And now we are 7

My horn teacher and I always talk about how old I am in horn years. We don’t count the 3 years I ‘played’ in high school and the 1st year of college. At the time I thought I knew how to play. Ha ha ha ha. No way. Junior year of high school I was given a horn and asked to give it a try. I was a cellist. Really. A pretty decent cellist for a high school student. I was in the prep orchestra at the Manhattan School of Music. Sometimes I wonder why I made the change and I don’t really have an answer. My mother liked the band director. Maybe that’s why. I love the sound of the cello and I love the sound of the horn. Beyond that they don’t really have much in common. I didn’t just stop playing the cello but over time it took a back seat to the horn.

I wasn’t given any lessons. Basically – ‘Here’s a horn. Here’s a book. Be in band with your horn at 8:30 am next Monday.’ I was already in band playing, of all things, the tymps and the glockenspiel. Those of you who know me go ahead, just keep on laughing. Either I have gotten a lot worse with rhythm since then or they were really desperate for a tymp player. Ok back to the horn. If you had asked me back in 1971 if I thought I was a good horn player I would have said yes. Now I know better. I didn’t have a clue.

So the new beginning of horn playing started in the spring of 2009. Though I think the word ‘playing’ is a bit of an exaggeration. I could make sounds and sometimes put the sounds together into something resembling a phrase. By the fall of 2010 I could play things that were recognizable tunes. Lots and lots of missed notes and chipped notes. I started school going for an associates degree in music. I was thrown into music that was really too hard for me but required. Somehow I managed to get thru it. I got lots and lots of encouragement from my teacher thank heavens. I’ve written a lot in this blog about my startup and the early years of school. After that not so much because change happened much more slowly.

So after 7 years, what’s different? Tons. For one thing, I play better. A lot better. I don’t play the wrong note that often. I’m much less likely to chip or clam a note. My slurs are getting cleaner and cleaner. Why? I am doing better using air. I’ve written about me and air more than a few times in this blog. Each time I thought I’d figured it out. But no, I hadn’t. Every 6 months or so I get another insight about what I need to do. I’m at the point now that I’m pretty sure I understand what I should do but doing it isn’t a done deal. I can hear the difference immediately so now it’s all about execution.

What else has changed? I’ve learned how to practice properly. I used to start at the top of the page and finish at the bottom. Now I zero in on the places that need the work. I rarely practice a piece from start to finish. I don’t accept what I don’t like. I work and work on it even if it’s just a couple of notes. I slow it down until I can play it right. I use the metronome. Always. Always. I can’t imagine practicing without it but my early blogs will tell a very different story. Performing is getting less scary. I performed Mozart 3 with my community band last December. I’ve listened to the recording and it’s actually pretty decent. I could never have done that the year before. I’m playing 2 movements of the Hindemith Horn Sonata in a few weeks and it’s gonna be great. I can’t wait till I’m 8.

BSO Academy

Wow. I spent last week at the BSO Academy and it was an incredible week. The Academy is run by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and it’s a week long ‘camp’ where amateur musicians get to play and perform along side the BSO musicians. Their very fitting logo is ‘side by side with the pros’. The week was jam packed with lessons, lectures, ensemble rehearsals, and of course orchestra rehearsals led by Marin Alsop who is the music director of the BSO. All of this led to the final performance on Saturday night in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

I spent the week in disbelief that I was actually sitting on the stage of Meyerhoff Hall and playing with this wonderful orchestra. I applied back in January and I didn’t really expect to get accepted. Getting the acceptance letter was the first of several ‘jaw dropping’ experiences. The second was receiving the music and finding out that I was going to play the first movement of Mahler 2nd, Overture to Candide, and Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso. The Academy was set up with two separate groups because we had 88 attendees. Group 2 performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappriccio Espagnol and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis. As I mentioned, just playing with the BSO orchestra was another ‘jaw dropping’ experience never to be forgotten. Playing with a professional orchestra was so different than playing with the community orchestra and bands I’m in. The rehearsals were ‘no nonsense’ and very efficient. At the beginning of the first rehearsal Marin Alsop stopped for a minute and the usual community orchestra chatter started. She gave one ‘shush’ and it never happened again. Just watching her lead the orchestra was a tremendous learning experience.

The week started with a fabulous performance by the BSO of Verdi’s Requiem. Then we met the BSO musicians and had a chance to chat with the musicians in our section. They were so welcoming. I never felt that they didn’t want to participate in the Academy. In fact, it was just the opposite. They helped us with our parts, let those capable of playing the solos play them, and answered any questions we had.

