And now we are 7

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.

All sorts of stuff

Wow, I’m actually writing something in my blog. I have made it through school and now have a BS in Music with an emphasis in horn. I don’t have the actual piece of paper yet but that should show up in about a month. It took me 3 and a half years, yet the time has flown by. I am a better horn player but I still have so far to go. Sometimes it seems endless. I have mentioned numerous times in my blog that I’ve finally figured out how to use air. Well, 4 and a half years later, I finally understand what I should do but it isn’t a habit yet. When I use air correctly it makes a huge difference in how I play. I still have a lot of issues with articulation. When I think I am playing nice short notes my teacher says they sound legato. I used to have what I call ‘first note itis’ where I consistently missed the first note of a piece or phrase but that has gone away. Funny how you have to concentrate to play the horn.

My most recent ‘aha’ moment is that I’ve discovered that my mind wanders when I’m playing. I realized this a few weeks ago when I was practicing for my senior recital and I decided to write down what I was thinking. The list was huge. Everything from homework that’s due, to where to get dinner, to making an appointment to get my car serviced, to the ugly pink shorts the jogger running past my house was wearing. Somehow I’ve got to fix this. It’s better now that I’m aware of it, but it’s really got to go away entirely.

I’ve been through quite a bunch of horns since 2009. I started with a Yamaha, the one that was in the closet when I started playing again. Then a Hoyer, an Otto, a Conn 8D, a Schmid, and now an Otto 180K JN. Geesh. I adore the Otto and will probably play it forever. For anyone who thinks a different horn will make them a better player, forget it. Different horns will give you different sound, color, projection, maybe comfort but in my experience, if you can’t articulate (put in your particular poison here) decently on one horn you won’t articulate decently on another horn. I think a lot of amateurs, including me, turn to equipment to solve problems. New equipment, whether horns, mouthpieces, or some other gizmo, may seem great for a week or two but in the end you play the way you play. This is my experience. YMMV.

I’ve been going back and forth about continuing school for a Masters. In the middle of this last semester I was so overwhelmed with everything I had to finish that I decided not to continue. Now that I’m actually done, I’ve changed my mind. I realized that I just can’t give up school entirely and go back to playing 4th horn in two community bands. In school I’m playing all the time – chamber music, band, wind ensemble, orchestra, recitals, etc. – and I love it. I’ll be taking one class each semester and because I’m enrolled in school I get to play in all the ensembles for free. How perfect is that?

This is all for now but watch for more posts about some of the challenges I had in school, what it was like living in a dorm a couple of days a week, dealing with recitals, my dropped horn and a few toys that I actually have found useful.

Catching up

As usual, it’s been ages since I’ve posted anything here. In the past few weeks a few people have asked me to write again and now that it’s summer I have some time. My second year of school was a lot more intense than the first year. Consequently, practicing and then homework had the highest priorities. I did graduate this May with an Associate degree in Music.

As was true of my first year of school, I really enjoyed all my classes again this past year. Theory was still my favorite. It took some work to understand some of the more advanced analysis of tonal music but I got it and I really like digging in and figuring out the structure of a piece. The last month of the class covered atonal music and the twelve-tone row. Although this music is not my favorite, analyzing it was very formulaic and I found it really easy.

I had a great teacher for music history and I did very well in the class. Back in September I didn’t do that well, getting a grade in the low 80s on the first quiz, until I figured out how to study for it. Once I came up with a method that worked for me, I aced all the exams – high 90s and then the last three 102 for each test. It took a tremendous amount of work – hours and hours of homework or studying almost everyday – but doing really well in the class made the work worth it. Plus I really found the material very interesting once we got past the 5th century chant stuff.

Aural skills remained the hardest class for me. I still struggle hearing intervals and with rhythm which made dictation tests very difficult, especially at the end of the year when we worked on bitonality. Fortunately, I had a wonderful professor who took the time and had the patience to help me get though the class. (In fact, all my professors at Suffolk were really excellent and I think that is a big reason why I was able to stick it out and graduate.) The other thing that saved me is that I do very well with sight singing so my grades on sight sighting balanced out my not so great grades on dictation tests.

