Last Sunday I performed the first movement of the Brahms Horn Trio at the adult chamber music recital at SUNY Stony Brook. This was a huge deal for me since it was my first performance for an audience, other than band concerts, since 1972. I signed up for this adult chamber music class run by Stony Brook last fall and this is the piece that I was assigned for the spring semester. I auditioned for this group for placement only and I thought I had really botched the audition. I guess not. A friend of mine also auditioned and she was placed into a wind quintet with much easier pieces. I always thought that she was a better player than me so it seemed odd to me that I was assigned the Brahms.
The first thing I did when I found out what I was playing was to call my horn teacher and ask if she thought there was any hope for me to play it successfully. I was very skeptical but she said that if I worked hard at it I could do it. To say that I have lived and breathed the Brahms for the past eight weeks would be an understatement. I played the Lowell Greer CD in my car endlessly, I studied the score, and I practiced it for hours each day.
My first rehearsal was pretty bad. I was nervous and I had a lot of trouble getting notes out of my horn. It was quite embarrassing. Fortunately our coach, the violinist, and the pianist were sympathetic and I did get better at each rehearsal. Up until the very last dress rehearsal I was having trouble with some of the rhythm in the 9/8 sections but I finally got it. I think I really tested our coach’s patience as I tried over and over again to get the rhythm right. I had no problem with it if I sang the part, it was just when I put the horn on my face that I kept missing it.
I think the performance was successful. My horn teacher said I should feel that the performance was successful if I played it at least 90% as good as the best I played it practicing. I think I did at least that. I felt good about it when we were done and several people came up to me and said it went well. I managed to get past my nervousness after the first few notes and I don’t think I missed many notes. I’ll know for sure when I hear the CD.
Next up is a performance on June 4th with the horn quartet that I am in. We are playing a Telemann piece, six pieces by Tscherepnine, and an excerpt from Der Freischutz. I am playing first horn for the 5th Tscherepnine piece so I have an opening seven bar solo. Sometimes in rehearsal I play this really well and other times it’s a disaster. Our last rehearsal is this Tuesday June 1st and I hope that I can nail the solo more than once so that I have at least some confidence at the performance.
Train wreck –>
I lasted about 20 minutes when I first picked up the horn. Then I spent months lasting only about 45 minutes until I got a tip to play for 20 minutes then rest for 20 minutes, play for 20, rest for 20 and play for 20 to push to an hour of practice daily. I did this for many months ultimately doing this on / off strategy for two practice sessions in the morning and again in the afternoon. On the days when I had band rehearsals or a lesson I could only warm up in the morning if I wanted any chops later in the day. Now I practice two hours daily, morning and afternoon, but without the 20 minute breaks. I also practice for a full hour in the morning before rehearsals or lessons. I occasionally put in three hours in a day though I do pay for that with poor endurance and/or sound quality about two days later.
I’m heading to the Barry Tuckwell Institute (BTI) again this June and we will be playing for 3 to 4 hours everyday. Last year I really, really struggled getting through all the playing and by the last day my chops were totally shot. So my plan is to try to build up to 3 hours a day, with breaks, so that I can do better at BTI.
For a long time I would have some good days followed by numerous bad days. I consider a ‘good’ day to be a day when I miss fewer notes and play with a decent sound quality. Really bad days are when I just can’t play anything right. I’ve learned that these really bad days occur when I don’t concentrate and use air properly. About six months ago I got to the point where I had about the same number of good days and bad days and they seemed to come in cycles. Three or four good days followed by three or four bad days. Over time the bad days are getting less bad. When I changed my mouthpiece to the Moosewood AW11 I started having numerous good days and only an occasional bad day. I’ve just started using a Moosewood C8 (no rim change) and so far I’m not having any problems. Practicing is much more rewarding when the good days are so frequent.
For about six months I was very diligent about taking notes during both my practice sessions and my lessons. Then I stopped taking notes altogether. I even went through the effort of designing a practice log. I only used that for a week or two. I think the reason I stopped taking notes was that I was always writing the same things which got boring. I didn’t really have a good way of capturing small increments of progress. I was also recording myself occasionally and I stopped doing that as well.
I also get lazy and don’t really woodshed the problems. I know how to practice but playing something from start to finish is more fun. I don’t spend a lot of time with scales even though I know it’s really important. I think a lot of this comes from not having a specific goal of finishing something by a certain date. Recently I got into a quartet with a recital on June 4th and I’m also doing Brahms Trio on May 23rd. I have been much more diligent about how I practice now that I have a goal. This also makes me wonder why assignments from my teachers don’t have the same effect.
Brahms Horn Trio –>
It’s been two years since I started playing the horn again and one year since I started this blog. I’ve definitely improved and I’ve been thinking about all the things that I’ve changed or worked on and what has been the most help and the least help. I’ll start with equipment which, when I started playing, I was convinced would make a big difference in how well I played. I know now that equipment has much less impact compared to perseverance and practice.
I started playing again using my old Yamaha 668. It was pretty clear quite early on that it wasn’t the best horn for me to be learning on. I had lots of trouble pushing air through it. I went on a search for a new horn and bought a Hoyer 6801 PMAL. This horn was easier for me to play and I really liked it but it had a manufacturing problem that made it play sharp. It took about six months but Hoyer finally provided a new tuning slide which solved the problem. However, by the time I got the new slide I was emotionally done with the horn. I bought a Dieter Otto 180K in gold brass and I love it.
Of course I have two years of playing under my belt now so how much is me just playing better and how much the actual horn contributes is unknown. I still have (unfortunately) both the Yamaha and the Hoyer so I could give them a try and see if I play them better than I used to.
I started with the Yamaha mouthpiece that came with the Yamaha horn. Then I found my old Bach mouthpiece and I used that for a while. At my teacher’s recommendation I switched to a Farkas MC and then I went to a Moosewood B12. Each one these changes convinced me that the mouthpiece I was trying out was “the one” for about two weeks. Then inevitably I would deteriorate to playing worse than I was with the previous mouthpiece I was using. When I bought my Otto horn I switched to a Laskey mouthpiece because I had heard that a geyer wrap horn played better with a bowl shaped mouthpiece. This mouthpiece was a disaster and probably the worst mouthpiece switch I’ve made. After the Laskey I went back to my Moosewood B12 and about 6 weeks ago I switched to a Moosewood annealed Megamoose AW11. With this mouthpiece I was missing a lot fewer notes and everything seemed to be easier however it makes the horn sound too bright. A few days ago I switched again to a Moosewood C8. This mouthpiece seems to have the same ease of playing characteristics as the AW11 but with a much nicer, darker sound. I haven’t changed rims, just the shank and I when I keep the same rim I don’t seem to run into the mouthpiece crash problem.
I’ve bought a Dennis Wick mouthpiece weight, a Moosewood stem weight and a device, which I’ve forgotten the name of, that is supposed to improve the flow of air through the horn by placing it in the tuning slide. With each one, for a week or so, I felt that they helped. In the end, they made no difference whatsoever.
I lean towards finding a mechanical solution to problems with my playing but the chances are pretty high that if I hadn’t made any of these equipment changes I would be at a similar level of playing ability as I am with the changes.
Recap – Part 2 –>
I’ve been crazy busy for the past two months and I’ve let my blogging fall behind. Between two community bands with concerts coming up now, a chamber music group and a quartet plus lessons, two hours of practice each day and the rest of life it’s been chaotic to say the least. Fortunately things are calming down and I’ll get back to posting at least weekly.
Recap – Part 1 –>