11 Years!

It was in May 2008, 11 years ago, that I first took my old Yamaha horn out of the closet and embarked on this journey to play horn again. The last time I had played anything more than a few notes was in 1972. It was April 3rd, 2009 that I wrote my first post in this blog.

I have come a long way since May 2008. I hardly write in this blog anymore and that’s because now change, or actually improvement, comes very slowly. In the beginning every day came with something to write about. There were so many ups and downs. Good days, mediocre days, horrible days, frustrating days. Days when I questioned why was I doing this? Fortunately I rarely question why now. I sit in the orchestra playing my part and luxuriate in the music making and that I am a part of it.

I wrote in my first post “My goal is to play better than I did back in college and I was a pretty decent hornist even if I do say so myself.” Uh, no. I was completely clueless about what it takes to be a good hornist back then. At least I can say that now I am better than I was then so I have met that goal. But that goal needs to be updated. I think the goal needs more to be about enjoyment and less about my ability to play well. But they really are intertwined. Enjoyment comes with playing well. Most of the time I can play what’s thrown at me in orchestra so that increases my enjoyment. If I have a solo I can handle it and not fall apart in the concert. This spring’s challenge is the 3rd horn part of Brahms Academic Festival Overture. Oh those triplets. But I’ve got it. Phew.

It’s not fun to have a part in front of you that is harder than you can handle. Five years ago that’s where I was for almost everything I was attempting to play. Looking at a part that had measures in it that no matter how hard I worked to learn it, I wasn’t technically able to play it yet. I really suffered through my degree program at LIU Post. I was forced to play pieces that I really wasn’t ready to perform. Required performances and juries were terrifying. I had massive performance anxiety because my brain went to all those passages that I knew I couldn’t play. The good news is that I developed a pretty thick skin and now, along with a lot more experience and ability, that thick skin serves me well.

Another thing I wrote in my first blog entry was, “I use this time (waiting for my horn to get fixed) wisely by ordering some music books. One of the pieces I order is Strauss 1. What am I thinking? Is this hope or insanity? I haven’t played a note in decades.” Well I am performing Strauss 1 with a pianist on June 1st in NYC. It only took 11 years.

Success! BSO Academy 2016

I’ve been attending the BSO Academy since 2011 making this my 6th year. It is the clearest way for me to evaluate how I’ve improved as an amateur horn player.

The Baltimore Symphony Academy is fundamentally an eight day program where adult amateur musicians play side by side with the pros of the BSO culminating with a major concert in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. One of the best things about this incredible opportunity is that there are no auditions required to get in. You apply and if there openings for your instrument you are in. So back in 2011 there was space for me and I got in.

In 2011 I had been playing – and I use that term loosely – for around two years. That June I had finished my first year of school going for a music degree. I don’t remember what we played but I do remember looking at the music when it arrived in the mail. Whoa. There wasn’t much that I could play. Fortunately one of the major premisses of the Academy is that you play what you can and listen and learn from the pro sitting next to you. Most of the time the pros will play with you if you want them to. I opted to try and play all the 4th horn parts. I couldn’t play much but just walking out on the Meyerhoff stage was an awe-inspiring experience never to be forgotten.

For year two I also asked to play all 4th horn parts. I did a bit better with the music but still couldn’t play much of it. Bruce Moore, the pro at the time on 4th horn, was wonderful. I listened and learned and was gently pushed to play a few of the harder passages but always with Bruce as my safety net.

In year three I started to see some real improvement. A lot of the music was manageable for me and I played a lot more of the music and left out much less of it. I played 2nd horn for one piece! The difficulty of the music was similar each year and now in year three I was finally playing a good deal of it.

On to year four. It’s now 2014 and I have completed my music degree. I played 1st horn for one piece. Wow. I played all of it by myself. It was one of the easier pieces that we’ve played over the years but I did it. Marin Alsop conducting. Fear inducing. I did it. A pretty big milestone for me.

Last year I asked for the 1st horn part for the Russian Easter Overture.  I played all of it by myself. I also had a 2nd horn part and a 3rd horn part. I had some very exposed notes in the Russian Easter Overture. I played them. I listened to the recording and I did well. If you were listening to the recording with me I would say ‘hey that’s me’ with a smile on my face.

This year was huge for me. I already wrote about my success in the chamber music concert.  Before that concert I played two movements of the Hindemith Horn Sonata in F at the solo with piano class. That went well. Some mistakes but generally decent. Last night I had the 1st horn part for the third movement of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony. Holy sh*t. Me. I didn’t play the whole movement entirely by myself, Phil Munds helped me out a bit, but I did play all the solos. I feel like I did well. People told me I did well. The recording will tell all but I’m very optimistic.

