Yesterday was both a frustrating and then a very rewarding day. My practice session in the morning was pretty bad. My warmup routine was okay but it usually is. Then I rested for 20 minutes and began practicing the etudes I’m working on. This week they are in the Preparatory Melodies book by Pottag. They don’t look hard but I always struggle through them. Yesterday I couldn’t play the stacatto notes cleanly and I just missed more notes than I got.
After the etudes I moved on to the Gliere Concerto in Bb. I’m about 1/3 through the first movement. Usually I don’t have range issues with this piece but I could barely play the E at the end of the opening arpeggio and the F at the beginning of the main theme just wasn’t happening. After that it only got worse. I moved on to working on scales and even they went poorly. I took another 20 minute break and then persevered playing in the middle range to get my hour in.
I wasn’t expecting much for my afternoon session but what a surprise. I played better than I have since I started playing again, maybe even better than I used to play. Every note was clean. Range was no issue. I got to the D above high C pretty easily. I was able to actually play musically instead of worrying about just getting the notes. I always try to play musically but when I’m constantly splatting notes it’s pretty hard to play a nice phrase. I can’t believe I’m saying this but the part of the Gliere I’m working on was almost easy. I moved on to Strauss 1 with similar results.
I’ve had my share of horn misery over the past two months but it’s rewarding practice sessions like this one that keep me going. I know that someday I will play like I did yesterday afternoon more often than not. I just hope that ‘someday’ comes sooner than later.
Passing on –>
I practice in twenty minute intervals with, typically, a twenty minute rest in between each session. I do this twice a day playing for an hour each time. I’ve always felt that the twenty minute rests weren’t long enough to settle into doing something else so I put on the TV or do some crossword puzzles on my computer or do both.
I practice in my living room sitting about 5 feet away from my piano. Earlier this week I had one of those ‘well duh’ moments and realized that I can do something very worthwhile as I wait twenty minutes for my chops to recover. I can practice the piano. What a concept. It makes a lot of sense to do this. For one thing, I enjoy playing the piano even though I’m close to a beginner on it. I took lessons when I was a kid but stopped when I started the horn. At this point my horn playing capability is considerably better than my piano playing capability. But more importantly, by playing the piano I can improve my sight reading and get better at reading the base clef without using my chops. Although I haven’t tried it yet, I imagine I can work on transposition as well. It’s too bad I didn’t think of this a year ago.
Four days ago I wrote about how I thought I had finally gotten through the mouthpiece fiasco. I was wrong. Monday morning’s practice was pretty bad and at my band rehearsal that evening I could barely play. I would have chalked this up to a random bad day except that Tuesday and Wednesday were just as bad if not worse. I’m playing the horn to have fun and enjoy making music. I haven’t had much fun during the past six weeks. Yesterday morning I was practicing and I was so frustrated that I felt like throwing the horn through the window.
I’ve been using my Laskey mouthpiece since the end of September. I went back to the Moosewood for a day or two here and there because I was struggling so much with the Laskey but I have been, for almost the whole time, sticking with it. I know that using the Moosewood at all during this time was not a good idea but it’s very hard to keep sticking with something that’s not working.
Yesterday afternoon I took the Moosewood out again and made a decision to stick with it no matter what. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and mine has been telling me to use the Moosewood for weeks now. I’ve been sticking with the Laskey because it is ‘supposed’ to be a better mouthpiece for my Otto horn with it’s bowl shaped cup and I promised Scott Bacon that I wouldn’t change back to the Moosewood until I saw him at my next lesson. Well, I’ve broken my promise but ironically he called me today to ask about the mouthpiece problem and, after I went through telling him about all the trouble I’ve been having, he told me to switch back to the Moosewood. (I didn’t mention that I had already done that the day before.) What a relief. I feel like a huge load has been taken off my shoulders.
As I expected, I played very well – ‘very well’ meaning that I was happy with the way I was playing – yesterday afternoon and today. It’s so nice to just pick up the horn, especially since it’s a brand new horn, and just enjoy playing. I expect that I will experience a set back in a week or so but I am just going to have to get through it.
Adding piano –>
I think I have finally turned the corner from my mouthpiece disaster and lower lip bite. Just under two weeks ago I settled on using the Laskey mouthpiece even though I didn’t really want to. I decided that I had to trust Scott Bacon who I bought my Otto horn from and who really wanted me to use the Laskey with this geyer wrap horn.
After about four days of pure misery, including numbness and pain on top of the awful playing and biting my lip three times on Friday and Saturday, last Sunday things started getting better. I had a band concert that afternoon and I played really well despite the lower lip bites and the changed mouthpiece. I couldn’t play at all Saturday but Sunday morning I warmed up and didn’t feel too bad. Then I did some flexibility exercises before the concert. We did a two hour program with a 20 minute intermission and I was okay, with some occasional pain, through the whole thing.
During this week I’ve had a few revelations as I struggled with the mouthpiece and the bites. One had nothing to do with the either of those. Our conductor brought in two extra college students for the concert bringing our horn section from five to seven. One doubled me on 4th and I asked her to sit to my left so she wouldn’t hear me and my inevitable mistakes and so I could hear her. I learned what playing the horn loud means. Now I understand why my teachers tell me I’m not playing loud when I think I am.
I also think that a large part of my mouthpiece struggle was due to endurance. A new mouthpiece uses, to some extent, different muscles. My first 20 minutes of warm ups were always fine. The awful playing started after about ten minutes into my second practice session and I really couldn’t play after about 45 minutes (this includes the first 20 minutes). That’s about where I was a year ago. Now I’m almost back to my usual two hours. On Thursday I made it through an hour and ten minutes of practice followed by an hour long lesson later that afternoon.
I noticed that once I start playing poorly my bottom teeth start digging into my lower lip. With the bite injury I have there it gets quite painful. When this happens I can barely get to middle C when I try to do a low C arpeggio. Usually I can get to 3rd space C easily and many times to the E above that. If I pay very close attention to how I set my horn on my face I can then play those arpeggios to 3rd space C and when I go back to what I was practicing my tone gets much better. So somewhere along the way as my endurance lags I must be subtly changing my embouchure in a bad way to cope with it.
I’ve had my share of lip injuries – tearing skin off with ice cubes, banging mouthpieces and water bottles into my lips, biting the inside of my lower lip – since I started playing again. Reading Julia Rose’s blog about her recent injury reminded me of them and how I deal with playing while hurt. Julia talks about first getting a more minor injury where she expected to play after a day or two followed by a significantly worse injury that demands a solid rest from horn playing. I always try to play through the pain, which I imagine is a bad idea, because I worry a lot about taking breaks from practicing. When I was sick back in June and didn’t play for close to a week it took a few days to recover from not playing. Plus I actually enjoy practicing and I don’t know what to do with myself when I have those extra hours. I’m retired and I play for fun and if I don’t play well the only person it effects is me. Concerns about injuries must be a lot worse for professionals.
I use Vitamin E and ChopSaver lip balm when I have an open wound on my lips. ChopSaver is the best lip balm I’ve ever used and my non brass playing family swears by it too. (I promise I don’t own stock in the company.) I’ve been putting ChopSaver directly on the wound in my lower lip and it is really helping. It should have gone away by now but I keep re-biting it. I did try Ambesol on it but it also got on my lips and I learned what feeling numb really feels like. I think I wasn’t as numb as I thought I was using the Laskey mouthpiece. I thought briefly about playing while the Ambesol was doing it’s thing but I’ve used up my being stupid quotient for the month.
Mouthpieces again –>