I played in both the wind ensemble and the symphonic band at school, plus the two community bands I’ve been in for a few years. I did find that all the playing was hard on my chops. Most days I was playing at least three hours and at least twice a week, five hours. In the fall semester that wasn’t too bad because I was playing mostly low horn parts but in the spring semester I was playing 1st in the school bands and that’s when I started to really feel the impact to my chops. I ended up with a split in my lip right where the mouthpiece edge sat on my lip and ended up with a bloody mess on more than one occasion. Although my lip is healed I can still feel where the split was and I have to be careful not to split it open again.

I did a lot of performing this year between recitals, juries, some chamber music, master classes and auditions. I am very slowly getting past the insane nervousness though I still don’t play my best when I perform. I hope that eventually this will change. I can tell that I am playing better than I did last year. Improvement is slow but relatively steady. My biggest problem is still air – “I didn’t hear you breathe” or “you didn’t take a big enough breath” are typical comments during lessons.  Next is probably rhythm, or maybe intonation, or maybe articulation, or maybe accuracy, the list seems endless.

I will write on my choice of a four year school, the 2nd BSO academy that I attended, and SummerTrios in the next few days.

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.

Orchestra weirdness

At the end of my rant about band yesterday I said I would explain why I didn’t sign up for orchestra this semester. I had two reasons – one was scheduling. I had less down time waiting for band to start in the late afternoon (tues + thurs) than waiting for orchestra to start (mon – wed). I’m done with class on Wednesday at 11 and orchestra starts at 4 and it didn’t make sense to go home so that was a lot of time to kill. However I would have dealt with the scheduling issue except for reason #2.

Reason #2: I was the only wind player that took orchestra for credit so I sat at every rehearsal playing my part along with the tympanist and the strings. This was very disconcerting. Horns are loud and every note I missed was heard clearly by everyone. Of course this kept me on my A game but I still felt very uncomfortable. It was also hard to keep counting correctly for thirty or forty measures rest without any help from the woodwind and brass cues in my part. And with all the instrumentation it’s easier to listen and just know where to come in.

About three weeks before our concert (Beethoven 2nd) our conductor started getting some winds to show up so one day we’d have a flute and another day a clarinet and once we even had two trumpets and an oboe. We finally had a full orchestra for the dress rehearsal. So I got to hear all the parts and how they fit together once before the concert.  I spent hours and hours listening to the CD and trying to play along with the CD. It’s just not like the real thing. I took orchestra to get the full experience of playing with an orchestra including all the rehearsals.

So this semester I opted for symphonic band and wind ensemble. Oops. In addition to the seating issues I mentioned yesterday, I’ve played all the music already, except for one easy piece, in the two community bands I’m in. For one of the pieces I played 1st and 4th so I know the piece inside out and upside down. For the others I played 4th and I’m still playing 4th. No learning experience this semester.

This morning I asked the orchestra conductor what they were playing this semester because both the 2nd horn and I were talking about switching to orchestra. The conductor said they were just using strings this semester because no winds signed up. I have no idea what’s going to happen next semester but I suspect that if I sign up for orchestra it will be the same as last semester. So I’m still on a quest to find an orchestra to play in.

Who’s on first?

Okay, I’m pissed. Today’s band rehearsal really had me seeing red. We had auditions for seating in the college Symphonic Band and for Wind Ensemble  a few weeks ago and, after today’s rehearsal, who got what is really ticking me off. I didn’t audition for 1st chair because I expected that Manny, the fellow who played first last semester, would stay on at 1st this semester since it’s his last semester and he did fine with it last semester.  It just seemed like the right thing to do. (Not that I had any expectations of getting 1st anyway though I did play 1st last semester in Orchestra and I did fine with Beethoven 2nd.)  But I would have thrown my hat in the ring and auditioned for 1st chair if I thought for a minute that someone other than Manny would get the position.

