The other day I was really busy day and I found myself at 4PM finally heading home from the grocery store. On the way home I said to myself, “I have to practice” and that got me thinking. Why do I ‘have’ to practice? When did it change from I want to practice to I have to practice? (This also reminded me of how much I hate the phrase – “You have to understand.” People say it constantly, especially when they are making excuses about something. I really don’t ‘have’ to understand anything.) Anyway, back to practicing. I play the horn for fun. Yes, I want to get better, lots better, but in the end it’s enjoyment that drives me.
Of course my feelings about having to practice seem to be directly related to how well I am playing. Last weekend through Monday I really wasn’t playing very well. It’s frustrating though I’m so used to it that it doesn’t phase me nearly as much as it used to. Tuesday I didn’t play at all and didn’t go to band because I had a horrible headache. Wednesday I didn’t practice just because I really didn’t want to which is is a first for me. Hence the ‘I have to practice’ conversation I had in my head followed by the decision not to bother. I’ve missed practice days but not because I just didn’t feel like playing. Then Thursday was absolutely stellar, both for the morning hour and again for the afternoon hour. Ditto for yesterday. It’s such a joy when I play a lot better than I expect to.
I wish I could unlock the secret to what makes some days so good. It could be because of the two days of rest but I’ve done that followed by an absolutely awful day. I did do a more abbreviated warm-up and I switched to one that my teacher gave me that she used back in high school. So maybe on Thursday I was fresher by the time I got to working on ‘real’ music. Not that warm-ups aren’t music but I’ve gotten into the bad habit of doing them by rote and not really thinking about making music out of the warm-up. Maybe the good days are days when I just concentrate better. Thursday I practiced standing up the whole time but Friday I sat after I finished my warm-ups. It would be nice to figure it out.
This morning my enthusiasm was back. I woke up at 5AM – fortunately not typical – and looked at my horn sitting out on a chair and wished that I could start practicing. Unfortunately people were sleeping. Gee, why do they do that? Don’t they know that they should get up so I can practice? I can’t wait until 8Am. Well, maybe 9 if I want to be nice.
It’s been an interesting two weeks since I last posted. For the most part I’ve been frustrated since playing day to day it’s hard to notice any progress. However, band started for the new year again after a month long Christmas break and that was an eye opening experience.
Tuesday night marked my one year anniversary playing with the 1st community band I joined. One year ago I was very apprehensive about joining a band. I didn’t really think I was ready but fortunately my horn teacher gave me a bit of a push. I remember feeling very out of place and very nervous. I was introduced to the 1st hornist and he and I were the only hornists there at the start of the rehearsal. Thank heavens the 2nd and 3rd horns showed up. I really didn’t want to have the 1st horn hear me play.
This was the first time I played with a group since college in 1972. The band director handed me the music for 4th horn and off we went into the wild blue yonder. Cut time at quite a tempo. I didn’t have a prayer of playing any notes, let alone know where we were in the music. Fortunately we played some slower stuff and I fared better at that. I liked playing with the band enough that I kept going and over time I got better.
Fast forward to last Tuesday. The music was easy! Yes, easy. The band director handed out all new music and I had absolutely no problem sight reading through it. This was a huge boost to my lagging morale about my horn playing. I’m genuinely better. Wow.
Moving on to my lesson last Thursday. I’ve been struggling through Kopprasch #3 and Singer #4 for what seems like forever. Always with the same problem areas. I can’t play from the third space C up to the F and back down to the C cleanly – I kind of bump up into the notes – no matter how much I practice it. I have the same problem with these notes in other pieces. Of course these are not the only notes I have trouble with but at the moment these are the ones that are driving me crazy.
At my lesson my horn teacher asked me to try to open up my embouchure a bit because my sound was more closed than it’s been in the past. Lots of times she says to play out more. That’s one of my bigger problems. But at this lesson playing out more wasn’t really helping my sound open up. We checked my right hand position and that was okay. Once I opened up my embouchure my teacher said that my sound got a lot better. But the bigger change was that I didn’t miss my trouble notes. I had also been playing those same notes flat for the past couple of weeks. That improved as well. At the end of that lesson I felt recharged.
