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 –>

What’s age got to do with it?

A lot. Groan. Memory is a biggie. As I’ve been practicing memorizing scales I’ve realized that I am having a lot of trouble with remembering patterns. I know the scales and I can recite them and I can play them if I read the music. Other than C and F major I can’t seem to play them from memory with any consistency. At my lesson Monday with Scott Bacon he suggested that I try to visualize the notes. I’m hoping that will help.

At my lessons both Scott and Lynn, my weekly teacher, will play a pattern that they want me to repeat. Well I’ve been working on one easy pattern that Scott taught me – C to E, down to Eb to B, down to Bb up to D down to C# and so forth – since June. I still can’t play the whole thing accurately from memory. Lynn will play arpeggios in different patterns and ask me to repeat them. They need to be ridiculously simple or I struggle with them.

Then there’s physical things. I’ve learned that I sometimes gurgle notes because my fingers don’t exactly match my attacks. And my dexterity in general isn’t that great. 32nd notes may always be muddy – sigh. I’m taking medication on an ‘as needed’ basis for the stomach pain I wrote about. I’ve discovered that if I don’t take it my tone has developed an annoying vibrato since I feel slightly shaky. I’ve only been taking this stuff for a few weeks and I don’t take a lot of it yet it has this effect. Hopefully the pain will go away soon so I can stop taking this stuff.

Breathing properly is also an issue. I don’t have a problem with it if I remember to do it (ha ha) but there’s a guy in my community band who really can’t take a big breath.  I have the word ‘breathe’ written in big print on my music. I also have a mild heart arrhythmia that will interfere with horn playing occasionally. Just try playing a nice phrase when your heart decides to skip a few beats and then go off rhythm for a few seconds (and the metronome doesn’t help with this one.)

One final note about memory – I can’t find my tuner. I brought it with me to my lesson with Scott. At the same time I got my new tuning slide for my horn (which is why I brought my tuner.) As I was putting my horn back in my car Scott brought out the old tuning slide. I wanted to put it somewhere safe so I took my tuner out of my horn case and put in the old slide. I put my tuner in my suitcase. I have confirmed with Scott that he saw me put my tuner in my car behind my suitcase. That’s a slight discrepancy from my recollection but it did leave with me in my car. When I got home I opened my suitcase in my bedroom. I don’t remember taking the tuner out of the suitcase and I can’t find it anywhere. I have searched my car at least six times and my house numerous times and this is driving me crazy. I ordered another one yesterday and my old one still hasn’t shown up. Maybe one of you know where it is.

How’s my playing –>

Expectations

I had one of those “It’s 2 AM in the morning, why on earth am I awake?” nights and I started thinking about expectations. (It’s amazing what pops into one’s head in the middle of the night.) I spent 24 years in corporate marketing before I retired and I spent many of those years dealing with performance reviews based on expectations.

The typical review was based on ‘below expectations’, ‘meets expectations’, and ‘exceeds expectations’. These, of course, were one’s boss’s expectations. How they were derived were more about how much your boss liked you or what the corporation set as a required bell curve for reviews than how well you did your job. This is because expectations are highly subjective and very difficult to define concretely. I remember one time where I felt I had a stellar year and got a ‘meets expectations’ review. I talked to my boss and he agreed that I had a stellar year but then said, “I expected that of you.”

There are ways to try to quantify expectations – e.g. ‘put together 4 marketing kits for the year’. Well, if you put together 5 did you exceed expectations? Only if your boss thinks so. Maybe he would expect 6 in order to get an ‘exceeds’ expectations review.

So how does this relate to playing the horn? I think how ‘good’ we are is based mostly on expectations. For a pro there is a standard of expectations that needs to be met to get that gig or to get an orchestra job or a teaching position. Who defines what that standard is? The person or group who is doing the hiring. They may expect a candidate to play musically as most important and not mind a missed note or three. (Hopefully.) Or they may base everything on technical capability. They may even reject a candidate because he/she is too good and they expect that the person will leave soon for a better position. Did the person who gets the job ‘exceed’ their expectations? Probably but you’ll never know.

