Summer 2010

I’ve been incredibly busy this summer hence the lack of posts. It seems I’ve been saying that since the spring and I guess I’ve just been gradually getting busier and busier.

In June I went to the International Women’s Brass Conference in Toronto and then straight to the Barry Tuckwell Institute (BTI). The brass conference was very good. Fergus McWilliam, hornist in the Berlin Philharmonic, led the best master class I ever went to. It’s hard to describe how but he managed to get 4 students to play about ten times better than they started out at the class. On top of that he was funny and a really nice guy. It was so good that after the hour and a half no one wanted to leave and they found another room for him so he could continue with more students. One of his rules is that he says to sing the piece, part or whatever until the intonation is spot on. Then whistle or ‘whoosh’ again with solid intonation, then buzz the mouthpiece again with solid intonation and then play the horn. The horn doesn’t go on the face until the intonation is perfect. Then he went on to talk about phrasing and to make the horn sing. I’m not really doing justice to what he said. I did try to follow his advice when I got home and discovered that I’m a really terrible singer.

I met Julie Landsman at the conference and in the small world category, my husband and Julie went to high school together. I found this out when I emailed him that I was about to go to her lecture and he said find out if that’s the Julie Landsman who played French Horn in my high school. So I asked her and she said she remembered him. Then at her lecture she announced to the entire audience that she “went to high school with Tina Barkan’s husband.” That was somewhat embarrassing. Her lecture was about how she managed to stay at the top of her game while getting older and finding the physical aspects of horn playing harder and harder to deal with. Those of us who are her age or older know exactly what she’s talking about.

On the second day of the conference I dropped my bell after trying to screw the bell on for at least 15 minutes. It fell about 1 foot onto carpeting but that was enough to have the screw ring go out of round and not screw on the horn. Of course I brought the good bell and not the stock bell. Fortunately one of the pros there loaned me an Alex 103 and I used it for the rest of the conference. Very different horn than my Otto. So I spent the rest of the conference texting Scott Bacon, who I bought my horn from, and making arrangements to get my horn fixed or borrow a horn since I was going straight from Toronto to Tuckwell and definitely not stopping at my house for my other bell. As it turned out Scott managed to get my bell on my horn, loaned me a fixed bell case, and said don’t take the bell off. I’m headed up to his shop on the 12th to get it fixed properly.

I enjoyed attending my second BTI. There was a lot of opportunity to play but the biggest thing to me was how much I have improved since I went last year. I had no trouble with the music the horn choir played or with the music in the quartet I was in. It was really nice to be able to play these pieces with the confidence that I could do it. Barry Tuckwell led a warm-up class where basically he said just warm up enough to be able to play. This is something that my new horn teacher is saying and I’ve been doing this with some success. The one thing that was quite disappointing was the master class that Barry held. I actually felt sorry for the students playing in the class. One student who did a nice job with a Mozart Concerto learned that she shouldn’t have water in her horn (there were one or two water pops.) Although this is true, I don’t think it was the learning experience she was hoping for.

Once I got home from these events I started taking a music fundamentals class at our local community college. (My July schedule was class, homework, exams, practice, duets, rehearsals, concerts, plus all the usual house stuff.) This class ended yesterday. Some of you may wonder why I would sign up for this class but I didn’t take any music classes in college so there are big gaps in my musical education. I mentioned in one of my posts from many months ago that I was thinking about going back to school for music. I needed to take this class in order to enroll in the music program at this school which I have done and I start classes on August 30th. I’m going to a community college in order to see if I really want to go back to school which is a major lifestyle change for me. They have an excellent music program and are less expensive than a four year school.

As if all this isn’t enough, before I start classes I am attending Jeff Nelson’s Fearless Camp at Indiana University. I have a really bad case of nerves when I play in front of anyone, even my teachers, and even when I have my recorder on to record my practices. I’m hoping that this class will help me overcome my nervousness. I’m leaving on the 12th and get home around August 24th – I’m driving to Indiana so the dates are iffy. School starts 6 days later. I think that’s enough for one summer.

