Back to the gym

You might wonder what going to the gym has to do with horn playing but, at least in my case, a whole lot. I’ve struggled with keeping my weight in check most of my life. There was one year, 1980, when I was actually too skinny. That didn’t last long. The rest of the time I’ve had to work on keeping the excess weight off.

My most recent big weight loss began in the fall of 2005 when I retired from work. I had gained a ton (well not really a ton) of weight during my last year at work. I retired because I came down with fibromyalgia in 2004 and that stopped me from exercising so everything I ate just stuck on my body. I was probably eating poorly as well though if you asked me that I would deny that this was the case. I set out to get the weight off beginning in early 2006 and lost 85 pounds during 2006 – 2007. I did this by limiting calories, eating healthy food, and exercising every day.

When I started playing the horn again I was in great shape. I was riding my bicycle between 20 and 30 miles daily, weather permitting, or working out in my gym in my house and, for once in my life, reasonably happy with my weight. Fast forward to the fall of 2010 when I went back to school. I was at school all day, four days a week, and I started eating junk food lots of the time because that was what was easy to grab in between classes. I also got a lot less exercise. With classes during the day and homework at night I exercised less and less and by the spring of 2011 I had gained the ‘freshman 15.’

At this point my sloth-like behavior hadn’t hurt my horn playing. I played ‘off the leg’ and could easily play standing up for long lengths of time. During the summer of 2011 I tried to take off the 15 pounds but that didn’t happen. My plan was to take it off by exercising more but the summer on the east coast was extremely hot and I rarely got out to ride. I also didn’t go back to my healthy food diet. Once I started eating junk food it was very hard to stop eating junk food. I realize that the heat and junk food are merely excuses and I just didn’t have the necessary motivation to lose the weight.

During the fall of 2011 I started to see the impact that the lack of exercise and the weight gain had on me when playing the horn. Playing standing up got more and more difficult. But what really worried me was that I was running out of breath. I was working on Malcomb Arnold’s Fantasy for Horn for my December jury exam and I was getting completely exhausted trying to play it. I needed to take extended breaks at the end of every phrase. In fact, anything fast just wiped me out.

The weight gain continued to spiral out of control as I kept eating junk and I couldn’t exercise because I had knee surgery in October. I couldn’t play standing up for more than 10 minutes and by January 2012 I started playing with my horn resting on my leg again. I made this change for sound quality but quickly realized that it was less exhausting as well. Now playing standing up got even harder because the horn was heavier when I wasn’t resting it on my leg.

By March I had gained another 15 pounds and I finally got motivated to get the weight off. I realized that the impact the extra weight had on my horn playing was unacceptable, never mind all the clothes in my closet that didn’t fit. Between March and the middle of June I lost 15 pounds by following the Nutrisystem food plan but I still didn’t get back to exercising. Then I went on vacation and got shingles and gained back 3 pounds. Thank goodness it was only 3 pounds. At this point in time I’m still following Nutrisystem but I haven’t started exercising and I haven’t seen much positive effect yet on my horn playing. There are 6 weeks left before school starts. I’ve got the food under control but I have to start exercising. I don’t think I’m going to see a positive effect on playing my horn unless I exercise. My goal is to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and to lose a pound a week. I’d like to get back to where I was before I started school by my birthday in November.

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 –>

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 –>

Breakthrough?

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.

Practice room acoustics –>

Downs and ups

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.

Quiet time –>

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 –>