My school journey – the first two years

Back in the spring of 2010 I decided that it would be a good idea to learn some theory. I went over to Suffolk County Community College and tried to register for a theory class beginning in the fall. They said no, you have to enroll in the music department and be a full-time student. Oh boy. And you have to pass a music equivalency test or take a music basics class over the summer and convince the music department to accept you. Huh? This is a community college. At least I didn’t have to audition. I opted to take the summer class since I had no formal music education and when the class began I realized that I knew nothing. Fortunately I did well in this class and I decided to continue as a full time student. I was thrown into theory, aural skills, piano fundamentals, and of course horn lessons, ensembles and juries. OMG.

When I started classes I worried a bit about how the other students would react to having someone older than their mothers in their classes. I didn’t need to worry. The kids were great. For about two weeks they weren’t sure how to talk to me but we all got comfortable with each other and I was treated like any other student. What a relief.

In the beginning of the first semester I didn’t do well and I really¬†didn’t understand why. I had no trouble understanding the lectures but I wasn’t passing my tests. I took a careful look at my incorrect answers and realized that I was reversing the alphabet constantly. If the answer required building an interval a major second above C I would start on Bb instead of D. All the time. Even when I figured out what I was doing and went back over the answers I still messed up the alphabet.

I went for testing and found out that I’m dyslexic. Wow, that explains a lot. I was given twice the time to take tests and usually by my third or fourth pass over my answers I found all the mistakes. If I hadn’t figured this out I wouldn’t have made it past the first semester. Some of the issues I still face due to the dyslexia is an inability to play scales even though I work on them every day. My sight reading is atrocious as is playing the correct rhythm. It’s all slowly getting better. I’ve done a lot of research on musicians with dyslexia and my problems are typical. For a while I used this as an excuse for why I couldn’t do some things but recently I finally realized that it was just going to take me longer to learn and that this is okay. I’m also coming up with different ways to learn. No more excuses, no more ‘can’t do that.’

On to year two. The classes were a continuation of year one except instead of piano I had music history. That has to be the hardest class I’ve taken so far. Brutal. There were many times during that fall semester that I wanted to quit. I was really overwhelmed and I constantly questioned why I was putting myself through this. However, I didn’t quit and I got my associates degree. The next step, Long Island University, Post Campus.

School and other frustrations

So my second year back in school is going okay but it’s a lot harder than last year. My biggest challenge is my aural skills class. I used to have a good ear, or at least I though I did, but I’m having real problems hearing intervals, inversions, and chord progressions. Plus, rhythm. Oh boy. There’s that song – ‘the rhythm is gonna get you’ – truer words could not be said. Rhythm dictation is not going well. It’s frustrating to struggle with something and not see much improvement. In my other classes I can study until I learn the material. In this class it feels like more of an innate thing that over time should get better but possibly not at the speed necessary to pass the class.

I was worried about my music history class and memorizing composers, dates, titles and the like but I think that’s going to be okay. It’ll take work, but I can handle that. Theory is an interesting beast. We’re studying secondary dominant chords and modulation along with writing four part chorales right now. There are so many things to remember that I sometimes end up making really stupid mistakes. Aaaargh. One of the really good things about school is that all my teachers are really great. My classes are very interesting and the teachers are superb at explaining their subjects.

Horn wise, I am definitely playing better than I did last year but I still get frustrated and I still have bad days. Not as many as I used to have but enough to get me down in the dumps now and then. Fortunately I don’t have bad weeks anymore and I can eventually figure out what I’m not doing that I should be doing. Usually it’s air or the lack thereof.

My biggest frustration is that I can’t find an orchestra to play in. In my first semester at school I took orchestra and it was interesting but not that fulfilling because I was the only wind player. It took me a while to get used to being the only one but I did and I enjoyed it, especially the dress rehearsal and concert when we did finally have a full complement of players. For the spring semester I opted to play with the band and wind ensemble but I really missed the orchestra. That led me to audition and get into a small orchestra in New York City.¬† I played with them last spring and enjoyed it but they changed their rehearsal time for this fall and, sadly, the new time just doesn’t work for me. Back to the search. So far, no dice except that I got permission to sit with (not play) the horn section of a good Long Island orchestra that rehearses a few minutes from my house. On one hand it feels really weird but on the other, I am learning something. I follow the music and I get to hear good horn players. There’s a possibility that I’ll be able to fill in now and then and play with them in the summer. At least I’ve got the first inch of my big toe in the door.