Recap – Part 2

Endurance:

I lasted about 20 minutes when I first picked up the horn. Then I spent months lasting only about 45 minutes until I got a tip to play for 20 minutes then rest for 20 minutes, play for 20, rest for 20 and play for 20 to push to an hour of practice daily. I did this for many months ultimately doing this on / off strategy for two practice sessions in the morning and again in the afternoon. On the days when I had band rehearsals or a lesson I could only warm up in the morning if I wanted any chops later in the day. Now I practice two hours daily, morning and afternoon, but without the 20 minute breaks. I also practice for a full hour in the morning before rehearsals or lessons. I occasionally put in three hours in a day though I do pay for that with poor endurance and/or sound quality about two days later.

I’m heading to the Barry Tuckwell Institute (BTI) again this June and we will be playing for 3 to 4 hours everyday. Last year I really, really struggled getting through all the playing and by the last day my chops were totally shot. So my plan is to try to build up to 3 hours a day, with breaks, so that I can do better at BTI.

Consistency:

For a long time I would have some good days followed by numerous bad days. I consider a ‘good’ day to be a day when I miss fewer notes and play with a decent sound quality. Really bad days are when I just can’t play anything right. I’ve learned that these really bad days occur when I don’t concentrate and use air properly. About six months ago I got to the point where I had about the same number of good days and bad days and they seemed to come in cycles. Three or four good days followed by three or four bad days.  Over time the bad days are getting less bad. When I changed my mouthpiece to the Moosewood AW11 I started having numerous good days and only an occasional bad day. I’ve just started using a Moosewood C8 (no rim change) and so far I’m not having any problems. Practicing is much more rewarding when the good days are so frequent.

Laziness:

For about six months I was very diligent about taking notes during both my practice sessions and my lessons. Then I stopped taking notes altogether. I even went through the effort of designing a practice log. I only used that for a week or two. I think the reason I stopped taking notes was that I was always writing the same things which got boring. I didn’t really have a good way of capturing small increments of progress. I was also recording myself occasionally and I stopped doing that as well.

I also get lazy and don’t really woodshed the problems. I know how to practice but playing something from start to finish is more fun. I don’t spend a lot of time with scales even though I know it’s really important. I think a lot of this comes from not having a specific goal of finishing something by a certain date. Recently I got into a quartet with a recital on June 4th and I’m also doing Brahms Trio on May 23rd. I have been much more diligent about how I practice now that I have a goal. This also makes me wonder why assignments from my teachers don’t have the same effect.

Brahms Horn Trio –>

Horn decision

Well, I finally have my new horn. All of you who have been reading my blog from the beginning know that the new Hoyer that I purchased at the end of December 2008 played sharp. After months of aggravation I received a new tuning slide from Hoyer in August. The tuning slide solved the problem in that the pros that I took it to gave it a clean bill of health. I was still struggling playing the horn in tune and I had to decide what I wanted to do. I have to say that during these months of frustration with the Hoyer I really stopped liking the horn. Because of the intonation issue I played other horns at IHS and at the Barry Tuckwell Institute and got a feeling for what else was out there and there were definitely horns that I liked better.

I had several options:

1. Keep the Hoyer and deal with fixing my intonation problems and my general feelings about the horn.
2. Sell the Hoyer and go back to my Yamaha for a while.
3. Sell the Hoyer and my Yamaha and get a better horn.

Although keeping my Hoyer and learning to play it in tune probably would make me a better hornist I just was not enjoying playing it and that is the most important thing to me. 95% of the time I play by myself and it was just too frustrating dealing with it so about a month ago I left it with Scott Bacon, the dealer I bought it from, for him to sell it for me. I’m sure it’s a great horn for someone, just not me.

