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.

Horn Sound

I’ve been trying to figure out why my sound has changed and become brighter than I like since the summer. I had what I thought was a nice sound when I managed to put all the pieces together and play well. When I started school last September my new horn teacher, Jeanine, began working with me on using air better (plus a slew of other things) and as that evolved my sound got brighter and edgier. My husband and several friends have told me that I sound more like a trombone than a horn. Jeanine worked on my playing position and that improved the sound a bit but really not enough. Other than that we put the sound issue aside for a while since there were plenty of other problems to work on.

Since the spring semester started Jeanine and I have been trying all sorts of things to improve my sound. One of the first things we did was to test mouthpieces. We did a ‘blind’ test  – she didn’t know what mouthpiece I was using as she listened – and we did make a change that gave my horn a slightly warmer and darker sound but the change was subtle.

I still wasn’t that happy so we started testing horns with a possible outcome that I would buy another horn. One of Jeanine’s other students loaned me an E series Elkhart Conn 8D. The sound was closer to what I was looking for and it seemed really easy to play. Unfortunately it needs to have the valves redone. From what I understand about valves, which isn’t very much, as they get leaky and lose compression the slots get bigger to the point where there really isn’t a slot anymore. This makes the horn seem easier to play, at least to me, but brings with it a host of other problems so, sadly, I gave that horn back.

Just a few weeks ago I went to see the teacher that I took lessons with over the summer and we spent several hours testing something close to a dozen horns. One of the first things she said was that she didn’t like how I sounded on my horn. However, as I played all of the different horns she noticed that something ‘wonky’ was happening to my sound in the middle register and this was happening on all the horns. Her wise suggestion was to work on fixing that problem before making any equipment changes. (Thank you Debbie!)

I told this to Jeanine and she agreed that now is not the time to switch horns. She did give me another mouthpiece which made a much bigger difference to my sound than any of the other mouthpieces I tried. Then we started working on my ‘wonky’ middle register and trying to get the best sound I could out of my horn. At my lesson the other day I think I finally got it. As usual, it’s all about air. I was taking in plenty of air but I wasn’t controlling it well and I wasn’t pushing out nearly enough air through the horn. I’ve only played for a few hours since my lesson but I am much happier with my sound as well as my playing in general.

The downside to all this testing is that I feel much less prepared for my upcoming jury exam on May 6th than I was last semester. Hopefully, since I have had somewhat of a breakthrough with air due to all of this work on sound, I will be able to catch up in the next two weeks.

Recap – Part 1

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.

Horns:

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.

Mouthpieces:

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.

Gizmos:

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.

Recap – Part 2 –>

Mouthpieces again

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.

Adding piano –>

I’m playing better

I think I have finally turned the corner from my mouthpiece disaster and lower lip bite. Just under two weeks ago I settled on using the Laskey mouthpiece even though I didn’t really want to. I decided that I had to trust Scott Bacon who I bought my Otto horn from and who really wanted me to use the Laskey with this geyer wrap horn.

After about four days of pure misery, including numbness and pain on top of the awful playing and biting my lip three times on Friday and Saturday, last Sunday things started getting better. I had a band concert that afternoon and I played really well despite the lower lip bites and the changed mouthpiece. I couldn’t play at all Saturday but Sunday morning I warmed up and didn’t feel too bad. Then I did some flexibility exercises before the concert. We did a two hour program with a 20 minute intermission and I was okay, with some occasional pain, through the whole thing.

During this week I’ve had a few revelations as I struggled with the mouthpiece and the bites. One had nothing to do with the either of those. Our conductor brought in two extra college students for the concert bringing our horn section from five to seven. One doubled me on 4th and I asked her to sit to my left so she wouldn’t hear me and my inevitable mistakes and so I could hear her. I learned what playing the horn loud means. Now I understand why my teachers tell me I’m not playing loud when I think I am.

I also think that a large part of my mouthpiece struggle was due to endurance. A new mouthpiece uses, to some extent, different muscles. My first 20 minutes of warm ups were always fine. The awful playing started after about ten minutes into my second practice session and I really couldn’t play after about 45 minutes (this includes the first 20 minutes). That’s about where I was a year ago. Now I’m almost back to my usual two hours. On Thursday I made it through an hour and ten minutes of practice followed by an hour long lesson later that afternoon.

I noticed that once I start playing poorly my bottom teeth start digging into my lower lip. With the bite injury I have there it gets quite painful. When this happens I can barely get to middle C when I try to do a low C arpeggio. Usually I can get to 3rd space C easily and many times to the E above that. If I pay very close attention to how I set my horn on my face I can then play those arpeggios to 3rd space C and when I go back to what I was practicing my tone gets much better. So somewhere along the way as my endurance lags I must be subtly changing my embouchure in a bad way to cope with it.