I’ve been trying to keep my embouchure more open over the past couple of days. I have found that some things have changed for the worse. I’ve lost my high Bb and C which had been easy for me. The more troubling change is that my middle register has gotten fuzzy. It’s hard to describe but the notes don’t have a pure tone. I don’t miss nearly as many notes as I had been but I’m sacrificing the quality of the note.
Yesterday I tried to go back to my usual embouchure but think about opening it up rather than actually doing it. This brought back my high range and cleaned up the middle register a bit. Some of the note chipping came back from C to F but not as bad as it was. What I can’t really tell is whether my sound closed up. That’s hard for me to hear especially in the room that I’ve been practicing in for the past three weeks. Wouldn’t it be funny if my whole recent sound problem is the acoustics in the room I’m using. Overall I think this change is a slight improvement that still needs to be tweaked.
The past couple of weeks have been tumultuous to say the least. Finding time to practice was difficult but I did manage to put in around 40 minutes daily except for one day when I didn’t play at all. Just one day. Well you’d think I hadn’t picked up the horn in months by the way I played for several days after that one day of rest.
I think I’ve discovered a trend. If I back off my usual two hours of practice per day, or heaven forbid, skip a day, I play poorly for several days after. Then I get a bit better than I was before my lapse in practicing. When I read my practice notes from way back I noticed that every time I missed a day or more of practice I suffered for it. What’s hard to understand is how some of my fellow band members manage to play quite well – decent tone, only a few missed notes, etc. – each week at rehearsal without picking up their horn during the week. They walk in, toot a few notes as a warmup if they aren’t late, and get through an entire rehearsal. And this is band so we play non-stop for the whole rehearsal.
I was talking to my horn teacher last week about this and we thought this might be a ‘the more you play, the more you need to play’ problem. In other words, the muscles in my chops are used to playing a couple of hours a day every day and consequently, need to be used a couple hours a day. This is different than the typical weight training schedule of working one group of muscles one day and resting them the next day. For most things rest is usually helpful. This doesn’t seem to be true for me when it comes to playing the horn. Do any of you experience anything like this? Will I get to a point where I can take a day off and not pay for it with several days of poor horn playing?
My schedule eases off after an orchestra concert tonight so I should be able to practice everyday and stick to a plan. When I have band rehearsals I don’t practice for more than 40 minutes, if that, in order to save my chops for the rehearsal. I don’t have rehearsals again until the first week in January. It will be interesting to see if several weeks of very consistent practicing will make a noticeable improvement.
Four days ago I wrote about how I thought I had finally gotten through the mouthpiece fiasco. I was wrong. Monday morning’s practice was pretty bad and at my band rehearsal that evening I could barely play. I would have chalked this up to a random bad day except that Tuesday and Wednesday were just as bad if not worse. I’m playing the horn to have fun and enjoy making music. I haven’t had much fun during the past six weeks. Yesterday morning I was practicing and I was so frustrated that I felt like throwing the horn through the window.
I’ve been using my Laskey mouthpiece since the end of September. I went back to the Moosewood for a day or two here and there because I was struggling so much with the Laskey but I have been, for almost the whole time, sticking with it. I know that using the Moosewood at all during this time was not a good idea but it’s very hard to keep sticking with something that’s not working.
Yesterday afternoon I took the Moosewood out again and made a decision to stick with it no matter what. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and mine has been telling me to use the Moosewood for weeks now. I’ve been sticking with the Laskey because it is ‘supposed’ to be a better mouthpiece for my Otto horn with it’s bowl shaped cup and I promised Scott Bacon that I wouldn’t change back to the Moosewood until I saw him at my next lesson. Well, I’ve broken my promise but ironically he called me today to ask about the mouthpiece problem and, after I went through telling him about all the trouble I’ve been having, he told me to switch back to the Moosewood. (I didn’t mention that I had already done that the day before.) What a relief. I feel like a huge load has been taken off my shoulders.
