Missing Blog Entries – Updated 05/02/09

Note: A list of all my posts in located on top right side of of the page. I will not be updating this page.

The first entries that I wrote for my blog have disappeared from the list on the right. They are:

The Beginning

Time for a Teacher

Progress? Fall 2008

Buying a Horn

The New Horn

The New Horn Part 2

My Mouthpiece Saga

Joining a Band

The Meltdown

A complete list of my posts are at: All My Posts.

How much is too much?

Practice, practice and more practice. But how much is too much? Is there anyway to know for sure when to stop playing and put the horn down?

This is a question that I struggle with all the time. If I’m having a good day and actual music is flowing out from my horn I want to keep playing. The pieces I am working on just click. These are the days that make all the hard work worthwhile. These are the days when I know that I can play this instrument. Too bad they are so few and far between. On a good day I stop practicing when the good day starts going south, typically around two hours of playing with lots of breaks.

If I’m having a mediocre day (the norm for me) with missed notes here and there, sloppy slurs and fuzzy or constricted tone then I keep going because I know I should. I am trying to increase my endurance so as my playing deteriorates I start dropping the range that I practice in so that I can keep going. Again, I take plenty of breaks and try to get about two hours of practice in. On these days I don’t practice beyond two hours. Maybe I should. Or not. I just don’t know.

If I’m having a bad day – most notes are cracked or completely missed, tone is awful, range is shot – I pay attention my breathing to see if that is the problem. Usually it isn’t. I try to push through for a half hour or so but a day like this is so bad that the only thing to do is put the horn down for the day and resist the temptation to try again later in the day.

I should point out that none of these instances involve pain. I very rarely have any pain in my chops but when I do I stop.

So for the really bad days I stop out of frustration and because I feel like my chops are rebelling. But I don’t know this for sure. Maybe I should keep playing anyway. Or maybe two hours of practice on the good and mediocre days is too much even with all the breaks. Probably if I practiced less I’d have more good days, fewer mediocre days and even fewer bad days. But, how does endurance get better then? And with shorter practice sessions how do you get better technically?

The long term goal is to increase endurance by strengthening the muscles in the embouchure without causing harm. The short term goal is to have good practicing days while increasing endurance. When there’s no pain, where’s the point that tired chops turn into harmed chops and how do you know if you are at that point?

One simple answer is to ask your teacher. I have two teachers (more on that in another post). Before I started with the second teacher I would practice for about 40 minutes straight and then fade quickly. If I managed an hour that was a really good day. The interesting pearl of wisdom here is that the first 20 to 30 minutes were almost always good. I was at this level of time for months and months. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress.

When I talked about this endurance issue with my second teacher he said to practice for twenty minutes and then take a minimum 20 minute break and go on from there. He said to drop the range as I got tired. I’ve been using this approach for about two months now and I got up to about two hours of actual playing daily almost immediately. Adding the breaks was a huge help.

On my good days I can see that I have improved significantly over the past two months. But those mediocre and bad days sure are frustrating. I have the luxury of plenty of time to practice all day if I had the chops. Maybe I should push to three hours, accept that there might be even more bad days, but then see improvement at a faster pace.  Those good days where I see the improvement are really rewarding. Or, maybe I should drop back and enjoy more good days and just deal with improving more slowly. I’m not a particularly patient person so I like option one better.

It’s a conundrum, not only for me but I think for anyone returning to the horn. We remember, or think we remember, where we were when we stopped and we want to get back there fast. We forget that back then we had been playing for years – junior high, high school, college – and that our endurance developed so gradually that we didn’t even notice it was happening.

So what to do? What did you do to develop endurance? Thoughts?

Bits and pieces –>

The New Horn Part 2

Late January 2009: I’ve been playing my new Hoyer for about three weeks now. My intonation issues with it are getting better slowly. For the most part it’s the third space C that gives me trouble by sounding consistently sharp. I have been working on developing the correct muscle memory to play the C in tune. I play the C repeatedly holding the note steady while watching the tuner. I make sure that the needle is dead center. I do this for several minutes every day. It’s boring but it does seem to be working. Did I mention that it’s boring? If I play the note with my eyes closed and then look at the tuner it is much closer to center this week than it was last week.

