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.

Improvement

The weekend before last I went to the Northeast Horn Workshop at the University of Delaware. Compared to the one in Ithaca a year ago where I felt totally out of place, at this one I felt quite at ease. Another year of playing really made a difference. For the most part I was able to keep up during the ensemble readings and I could really tell that I have improved a lot. I also learned a lot more from the lectures and master classes than I did the year before.

I’ve also made another mouthpiece change which, so far, has made a big change for the better with my playing. I’d been thinking about changing the stem of my mouthpiece for a while because the one I’ve been using was made fatter to try to compensate for my former Hoyer horn and it’s sharpness problem.  At the workshop I chatted with Scott Bacon about this and he suggested that I try a Moosewood AW11 Megamoose. This stem is heavier and has a deeper cup than the Moosewood B12 that I was using. I was under the impression, as it turns out incorrectly, that I would play better with a smaller cup and smaller bore so I’m very surprised at  how well I play with this stem. Among other things, I’m missing a whole lot fewer notes, slurs are better, my range has stayed the same and playing just seems easier. Plus my endurance is better. I didn’t change my rim so I don’t think I’m going to go through one of the new mouthpiece disasters that I have in the past.

In addition to the two bands that I’m in, I’m playing in a horn quartet this spring as well as a chamber music group. Learning the new music doesn’t seem as hard as it used to be. In the chamber music group I’ve been assigned the 1st movement of the Brahms Horn Trio. As I’m working on the music, and forcing myself to learn Eb transposition, I’ve managed to go from being completely terrified to thinking that maybe I can actually play it. I’m also starting to feel better about playing 16th notes. A couple of months ago I just couldn’t seem to get my fingers and my brain to sync up for really fast passages. I still can’t get quite up to the tempo the passages should be played at but I’m a lot closer than I used to be. In the horn quartet we are working on a Telemann piece that I’m feeling quite positive about. As recently as last week I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to play it. I think that for the first time since I started playing again I actually believe that I have gotten measurably better and it’s a nice feeling.

Blogging consistency –>

JoyKeys and a lesson

My most recent lesson: There are numerous adjectives that come to mind – horrendous, horrific, terrible, embarrassing, productive. You might wonder how ‘productive’ got into this list. I take lessons from Scott Bacon (Siegfried’s Call) monthly and this one was torture. I had a really bad practice session the day before my lesson and this seems to be cyclical with me. I have a string of bad days followed by a string of good days and then back to bad days, and so forth.

I started my lesson telling Scott that I didn’t think I had improved much, if at all, from my last lesson. Good thing I said that. We started off with some warm-ups and I could tell that my chops weren’t responding well. Very stiff. My high range was non-existant, my tone was awful, my intonation was awful and I was clamming notes all over the place. We kept going anyway. Kopprasch #3. We worked on the different articulations, rhythm, dynamics, continuity and kept to the middle range. Then we moved on to Singer #7 – quarter note arpeggios. Again we skipped the high notes and concentrated on continuity from note to note and steadiness of tempo. It really didn’t matter that the quality of my tone was bad. It would have been nicer if I sounded good but I still learned a lot.

I’m working on the adagio movement of the Schumann Adagio and Allegro so that was next. We went measure by measure working on phrasing and rhythm. There wasn’t a prayer in hell that I was going to get the high C so we took it down an octave. For this piece I really wished that I sounded better but I still got a few “that was very nice” comments from Scott. After two hours and ten minutes I was spent so we stopped. When we started the lesson I didn’t think I was going to get much out of it but in the end it really was productive. As Scott was walking me to my car he said that even though I sounded bad I played much more musically. I spend so much time focusing on getting the notes that I usually don’t play very musically. I think both my teachers find getting me to play musically is like pulling teeth. This time I already knew that getting the right notes was a crap shoot so I was able to focus on musicality. From Scott’s I drove three hours straight to my 2 hour band rehearsal. Irony of ironies, I played great. No range problems, no tone problems and very few clams.

JoyKeys: While I was up at Scott’s for my lesson I had him install two JoyKeys to replace my water keys. The JoyKey is designed by Andrew Joy, a hornist working primarily in Europe. It’s a replacement for the traditional water key. Instead of using a water key there’s a metal mesh plug in the JoyKey that releases the water continuously but maintains an air seal.

I decided to get them when I was up at my previous lesson with Scott and he didn’t have to dump water once during my entire 2 hour lesson. I had them installed, replacing my water keys, before I started this lesson and I didn’t have to dump any water during my lesson or during my band rehearsal even though the horn sat in the back of my car for three hours on a very cold day. Occasionally I have to blow into the horn to get rid of some residual water. So what’s the downside? Ahem. My pants get wet. Actually more damp that wet but still visible on jeans if you know where to look. I wouldn’t wear khaki pants. That could get embarrassing. I’m planning on getting a nice chamois to put on my lap but until I get one a towel does the job. So far I’m happy that I had them installed.

Rehearsal Etiquette –>

Practice room acoustics

There are three rooms in my home that I practice in depending on who’s home and how much I care if they hear me practice. My favorite room to practice in, my living room / music room, has been out of commission with Christmas stuff all over the place for close to a month. That meant I practiced either in my den or my bedroom. My den is my second favorite room to practice in but most of the time someone is watching TV in there.