Rewind back to 2011 and then look at 2016. I could never have played what I played last night, actually what I played all week, in 2011. Even last year it would have been quite a stretch. In fact I would not have asked to play that part. It’s so exposed that the fear alone would have overtaken any possibility that I could play it.

Attending the BSO Academy is an unbelievable experience. Just imagine as an amateur getting the opportunity to play in a great concert hall. The Academy gets better every year and it’s proving to me that I’m getting better every year.


The New Normal ???

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to change my expectations of how I play and how I will perform. I’ve had many teachers tell me ‘you’re better than you think you are’ and my instant reaction has always been no I’m not. Well, I’m starting to rethink that. Since last June I’ve had some performance successes that are making me realize that I have really improved but I’ve also had some hiccups along the way. So is there a way to reset one’s personal expectations and does using the thought process of ‘the new normal’ help in any way?

The new normal was a way to describe the economic downturn back in 2008. Most people had to reset their expectations, particularly their financial expectations, and do with less. But is there any reason to associate the new normal only with downturns? It seems that the term could equally apply to upturns though it’s not typically used that way.

So back to horn playing. How one internalizes how they play is completely subjective. It’s not like baseball where you have a batting average that tells you and everyone else exactly how good you are. You know how you are doing over time and how you did in any game.  We don’t have a batting average – 30 misses out of 100 notes equals what really? One flubbed note in a long solo equals what? Our heads are our own worst enemy.

Back to me. I had three performance successes – where I felt I played well – recently and I realized that I can change my mindset from my old normal – ‘I always screw up performances’ – to my new normal – ‘I play well in performances.’ Since how you think is usually how you do it’s way better to go into a performance assuming you will do well.

Now for the hiccups. I took a two week vacation in September and I didn’t bring my horn. Before that I hadn’t missed more than three days in a row.  When I resumed practicing I played badly for several weeks and I was really unhappy and frustrated. I would have had a better mindset if I just reset my expectations to my new normal – not playing as well as I had before I went on vacation. It is what it is and it’s better just to accept it.

Then when I finally got back to where I was before vacation I had surgery on my right hand and had a monster bandage that filled up my entire bell. I really couldn’t play. I was flipping off notes all the time and my sound was awful. Once I got the bandage off and a cast on my playing improved ever so slightly. I really had a new normal that I had to accept. The alternative was a whole lot of negative thinking with a trip down the rabbit hole.

I don’t think resetting one’s expectations is appropriate for changes over short time frames. For example if you think you play badly one day or one week. But if there is a change that will be more long term, negative or positive, maybe it makes sense to put a label on it. Is it your new normal? Say yes and you’ll be happier for it.

Fearless Performance Horn Workshop

Last weekend I attended the fabulous two day Fearless Performance Workshop run by it’s creator, Jeff Nelson. This two day session was held at Siegfried’s Call in Beacon, NY. It’s an awesome workshop that I think everyone should attend. This was the third time I attended his fearless workshop – the previous ones I went to were his four day ones – and it still was extremely beneficial for me. Some of you may be wondering why I’ve attended more than once. Didn’t it work the first time?

Yes, it worked the first time. Jeff has so much information packed into this workshop that attending more that once is really worthwhile. There is only so much information that anyone can absorb at one time and I love refreshers. Each time I’ve attended I’ve learned new ideas and reinforced the old ones. There are some things that just need to be heard more than once. My performance anxiety, which negatively impacts my performances every time, decreases each time I go to one. At this workshop there was a concert at the end of the first day and I was definitely less nervous than I have been at previous performances. There is also a lot of peer to peer performing and by the last time we did it I wasn’t nervous at all. I think these workshops are so good that I will attend again. I’ll probably attend every time Jeff runs one that fits into my schedule.

These workshops are not just for horn players, any musician or even non-musician can attend and learn. The underlying theme is letting go of fear in your life, not only in performances and auditions. This is a very simplified statement of what is covered in the workshop. The best information of what the workshop is all about is on Jeff’s website.

How’s my playing?

Jay who writes the Horn Logic blog posted in Evaluating what you think you knowthis extremely useful, yet somewhat depressing, list to characterize ones’ playing capability. It’s a bit depressing for me because it’s quite a reality check. “I have to learn all that!!!” On the other hand, it’s a great tool for keeping track of ones’ progress subjective as it may be.

I’ve filled in my ‘numbers’ resisting the urge to just puts 1’s in the entire list. In Jay’s list a 1 is a beginner and a 10 is a professional. I’m going to add a 5 as a mid-point and equate that to how I remember (almost 40 years ago) I played as a high school student. I have no idea if how I think I played back then bears any resemblance to how high school students play today. There are a few terms that I wasn’t sure how to rate so they have question marks.