The week continued with sectionals, our ensemble rehearsals, and many very informative classes including classes on breathing, injury prevention, Alexander Technique, practicing effectively, using tuners and metronomes productively, yoga for musicians, and conquering stage fright. At many ‘camps’ classes like these provide only fluff but these were well prepared with very useful information.

In addition to the final orchestra performance, we also had a chamber music concert and a solo with piano recital. The typical ensemble was led by a BSO pro either playing or coaching. I was in a brass quartet – two trumpets, trombone and horn. We played a piece by Arthur Frackenpohl which I had to work hard at to play it well. Our coach was outstanding and very patient with me dealing with a piece that was slightly above my ability level. By the time of the concert I was able to play the piece well. I didn’t sign up for the solo with piano class though I should have. I would have had an opportunity to play for a very caring and forgiving audience.

I took two lessons, one with Mary Bisson who plays 3rd horn and one with Phil Munds who is the principle horn. Both lessons were extremely worthwhile. We worked on breathing and sound, which I continually struggle with. I got several very valuable exercises that I could tell helped my air and sound. Now it’s a matter of me doing them correctly without their guidance.

All in all the BSO Academy was an amazing, awe-inspiring experience that I will never forget. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to attend again next year.

Appreciable progress

This has been an interesting week. On Sunday I auditioned for a community orchestra in NYC. I only found out about this audition the Thursday evening before the audition so I didn’t have much time to work anything up. I had already put away the pieces I played for my jury exam last December and hadn’t looked at them at all since so I opted for the first movement of Strauss 1 which I will be playing for my May jury. The beginning was in pretty good shape but the fast section still needed some work, well okay, a lot of work. I also selected three excerpts – two that I worked on for Jeff Nelson’s Fearless Camp back in August and one that my horn teacher gave me Saturday during an extra lesson to prep for the audition.

I spent hours working on the Strauss but I realized, very happily, that the excerpts that I had already worked on were much, much easier to play. This is one of the first times that I could absolutely tell that I had measurably improved over the past six months. I had interpretive issues to work on but the notes and rhythms were just there. It was a nice surprise. The new excerpt Mahler 1, third movement, was also learnable by Sunday. I worked on it at my lesson late Saturday afternoon and once again practicing Sunday morning.

At the audition, another surprise. I wasn’t anywhere near as nervous as I have been in the past. I’ve spent a lot of time working on overcoming performance anxiety and it’s starting to pay off. Fearless Camp, performance anxiety therapy sessions, reading books on anxiety, and just performing at school, have all contributed to less nerves. I think because I was less nervous I played a great audition. Clearly the best I’ve ever done. I even played the fast section of the Struass very decently and no misses on the excerpts, even the new one. I have no idea if I’ll get in to the orchestra because I don’t know what level of player they are looking for but I know that I did as well as I could. It was very nice to walk out of there with a ‘yes, I did it’ feeling.

The other good thing was at Monday night’s band rehearsal. We had just done our winter concert so we had all new music to sight read. I had no problems with it. None. I found the selections fairly easy and other long term members of the band were complaining that the conductor picked hard music. Here was more proof of my continuing improvement.

Finally, in Wind Ensemble at school we are playing Festive Overture. I ‘played’, and I say that very loosely, Festive about a year ago in my community band and I really, really struggled through it. Not now. There are a few really fast runs that I have to work on but I’ve already got them in my fingers. I can really tell that there is a huge difference between last year and now.

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 –>

Concentration

I’ve been playing quite decently for the past several days. I had a good lesson on Friday and have practiced for two hours each day since with nice results. I was thinking today of what may have changed and one of the things I realized is that if I really concentrate I can actually play without missing too many notes.

There are two different types of problems that I usually encounter. One is just not being able to play the notes until I spend time working on them. Usually 16th notes are the culprit and I just have to practice them until I get my fingers to work and coordinate successfully with my brain. Sometimes this can take many weeks but it doesn’t frustrate me too much because I know eventually I’ll get it. What does frustrate me are those passages that I can play just fine but end up clamming or missing notes or forgetting fingerings. When I repeat the passage I play it okay. And I don’t miss the notes in the same places. So I think this problem is due to a lack of concentration.