When I first tried the horn I wasn’t sure I loved the sound of the instrument. In fact, I was pretty darn skeptical. That has changed now. I love the sound. I think I had to learn what the horn wanted me to do. I needed a lot more air support for the Yamaha and I was overblowing the Hoyer. I’ve learned how to control my air better and now on good chops days I can make the Hoyer really sing. In fact, on good chops days I’m pretty happy with how I play.

Of course, I still have more bad days than good days. That makes those rare good days all the better. The new horn certainly wasn’t a quick fix for all my playing problems but I never had good days with the Yamaha that are as good as they are now with the Hoyer. My bad days with the Hoyer are more like the good days with the Yamaha. Now it’s time for a new mouthpiece.

My Mouthpiece Saga –>

The New Horn

Late December 2008: I brought the horn home two days before Christmas. I can’t wait to play it but I am on doctor’s orders to wait for two weeks past my surgery date of Dec. 19th. Talk about frustration.

Early January 2009: Finally I can play the new horn. The valves are an absolute delight. Slides pull easily. In fact, everything except intonation is fabulous. The intonation worries me. It’s a big deal especially since I played the Yamaha in tune. The third space C is very sharp and middle C is somewhat sharp. I have spoken with Scott Bacon (the fellow who sold me the horn) and the first thing he said to do was find out what frequency the horn is calibrated to on middle C when I play it with all the slides pushed in. The way to do this is to turn on the tuner, set it at 440, close your eyes and try to center the note. Then look at the tuner. Keep adjusting the tuner (in my case up) until it reads in the center. For me, and I emphasize me, this turns out to be 452 on the Bb horn with the F horn just slightly flatter. I think we both were surprised at the value and were expecting something around 445. Scott thinks it’s up at 452 because I’m not finding the notes’ center yet. One theory is that I learned to play the Yamaha in tune but that it’s inherently flat. My muscle memory therefore is set in a way that would have me play sharp on a horn that is in tune.

A few words on finding the notes’ center for the new hornist. I’m probably a victim of brain fog but I don’t remember learning about centering notes back when I used to play. I just tuned my horn and played in tune or at least I thought I was playing in tune. Maybe I was lucky and had a horn that had decent intonation. More likely, since most horns have a few notes that are inherently bad, I just learned how to deal with them appropriately. And the appropriate intonation varies depending on the key you are in and who you are playing with (piano, chamber group, orchestra, etc.) Once your horn is in tune with itself, when playing in groups the tuner is not your friend, you have to use your ear.

Anyway, back to centering notes. My understanding is that horns have slots for each note and depending on the brand of horn, these slots vary in size. You can play high (sharp) in the slot, in the center of the slot or low (flat) in the slot. This lets you lip up or lip down notes to get them in tune. (Positioning your right hand in the bell correctly also plays a huge role in achieving good intonation.) When a beginner plays a horn with wider slots they are more likely to get the note without clamming it, but also are more likely to play the note out of tune. For horns with narrower slots, beginners are more likely to clam notes but when they get the note, it’s more likely to be in tune. I have heard that most custom horns have narrow slots.

I think my new Hoyer has fairly large slots. I can play the third space C to the point where it’s almost a C# and I can lip it down so that it is in tune when I watch the tuner. My natural tendency is to play the note quite sharp and to play most of the horn somewhat sharp. Pulling the tuning slides all the way out helps a bit but also makes a few other notes flat.

Mid January 2009: Some progress. The intonation is getting a bit better. I can play many notes in tune at 440 with the main tuning slide fully out.  Third space C is a tiny bit better. Checking the calibration, it’s now around 449 so it is also getting better. I’m starting to believe that I may be able to conquer the intonation issue.  My teacher has played the horn and she plays it in tune. However, even if she plays it in tune I’m the one that ultimately has to play this horn.

The good news is, other than the intonation issue, that I’m playing way better on it than I was even a few days ago and so much better than on the Yamaha words can’t really describe it. (Well not really but I can dream, LOL.) I have fewer gurgles between notes and I don’t clam as much.

