11 Years!

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.

The New Normal ???

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.

International Horn Symposium

I’ll be attending the International Horn Symposium in Macomb, IL early next month. This will be my first symposium and it will be a fantastic learning experience for me. I’m really looking forward to going.

Their website says: Study horn playing with guest artists and distinguished horn teachers.

  • Enjoy directed playing experiences in classes, clinics, and horn choirs
  • Visit exhibitors to discuss horn study and playing
  • Compete in solo performance, orchestral playing, horn ensembles and jazz solo performance
  • Participate in clinics on specialized topics of technique, literature, and performance
  • Experience outstanding performances and presentations by guest artists and contributing artists of solo and chamber music for the horn


If any of you are planning to attend and would like to meet at the symposium please leave a comment and I’ll come up with a plan.

A really good lesson –>

Horn playing, breathing, and…cancer?

Good Morning America (GMA) had an interesting topic about energy this morning. They had an interview with fitness expert Jim Karas who was touting his new book “The 7 Day Energy Surge” wherein he exposes the bad habits that sabotage energy.

One of the bad habits he talks about is breathing incorrectly. He says that we need to breath deeply all the time or we are simply recycling the old air. Karas says, “70% of our toxins are released through our breath.” Then he goes on to say that, “One of the biggest ways you can help survive cancer is through breathing because cancer cells cannot properly multiply in a well oxygenated environment.” You can see the entire segment here: http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=7447414.

So how does this relate to the horn? (Here comes the obvious part.) We all breathe deeply when we play. But I only breathe deeply when I play or sometimes when I exercise. Even though I’ve frequently heard doctors, fitness experts and other ‘experts’ talk about breathing properly as part of improving our health, I pay attention for a few minutes and then go about my business breathing the way I always do. I bet I’m not the only one. I would never had guessed that breathing deeply has anything to do with keeping cancer cells from multiplying (or – my thought alone – occurring in the first place.)

This segment on GMA has me wondering if there is a reduced incidence of cancer in brass players compared to the general population. Some doctoral candidate may want to look into that. But more importantly, I’m going to try to remember to breathe better when I’m not playing my horn. There is no downside and if Jim Karras is right in his theory about breathing and cancer, wow.

Band rehearsal does not equal practice –>


In my effort to find everything I can about the horn and music in general on the web, I came across the Adaptistration site written by Drew McManus. TAFTO, Take a Friend to The Orchestra month, which is in April, is his brainchild and is a wonderful idea. But as I was reading about it I realized that even more important was to take me to the orchestra. Ahem.

I’ve been very lax about attending orchestra concerts. In fact I haven’t been to one in my area in many years. Shame on me. (I did go see La Boheme a few years ago in NYC but that doesn’t really count as local.) In my defense, when I was gainfully employed in a marketing career, I traveled extensively and did attend a few concerts in cities that I was visiting.

Why not when I was at home? Two reasons (excuses?). One, basically I’m lazy and since I live in Long Island, NY I thought that the NY Phil was my only choice. A trip into Manhattan is at least a two hour drive and it just didn’t seem worth the effort. Two, with all the traveling for my job and raising four kids, I was perpetually exhausted and the last thing I wanted to do was go out. Sometimes I had to head out of town without much notice so buying advance tickets to anything was risky.

I’m being brutally honest here. Local orchestras near me weren’t even on my radar screen. I just didn’t realize there were any close by. (I define close by as a maximum 45 minute drive.) I know many of you are thinking how could this be but I think of LI as a sprawling suburb of NYC and if I want to do anything cultural I have to go into the city to do it. I lived in Manhattan when I was a kid and then in the suburbs about twenty minutes commute from Manhattan so that’s what my mindset was. Once I took up the horn again I did search out who the local orchestras are but I still haven’t attended a concert.

I come from a family of musicians. My grandfather founded the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and my mother was a professor of composition for something like 50 years and chair of the department for many of them at the Manhattan School of Music. I did attend concerts at MSM but that really isn’t supporting one’s local orchestra. Growing up in that environment exacerbated my NYC only mindset. Everything we did was in the city. Granted when I was a kid my parents had to drag me to concerts but that evolved into a true love of music and attending concerts was a big part of that. You’d think that with my family history I’d be going to concerts all the time.

I’ve been reading about the financial problems that are plaguing our orchestras. It’s heartbreaking and to think that my lack of attendance contributed, even in a very small way, to this makes me feel even worse. To those of you who read my blog and play in an orchestra, which I suspect is almost everyone, I offer many mea culpas. I hope that my revelations here don’t stop you from reading my blog.

My search to find the orchestras near me was not easy. Most of the ones I now know about I learned of through word of mouth.  Some of them have a web presence but none of them showed up in Google, the Long Island Philharmonic notwithstanding. I wonder how many more people, especially those not part of the inner circle of musicians, would attend concerts if they knew about them.  I know when I was promoting my band concert a couple of months ago almost everyone I spoke to was thrilled to hear about a nearby concert and at least ten of the people I spoke to attended.

Back to TAFTO. As I read more and more about many orchestras’ need to reduce their concert schedule for budget reasons the voice in my head said ‘you should go.’ It’s reading and thinking about TAFTO that has changed that voice to ‘you must go.’ Not out of obligation but because I love music and want to go. It’s the impetus that will get me there. I will find and attend at least one concert in the next several weeks and I’ll bring a friend.

All of this begs the question of why would I write this blog? Actually I’m wondering myself. But even if only one person reads this who hasn’t been to a concert lately (in the audience) ends up going it’s worth it. And if they bring a few friends with them, even better.

Very sincerely,

Click here to find out more about TAFTO.