School Recap

Last week I finished my first year back in school. I did well and really enjoyed the experience. The mundane silly stuff that I was worried about – parking and walking to class from the lot on ice and snow – was a non-issue. I had some concerns about fitting in with the kids but that wasn’t an issue either. Everyone was as nice as they could be and even started including me in conversations after a few weeks.

In the first semester I struggled a bit with theory not because I didn’t understand it but because I kept making stupid mistakes. I finally realized that I was inverting letters of the alphabet. For example, if I was in the key of C and had to use the 2nd scale degree I would think B instead of D. Once I knew to check carefully for mistakes like that I started to do well in theory. I think I must have some form of dyslexia. I’ve never known my right from my left without checking which arm my watch is on and I’m not good at the alphabet unless I sing the ABC song. I switch the sequence of phone numbers all the time.

This leads me to my biggest problem which is playing scales. I’ve been practicing scales every day since I started playing the horn again. I know C by rote. I am just getting D and Bb by rote. The scales that I have to think about I mess up every time. I’ll get lost halfway through the scale or forget what scale I’m playing or think the wrong note. If I know the note I’m at I don’t have a problem knowing if it’s natural, sharp or flat but remembering that F comes after E is a problem. Going backwards is close to impossible. My problem with scales has hurt my jury grades and somehow I’m going to have to learn them.

I was talking to a horn teacher and friend of mine a few weeks ago and she was telling me that she’s teaching a high school student who is an excellent horn player but has the same problems with scales. She suggested working on just one scale at a time until I know it by rote and then moving on to the next one. I’ve been working on G for about a week now. At this rate maybe I’ll know the major scales by the end of the summer.

My second biggest problem is identifying intervals. I still can’t reliably identify major and minor thirds, especially harmonically. Since I’m having trouble with thirds, I have trouble identifying triads and their inversions. It also seems that the more I work at it the worse I get. For the most part I don’t have trouble with melodic dictation. I listen for reference notes and then figure out the intervals in the dictation from there. I do fine with sight singing also. I’m going to work on intervals everyday over the summer so I hope I get them in my ear by the time Aural Skills 3 starts in the fall.

With horn playing my challenges are still air and rhythm. I finally understand what it is that I need to do with air but very frequently I don’t remember to do it. I think once using air correctly becomes a habit my horn playing will improve a lot. For rhythm I practice with a metronome but I still have an amazing capacity to completely block it out. I must have at least six different metronomes – even some that poke me or buzz on my wrist – but none of them stop me from blocking them out. I have at least gotten to the point that after a few measures I realize that I’m not with the metronome anymore.

My last issue that has been plaguing me since the fall is my sound. I’ve already blogged about this but gosh it’s driving me crazy. My sound is overly bright and I’ve been playing around with different horns trying to find one that warms and darkens my sound. I love my Otto horn except for the sound I get from it. That’s a big ‘except’. My horn feels like an old friend, sort of like a favorite flannel shirt and I hate the thought of changing horns but this sound thing is making me miserable. I’m also still a novice so it’s probably not the best time to change horns. On the other hand, I’m playing the horn because I love playing the horn and not liking my sound makes playing a lot less fun. I’ve tried different right hand positions, different posture, and putting the horn on my chops at different angles but nothing seems to help. I wish a genie would just pop out of a bottle and grant my wish for a better sound on my Otto horn.

The past few weeks

This semester feels harder than last semester was and I’m not sure why. Some of it is that I’m doing a bit more non-school stuff and another thing is that my piano class is pure torture. I dread going to class. My personality and my way of learning is a total opposite to how the piano teacher is teaching the class. She runs (literally – she’s even leaped over piano benches) around the classroom stopping at each student and says ‘play this.’ If you make any mistake she corrects it instantly – “no, that’s the third finger” or “that’s a Bb” and she does it so fast that I don’t digest what she said and I just make the change like a robot. I need to fix my own mistakes to learn unless I get into real trouble figuring out a passage. I find my hands shaking and of course that leads to more errors. New pieces or techniques that she teaches in class she expects us to learn in about 5 minutes. There isn’t a prayer that I can do that. We are expected to practice a minimum of one hour per day which is more than the requirement for our major instruments. Of course I try to practice the horn at least two hours a day and one or the other gets shortchanged. Usually it’s piano so I am struggling in this class.

On the positive side, I’m doing well in theory class and I really enjoy it. We’re doing four part chorals and it’s lots of fun. Lots of rules to follow but I’m good at things that I get specific instructions for. I like my aural skills class but I am realizing that I don’t have the ear I used to have. I am most worried about this class.