As I expected, I played very well – ‘very well’ meaning that I was happy with the way I was playing – yesterday afternoon and today. It’s so nice to just pick up the horn, especially since it’s a brand new horn, and just enjoy playing. I expect that I will experience a set back in a week or so but I am just going to have to get through it.
I think I have finally turned the corner from my mouthpiece disaster and lower lip bite. Just under two weeks ago I settled on using the Laskey mouthpiece even though I didn’t really want to. I decided that I had to trust Scott Bacon who I bought my Otto horn from and who really wanted me to use the Laskey with this geyer wrap horn.
After about four days of pure misery, including numbness and pain on top of the awful playing and biting my lip three times on Friday and Saturday, last Sunday things started getting better. I had a band concert that afternoon and I played really well despite the lower lip bites and the changed mouthpiece. I couldn’t play at all Saturday but Sunday morning I warmed up and didn’t feel too bad. Then I did some flexibility exercises before the concert. We did a two hour program with a 20 minute intermission and I was okay, with some occasional pain, through the whole thing.
During this week I’ve had a few revelations as I struggled with the mouthpiece and the bites. One had nothing to do with the either of those. Our conductor brought in two extra college students for the concert bringing our horn section from five to seven. One doubled me on 4th and I asked her to sit to my left so she wouldn’t hear me and my inevitable mistakes and so I could hear her. I learned what playing the horn loud means. Now I understand why my teachers tell me I’m not playing loud when I think I am.
I also think that a large part of my mouthpiece struggle was due to endurance. A new mouthpiece uses, to some extent, different muscles. My first 20 minutes of warm ups were always fine. The awful playing started after about ten minutes into my second practice session and I really couldn’t play after about 45 minutes (this includes the first 20 minutes). That’s about where I was a year ago. Now I’m almost back to my usual two hours. On Thursday I made it through an hour and ten minutes of practice followed by an hour long lesson later that afternoon.
I noticed that once I start playing poorly my bottom teeth start digging into my lower lip. With the bite injury I have there it gets quite painful. When this happens I can barely get to middle C when I try to do a low C arpeggio. Usually I can get to 3rd space C easily and many times to the E above that. If I pay very close attention to how I set my horn on my face I can then play those arpeggios to 3rd space C and when I go back to what I was practicing my tone gets much better. So somewhere along the way as my endurance lags I must be subtly changing my embouchure in a bad way to cope with it.
I’ve had my share of lip injuries – tearing skin off with ice cubes, banging mouthpieces and water bottles into my lips, biting the inside of my lower lip – since I started playing again. Reading Julia Rose’s blog about her recent injury reminded me of them and how I deal with playing while hurt. Julia talks about first getting a more minor injury where she expected to play after a day or two followed by a significantly worse injury that demands a solid rest from horn playing. I always try to play through the pain, which I imagine is a bad idea, because I worry a lot about taking breaks from practicing. When I was sick back in June and didn’t play for close to a week it took a few days to recover from not playing. Plus I actually enjoy practicing and I don’t know what to do with myself when I have those extra hours. I’m retired and I play for fun and if I don’t play well the only person it effects is me. Concerns about injuries must be a lot worse for professionals.
I use Vitamin E and ChopSaver lip balm when I have an open wound on my lips. ChopSaver is the best lip balm I’ve ever used and my non brass playing family swears by it too. (I promise I don’t own stock in the company.) I’ve been putting ChopSaver directly on the wound in my lower lip and it is really helping. It should have gone away by now but I keep re-biting it. I did try Ambesol on it but it also got on my lips and I learned what feeling numb really feels like. I think I wasn’t as numb as I thought I was using the Laskey mouthpiece. I thought briefly about playing while the Ambesol was doing it’s thing but I’ve used up my being stupid quotient for the month.
I’m heading down one. Rapidly. Earlier in the week I wrote about my latest mouthpiece problems. Well, I’ve managed to make things a lot worse by doing what I knew I shouldn’t do and yet I couldn’t help myself. After two good weeks with the Laskey mouthpiece my chops crashed and burned and I went back to my Moosewood mouthpiece Sunday. Of course I played much better than usual. Band rehearsal on Monday evening was pretty good too. Band rehearsal on Tuesday not so much. In fact it was awful. I couldn’t play anything above a 4th line D and I couldn’t play much in the low range either. And, just like my problem with the Laskey, my upper lip got numb.