While I was going thru all this with the Hoyer I got my Yamaha 668 back into tip top shape. I spent some time playing both the Hoyer and the Yamaha and decided that I did make the right decision to buy the Hoyer. Although the intonation on the Yamaha is good, there were other things about it that made it harder than the Hoyer for me to play. So I brought the Yamaha up to Scott’s to sell before I left the Hoyer there.

When I dropped off the Yamaha Scott loaned me a gold brass Dieter Otto 180K horn to try for a few weeks. There was no question that I enjoyed playing this horn more than the Hoyer. For one thing, my intonation was pretty good. My articulation was better, notes were clean, I had fewer clams and I could play high Bb and C relatively easily. I could hardly ever get those notes on the Hoyer. Getting this Otto sounds like a no brainer but several pros cautioned me against buying it because it was gold brass, probably wouldn’t have as good a resale value as a yellow brass horn, the Otto brand wasn’t well known in the US and because the sound got harsher when the horn was really played loud.

I went back up to Scott’s three weeks later and tried a yellow brass Otto 180k and a yellow brass Otto 166. I wasn’t comfortable playing the 166 but the yellow brass Otto was very similar to the gold brass Otto. The biggest difference between the two was that the sound of the yellow brass Otto was a bit brighter. It may even have played slightly easier but not by much. I left the Hoyer at Scott’s and took both the gold and yellow brass Ottos home to try. I played both horns and liked the yellow brass Otto slightly better. During this time I thought it would be a good idea to go up to Ken Pope’s shop and try some of his horns. I didn’t ever end up going there because my mother ended up in the hospital and I just couldn’t squeeze in a trip to Boston.

I had the Ottos on loan when Scott got in a Lewis and Durk horn that I wanted to try so I headed up to Scotts again ( 3 hours one way) last Thursday and spent at least two hours trying the L & D horn and comparing it to the Ottos. I couldn’t come to a decision so I stayed in Fishkill, NY overnight and went back to Scotts in the morning and played the three of them again for another three hours. I finally decided that I really liked the Lewis and Durk horn. The intonation was flawless as was pretty much everything else. The tone was bright but had a lot of color. However it has more resistance than the Ottos and I was having some trouble centering notes. I liked the horn a lot and decided that I could deal with the learning curve so I wrote Scott a check and took my new horn home.

Saturday morning I took the horn out to practice and it was a disaster. In my music room, formerly our living room, I couldn’t get a nice tone quality from the horn even though it sounded great when I played it at Scott’s studio. My music room has great acoustics so this was very surprising and very frustrating. I clammed more notes than I got and generally had a miserable time. The same was true Saturday afternoon and Sunday. I didn’t sleep very well over the weekend. I was trying to convince myself that my chops were just dead and that it wasn’t the horn but I didn’t have another horn at home to test it against.

Monday morning I went up to Scott’s yet again and spent another three hours playing the three horns. Of course I played the L & D horn just fine up there. I also had Scott play the horns so I could hear the differences when someone who plays well played them. I was having a really hard time deciding which horn to pick when Scott asked me if I had to make an instant decision that was non-reversable what would I pick and I said an Otto immediately. Having had them as loaners for many weeks I knew how they were and there wasn’t any uncertainty about how I played on them.

The next step was to pick one of the two Ottos. I was leaning toward the yellow brass Otto when Scott put a gold brass hand hammered bell on the gold brass horn. Wow. The horn had a gorgeous rich sound even when played very loud which was one of it’s issues. One of the other issues was the resale value of the horn. I decided that I am buying a horn for my enjoyment and if I should ever decide to sell it whatever its value is will be okay with me. Now the choice between the yellow brass horn and the gold brass horn was easy so I am now the owner of a new gold brass Otto. At band last night the first hornist told me how good I sounded and that my intonation was excellent. Hallelujah.

Frustration –>

Updates

This is a follow up to several non-related posts.