_6__ Sound
_3__ Technique
_3__ Scales
_4__ Sight-reading
_2__ Endurance
_?__ Articulation variance
_1__ Articulation cleanliness
_3__ Dynamic control
_3__ Dynamic variance
_6__ Tuning/Pitch
_4__ Consistency
_2__ Rhythm (Inner metronome)
_2__ Flexibility
_4__ High range
_6__ Low range
_1__ Double tonguing
_1__ Triple tonguing
_2__ Agility (Fast runs)
_4__ Legato playing
_3__ High loud playing
_2__ High soft playing
_2__ Low loud playing
_3__ Low soft playing
_5__ Bass clef
_4__ Musicality
_4__ Breath control
_6__ Practice habits
_3__ Music theory
_1__ Orchestral rep knowledge
_1__ Solo lit knowledge
_2__ Performance anxiety
_2__ Memory
_?__ Efficiency
_2__ Finesse (Light playing)
_?__ Sustain (Blocks of sound)
_1__ Lip trills
_?__ Lack of tension

Now you can see why I find this list a bit depressing. I have a long way to go. I’ve probably been hard on myself since I tend to do that. I think this is probably a good list to review with ones’ teacher. They are likely to be more objective both the first time through and when evaluating progress.

Horn Dilemma –>


When I first picked up my horn again back in May 2008 I really didn’t have any expectations or goals. I was just going to see how it would go. As I played and then actually started to practice I slowly got better and good things fell into place. I didn’t set a goal to play in a community band by January 09. One day my teacher and I talked about playing in a band and I found a local group, emailed the band director and got in. Then I met the other hornists in this band who told me about another band and I got into that.

As I practiced more and played better I got more serious about playing and I started to think very abstractly about what goals I have related to playing the horn. Goals can be short term or long term and may or may not be achievable depending on how they are defined. Fundraising goals, for example, are typically set for a fiscal year which, to me, would be a long term goal.  Establishing targets for each quarter would be short term goals. To reach a short term goal one can define a set of tasks which, if accomplished, completes the goal. On a daily or weekly basis one can identify expectations that hopefully lead to successfully completing the task. A task could be contacting all the people who made a donation the previous year with an expectation of getting 65% of them to donate again.

For horn playing, one of my short term goals is to learn transposition. The tasks would be to learn Eb and then E and so forth. As I practice everyday I may set an expectation of playing one short Kopprasch etude correctly in Eb at a given tempo, say quarter note = 60. Once I achieve that, the next expectation would be to play the same exercise at quarter note = 70. This may seem like micromanagement but as I mentioned in my blog about expectations I want to make daily practice sessions a positive experience so I want to set my daily expectations darn close to achievable. As I work on transposition over time my short term goal will ultimately become an expectation – e.g. play x number of excerpts in different transpositions correctly.

A long term goal of mine would be to play in a community orchestra. One of the many things I need to do to achieve that goal is to learn transposition. So that long term goal of playing in a community orchestra is made up of shorter goals, one of which is to learn transposition. Another thing I have to work on is rhythm. I think most goals should be quantifiable so a goal of “get better at rhythm” would not be a particularly useful goal. Picking out a rhythmically complicated excerpt to be sight read in a month might be a better goal.

I hadn’t really thought about writing my goals down but it makes sense to do that just as it makes sense to write down expectations. To that end, I designed a practice log that hopefully will make it easy to jot down notes (pun intended) as I practice. The value of a practice log is not only to identify what one should work on for the day but to see progress on a regular basis. The more specific and achievable the expectations are the more obvious it will be to see improvement.

Practice Log

Practice Log

This is the log I designed and just started using. I typed in the exercises that I do everyday and I left blank space for the current things I am working on that will change over time. I entered a few expectations and goals as an example. I think this log still needs some improvements – a place for a date; maybe using landscape format to get more room for comments or to add a column for tasks. It’ll need to be two pages to get everything in it but that’s probably the better way to do it. Once I feel comfortable with the design I’ll take it to Staples, print up a hundred or so pages and have it bound.

I’ve been keeping a practice journal for quite a while now but I rarely go back and read it. For one thing, my handwriting is awful so when I do look it over I can’t figure out half of what I wrote. At my weekly lesson we sometimes review what I have written for the week but I lose some valuable lesson time trying to decipher what’s in the journal. Even if I can figure out what the words are I don’t always remember what I meant. This log needs to be simple and concise so it’s easy to go back and review it. If anyone has ideas on how to make this log better I’m all ears (or maybe eyes.)

What’s age got to do with it? –>