The New Horn Part 2 –>

Buying a Horn

The horn I’ve been using since I started playing again is a Yamaha 668 that is about 15 – 20 years old. It’s somewhat beat up. The valves need some work and the slides are very hard to pull. All of this is completely fixable and by itself does not warrant the purchase of a new (or new to me) horn. But, it’s a large bell horn. Playing my teacher’s Hill, a geyer wrap, medium bell horn was definitely easier for me. I’m sure in the long run, I could become proficient using the Yamaha but I firmly believe that it would take longer and be a lot more frustrating.

For the past two months I have been alternating playing either the Yamaha 668, a Conn 8D which I borrowed from my teacher, or a Holton 180 which I just bought to try to figure out if the horn has anything to do with my problems. I have about 21 more days to return the Holton.  I have the most trouble playing the Yamaha – it requires lots of air, I have lots of missed attacks, clammed notes, and tone that goes fuzzy very quickly. I also gurgle between notes a lot. I feel like the Conn is easier to play, however, I can’t seem to play the Conn in tune and this drives me crazy. Also, the position of the keys and thumb causes pain in my hand. I do find the Holton easier to play than either of the other horns, I have more range, and my husband and mother say I sound better. This horn, however, has at least one solder joint broken somewhere and has very sluggish valves so I am considering returning it. Though, it still may be a good horn for me and I should just get it fixed. However, I bought this from a very well known music store and I don’t like the fact that they didn’t take care of these obvious problems before they put it up for sale. It makes me wonder what the service for this horn will be like. All of these horns are similar to each other and none of them are as easy as the Hill.

So how do I pick the right horn? I started by asking questions on the Yahoo Forum. I asked for some suggestions about playing characteristics of different horns with maybe some insight on better choices for me. I don’t feel that I play well enough to go play lots of different horns, nevermind finding them to play (I have since learned about all the horn workshops that have tons of horns to test), and make any decision.  I did a search on the web and found an article on buying a horn by Dr. Eldon Matlick. This article was extremely helpful.

Here’s my criteria / considerations:

‘Easiness’ – I don’t know how to describe this except to say that I found my Yamaha ‘harder’ to play than the Conn. I found the Holton easier than the Conn. Easiest of all was my teachers Hill. Easy to me is what range I get, how much air I need, can I play in tune, are the attacks clean, how are the slurs, etc.

Intonation – Is there a Bb tuning slide. Reputation of brand for intonation.

Sound – Warm, dark

Quality – reputation of brand, known or rumored faults (like Holton’s have bad valves or where the Conn’s were manufactured.)

Type of music most likely to play – chamber.

Bell throat size – medium.

Physical Characteristics – Type of wrap. Location of thumb trigger. (I can’t play the Conn 8D without lots of pain in my hand.) Adjustable pinky ring or alternative.

Recommendations – Is there one brand that get more recommendations than the others.

New / used – no preference.

Location of vendor – Local (within a days drive), or web based.

Budget – under 5K (for new horns, not list but typical selling price.)

The recommendations played the biggest role in my final decision. I narrowed my choices down to a Holton Geyer Merker 192 or a Hoyer 6801 PMAL. I have a sentimental attachment to Holtons because I played a circa 1960’s nickel silver 179 in school. The Hoyer, a medium bell model, comes highly recommended by many people. The decision between the two came down to where I had to buy them. The Holton was available from a web based store or by special order from a semi-local music store chain. The Hoyer was orderable from an extremely reputible vendor, Siegfried’s Call, who would get the horn in for me to try without my paying for it first. I decided to buy the Hoyer assuming that I liked it once I played it.

I went up to Seigfried’s Call, about a three hour drive from my home, two days before Christmas 2008 and four days after I had surgery and doctor’s orders not to play for two weeks. This was not the most appropriate time to buy a horn but I had ordered it before the surgery and didn’t realize that I would not be allowed to play it. Well I played it anyway but very carefully.

I have to say that it was not love at first note. I didn’t really like the sound too much when I played it but I really couldn’t put any chops to it. I asked Scott Bacon, the owner of Siegfried’s Call, to play the horn for me and I liked it a bit better. Again, no love yet. So why buy it? I heard so many good things about Scott and spent enough time talking to him that day that I decided to trust him when he told me I would love the horn soon enough. So I bought it. Stay tuned for more about the horn.

The New Horn –>