It was in May 2008, 11 years ago, that I first took my old Yamaha horn out of the closet and embarked on this journey to play horn again. The last time I had played anything more than a few notes was in 1972. It was April 3rd, 2009 that I wrote my first post in this blog.
I have come a long way since May 2008. I hardly write in this blog anymore and that’s because now change, or actually improvement, comes very slowly. In the beginning every day came with something to write about. There were so many ups and downs. Good days, mediocre days, horrible days, frustrating days. Days when I questioned why was I doing this? Fortunately I rarely question why now. I sit in the orchestra playing my part and luxuriate in the music making and that I am a part of it.
I wrote in my first post “My goal is to play better than I did back in college and I was a pretty decent hornist even if I do say so myself.” Uh, no. I was completely clueless about what it takes to be a good hornist back then. At least I can say that now I am better than I was then so I have met that goal. But that goal needs to be updated. I think the goal needs more to be about enjoyment and less about my ability to play well. But they really are intertwined. Enjoyment comes with playing well. Most of the time I can play what’s thrown at me in orchestra so that increases my enjoyment. If I have a solo I can handle it and not fall apart in the concert. This spring’s challenge is the 3rd horn part of Brahms Academic Festival Overture. Oh those triplets. But I’ve got it. Phew.
It’s not fun to have a part in front of you that is harder than you can handle. Five years ago that’s where I was for almost everything I was attempting to play. Looking at a part that had measures in it that no matter how hard I worked to learn it, I wasn’t technically able to play it yet. I really suffered through my degree program at LIU Post. I was forced to play pieces that I really wasn’t ready to perform. Required performances and juries were terrifying. I had massive performance anxiety because my brain went to all those passages that I knew I couldn’t play. The good news is that I developed a pretty thick skin and now, along with a lot more experience and ability, that thick skin serves me well.
Another thing I wrote in my first blog entry was, “I use this time (waiting for my horn to get fixed) wisely by ordering some music books. One of the pieces I order is Strauss 1. What am I thinking? Is this hope or insanity? I haven’t played a note in decades.” Well I am performing Strauss 1 with a pianist on June 1st in NYC. It only took 11 years.
Last night I nailed my horn part in a quintet performance. I mean really nailed it. It was the best I have ever played anything. I’m at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Academy for my 6th time and last night was our chamber music concert.
So I’m thinking about the factors that contributed to this performance. We played two movements, 1 and 3, and I nailed the 3rd movement. The first movement was more typical of how I usually play. Some strong spots and some weak spots. The third movement was damn near perfect. Scary word, perfect. I know nothing is ever perfect no matter who plays it. There is always room for improvement. But in this case I think it’s the right word to use.
So back to why. I worked on my part for about 6 weeks. I worked on both movements, more on the first than the third because the first was the harder movement. One clue here is that the third movement was technically comfortable for me however the horn part was also much more exposed and had two gorgeous solos.
The little voice in my head that says, ‘I know I can play this but there’s this issue, that problem, and I hope I don’t get lost’ was in my head for the first movement but not the third.
The third movement was slow. Slow doesn’t mean easier. There are plenty of opportunities for screw ups but in my brain, the important part of this paragraph, it usually means easier. In all of my performances I’ve had both slow and fast phrases and I’ll mess something up in both of them. I think the concern about the fast parts leads to mess ups in the slow parts.
But the crux of the matter is that, unequivocally, I knew I could play this movement which leads to the most important piece of all this – confidence. I’ve walked out on stage feeling pretty confident but never totally confident. I felt rock solid about the third movement and I nailed it. No doubts in my head at all.
This leads to something about performances that I have learned the hard way. For me, not necessarily everyone, it’s important to start performing with pieces that are within my ability. During my recent years in school I had to play music that was too hard for me. Consequently many performances, especially at Post, were train wrecks. Villanelle probably the worst one. Every time I walked out on stage I knew there were parts of the piece I literally couldn’t play. I never walked out with confidence. Since Post I have been choosing pieces that were mostly within my ability and my confidence has been improving. Last night everything meshed into a great performance. The first time will not be the last time now that I know I can do it.
My horn teacher and I always talk about how old I am in horn years. We don’t count the 3 years I ‘played’ in high school and the 1st year of college. At the time I thought I knew how to play. Ha ha ha ha. No way. Junior year of high school I was given a horn and asked to give it a try. I was a cellist. Really. A pretty decent cellist for a high school student. I was in the prep orchestra at the Manhattan School of Music. Sometimes I wonder why I made the change and I don’t really have an answer. My mother liked the band director. Maybe that’s why. I love the sound of the cello and I love the sound of the horn. Beyond that they don’t really have much in common. I didn’t just stop playing the cello but over time it took a back seat to the horn.
