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.

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.

Horn playing with shingles

Oh boy. After two weeks on the road attending the BSO Academy and SummerTrios I arrived home with shingles. People get shingles if they previously had the chicken pox which for people my age is probably 90% of us. The chicken pox virus never goes away, it lays dormant in our nerves and when it wakes up it comes back as shingles. Shingles presents itself first with pain, in my case in my back, followed by an itchy feeling where the rash will eventually show up, and then with the rash itself. Pictures can be viewed here. My rash looked exactly like picture #7. If you are squeamish don’t look.

My back pain started toward the end of my week at the BSO Academy. I started aching during rehearsals but at the time I thought it was a muscle pull. It made sitting through rehearsals difficult but not impossible. The pain continued at SummerTrios. What I didn’t mention in my post about SummerTrios was that I left early. My 3 month old granddaughter got sick and was taken to the hospital so I decided to go home. The faculty understood but they had to scramble to find other horn players to play in my two quintets. I could tell they were a little peeved at me but they don’t know how lucky they were that I left when I did.

My drive home took six hours. I was achy and itchy but had no rash when I left. When I got to Long Island, the rash had shown up. Shingles is extremely contagious once the rash shows up. People who have not had chicken pox or who have weakened immune systems will get chicken pox when exposed to shingles. If I had stayed at SummerTrios I would have exposed everyone there to chicken pox.

Needless to say, I went to the doctor and was told to remain in my house for at least 2 weeks. In addition I received 3 medications. I am taking Acyclovir which is an anti-viral medication that is supposed to shorten the length of time that the rash is present. I am taking Prednisone which, hopefully, will prevent the lingering pain that remains after the rash is gone, and Vicodin which was switched to Tramadol for pain. Shingles is extremely painful because the virus is living in the nerves.

You’d think that being confined to my house would give me a great opportunity to practice. Alas, such is not the case. The two drugs that are wreaking havoc with my horn playing are Prednisone and Tramadol. The Tramadol messes with my head and I can’t play the simplest etudes without messing up the fingerings. As bad as that is, what’s worse is that I can’t get a decent sound, have trouble making notes speak, can’t play high, and have very little endurance. From what I’ve learned, it’s the Prednisone that is causing these issues. Prednisone causes some swelling and it is effecting my lips. They feel a bit tender to the touch and look slightly swollen as well.

My dilemma is how long I should try to practice or even if I should practice at all. At the beginning of last week I was trying to get my usual time in for practice however, it was very frustrating. It’s hard to practice when you can’t product the sound you want or play the notes you know you should be able to play and were 100% capable of playing the week before. As the week went on I practiced less and less because I felt like I couldn’t accomplish anything productive and my endurance was tanking. My biggest concern is whether I will end up unknowingly changing how I play to compensate for my lips and then go through this same nightmare once I go off the Prednisone.

Of course being confined to my house has prevented me from attending several rehearsals and two band concerts, plus I had to withdraw from a chamber music group I was in. So much for the summer concert season. I wouldn’t wish shingles on anyone. It’s excruciatingly painful and being under ‘house arrest’ is annoying at the very least. There is a vaccine available for people over 60. I wish I had known about it last month.

SummerTrios

After the BSO Academy was finished I headed straight to SummerTrios. According to their website, Summertrios was formed in 1990 to provide adult amateur musicians an opportunity to play, study, perform and listen to chamber music. During the winter a few people suggested that I attend SummerTrios. I checked their website and I found it confusing and I really wasn’t sure that I wanted to go. However I made some phone calls to learn more about the program and I decided to try it.

I opted to stay in a hotel rather than stay in the dorms and that had positive and negative aspects. I had air conditioning (it was well into the 90s the whole week) and a private bathroom but I was also more isolated from the rest of the people there. The irony of my decision to stay in a hotel was that I prepaid the hotel to get a good rate and then got my music assignment via email the same day. All 20th century music and all really hard music. Unfortunately I couldn’t undo my hotel so I was stuck.

