weeks. There was no question that I enjoyed playing this horn more than the Hoyer. For one thing, my intonation was pretty good. My articulation was better, notes were clean, I had fewer clams and I could play high Bb and C relatively easily. I could hardly ever get those notes on the Hoyer. Getting this Otto sounds like a no brainer but several pros cautioned me against buying it because it was gold brass, probably wouldn’t have as good a resale value as a yellow brass horn, the Otto brand wasn’t well known in the US and because the sound got harsher when the horn was really played loud.

I went back up to Scott’s three weeks later and tried a yellow brass Otto 180k and a yellow brass Otto 166. I wasn’t comfortable playing the 166 but the yellow brass Otto was very similar to the gold brass Otto. The biggest difference between the two was that the sound of the yellow brass Otto was a bit brighter. It may even have played slightly easier but not by much. I left the Hoyer at Scott’s and took both the gold and yellow brass Ottos home to try. I played both horns and liked the yellow brass Otto slightly better. During this time I thought it would be a good idea to go up to Ken Pope’s shop and try some of his horns. I didn’t ever end up going there because my mother ended up in the hospital and I just couldn’t squeeze in a trip to Boston.

I had the Ottos on loan when Scott got in a Lewis and Durk horn that I wanted to try so I headed up to Scotts again ( 3 hours one way) last Thursday and spent at least two hours trying the L & D horn and comparing it to the Ottos. I couldn’t come to a decision so I stayed in Fishkill, NY overnight and went back to Scotts in the morning and played the three of them again for another three hours. I finally decided that I really liked the Lewis and Durk horn. The intonation was flawless as was pretty much everything else. The tone was bright but had a lot of color. However it has more resistance than the Ottos and I was having some trouble centering notes. I liked the horn a lot and decided that I could deal with the learning curve so I wrote Scott a check and took my new horn home.

Saturday morning I took the horn out to practice and it was a disaster. In my music room, formerly our living room, I couldn’t get a nice tone quality from the horn even though it sounded great when I played it at Scott’s studio. My music room has great acoustics so this was very surprising and very frustrating. I clammed more notes than I got and generally had a miserable time. The same was true Saturday afternoon and Sunday. I didn’t sleep very well over the weekend. I was trying to convince myself that my chops were just dead and that it wasn’t the horn but I didn’t have another horn at home to test it against.

Monday morning I went up to Scott’s yet again and spent another three hours playing the three horns. Of course I played the L & D horn just fine up there. I also had Scott play the horns so I could hear the differences when someone who plays well played them. I was having a really hard time deciding which horn to pick when Scott asked me if I had to make an instant decision that was non-reversable what would I pick and I said an Otto immediately. Having had them as loaners for many weeks I knew how they were and there wasn’t any uncertainty about how I played on them.

The next step was to pick one of the two Ottos. I was leaning toward the yellow brass Otto when Scott put a gold brass hand hammered bell on the gold brass horn. Wow. The horn had a gorgeous rich sound even when played very loud which was one of it’s issues. One of the other issues was the resale value of the horn. I decided that I am buying a horn for my enjoyment and if I should ever decide to sell it whatever its value is will be okay with me. Now the choice between the yellow brass horn and the gold brass horn was easy so I am now the owner of a new gold brass Otto. At band last night the first hornist told me how good I sounded and that my intonation was excellent. Hallelujah.

Frustration –>


I had an audition Sunday for placement into an adult chamber music program at SUNY Stony Brook. This is the first audition that I have had since I started playing again. It’s a really good thing that this was only for placement – i.e. which ensemble I should be put in – rather than acceptance into the program itself.

Sunday morning I warmed up really carefully and then played thru my audition piece, Strauss’ Nocturno. My chops weren’t in the best shape but they were okay considering that I started on a new mouthpiece the week before. The audition was at 3 pm and I was able to warm up again for about 15 minutes before I had to play. I played really, really well during this warm up so I went in to the audition with a marginal amount of confidence.

Well, I couldn’t have played worse if I tried. It was absolutely awful. The funny thing was I didn’t feel very nervous but clearly I was. I played really badly. I’m going to have to find opportunities to play in front of people. Not only was this my first audition, it was the first time I played in front of anyone other than my horn teachers. I’m not counting playing in band or in the horn choirs I played in at IHS and the Barry Tuckwell Institute. I have no problem playing in band rehearsals or concerts even when I have an exposed part. I think being mostly invisible helps.

At the audition it didn’t help that the lady listening to me told me, before I started the audition, that my playing was ‘stunning.’ That is a term that I would save for the horn masters of the world. I guess she must have heard me out in the hall when I was warming up and was thinking ‘this is an adult amateur who is playing very well’. I know she’s heard hornists who play a thousand times better than I do because she was in an ensemble with Lynn, my horn teacher, last year. Anyway, if I was nervous before I walked into the room, this put me off the charts.

Every now and then, and only when I am alone, I actually play like I used to and I’m capable of putting together a musical phrase without any clams and with really nice tone. Definitely not stunning but decent. It doesn’t happen often but it’s what keeps me going. I know that if I can play really beautifully once eventually I will be able to do it more often.  And hopefully I will be able to do it in front of other people. I still can’t play well when I’m recording myself so I have a long way to go dealing with nerves. I guess the only remotely good thing about this audition is that I will probably be placed in a group that will be somewhat easy for me which will help with the nerves when we perform in January. The downside is that it will be less challenging.

Horn decision –>