I’d been a bit down about my playing and in particular my sound. In my previous post I mentioned how my horn teacher, Lynn, wanted me to open up my embouchure a bit because my sound was more closed that usual. At that lesson we were playing in my bedroom. Lots of rugs, pillows, stuffed animals (yup, even at age 58) and a big comforter on a king size bed. My sound really wasn’t great. I was practicing in that room most often so I had gotten used to what I sounded like.

Well, I finally got my living room cleaned up last weekend. In contrast to my bedroom, there’s only one small rug, three chairs, no sofa, a huge window and a baby grand piano. There’s also only a half wall between my living room and my kitchen. The difference in my sound is huge.  It’s hard to describe but the sound was open and ringing and I didn’t sound stifled. What a morale booster. Instead of the ‘oh gee, I have to go practice’ feeling I was back to my more normal feeling of looking forward to practicing.

I really didn’t think there was that much difference between the three rooms I practice in. I was listening more carefully this week and I think, from best to worst, it’s living room, den, bedroom. My living room clearly stands out from the other two rooms and it really makes practicing much more enjoyable. Even so, if no one is home, I usually go through my warm-up in my den while the TV is on and I don’t really listen. (I think of warm-ups as a means to an end – get loosened up and flexible. Scott Bacon, my horn teacher that I take lessons from once a month or so, wants me to think musically about everything I do. Work on phrasing and musicality no matter what exercise I’m doing.)

The difference in acoustics between my rooms makes me wonder how students learn to get a beautiful sound out of their horn when they have no choice but to practice in a dead room. Or is there a reverse of that? If a student always practices in a room that has fantastic acoustics, do they still learn how to make their horn sound good without the enhancement of the room’s acoustics? If I had my choice to practice anywhere I would pick the auditorium where my Riverhead community band rehearses. I sound incredible there. I don’t have to do anything but put air through my horn and it sounds wonderful. On the other hand, I had to work really hard to make my horn sound good in my bedroom. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. I had to make a subtle change to my embouchure to get the horn to sound good. (See Breakthrough?) Do students do that without realizing it if the acoustics change from practice room to practice room? I’m just a student myself so I can’t answer that but it is something to wonder about.

Distractions –>

Rewards

Yesterday was both a frustrating and then a very rewarding day. My practice session in the morning was pretty bad. My warmup routine was okay but it usually is. Then I rested for 20 minutes and began practicing the etudes I’m working on. This week they are in the Preparatory Melodies book by Pottag. They don’t look hard but I always struggle through them. Yesterday I couldn’t play the stacatto notes cleanly and I just missed more notes than I got.

After the etudes I moved on to the Gliere Concerto in Bb. I’m about 1/3 through the first movement. Usually I don’t have range issues with this piece but I could barely play the E at the end of the opening arpeggio and the F at the beginning of the main theme just wasn’t happening. After that it only got worse. I moved on to working on scales and even they went poorly. I took another 20 minute break and then persevered playing in the middle range to get my hour in.

I wasn’t expecting much for my afternoon session but what a surprise. I played better than I have since I started playing again, maybe even better than I used to play. Every note was clean. Range was no issue. I got to the D above high C pretty easily. I was able to actually play musically instead of worrying about just getting the notes. I always try to play musically but when I’m constantly splatting notes it’s pretty hard to play a nice phrase. I can’t believe I’m saying this but the part of the Gliere I’m working on was almost easy. I moved on to Strauss 1 with similar results.

I’ve had my share of horn misery over the past two months but it’s rewarding practice sessions like this one that keep me going. I know that someday I will play like I did yesterday afternoon more often than not. I just hope that ‘someday’ comes sooner than later.

Passing on –>

I’m playing better

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.

Mouthpieces again –>

Bite me

I finally made a mouthpiece decision Tuesday to use the Laskey. After stupidly switching back and forth over the last few weeks I realized that I had to stop doing that and pick one and just deal with it. I picked the Laskey because I trust that Scott Bacon is right that it is the better mouthpiece for the Otto horn. I had trouble switching because I really liked my Moosewood mouthpiece. Of course that begs the question of why switch in the first place. When I was corresponding with Andrew Joy, who uses Otto horns exclusively, he told me to switch to a cup shaped mouthpiece for these horns. I mentioned this to Scott and he agreed that the Laskey mouthpiece was better for the Otto horn. The mistake that he and I both made was switching mouthpieces at the same time I got the horn. It would have been better to play the horn for a couple of months before making a mouthpiece change.

Using the Laskey this week has been frustrating. I’ve got this wonderful new horn and I can’t play it worth a damn. The first 20 minutes of practice goes quite well but then, even with a half hour break, my playing goes downhill fast. I lose my high range and notes get gurgly. I don’t just miss attacks, the entire note sounds bad. Why is it that when good things happen – e.g. my new horn – bad things always have to happen as well? And it isn’t limited to the mouthpiece change.

Yesterday while eating a sandwich I bit the inside of my lower lip. Ouch. I have a band concert tomorrow. Yikes. And then this morning while eating toast I did it again. Double ouch. I tested whether I could play earlier today and there’s no way. Not only did it hurt, I was concerned that if I tried to play through it I would inevitably change my embouchure to deal with the pain. I am really hoping that I can play tomorrow. I play 4th horn and rarely do I get to play a solo. I’ve got a nice one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If my lip still hurts tomorrow I’m going to have to decide if I want to try to play or pass the solo off to the 3rd horn. Low notes are not hurting as much so the 4th horn off beats should not be a problem.

It seems that playing the horn is always two steps forward and one step back. At least it isn’t one step forward and two steps back though some days it sure seems like it.

I’m playing better –>