I emailed the music director asking to be assigned easier music. What I didn’t understand was that the music I was assigned was the same music everyone was assigned. So all the quintets were playing the same things. I did get a very nice phone call from the horn professor there and she unassigned the Hindemith quintet and emailed me the music for one of the other quintets. At that point I still thought that I would be given different music to replace it since I now was in only three groups instead of four. I listened to the two other quintets on YouTube and was very concerned about my ability to play the pieces. Still, I figured that I’d get different music when I got there. Alas, that was not the case. I was completely clueless that there wasn’t going to be any other assigned music.

In addition to the assigned music groups, they have reading groups. Whereas the assigned groups were coached, the reading groups were not. On my application I signed up for 5 reading groups. When I got there I was only in one. I never got a good explanation for why I wasn’t included in any more reading groups. So by having only three coached groups and one reading group I had way too much free time. I had expected to be playing close to all day so this was very disappointing. For most days I only had two or three sessions each day and they were spread around so one could be at 8:30 am and the next one at 2:15 pm.

Once we started rehearsals, I discovered that I was in way over my head for a Leo Smit quintet. Fortunately, they took me off that piece but then I was in only two coached groups so my schedule got even lighter. There were several days that I ended up with only one session that day. Talk about frustration.

They had a method for people to get together themselves to read some music which involved looking at a list and seeing who was free during a time slot and then going and asking them if they would like to read something. That meant that I had to find music and 2 to 4 other people if I wanted to try to read something. This might work in theory but it absolutely does not work for people new to SummerTrios. I didn’t know anyone and when I was able to find someone, inevitably they didn’t want to do anything extra because they were already too busy. Fortunately, I found a wonderful pianist who helped organize a reading of the Reinecke Clarinet, Horn and Piano trio for me and also played horn and piano solos with me. But that’s not why I was there. I did complain about how little I had to do and they tried to help me find other people but in the end I didn’t get anywhere near the amount of playing time that I was expecting.

On the positive side, both the attendees and the faculty were wonderful. I made some friends that I’ll have for a long time. The coaching for the two groups I was in was also stellar. I think almost everyone there had a much better time than I did mostly because they had been there before and knew most of the other attendees. That made it much easier to form ad hoc groups and do some reading. I think SummerTrios has a lot to offer and I may go back next year now that I understand how everything there works. I’ll also have another year of horn playing under my belt so I shouldn’t find the music as hard as I did this year.

BSO Academy 2012

The BSO Academy is a week long summer ‘band camp’ where adult amateur musicians get to play with the members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Their slogan is “side by side with the pros.” I went last year also and this year, amazingly, was even better than last year. Both experiences were awe inspiring. I think the difference was that this year I felt more comfortable with myself as a horn player. Last year was a ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting here’ experience but I was much more nervous and I played the music in my part very quietly and with great trepidation.

The music was much harder for me last year than this year. This year I played my parts with confidence. There wasn’t anything that I just couldn’t play. Last year there were passages in the music that were way beyond my capability. Granted, I chose to play 4th horn again because I didn’t feel I was ready to play anything that was exposed. I made a promise to myself to choose at least one part next year that wasn’t a 4th horn part. The really nice thing about the Academy is that we are sitting next to the pros. We are encouraged to play what we can and drop out, if necessary, when the music just gets too hard. This year there were only two measures, low, pp and exposed, where I opted not to play. The intonation had to be flawless and I just wasn’t comfortable doubling it.

There were 104 attendees this year, 56 of us returnees, and we were split up into two orchestras. Sitting on the Meyerhoff stage, seeing Marin Alsop walk out and start the rehearsal, was just as jaw-dropping this year as last year. The orchestra I was in played Tchaikovsky’s Cappricio Italian, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and suite 2 of de Falla’s Three Cornered Hat.  All music that I really enjoyed. The Three Cornered Hat was the hardest for me because it has really tricky rhythms. At the first rehearsal I struggled with it but I had it down pat by the dress rehearsal.