Now all that being said, the guy who got 1st plays okay but I don’t see much difference between him and the other three of us. Supposedly he has a great sound but that was not evident today. And we all have our good points and our bad points. However, he is a freshman and he is very immature. He has no business leading a section regardless of how well he plays. Today he spent the entire rehearsal texting and he didn’t listen to anything the conductor said. That’s what really pushed me over the edge. To be given the privilege and responsibility of leading a section and then behave like he could care less about it is inexcusable.  He also was forced into holding a sectional (he clearly didn’t want to do it) and he picked a time where I had to hang around for 3 hours before we started. Okay, sometimes it’s very hard to find a time that works for everyone. What got me angry was that our sectional lasted less than 15 minutes and was a complete waste of time.

On to me getting 4th chair. So far we have first filled and the guy who should have gotten first is playing second. Who’s on third? Some kid who didn’t even audition and isn’t a music major and who hasn’t played his horn for eight months and who has the most god awful embouchure I have ever seen. I know I told the band director before the auditions that I was okay playing 4th (he asked what I wanted to play) but I also said to him that he should put me where I fit playing wise. To me that sentence meant that if there are three horn players who are better than me then I should get 4th. It didn’t mean put the guy you have never heard play and who doesn’t care at all what chair he plays on 3rd and put me on 4th. It’s going to be a really long semester in band. Why I didn’t take orchestra this semester (big mistake) will be the subject of the my next blog.

Updates – Nerves

I haven’t posted in about 5 months because I have been insanely busy with school and then the holidays and then school again. I’ll cover what’s been happening in the next few posts starting with performance anxiety.

I have a bad case of nerves and I can’t seem to play for people anywhere close to what I can do in the practice room. I’ve been working on this issue starting by attending ‘FAT’ camp run by Jeff Nelson at Indiana University back in August. ‘FAT’ stands for Fearless Auditioning Training. The week consists of some lectures and tools to help with nerves and lots and lots of playing for judges and for the other people in the class. The first time I had to play I was a basket case but as the week went on I did get more used to playing and had less anxiety. The last day was the ‘final’ mock audition which seemed to be more important than the previous ones. For me, this change brought back all the anxiety in spades.

I also think I shot myself in the foot by choosing music and excerpts that were a bit of a stretch for me. I think the biggest reason that I get nervous playing in front of people is that I don’t trust myself, I don’t trust that the correct note will come out of the horn, and I don’t have the confidence that I know the music well enough to play it decently. I don’t think having an audience is the problem. I can get up and speak in front of a thousand people, and I have done that during my former career, and have absolutely no nerves at all. I should have selected music that I knew inside and out. I think that would have shown me that I can play something I know without too many nerves.

I am getting better playing in front of my teachers. With my first teacher, Lynn Steeves, it took me many lessons to get calm. With Scott Bacon it took me months to get calmer and I only recently have gotten completely comfortable. When I met Debbie Schmidt when she was checking my horn she had me play for her and I was terrified. When I worked with Debbie for the FAT camp it took me a few lessons to put some form of decent playing together. With my latest teacher it took about three lessons for me to get calm and play the way I do when I’m alone.

When I got back from FAT camp I went to see a therapist to work on my nerves. These sessions helped quite a bit. She had me bring my horn and one of the things we worked on was picking up the horn and getting good imagery into my head. I had an audition for the college orchestra and for most of it I did okay. I think I played Strauss’ Nocturno reasonably well, the fast section at the end of Strauss 1 sort of okay, but then an A major scale was a disaster. I have discovered that I get more nervous instead of less nervous as I keep going.

I’ve had three more opportunities to play for people at school. Every time I play I get ever so slightly less nervous. By the time I got to my jury exam I played my three pieces decently and wasn’t too shaky. However, I completely blew an A flat major scale at the end. I need to keep finding opportunities to play which is hard to do.

My biggest accomplishment was playing Laudatio by Krol at my mother’s memorial concert a few weeks ago at the Manhattan School of Music. I managed to get up on stage in front of a room full of professional musicians and play decently. I was nervous but I managed to control it well enough. Last week I had an audition for band and I wasn’t very nervous. I didn’t play very well but that was because of stiff chops and not nerves. All in all I’m making progress.