It’s been two years since I started playing the horn again and one year since I started this blog. I’ve definitely improved and I’ve been thinking about all the things that I’ve changed or worked on and what has been the most help and the least help. I’ll start with equipment which, when I started playing, I was convinced would make a big difference in how well I played. I know now that equipment has much less impact compared to perseverance and practice.
I started playing again using my old Yamaha 668. It was pretty clear quite early on that it wasn’t the best horn for me to be learning on. I had lots of trouble pushing air through it. I went on a search for a new horn and bought a Hoyer 6801 PMAL. This horn was easier for me to play and I really liked it but it had a manufacturing problem that made it play sharp. It took about six months but Hoyer finally provided a new tuning slide which solved the problem. However, by the time I got the new slide I was emotionally done with the horn. I bought a Dieter Otto 180K in gold brass and I love it.
Of course I have two years of playing under my belt now so how much is me just playing better and how much the actual horn contributes is unknown. I still have (unfortunately) both the Yamaha and the Hoyer so I could give them a try and see if I play them better than I used to.
I started with the Yamaha mouthpiece that came with the Yamaha horn. Then I found my old Bach mouthpiece and I used that for a while. At my teacher’s recommendation I switched to a Farkas MC and then I went to a Moosewood B12. Each one these changes convinced me that the mouthpiece I was trying out was “the one” for about two weeks. Then inevitably I would deteriorate to playing worse than I was with the previous mouthpiece I was using. When I bought my Otto horn I switched to a Laskey mouthpiece because I had heard that a geyer wrap horn played better with a bowl shaped mouthpiece. This mouthpiece was a disaster and probably the worst mouthpiece switch I’ve made. After the Laskey I went back to my Moosewood B12 and about 6 weeks ago I switched to a Moosewood annealed Megamoose AW11. With this mouthpiece I was missing a lot fewer notes and everything seemed to be easier however it makes the horn sound too bright. A few days ago I switched again to a Moosewood C8. This mouthpiece seems to have the same ease of playing characteristics as the AW11 but with a much nicer, darker sound. I haven’t changed rims, just the shank and I when I keep the same rim I don’t seem to run into the mouthpiece crash problem.
I’ve bought a Dennis Wick mouthpiece weight, a Moosewood stem weight and a device, which I’ve forgotten the name of, that is supposed to improve the flow of air through the horn by placing it in the tuning slide. With each one, for a week or so, I felt that they helped. In the end, they made no difference whatsoever.
I lean towards finding a mechanical solution to problems with my playing but the chances are pretty high that if I hadn’t made any of these equipment changes I would be at a similar level of playing ability as I am with the changes.
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.
Four days ago I wrote about how I thought I had finally gotten through the mouthpiece fiasco. I was wrong. Monday morning’s practice was pretty bad and at my band rehearsal that evening I could barely play. I would have chalked this up to a random bad day except that Tuesday and Wednesday were just as bad if not worse. I’m playing the horn to have fun and enjoy making music. I haven’t had much fun during the past six weeks. Yesterday morning I was practicing and I was so frustrated that I felt like throwing the horn through the window.
I’ve been using my Laskey mouthpiece since the end of September. I went back to the Moosewood for a day or two here and there because I was struggling so much with the Laskey but I have been, for almost the whole time, sticking with it. I know that using the Moosewood at all during this time was not a good idea but it’s very hard to keep sticking with something that’s not working.
Yesterday afternoon I took the Moosewood out again and made a decision to stick with it no matter what. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and mine has been telling me to use the Moosewood for weeks now. I’ve been sticking with the Laskey because it is ‘supposed’ to be a better mouthpiece for my Otto horn with it’s bowl shaped cup and I promised Scott Bacon that I wouldn’t change back to the Moosewood until I saw him at my next lesson. Well, I’ve broken my promise but ironically he called me today to ask about the mouthpiece problem and, after I went through telling him about all the trouble I’ve been having, he told me to switch back to the Moosewood. (I didn’t mention that I had already done that the day before.) What a relief. I feel like a huge load has been taken off my shoulders.