Wednesday I didn’t play. That helped. Thursday I practiced with the Moosewood for around an hour with good results. Today I had a lesson in the morning which also went well. Lynn (my horn teacher) and I decided that sticking with the Moosewood was the right approach. Then I emailed the local pro that has been helping me test horns and described my mouthpiece problem. She said that getting numb was never good and to stop using the Laskey. Okay that validated the decision that Lynn and I made. I should have stopped there but no, I had to email Scott Bacon and tell him what was going on. In retrospect this was something I should have done before I went back to the Moosewood mouthpiece. He spoke to Scott Laskey and they decided that I should stick with the Laskey mouthpiece (no surprise). I bought my new Otto horn from Scott Bacon and I take lessons from him every month. He switched me to the Laskey mouthpiece because he believes that they, with their cup shape, are the best mouthpiece for Otto horns.
Scott Bacon’s instructions were to put the Moosewood mouthpiece away, use the Laskey and stop switching from one to the other. He said to double the amount of flexibility exercises I do when I warm up, take lots of short breaks, massage my face to keep blood flow going to my lips and to try to back off the pressure I use as I go up in range. Yesterday afternoon I practiced with the Laskey with mostly poor results. I gave up after half an hour. I haven’t decided what I am going to use this morning when I practice. I suppose that if the Laskey really is better with an Otto horn maybe I should stick with it and suffer through the mouthpiece blues. On the other hand I have a band concert on November 1st and I need to be in good shape for that. Oh dear, I’ve really messed up big time.
I played very well at band rehearsal last night and this morning I am trying to figure out why. Not that I haven’t ever played well before but last night I played especially well. Within the first 10 minutes I realized that I was having a very good day and that just added to my confidence which then kept me playing a lot better than I usually do.
There were several things that were different last night so I’ll comment on each one.
1. The horns sat in the in the more traditional formation with 1st horn the farthest left which put me on the end and I could actually hear myself play. No trumpets blaring into my ears.
2. I used the loaner yellow brass Otto horn. This horn is so easy to play it’s amazing. I didn’t miss any attacks, the intonation was excellent and I got the high Bb, a whole note, easily in one of the pieces (4th horn part no less.) We were sight reading the music so I didn’t know this note was coming until right before it and I had no time to wonder if I was going to nail it or not. I just played it, nice and clear. It wasn’t until after I played the Bb that I actually comprehended that I played a Bb. I wonder how many times amateurs miss the high notes because we worry about them too much.
3. I used my new Laskey mouthpiece. Playing well can easily be attributed to new mouthpiece euphoria so if that did it, the crash next week won’t be fun.
4. I practiced very early in the morning to put as many hours as possible between practice and rehearsal. Usually I practice around 10 am on rehearsal days. This time I practiced at 7 am. Hopefully this was not the reason I played so well because I won’t be able to practice that early in the morning on a regular basis.
5. A combination of some or all of the the above. I’ll know more when I practice today.
6. None of the above. It’s possible that I would have played equally well with my Hoyer and my other mouthpiece sitting in front of the trumpets and practicing at 10. If that’s the case, and it would be very nice if it is though I’ll never know for sure, I’m becoming a better horn player and that’s a really good thing.
In one of the community bands I play in our 1st horn player takes a lot of questionable liberties. I’m not talking about how he deals with the section members, he’s a very nice guy, but he actually changes the music! (and if you are the section leader in my band and are reading my blog, I’m sorry but you might want to think about what I’m writing about.)