I’ve also noticed this concentration issue at lessons but in the reverse. Many times when I try to demonstrate something that I’m doing wrong I play it correctly and I can’t duplicate the problem. I also play decently in band and, interestingly, I play better in the harder band than in the easier one. Sometimes I even play decently when playing duets. I think I’m much more focused when I’m not playing by myself.  I have also noticed that when I play by memory I have to concentrate more and I rarely clam any notes. What I have to figure out is how to get to that level of concentration when I’m practicing. Maybe I should turn off the TV. (Just kidding.)

JoyKeys and a lesson –>

Having to…

The other day I was really busy day and I found myself at 4PM finally heading home from the grocery store. On the way home I said to myself, “I have to practice” and that got me thinking. Why do I ‘have’ to practice? When did it change from I want to practice to I have to practice? (This also reminded me of how much I hate the phrase – “You have to understand.” People say it constantly, especially when they are making excuses about something. I really don’t ‘have’ to understand anything.) Anyway, back to practicing. I play the horn for fun. Yes, I want to get better, lots better, but in the end it’s enjoyment that drives me.

Of course my feelings about having to practice seem to be directly related to how well I am playing. Last weekend through Monday  I really wasn’t playing very well. It’s frustrating though I’m so used to it that it doesn’t phase me nearly as much as it used to. Tuesday I didn’t play at all and didn’t go to band because I had a horrible headache. Wednesday I didn’t practice just because I really didn’t want to which is is a first for me. Hence the ‘I have to practice’ conversation I had in my head followed by the decision not to bother. I’ve missed practice days but not because I just didn’t feel like playing. Then Thursday was absolutely stellar, both for the morning hour and again for the afternoon hour. Ditto for yesterday. It’s such a joy when I play a lot better than I expect to.

I wish I could unlock the secret to what makes some days so good. It could be because of the two days of rest but I’ve done that followed by an absolutely awful day. I did do a more abbreviated warm-up and I switched to one that my teacher gave me that she used back in high school. So maybe on Thursday I was fresher by the time I got to working on ‘real’ music. Not that warm-ups aren’t music but I’ve gotten into the bad habit of doing them by rote and not really thinking about making music out of the warm-up. Maybe the good days are days when I just concentrate better. Thursday I practiced standing up the whole time but Friday I sat after I finished my warm-ups. It would be nice to figure it out.

This morning my enthusiasm was back. I woke up at 5AM – fortunately not typical – and looked at my horn sitting out on a chair and wished that I could start practicing. Unfortunately people were sleeping. Gee, why do they do that? Don’t they know that they should get up so I can practice? I can’t wait until 8Am. Well, maybe 9 if I want to be nice.

Concentration –>

Distractions

I’ve got a lot of stuff going on that’s apparently effecting my horn playing. I noticed several weeks ago that I’ve started messing up phrases in pieces that I played just fine months ago. I’m forgetting fingerings, messing up rhythms more than usual, losing my place in the music and having trouble focusing in general.

This really came to a head last week during my horn lesson with Lynn. I had a guy come to clean the chimney and he showed up during my lesson while we were playing duets. He went to take a look and came back with an estimate of $2400 and the recommendation that we shut our oil burner off – it was 30 degrees outside – and leave the house. According to him we were in imminent danger of having a puff back which is basically a small explosion in the oil burner. Well, I couldn’t play a note after that. I was completely distracted and concentrating on the music was impossible. So much for the rest of my lesson.

Both Lynn and I thought that my inability to play was due to this major distraction. We assumed it was temporary but sadly such is not the case. A friend of mine came over yesterday afternoon to play duets. Again, I couldn’t play much of anything. I had trouble with everything. You’d have thought I was only playing for a month. One of the duets we tried was a fugue that we had played a few months ago with no problems and this time I just couldn’t get it.

I told Lynn about my duet fiasco and we talked about what might be distracting me. I really didn’t feel distracted and I couldn’t put my finger on any specific thing. I am quite busy and I’ve got some more stress in my life but if you asked me I wouldn’t have said I was worried about anything more than usual. Then today at my lesson when we got to playing duets I started off just as badly. Fortunately I did get better. Not where I had been a few weeks ago but definitely better. I think some of the problem is that I lost some confidence when I played so badly at my lesson last week. If that’s it, all I need to do is find someone to play duets, or trios, or chamber music with every day. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Oh, I didn’t shut off the heat, my house is still standing and there was no explosion. I had another company come and they just cleaned the chimney for $119.00. I guess what they say about chimney companies is true.

Having to… –>