I’ve had my share of lip injuries – tearing skin off with ice cubes, banging mouthpieces and water bottles into my lips, biting the inside of my lower lip – since I started playing again. Reading Julia Rose’s blog about her recent injury reminded me of them and how I deal with playing while hurt. Julia talks about first getting a more minor injury where she expected to play after a day or two followed by a significantly worse injury that demands a solid rest from horn playing. I always try to play through the pain, which I imagine is a bad idea, because I worry a lot about taking breaks from practicing. When I was sick back in June and didn’t play for close to a week it took a few days to recover from not playing. Plus I actually enjoy practicing and I don’t know what to do with myself when I have those extra hours. I’m retired and I play for fun and if I don’t play well the only person it effects is me. Concerns about injuries must be a lot worse for professionals.

I use Vitamin E and ChopSaver lip balm when I have an open wound on my lips. ChopSaver is the best lip balm I’ve ever used and my non brass playing family swears by it too. (I promise I don’t own stock in the company.) I’ve been putting ChopSaver directly on the wound in my lower lip and it is really helping. It should have gone away by now but I keep re-biting it. I did try Ambesol on it but it also got on my lips and I learned what feeling numb really feels like. I think I wasn’t as numb as I thought I was using the Laskey mouthpiece. I thought briefly about playing while the Ambesol was doing it’s thing but I’ve used up my being stupid quotient for the month.

Mouthpieces again –>

Slippery slope

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.

Bite me –>

Frustration

Frustration is nothing new for me as I learn to play again. I’ve had my share of bad days and bad weeks and I deal with them much better now than I used to handle them. These days I usually just shrug my shoulders and know that this too will pass. Early in my quest to learn this beast I would try different mouthpieces if I was having a bad day. I had four or five of them sitting on a table next to me and I would try one after another until I found one that helped just a tad. Then I’d use it for a couple of days until it didn’t help anymore and I’d go back and use the old one. Even when I was doing this I knew it was a bad idea and then when I had my first lesson with Scott Bacon early in 2009 he said no more changing mouthpieces. I’ve stuck with the same one, a Moosewood B12, until about three weeks ago.

One of the horns I was testing (and the one I bought last week) during my quest for a new horn was a Dieter Otto 180K. Andrew Joy plays on them professionally and I contacted him about the horn. He suggested that, for the Otto horns, I go to a mouthpiece with a cup shape rather than a cone shape that the Moosewood has. At my latest lesson with Scott Bacon he switched me to a Laskey 75G mouthpiece.

For the first week I played really, really well. My term for this is new mouthpiece euphoria. Then two weeks ago I went to an audition and although my warm-up right before the audition went fairly well, I played poorly at the audition. I was suspicious that my mouthpiece euphoria had ended but my playing improved again and didn’t really deteriorate until this past Thursday. Some of this is due to the new horn but I had this horn on loan for at least 6 weeks and generally played very well on it. I think that the stiffness in my chops, poor tone quality, and most likely my loss of endurance is due to the mouthpiece change. The other thing that I’m experiencing is some numbness in my upper lip and a touch of numbness in my lower lip after I warm up for about 20 minutes and right after I started using this mouthpiece I noticed that the feeling of my skin on my upper lip is smoother – almost like I lost a minute layer of skin – and I have two subtle ridges where the mouthpiece touches my lip. These ridges were more pronounced last week but the difference in the smoothness of the skin hasn’t changed.

So…..yesterday, being very frustrated, I tried my Moosewood mouthpiece again. I played a few phrases with it and then the same phrases with the Laskey and back and forth like that for about 15 minutes. The two things I detected were a subtle change in tone – the Moosewood sounded a tad brassier – and the Moosewood felt a little funny. It didn’t have that aah factor like when you put on your favorite comfy sweatshirt. For the rest of practice –  I toughed it out for about 45 minutes – I used the Laskey.

I’m not sure what to do. Visually the rims on the two mouthpieces look very similar. The shanks are different. Is it possible that the change in shank style could cause this change in my chops? I suspect that the culprit is the rim. My Moosewood has a screw on rim and the Laskey doesn’t. I don’t think Moosewood has a cup shaped mouthpiece. Are there manufacturers that have cup shaped mouthpieces that I can screw on my Moosewood rim? Should I stick with the Laskey I have and hope that my chops get better? I’m tempted to use the Moosewood today and see how it goes though it may just add to my problems.

Slippery slope –>