Horns are not frisbees

The night of my senior recital was Thursday Dec. 12th. It was a very good day and a not so good day. My recital went well but when I was putting my Dieter Otto 14 month old horn away my case dropped my horn. Well it was my fault  – you can’t really blame an inanimate object for dropping a horn or can you? I put the horn in the case and closed the top but got distracted because people were talking to me after the recital. I picked up the ‘closed’ case and the horn flew half way across the room. I hadn’t zipped up the case even though I ‘always’ check it. I stood there in stunned silence and didn’t really react much. It was like, huh, what just happened?

At first look it didn’t seem to have much damage. The first valve was stuck but I didn’t see the less visible damage. I took the horn up to Siegfried’s Call where I bought it and Scott Bacon showed me all the rest of the damage. Not good. The ferrule was compressed and the valve cluster was pushed in. There’s more damage than just that but it seems that the ferrule is the worst of it. The entire horn has to be taken apart to fix it. Fortunately Scott was able to get the horn playable, though not how it usually plays, for me. The repair cost is pretty hefty but the good news is that I have an instrument insurance policy that is covering the entire repair. The best $71 dollars I ever spent.

My horn is at Scott’s shop now and the repair will take about a week and a half. I have a high quality loaner horn but it’s making me crazy. I can’t play it in tune, it feels like I’m playing thru cotton, and it’s doing a great job of reminding me why I love my own horn. I also own a 3/4 size double horn (every one who is asking why, that’s a very good question) and it is easier for me to play, most likely because I’m used to it, than this loaner except that it cramps my left hand up so badly that I can’t play it for more than 15 minutes.

So, is it the case’s fault? It’s true that I’m the one who didn’t zip up the case but the case has no straps to hold the horn. If it had straps I wouldn’t have closed the case without strapping the horn in first. Now the latest version of this case has straps. I’ve heard from a well-known pro that this has happened to ‘a lot’ more people than just me. I’ve ordered a new, very expensive, carbon fiber case that should make it very difficult, but probably not impossible, to have the horn fall out of the case. I can see myself forgetting to zip up my current case again. I knew that forgetting to zip it was a potential problem and yet I got distracted and forgot. The only good news is that my horn fell after my recital, not before it.

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.

Summer 2011

Like everyone else, I’m wondering what happened to the summer. Usually I remember what I didn’t manage to get done that I had hoped to – bicycling, exercise, piano, school review, etc., etc. – but I realized the other day that I did do a lot of horn stuff and that’s a really good thing. In addition to attending the BSO Academy that I posted about last June, I played in a trio at the 92nd Street Y in NYC, took numerous lessons, sometimes more than once a week, practiced at least 2 hours a day and attended Jeff Nelsen’s Fearless Camp again a few weeks ago. I also bought a 1969 N series Conn 8D a few weeks before the BSO Academy.

So to start, why did I buy a Conn horn or any horn for that matter? Back when I started going to school last September, I was getting a bit beat up about my bright sound and I began what has turned into a year long effort to warm up and darken my sound. A lot of this effort is working on air, support, vowel sounds, and opening up my throat. Some of it is trying other horns and mouthpieces, one of which was the Conn. It solved my bright sound problem and amidst my ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ get another horn agita, my teacher’s comment, “Just get the big assed American horn” sealed the deal.

I’ve posted about air numerous times, frequently saying that I think I’ve figured it out. Well I think each time I put together another piece of the puzzle but I’m still learning. Another comment from my teacher, “Just blow for heavens sake”, helped. The Conn, however, has helped me tremendously as did lessons from two of the pros at the BSO. The Conn just needs more air and support and it’s teaching me to use air correctly all the time. Taking lessons from different people helps because they’ll say something just slightly differently than my teacher and all of a sudden something clicks. When I got back from the BSO Academy I realized that I had made a solid leap in the right direction using air and my sound on my Otto horn has improved significantly.

I’d be very content with my Conn and my Otto except that the mild tendonitis that I’ve had in my left shoulder has turned into screaming, stabbing horrible pain to the point that holding either horn is extremely painful. Sometime last year I bought a hornstick to try to help with my shoulder but it is quite clumsy to use and it looks dorky besides. If it worked well I’d deal with looking dorky. I’ve tried playing on the leg but that really doesn’t relieve that much weight off my left shoulder. Then in early July I was playing duets with a good friend of mine and I tried his Schmid and it was like manna from heaven. Not only in weight but in sound as well. So I placed an order for a Schmid from Houghton Horns.