As I expected, I played very well – ‘very well’ meaning that I was happy with the way I was playing – yesterday afternoon and today. It’s so nice to just pick up the horn, especially since it’s a brand new horn, and just enjoy playing. I expect that I will experience a set back in a week or so but I am just going to have to get through it.
I finally made a mouthpiece decision Tuesday to use the Laskey. After stupidly switching back and forth over the last few weeks I realized that I had to stop doing that and pick one and just deal with it. I picked the Laskey because I trust that Scott Bacon is right that it is the better mouthpiece for the Otto horn. I had trouble switching because I really liked my Moosewood mouthpiece. Of course that begs the question of why switch in the first place. When I was corresponding with Andrew Joy, who uses Otto horns exclusively, he told me to switch to a cup shaped mouthpiece for these horns. I mentioned this to Scott and he agreed that the Laskey mouthpiece was better for the Otto horn. The mistake that he and I both made was switching mouthpieces at the same time I got the horn. It would have been better to play the horn for a couple of months before making a mouthpiece change.
Using the Laskey this week has been frustrating. I’ve got this wonderful new horn and I can’t play it worth a damn. The first 20 minutes of practice goes quite well but then, even with a half hour break, my playing goes downhill fast. I lose my high range and notes get gurgly. I don’t just miss attacks, the entire note sounds bad. Why is it that when good things happen – e.g. my new horn – bad things always have to happen as well? And it isn’t limited to the mouthpiece change.
Yesterday while eating a sandwich I bit the inside of my lower lip. Ouch. I have a band concert tomorrow. Yikes. And then this morning while eating toast I did it again. Double ouch. I tested whether I could play earlier today and there’s no way. Not only did it hurt, I was concerned that if I tried to play through it I would inevitably change my embouchure to deal with the pain. I am really hoping that I can play tomorrow. I play 4th horn and rarely do I get to play a solo. I’ve got a nice one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If my lip still hurts tomorrow I’m going to have to decide if I want to try to play or pass the solo off to the 3rd horn. Low notes are not hurting as much so the 4th horn off beats should not be a problem.
It seems that playing the horn is always two steps forward and one step back. At least it isn’t one step forward and two steps back though some days it sure seems like it.
I’m heading down one. Rapidly. Earlier in the week I wrote about my latest mouthpiece problems. Well, I’ve managed to make things a lot worse by doing what I knew I shouldn’t do and yet I couldn’t help myself. After two good weeks with the Laskey mouthpiece my chops crashed and burned and I went back to my Moosewood mouthpiece Sunday. Of course I played much better than usual. Band rehearsal on Monday evening was pretty good too. Band rehearsal on Tuesday not so much. In fact it was awful. I couldn’t play anything above a 4th line D and I couldn’t play much in the low range either. And, just like my problem with the Laskey, my upper lip got numb.
Wednesday I didn’t play. That helped. Thursday I practiced with the Moosewood for around an hour with good results. Today I had a lesson in the morning which also went well. Lynn (my horn teacher) and I decided that sticking with the Moosewood was the right approach. Then I emailed the local pro that has been helping me test horns and described my mouthpiece problem. She said that getting numb was never good and to stop using the Laskey. Okay that validated the decision that Lynn and I made. I should have stopped there but no, I had to email Scott Bacon and tell him what was going on. In retrospect this was something I should have done before I went back to the Moosewood mouthpiece. He spoke to Scott Laskey and they decided that I should stick with the Laskey mouthpiece (no surprise). I bought my new Otto horn from Scott Bacon and I take lessons from him every month. He switched me to the Laskey mouthpiece because he believes that they, with their cup shape, are the best mouthpiece for Otto horns.
Scott Bacon’s instructions were to put the Moosewood mouthpiece away, use the Laskey and stop switching from one to the other. He said to double the amount of flexibility exercises I do when I warm up, take lots of short breaks, massage my face to keep blood flow going to my lips and to try to back off the pressure I use as I go up in range. Yesterday afternoon I practiced with the Laskey with mostly poor results. I gave up after half an hour. I haven’t decided what I am going to use this morning when I practice. I suppose that if the Laskey really is better with an Otto horn maybe I should stick with it and suffer through the mouthpiece blues. On the other hand I have a band concert on November 1st and I need to be in good shape for that. Oh dear, I’ve really messed up big time.