Endurance:
My endurance had gotten somewhat worse over the summer, especially after my attendance at the Barry Tuckwell Institute (BTI). In May I posted that I was experimenting with playing for an hour in the morning and then another hour in the afternoon without taking 20 minute breaks during each hour. I was also hoping to add some more practice time pushing the 2 hours slowly towards 3 hours.

This really didn’t work.  On top of that, it has taken me quite a while to fully recover from the huge amount of playing I did at BTI. About  three weeks ago I went back to my schedule of playing for 20 minutes followed by a 20 minute rest with a minimum 3 hour break between morning and afternoon practice sessions. This has helped a lot and I think I have finally gotten back to where I was before BTI. Now I am going to try to add some time very slowly.

Horn Dilemma
I have been playing the Dieter Otto horn I have on loan for the past ten days and I like it a lot. I think I have been playing better in general and I am definitely playing with better intonation. In fact, I have recently learned what some of the differences are between a kruspe wrap (the Hoyer) and a geyer wrap horn (the Otto) and my experience with these two horns are consistent with this. For example, I can gliss much better on the Hoyer but staccato is better on the Otto.  The register below middle C is much better on the Hoyer but I can hit the high Bb and C on the Otto consistently and almost never on the Hoyer. I can play, occasionally, really ‘well’ on the Otto and sometimes I will play passages that surprise me with how much better I play them. In addition, I think that playing the Otto instead of the Hoyer is also contributing to my improved endurance since I was constantly trying to lip notes into tune. I am leaning toward cutting my losses and going with another horn, possibly this Otto.

Pain
In my post about pain I commented about some stomach pain right under my sternum that I have been plagued with for the past several months. I have endured numerous medical tests including having to eat radioactive oatmeal where, I kid you not, I was told not to get too close to people for 24 hours (what about me?). The tests have all come back negative which is a good thing except that I don’t know why I have this pain. Fortunately it seems to be abating and my doc said it was definitely not horn related. Phew.

In my post about age I mentioned that I had developed an annoying vibrato that I attributed to the medication I was taking for the stomach pain. Since the pain was going away I did stop taking this medication a few days ago and the vibrato is gone. What a relief. That vibrato was really awful.

Hoyer yes or no? –>

Summer season finally over

With the exception of a band concert on the beach on Saturday my summer schedule of weekly rehearsals followed by weekly concerts for both of the bands I’m in is finally over. Phew. Add to that my trips to IHS and the Barry Tuckwell Institute (BTI) it’s been quite a summer. Then there’s the weekly lessons with Lynn and the monthly lessons with Scott Bacon. I have not had much time to actually practice.

My drive back in June from IHS took longer than it should have so I didn’t play my horn for about six days. That resulted, strangely enough, in a big improvement in my playing ability. This improvement lasted for a week or two and then I went to the BTI. I had a fabulous time there but since then my chops have been shot. I have not recovered yet from playing for more than three hours each day.

I’ve tried cutting back my playing time to about an hour from my previous, before BTI, two hours of daily practice. I’ve skipped days here and there. I’ve spent a lot of time practicing long, low notes and easy arpeggios. Nothing is really helping. I’m pretty sure that my band schedule isn’t helping the situation because we play fff almost all the time. Rehearsals run from an hour and a half to two hours and the concerts are an hour.

I’ve managed to barely maintain the level of technical capability I reached since IHS but my tone is pretty bad. It’s fuzzy and screechy. This is my typical problem when I’m having a bad day and I know I’ve mentioned it many times before. Then there are days when I just can’t play anything. I’ve always had bad days here and there, even two or three in a row. I think this current spell of bad days sets a record for me. It’s been three and a half weeks of poor to mediocre playing and no endurance. I’m dealing with this pretty well I think. I’m not rushing out to change mouthpieces or trying to find some gadget that will cure all. I haven’t changed my warmup routine. I’m more annoyed than frustrated. Enough already with this.