It’s all about the air –>

YouTube Symphony

In the days of the struggling orchestras in the US along comes the YouTube Symphony.  When YouTube first announced this endeavor I really didn’t pay much attention, in fact I paid so little attention that I thought they were going to try to play together over Skype or some other online technology.  A live performance? What a fantastic idea. Now I wish I had paid more attention. After all I live in Long Island and Carnegie Hall is a mere 2 hours (and lots of practice, LOL) away. Ah, missed opportunities….

One of the goals of the YouTube Orchestra was to expose young people to classical music. Halleluliah! Maybe there really is hope for our beloved orchestras. There were 3000 auditioners and 15 million voters during the audition process. Carnegie Hall was sold out last night and the concert was reviewed favorably by all the major news groups and broadcast networks.

The auditions were open to anyone. An opportunity to play in an orchestra was given to some who would never be able to do anything like this in their lifetime. I was a bit surprised that only 3000 auditioned. But, I have not heard whether the selected musicians were given travel money. That would be a big show-stopper for most musicians.

I’ve heard two negative comments – One, the auditions were only open to technically savvy people. Well, technology runs our lives now and I don’t have a problem with this. If it takes uploaded video auditions to bring classical music to the younger generation I say go for it. Two, the entire pieces weren’t performed. With the diversity of the musicians in the orchestra and the audience, I think this was a smart choice. A broad spectrum of music was selected and the best of this music was performed.

Thank goodness someone at YouTube had the brains and the courage to promote such an event. After all, as one of the reviewers commented, they could have picked basketball.

Too bad the reviewers and the news networks couldn’t have added one sentence, “If you enjoyed listening to the YouTube Orchestra and would like to hear more of this wonderful classical music please support your local symphony orchestra.”

Today’s Practice Session 😦 –>

Bits and pieces

Some non connected things I have learned:

Screwbells – If you are a klutz like me don’t get one. Just kidding, well only partially kidding. My Yamaha is a fixed bell horn so this screwing on the bell thing is new to me.  My bell from my new Hoyer has recently spent too many seconds flying through the air. I was trying to insert into the bell sleeve in my Marcus Bonna case. Fortunately I caught it but there is now a thumb and finger squeeze type dent in the bell and a ding in the body of the horn where the bell hit the horn. I also find aligning the body of the horn to the bell difficult. The horn is heavy and if I don’t get both sides lined up quickly I have to put the horn down, rest for a second, and try again.  However, If you are going to travel with your horn, a screw bell is almost mandatory.

Horns on the floor – Don’t do it. It’s so tempting to just set it down and go answer the phone or whatever. But until you take a flying leap over it and just barely miss the horn you may not appreciate this advice.

Grease those slides – You will inevitably ding the bell as you try to yank out the third valve crooks.

Don’t eat and blow – Be nice to your lead pipe please.

Be careful snaking – If you try to use a snake to clean out your horn, don’t push it so far into the valves that it gets stuck. It’s really, really hard to yank it back out. And the heart attack you get as you ponder what you’ve done isn’t pleasant.

Horn to mouth disease – Be careful bringing your horn to your mouth. Banging the mouthpiece on your lip is painful. Two times and counting so far.

Watch those risers – it’s not that funny when your chair falls backwards off the riser during the Star Spangled Banner.

Sleeping on the job – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yx6N5lGlbZY&feature=email_. Watch to at least 50 seconds. Just in case you can’t tell, this is not me.

Lesson with a pro – Make sure you know your F horn fingerings – yes, all of them. Nuff said.

Count rests – Don’t come in a measure early when playing Fanfare for the Common Man.

Watch what you say – Don’t ask the 1st horn player what brand of ear plugs he uses when he’s actually removing his hearing aids.

Taking practice notes –  If you are going to review what you’ve written write more meaningful notes than ‘yuck’.

Watch for part 2. I’m sure there will be more.

After the meltdown and the Balanced Embouchure –>

Twitter, Huh?

WordPress – the host of my blog – is proudly announcing that I can add Twitter to my blog. My first reaction was oh, how interesting. Everybody is tweeting these days. Then I started to think about it and what would I say? Should I ‘tweet’ that at this very moment I am writing the first paragraph of my post about Twitter? I can’t imagine for the life of me why anyone would want to know this. Okay – maybe, just maybe, someone might want to know at which instant I am practicing Strauss 1. I could put my horn down and tweet that I just missed the high Bb.

I can’t believe that these news people who say they are on Twitter – so please tweet them right now – actually spend their days tweeting. (Notice that people tweet now, not just birds…of course there are those birdbrains…) Hopefully they have more important things to do. While you are at work, say at a rehearsal, would you tweet? I hope not. As an aside, at my band rehearsals there are a few folks who keep their bluetooth headset in their ears and answer their phone. Geesh.

Twitter is all the rage these days so I must be missing something. Yesterday on “The View” the ladies said (all of them) that they take their Blackberries into the bathroom so they don’t miss a tweet. I guess that’s not quite as bad as when you are on the phone with someone and you hear the toilet flush.

I did a search for French Horn Music and found a hornist that tweeted that she burned her lunch. Now that’s something I really need to know. However she also tweeted that she needed a violinist to do the Brahms Horn Trio. This makes sense to me. A great idea. Burned lunch, not so much. Maybe I’m just too old to get it.

So what do you think? Do you tweet? Should I add twitter to my blog? I’m going car shopping this afternoon (yes, I’m stimulating the economy). Do you want to know what I think? Maybe I’ll tweet at a traffic light during the test drive. You can find me on Twitter as newhornist. No guarantees that you’ll see too many tweets.

How much is too much? –>