I wasn’t given any lessons. Basically – ‘Here’s a horn. Here’s a book. Be in band with your horn at 8:30 am next Monday.’ I was already in band playing, of all things, the tymps and the glockenspiel. Those of you who know me go ahead, just keep on laughing. Either I have gotten a lot worse with rhythm since then or they were really desperate for a tymp player. Ok back to the horn. If you had asked me back in 1971 if I thought I was a good horn player I would have said yes. Now I know better. I didn’t have a clue.
So the new beginning of horn playing started in the spring of 2009. Though I think the word ‘playing’ is a bit of an exaggeration. I could make sounds and sometimes put the sounds together into something resembling a phrase. By the fall of 2010 I could play things that were recognizable tunes. Lots and lots of missed notes and chipped notes. I started school going for an associates degree in music. I was thrown into music that was really too hard for me but required. Somehow I managed to get thru it. I got lots and lots of encouragement from my teacher thank heavens. I’ve written a lot in this blog about my startup and the early years of school. After that not so much because change happened much more slowly.
So after 7 years, what’s different? Tons. For one thing, I play better. A lot better. I don’t play the wrong note that often. I’m much less likely to chip or clam a note. My slurs are getting cleaner and cleaner. Why? I am doing better using air. I’ve written about me and air more than a few times in this blog. Each time I thought I’d figured it out. But no, I hadn’t. Every 6 months or so I get another insight about what I need to do. I’m at the point now that I’m pretty sure I understand what I should do but doing it isn’t a done deal. I can hear the difference immediately so now it’s all about execution.
What else has changed? I’ve learned how to practice properly. I used to start at the top of the page and finish at the bottom. Now I zero in on the places that need the work. I rarely practice a piece from start to finish. I don’t accept what I don’t like. I work and work on it even if it’s just a couple of notes. I slow it down until I can play it right. I use the metronome. Always. Always. I can’t imagine practicing without it but my early blogs will tell a very different story. Performing is getting less scary. I performed Mozart 3 with my community band last December. I’ve listened to the recording and it’s actually pretty decent. I could never have done that the year before. I’m playing 2 movements of the Hindemith Horn Sonata in a few weeks and it’s gonna be great. I can’t wait till I’m 8.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to change my expectations of how I play and how I will perform. I’ve had many teachers tell me ‘you’re better than you think you are’ and my instant reaction has always been no I’m not. Well, I’m starting to rethink that. Since last June I’ve had some performance successes that are making me realize that I have really improved but I’ve also had some hiccups along the way. So is there a way to reset one’s personal expectations and does using the thought process of ‘the new normal’ help in any way?
The new normal was a way to describe the economic downturn back in 2008. Most people had to reset their expectations, particularly their financial expectations, and do with less. But is there any reason to associate the new normal only with downturns? It seems that the term could equally apply to upturns though it’s not typically used that way.
So back to horn playing. How one internalizes how they play is completely subjective. It’s not like baseball where you have a batting average that tells you and everyone else exactly how good you are. You know how you are doing over time and how you did in any game. We don’t have a batting average – 30 misses out of 100 notes equals what really? One flubbed note in a long solo equals what? Our heads are our own worst enemy.
Back to me. I had three performance successes – where I felt I played well – recently and I realized that I can change my mindset from my old normal – ‘I always screw up performances’ – to my new normal – ‘I play well in performances.’ Since how you think is usually how you do it’s way better to go into a performance assuming you will do well.
Now for the hiccups. I took a two week vacation in September and I didn’t bring my horn. Before that I hadn’t missed more than three days in a row. When I resumed practicing I played badly for several weeks and I was really unhappy and frustrated. I would have had a better mindset if I just reset my expectations to my new normal – not playing as well as I had before I went on vacation. It is what it is and it’s better just to accept it.
Then when I finally got back to where I was before vacation I had surgery on my right hand and had a monster bandage that filled up my entire bell. I really couldn’t play. I was flipping off notes all the time and my sound was awful. Once I got the bandage off and a cast on my playing improved ever so slightly. I really had a new normal that I had to accept. The alternative was a whole lot of negative thinking with a trip down the rabbit hole.
I don’t think resetting one’s expectations is appropriate for changes over short time frames. For example if you think you play badly one day or one week. But if there is a change that will be more long term, negative or positive, maybe it makes sense to put a label on it. Is it your new normal? Say yes and you’ll be happier for it.