Our section members and other members of the band near him have complained about this behavior but I didn’t really believe them. I thought, no this can’t really be true. I usually play 4th horn but at our last rehearsal I played 2nd and I had the opportunity to hear this guy for myself. OMG, it’s true. For one thing, he adds trills to parts that don’t have them. He adds notes to melodic lines. What he did to the theme song in Evita was something to behold. Don’t Cry for me Argentina tra la la la la la la la la la. Sometimes he just doesn’t play if the part consists of off-beats. But what takes the cake – he adds melodic lines to parts with off-beats that aren’t in his part or any of the horn parts. Sometimes up to 16 measures or so.
Now it’s possible that he only does this at rehearsals but considering the complaints I’ve heard I’m 99% sure that he does this at concerts also. The seating arrangement in this band puts me directly in front of the trumpets so I’m lucky if I can hear myself play. And until this latest rehearsal I couldn’t see his music so when I did hear him play I had no way to know what was in his part. Band arrangements can be weird.
So, you might be asking, why is this guy playing first in the band? Good question. A few weeks ago our 2nd horn spoke to the conductor about this and last week the assistant 1st horn also spoke to him. Our conductor is aware of the behavior, phew. It would be a lot worse if he wasn’t. The problem is that the 1st horn has been in the band forever and he’s a founding member of the board. (Don’t we all just love the English language – we can turn inanimate objects into people.) Nothing like politics. Our conductor is a really nice guy and I think he is at a loss about what to do. All of the horns in the section are capable of playing 1st, even me, so it’s not that he doesn’t have someone to play 1st. Our assistant 1st horn is actually the best of the bunch of us.
I’m new to this band as of last January so it’s not my place to say something but I will urge our 3rd horn to speak up. I think that if we can present some solution to the conductor that lets the 1st horn save face that might work. Coming up with a solution is the kicker. Anyone have any ideas?
A lot. Groan. Memory is a biggie. As I’ve been practicing memorizing scales I’ve realized that I am having a lot of trouble with remembering patterns. I know the scales and I can recite them and I can play them if I read the music. Other than C and F major I can’t seem to play them from memory with any consistency. At my lesson Monday with Scott Bacon he suggested that I try to visualize the notes. I’m hoping that will help.
At my lessons both Scott and Lynn, my weekly teacher, will play a pattern that they want me to repeat. Well I’ve been working on one easy pattern that Scott taught me – C to E, down to Eb to B, down to Bb up to D down to C# and so forth – since June. I still can’t play the whole thing accurately from memory. Lynn will play arpeggios in different patterns and ask me to repeat them. They need to be ridiculously simple or I struggle with them.
Then there’s physical things. I’ve learned that I sometimes gurgle notes because my fingers don’t exactly match my attacks. And my dexterity in general isn’t that great. 32nd notes may always be muddy – sigh. I’m taking medication on an ‘as needed’ basis for the stomach pain I wrote about. I’ve discovered that if I don’t take it my tone has developed an annoying vibrato since I feel slightly shaky. I’ve only been taking this stuff for a few weeks and I don’t take a lot of it yet it has this effect. Hopefully the pain will go away soon so I can stop taking this stuff.
Breathing properly is also an issue. I don’t have a problem with it if I remember to do it (ha ha) but there’s a guy in my community band who really can’t take a big breath. I have the word ‘breathe’ written in big print on my music. I also have a mild heart arrhythmia that will interfere with horn playing occasionally. Just try playing a nice phrase when your heart decides to skip a few beats and then go off rhythm for a few seconds (and the metronome doesn’t help with this one.)
One final note about memory – I can’t find my tuner. I brought it with me to my lesson with Scott. At the same time I got my new tuning slide for my horn (which is why I brought my tuner.) As I was putting my horn back in my car Scott brought out the old tuning slide. I wanted to put it somewhere safe so I took my tuner out of my horn case and put in the old slide. I put my tuner in my suitcase. I have confirmed with Scott that he saw me put my tuner in my car behind my suitcase. That’s a slight discrepancy from my recollection but it did leave with me in my car. When I got home I opened my suitcase in my bedroom. I don’t remember taking the tuner out of the suitcase and I can’t find it anywhere. I have searched my car at least six times and my house numerous times and this is driving me crazy. I ordered another one yesterday and my old one still hasn’t shown up. Maybe one of you know where it is.