In addition to playing in the orchestra, I also signed up to be in a chamber music group and to participate in the “Solo with a pianist” opportunity. In the chamber music group we performed the 1st and 2nd movements of Beethoven’s Septet for Violin, Viola, Cello, String Bass, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn. We had enough rehearsals to mesh as a group and I think the performance went very well. I had a few solos and I played most of them decently and I completely nailed the most important one in the 2nd movement. I was probably the least experienced member in the septet and I’m glad that I played well enough to not let our group down.

The ‘solo with a pianist’ option offered us an opportunity to perform a short piece with piano accompaniment. I chose to play the 2nd movement of Mozart’s 4th Horn Concerto. We had one short rehearsal and then the performance was the next evening.  I’ve performed that piece 4 times now, first at the Northeast Horn Workshop where I crashed and burned, then at my jury for school where I also crashed and burned (not just this piece but the entire jury), at church where it went ok, and then at the Academy where I think it went quite well. I still don’t perform well, usually playing well below my capability, so I was happy with this performance.

In addition to all the performing, the Academy keeps us busy with numerous seminars and master classes. Only a few were similar to last year and worth hearing a second time. This year I volunteered to play or be a guinea pig right from the start of the week. By the end of the week whenever volunteers were asked for people would shout out ‘Tina will play.” Last year I think I played only at one or two classes. This year I played in every class. Yay.

For more information, there are two interesting articles on BSO Academy written by Dan Wakin, attendee at the Academy and a writer for the NY Times, Band Camp for Grownups (I’m in the cover picture!) and Every Player in this Temporary Orchestra has a Story.

Choosing a school

My first year back at school (2010 – 2011) went very well and this past fall I decided that I wanted to continue on to a 4 year school. The first thing was to look at which schools on Long Island had decent music departments, were affordable, and not more than an hour’s drive from my house. I whittled down my choices to two schools – State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook and Long Island University, Post Campus. (Formerly known as C.W. Post.) Post is a private school and would be way out of the ‘affordable’ range except that they offer great scholarships based on merit which I qualified for.

The next step was to apply, write the dreaded “why do I want to go to this school” essay, send in transcripts and then wait to hear if I got in. First I had to get accepted into the school and then audition for the music department. Fortunately I got into both schools and I survived the auditions and got into both music departments as well.

So now I had to decide which school to go to. Stony Brook is about 20 minutes from my house and Post is an hour from my house not counting the misery of driving during rush hour. That easily adds another half hour to the trip. So clearly, Stony Brook wins when it comes to commuting to school.  The required curriculum is similar, though Post doesn’t require a language and Post accepted all of my transfer credits from back in 1972. They also accepted all my music credits from Suffolk. Stony Brook was putting me back a year for theory and aural skills. Hmm. Suffolk and Stony Brook are both SUNY schools and I had a 4.0 in Suffolk. I found that odd. Post wins for credit acceptance.

Post has a program called ‘spend a day with a music student’ which I attended. I enjoyed the day except for the junior level theory class which I found bizarre. We spent the entire class singing and I felt it was much closer to an aural skills class than a theory class. I was very concerned because aural skills is by far my weakest subject. So that one class tipped the scales toward Stony Brook.

Financially, Post wins the tuition battle because of the scholarships I received. The tuition is around $31K and I got $27K in scholarships. However, I had to add the cost of gas and mileage on my car which did get the cost of the two schools closer together.

So at this point, Stony Brook is ahead on commuting (which is a big deal) and their more normal theory class. Post is ahead financially and for accepting all my credits. They are also ahead because they are so nice. Every time I visited the school, no matter who I was seeing, I felt like they genuinely cared about me. I felt much more like a number when dealing with Stony Brook. Even so, I was leaning toward Stony Brook until I finally realized that the most important reason for choosing a school was the horn teacher. And in that category, Post wins hands down. Sharon Moe has great credentials, but more importantly, I’ve had more than a few lessons with her and we get along really well and we communicate well. At Stony Brook, I’d be stuck with a TA. So, despite the commute, the likely hood that I’ll probably spend more than a few nights in a hotel because of late night rehearsals, and that weird theory class, I’ve picked Post.