I am hoping that when I get back into my normal routine of practicing that this bad spell will get go away.  It’s way more fun to practice when I’m playing at the level of my expectations. If another week goes by without any improvement then I’ll have to dive deeper into what’s going on. Right now I’m still calm.

Expectations –>

Chops etcetera

I am still dealing with some chops issues. It seems to be an inconsistent problem  – Monday no good, Tuesday so-so, Wednesday fine, Thursday awful, Friday back to so-so. Thursday was so bad – couldn’t play anything below middle C that didn’t sound like my dog farting – that yesterday Lynn, my horn teacher, and I worked on long tones and easy slurs for about half my lesson. I would describe my lip as squirrelly. Sometimes it was okay and other times the lower notes were right on the edge of my upper lip failing.

I’m much better at dealing with this sort of stuff now than I was several months ago. I know that I have good days and bad days and that ultimately I will play even better because that always seems to be the pattern. I go through bad spells and then miraculously I get a lot better. It’s frustrating going through the bad spells now mostly because I don’t accomplish what I want to when I’m practicing. When my chops aren’t behaving everything gets sloppy, including me. Today Lynn noticed that I was slouching in my chair and not breathing properly. I didn’t realize it but I was in the mode of ‘I’m playing sucky, so I’ll just sit sucky and breathe sucky too.’ We did some stretching exercises and some breathing exercises which helped my playing quite a bit and my attitude a whole lot. There’s nothing like sitting up straight to refresh one’s brain.

BERP

BERP

At today’s lesson I also worked with a BERP (Buzz Extension Resistance Piece). Lynn recommended it way back when I first started lessons but at that time I could hardly buzz so the BERP got put into a drawer and forgotten about. What a difference now. I played arpeggios on the BERP first and then played them on the horn. They were instantly better. It was a wow moment. Much smoother and louder. I have problems playing loud so now I have a tool that can help with that and a whole lot more. When I first bought the BERP I didn’t really understand what the point was. Now I get it. Big time. The BERP has earned its place on my leadpipe and will remain there. It’s a good gizmo!

Speaking of gizmos, when I was at IHS I bought a stem weight, also called a donut, from Tom Greer. According to Tom’s website it “cuts down on the ‘radiation’ of high partials from the leadpipe, enhancing projection and tone quality.” When I tried it at IHS Tom said I sounded more centered. I use it more often than not and I do think it makes a positive difference though it’s subtle. They come in different sizes so if you get one make sure it fits on the mouthpiece.

I also purchased a Body Beat metronome back in May. Those of you who have read some my earlier posts know that I can easily block out the beat of the metronome which is especially bad for me since rhythm is not one of my strong suits. The Body Beat sends a pulse down a wire that is clipped on to clothing next to the body so you can feel the beat. This actually helps me a lot. At my last lesson with Scott Bacon at the end of June he said my rhythm was the best he’d heard it. It is a bit of a pain in the butt to use and it’s gone flying off the music stand if I get up and forget to unclip it. I think it’s a good tool for anyone struggling with a standard metronome.

Blog not –>

Chops

I don’t have any.

I thought I recovered from the three hours of playing every day at horn camp at the beginning of last week. I got home a week ago Saturday and went straight to a band concert. Chops were good. I put in two hours of practice Sunday – chops were still good. But….band rehearsal last Monday night – ugh – no chops. I backed off practicing to about 40 minutes a day but Tuesday – Sunday – still no chops. Last night’s band concert – marginal chops.

The symptoms – very fuzzy, almost screechy tone and no high range. Low range is fine. I commented on my lack of chops on my Facebook page and Tom Greer wrote back “don’t go to horn camp.” Probably good advice but I had way too much fun and will go back again. I have a band rehearsal tonight so I will see if there is some improvement. I’ve opted not to practice today and just spend some extra time warming up before the rehearsal.

I think I’ll cook chops for dinner tonight. Maybe that will help.

Chops etcetera –>