I don’t have the Schmid yet and when I was at Fearless Camp Jeff Nelson got in an Otto 201 that is lighter than my Otto 180K and of course, lighter than the Conn. I sound pretty good on it too but I wasn’t sure it was ‘the horn’ so I got a loaner Schmid from Houghton Horns and I’ve been testing both of them for the past week and a half. The Schmid is still lighter by 150 grams and the balance of weight favors my shoulder. The Otto feels lighter nearer the bell. Sound wise, they are similar when I play them and depending on which mouthpiece I use I can get either one of them to sound great. I’ve finally made a decision to go with the Schmid because of the weight. With both horns sounding great, weight is why I’m getting another horn. Now I have to decide if I want to wait for the lacquered Schmid I ordered or just get the unlacquered one I have on loan.

Back to air – my big challenge now is to remember to keep the air going all the time. I understand what I need to do finally. I have notes written all over my music about keeping up air support, blowing thru notes and taking big breaths. Now it needs to become a habit.

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t post that often anymore and some of it is because I’m really busy but it’s also because my horn playing doesn’t change rapidly any more. Changes come over months of work. In the beginning, change happened everyday. Joy, frustration, extreme frustration, endurance, no endurance, stiffness, air, no air, on and on. Now I just practice. I don’t think of days or hours in terms of good or bad. I do lots of work and I get slow acceptable progress. Yay. I’ll post when interesting horn things happen.

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.

 

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 1

It’s been two years since I started playing the horn again and one year since I started this blog. I’ve definitely improved and I’ve been thinking about all the things that I’ve changed or worked on and what has been the most help and the least help. I’ll start with equipment which, when I started playing, I was convinced would make a big difference in how well I played. I know now that equipment has much less impact compared to perseverance and practice.

Horns:

I started playing again using my old Yamaha 668. It was pretty clear quite early on that it wasn’t the best horn for me to be learning on. I had lots of trouble pushing air through it. I went on a search for a new horn and bought a Hoyer 6801 PMAL. This horn was easier for me to play and I really liked it but it had a manufacturing problem that made it play sharp. It took about six months but Hoyer finally provided a new tuning slide which solved the problem. However, by the time I got the new slide I was emotionally done with the horn. I bought a Dieter Otto 180K in gold brass and I love it.

Of course I have two years of playing under my belt now so how much is me just playing better and how much the actual horn contributes is unknown. I still have (unfortunately) both the Yamaha and the Hoyer so I could give them a try and see if I play them better than I used to.

Mouthpieces:

I started with the Yamaha mouthpiece that came with the Yamaha horn. Then I found my old Bach mouthpiece and I used that for a while. At my teacher’s recommendation I switched to a Farkas MC and then I went to a Moosewood B12. Each one these changes convinced me that the mouthpiece I was trying out was “the one” for about two weeks. Then inevitably I would deteriorate to playing worse than I was with the previous mouthpiece I was using. When I bought my Otto horn I switched to a Laskey mouthpiece because I had heard that a geyer wrap horn played better with a bowl shaped mouthpiece. This mouthpiece was a disaster and probably the worst mouthpiece switch I’ve made. After the Laskey I went back to my Moosewood B12 and about 6 weeks ago I switched to a Moosewood annealed Megamoose AW11. With this mouthpiece I was missing a lot fewer notes and everything seemed to be easier however it makes the horn sound too bright. A few days ago I switched again to a Moosewood C8. This mouthpiece seems to have the same ease of playing characteristics as the AW11 but with a much nicer, darker sound. I haven’t changed rims, just the shank and I when I keep the same rim I don’t seem to run into the mouthpiece crash problem.

Gizmos:

I’ve bought a Dennis Wick mouthpiece weight, a Moosewood stem weight and a device, which I’ve forgotten the name of, that is supposed to improve the flow of air through the horn by placing it in the tuning slide. With each one, for a week or so, I felt that they helped. In the end, they made no difference whatsoever.

I lean towards finding a mechanical solution to problems with my playing but the chances are pretty high that if I hadn’t made any of these equipment changes I would  be at a similar level of playing ability as I am with the changes.

Recap – Part 2 –>

Mouthpieces again

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.

Adding piano –>