For the amateur I think expectations are more personal. There can be the same audition judging expectations for the community orchestra but many times our expectations define a ‘good’ practice day from a ‘bad’ one or a good horn solo in the orchestra from a bad one. You may think you didn’t play your best but the audience, with entirely different expectations, thinks it was wonderful.

When working with a teacher, I think it’s probably a good idea to talk about expectations. Rather than thinking your teacher expects you to play something perfectly (which is impossible) they most likely expect you to just improve. If they assign ‘this, this, and that’ find out what their expectations are. Maybe for the next lesson they just want the dynamics correct and don’t care so much about getting all the notes right. If they assign the Ab major scale most likely they expect you to know it by memory at the next lesson. But find out.

I usually write down how I think I did as I practice but it occurs to me that it might be beneficial to first write down what I expect of myself for my practice session. Maybe it’s just playing four measures of a piece I’m working on without any clams or playing the first two lines of a Kopprasch exercise without missing any notes. Whatever it is it needs to be realistic or I’m just setting myself up for failure and guaranteeing a ‘bad’ day. If I can come up with a reasonable set of expectations and accomplish them – the more specific I make them the easier it will be to determine if I accomplished them – then I can walk away from a practice session feeling good. There will always be days when I don’t meet my expectations but at least I’ll have a solid reason for why it’s a bad day and a goal to do better the next day. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir but that’s what happens with ideas formulated at 2 AM.

Goals –>

Endurance

I’ve managed to get 2 hours of practice in almost every day since late January when I changed my practice routine from playing straight for 45 minutes and killing my chops to a play for 20 minutes then rest for 20 minutes then play then rest etc. schedule with a four to five hour break between my first hour of playing and my second. I am starting to see some real improvement from a few months ago both in my playing in general and especially with endurance.

I’ve been really busy for the past several weeks so I started to skip the 20 minute breaks for my afternoon practice session and just go straight through the hour. I discovered that I had no problem playing for that length of time and it didn’t seem to effect how I played the next day. Then about a week ago I decided to try going straight through the first hour also and I didn’t have any problem with that either. I haven’t seen any detrimental effect to the afternoon session.

The only time I still rest during the morning practice session is after the first Singer exercise – half note, half rest, half note, half rest, whole note, whole rest starting at F in the staff and going up to G above the staff – if I do it. At the end of this exercise Singer actually says ‘rest’ so I follow the instructions and take a 20 minute rest.

The other thing I have noticed is that if I don’t get two hours of practice in every day I play significantly worse the next day. When I first realized that this was happening I was surprised because for most other activities rest usually improves things. But I’ve noticed this consistently now and I can pretty much guarantee a bad day if I miss my second hour of practice the day before. I have not tried taking a whole day off and then seeing what happens with my playing. What will be really interesting is to see what effect the layoff on my way to IHS in Macomb (I’m driving from Long Island, NY) has on my playing. I’m hoping that several days off will have a beneficial effect. I expect to get plenty of playing in once I arrive. I am bringing a practice mute but I doubt that I will want to practice instead of moving on toward my destination.

This evening I decided to try an experiment and see if I could play for another half hour. I already did an hour in the morning followed by 3 hrs rest and then an hour in the afternoon. I added the half hour after another 3 hour rest. I think I played similarly to how I played earlier today. I did notice that arpeggios got a lot easier. On the other hand, tongued notes were not as crisp.  I didn’t feel as though I was playing on my teeth which is how I feel if I am overdoing it. Range and tone were okay. 

I’ll have a good idea about the outcome of my experiment tomorrow. If I can get in an hour of practice in the morning and survive band rehearsal in the evening then I will call my experiment a success.

Quick endurance update –>

International Horn Symposium

I’ll be attending the International Horn Symposium in Macomb, IL early next month. This will be my first symposium and it will be a fantastic learning experience for me. I’m really looking forward to going.