The band situation that I wrote about has finally improved. The student who plays first horn and who can’t seem to leave his cell phone alone whenever he’s not playing got caught by a guest soloist we had the other day. He now has to put his cell phone on the piano near the conductor. He has also been replaced as section leader. However, he doesn’t know what to do with himself when he’s not playing so at the last rehearsal he spent his time writing his name in his bell with spit.

In my last blog I mentioned that I auditioned for a community orchestra in NYC. Well, I got in. Yay. We rehearse on Sunday mornings and since I live about and 1 hour, forty five minutes from the venue and the rehearsal is 2 1/2 hours I lose most of Sunday for studying. I’ve been to two rehearsals so far and losing Sunday for studying and piano practice is turning into a challenge though I don’t regret playing in the orchestra at all. I’ve been trying to find an orchestra to play in for a long time. It seems quite easy to find community bands to play in and very hard to find orchestras to play in.

Since the fall my horn teacher has been working with me on my sound and we’ve really zeroed in on sound for the past two weeks. I’ve been doing a lot of listening to pro horn players on CDs and also listening to my teacher play and the other horn students play. I’ve been told that my sound is too bright and I agree and it’s frustrating me. My husband says I sound more like a trombone than a horn. I’ve been working on opening my throat and using different vowel sounds and that helps a bit but not enough to solve the problem. I was able to test a Conn 8D, a Paxman, and a Reynolds and I sound much better on all these horns. They have other challenges but at least I can get the sound I want. My horn is only a year and a half old so I can’t really afford to replace it yet but this isn’t the ‘forever’ horn I had hoped it would be. I’ve got the Conn and the Reynolds on loan for a while so maybe I’ll be able to get past the challenges – like my high range on the Conn and a very painful hand position on the Reynolds. My jury exam is on May 6th. Maybe I’ll use one of these horns for the jury so I have a sound closer to what the judges are expecting.

 

Updates – School

I returned to school as a full time music student back in September. My plan had been to just take an ear training class and maybe a theory class but it turned out that our local community college required enrollment in all of their music classes. It was not possible to just take one class so I dove in and signed up as a full time music student.

In order to get into the music program I first had to take a music fundamentals class over the summer. I had the option to pass a test but since I didn’t have any formal music training I opted to take the class. It’s a good thing I did because I would not have passed the test. After the first week everything was new to me. Before I took this class I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.

I passed that class easily and started the full music program in the fall. This is a two year school so I need four semesters each of theory, aural skills, and applied music and two semesters each of piano and music history. The first six weeks of theory was basically a recap of the fundamentals class and then we got into new material and school got a lot harder.

I’ve discovered that it takes me much longer to do anything compared to the rest of the students in the class. Our professor will put a problem on the board or ask us to complete a set of questions in the workbook and expect that we will finish in a few minutes. Everyone does except me. He will give us homework that ‘should take half an hour’ and I spend several hours doing it. Tests are extremely challenging. I totally understand the material but I have to rush through the tests and I end up making really stupid mistakes.

I have different issues with aural skills. I used to have a really good ear. Since I started playing the horn again I’ve had problems with intonation and that was one of the reasons that I started thinking about taking an ear training class. Well I’ve learned that my good ear is not so good anymore. One of my problems is that I am having lots of trouble hearing harmonic intervals. In the first semester we got up to 5ths and sometimes I can recognize the interval instantly and other times I miss them by a mile. The farther I get from my vocal range, the harder it becomes for me to recognize the interval. Fortunately I do better with melodic intervals and therefore do reasonably well with dictation and sight singing.

Piano class was easy last semester but is much harder this semester. I have a different professor and her requirements are actually more stringent than those for our major instrument. I’m supposed to spend more time practicing the piano than I am practicing the horn. I don’t because the horn will not come in second to piano but I have to put in enough time to keep up an A grade.

Getting along with the other kids in the classes has been remarkably easy. I didn’t really know what to expect and considered ‘ugh, who’s that old lady in our class’ as a possibility. I’m very outgoing so I started to talk to them right away and fortunately after about three weeks they started to open up and talk to me and I think now that I’m thought of as just another ‘kid’ in the class except when they start cursing and then, amazingly, they apologize. My response is to thank them and point out that I have four kids and have ‘heard it all’ before.

So far I’m very happy with my decision to go back to school. I love the challenge and I’m doing well. I also have more playing opportunities than I would ever have without school. My horn lessons are going well and I’m improving slowly but steadily.