Their website says: Study horn playing with guest artists and distinguished horn teachers.

  • Enjoy directed playing experiences in classes, clinics, and horn choirs
  • Visit exhibitors to discuss horn study and playing
  • Compete in solo performance, orchestral playing, horn ensembles and jazz solo performance
  • Participate in clinics on specialized topics of technique, literature, and performance
  • Experience outstanding performances and presentations by guest artists and contributing artists of solo and chamber music for the horn

Wow. 

If any of you are planning to attend and would like to meet at the symposium please leave a comment and I’ll come up with a plan.

A really good lesson –>

Two teachers

A few days ago I posted (A lesson in basics) about my grueling lesson with Scott Bacon who I take lessons from monthly. Thursday I had my weekly lesson with Lynn. I reviewed my lesson with Scott pointing out the specific things I wanted Lynn to watch for. In general I work on very, very specific exercises with Scott along with one piece of music that Lynn and I are working on if there is time. In my lessons with Lynn we go over the exercises I work on for Scott and then spend a lot more time on music. 

Lynn and I started with the low arpeggios that I always warm-up on. Low C – middle C – G – middle C – back to G and then down to C. This is the exercise that Scott stopped me about half way thru and said that I was closing my throat. It’s described in a bit more detail in A lesson and practicing. I worked on it a lot between Monday and Thursday and Lynn watched me carefully as I progressed up to third space C and back. She didn’t see me close my throat (phew) as I got higher but she did say that I am working too hard. I wasn’t really sure how to work less hard but I got it during the next exercise. 

After the arpeggios we worked on Singer exercise #4. The goal is to play the four note slurs (G-A-B-C; then A-B-C-D, etc.) as smoothly and evenly as possible. We spent some time doing this sequence on the mouthpiece only. This got me to relax, not work so hard (I got it), and just blow a nice even airstream. As you go up in the scale more air is needed but the volume and the smoothness has to remain the same. The exercise went much, much better back on the horn. 

Here’s the big advantage of working with two teachers. Scott talked about what he wanted me to accomplish from the exercise. I played the exercise over and over at Scott’s and eventually I got to ‘very good’ and ‘that’s what I’m looking for’ comments from Scott. The problem for me was that I really didn’t know exactly what I did to get to ‘very good.’ I could hear that I was playing the exercise much better. I know the goal but getting to the goal, not so much. 

Lynn provided the tools that got me to play the exercise correctly consistently. The same thing was true with Kopprash #2. Scott told me what he was looking for (this was my third lesson on Kopprach #2). 1 – enough air to get thru the phrase; 2 – legato tonguing; 3 – impeccable rhythm; 4 – very controlled dynamics starting from pppp and getting to ffff, as loud as I can possibly play, at the exact places in the music where the crescendo starts and stops. I never got even close to a ‘very good’ at Scott’s. Lynn had me start at the last three notes and play them as loud as I could. Then we went backwards. This way I learned how loud I needed to get and how much air it took to play those notes, my two biggest problems with this exercise. 

Scott also has techniques that helps me with the music I’m working on with Lynn. For example, (and this is just one of many) he taught me to set the metronome at double time to work with my rhythm issues. One interesting note about the metronome. Lynn and I discovered Thursday that once I learn the rhythm with the metronome, I actually play more spot on with the metronome off than with it on and I feel like I play a whole lot more musically. I would never have realized this at Scott’s since the metronome is never off. (Ugh.)

Fortunately for me, Scott and Lynn were able to meet each other and spend a bit of time talking at the Southeast Horn Workshop. It’s nice to know that when I say ‘Scott said this’ or Lynn said that’ at a lesson that we all know each other. It’s also good that inevitably if I say ‘Scott said this’ or Lynn said that’ that the response is always, ‘good.’ This two teacher thing would never work if I was getting conflicting advice. I think I’m learning a lot faster by having both teachers and I’m very happy that, so far, this is working well for me.

Gizmos –>