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 –>

The first year, a retrospective

May marks my first year anniversary of re-learning the horn. I’ve been thinking about how far I’ve come and what I did right and what I would do differently now that I know more.

I spent from May to August trying to learn on my own. Looking back, I should have gotten a teacher sooner. I did a lot of random playing during those months but other than getting sound out of the horn and then developing about an octave and a half range, I didn’t really improve. I played the same stuff over and over. I think I would be farther along now if I’d spent those months more productively.

Without a teacher I spent my time playing, not practicing. There really is a huge difference. I’d play everything from start to finish. Occasionally I’d repeat a measure that I messed up and inevitably I would repeat the same mistake. You’d think it would be obvious to slow the measures down to the point where they are playable correctly, to break the tricky passages into tiny chunks until they were right, but no, I’d just plow through everything. Now I’m close to meticulous about practicing correctly and, lo and behold, it works.

Of course there are always two sides to everything and if I had gotten a teacher before August I wouldn’t have the teacher I have now and that would be a shame. Lynn, the teacher I see every week is perfect for me. I learn a lot and I have fun. For an adult who is not trying to get a principle horn position I think fun needs to be part of the equation.

A year ago my sightreading was atrocious. The pieces that I played over and over again I played because I knew what they sounded like. I rarely tried something new. I avoided 16th notes like the plague. At first, when Lynn and I used to play duets she would say, “It’ll be ok, you can do it.” Then I couldn’t get through more than a few measures without stopping. Now I’m much, much better at sightreading. I think playing in the band had a lot to do with that but I’m also much more confident about what I can do and I’ve learned just to keep going and play through the missed notes.

I’m very happy with my new horn but I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy one so early in the learning process. I was convinced that my Yamaha was causing a lot of my problems and it probably was to some extent but I should have dealt with it until I was capable of trying horns myself so I could make a more informed selection. On the other hand, maybe sticking with the Yamaha would have slowed down my progress. My new Hoyer is definitely easier for me to play but maybe there is something out there that is even easier.

I am also still having intonation problems with the Hoyer. I think this is most likely me but I tend to play sharp on the Hoyer even with the slides pulled almost all the way out. In particular middle C and third space C are very sharp. I don’t remember having those issues with the Yamaha. I didn’t play the Yamaha at all after I got the Hoyer but I should have. Once I did pick it up to try it the valves were stuck solid so it’s been up at Siegfried’s Call for repair. I am going to try it once I get it back. I’m hoping that I will still find it harder to play. I’m also hoping that the intonation isn’t as good as I remember.

One thing I can say with absolute certainty is to never buy a horn if you can’t play it at all during the trial period when it’s still returnable. I had surgery in my neck four days before I bought my horn. I was under doctor’s orders not to play for two weeks. This surgery was scheduled for months and I had told the doctor that I played the horn. He never mentioned anything about his ‘don’t play’ order before the surgery and it didn’t occur to me that playing would be a problem though clearly it should have. I had special ordered the horn based on recommendations that it was the right horn for me before the surgery and I felt pretty obligated to buy it (and I really wanted a new horn) and I don’t really like conflict. I’m not saying that it isn’t the right horn for me, just that I should have tried a few others first and I’ll always have that nagging question in the back of my mind.

At my lesson with Scott Bacon a few weeks ago I tried a geyer wrap Hoyer that he had just gotten in. I didn’t really notice anything that different except that it’s above the staff Ab was really, really flat and I couldn’t lip it into tune. When I went back to my Hoyer it was like putting on that comfy old flannel shirt that feels so good. This was a very reassuring feeling.

I am glad that I tried different mouthpieces. (See My Mouthpiece Saga.) The custom one that I bought from Tom Greer is excellent for me. It really feels good and I am playing better. I got one with a screw on rim so I can change shanks without changing rims. The custom shank I got from Tom is slightly fatter than a standard mouthpiece to try to help with the sharpness of the Hoyer. I think it helps just a tad. It’s interesting that the Hoyer mouthpiece is a touch sharper. I don’t really know if it’s the mouthpiece that is making the difference with my playing, I could just be getting better.

I’m really glad that I joined a band. It has given me a lot more confidence and I should have joined sooner. Lynn always told me that I played better than I thought I did and she was right. I was terrified that I would screw up at the first rehearsal but it went reasonably well. I got better at each rehearsal and now I can play almost all of the music we are working on. One of my big problems when playing something is starting, messing up the first few notes and stopping and starting again. Band has almost cured me of that bad habit.

I wish I could say that I’ve worked on lots of music over the year but I really haven’t. It takes me awhile to learn new music. I’ve been working on Mozart 3 for months. I worked on Nocturno for months before that. I’m close to finishing with Mozart 3 now which is a good thing because I’m pretty sick of it. I’m also working on Strauss 1. I’m progressing slowly but steadily with the Strauss. Now that I’ve put lots of breaks into my daily practice sessions I can practice longer each day and I’m improving more quickly.

I’ve learned a lot this year and I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished. I hope that I can take what I’ve learned and use that knowledge to continue to improve throughout the coming year. Mostly I hope there are a lot more good days than bad days.

Practice gone wrong –>

Day 7 and counting

Last week I wrote three posts about my playing during the week. The first two discussed the poor quality of my playing, Today’s Practice Session 😦 and Yesterday’s Practice – Part 2, and the last one, It’s all about the air, talked about a revelation I had about air that lead to two stellar days of horn playing.

Well, yesterday was day 6 of a pretty dramatic improvement. I’ve put together two good days in the past though not very often. When I got to the third day I was pleasantly surprised but skeptical that it would continue. Day 4 was another great day followed by day 5 which was not quite as good as day 4 but pretty decent none the less. I figured that the run of great days was over but, lo and behold, day 6 was another truly stellar day.

So what do I mean by a stellar day? In the context of my capabilities, my tone is excellent, there are very few gurgles, and some missed notes but not too many. The arpeggios, slurs, and scales that I always work on are clean. 16th notes are playable at close to the correct tempo and tongued or slurred properly. The pieces that I’m practicing – Mozart 3, selected solos from the Mason Jones book and the first two movements from Strauss 1 are played well, despite the inevitable clams here and there, all the way through. I’ve been able to play individual passages decently before this but I was never able to string them together into a cohesive unit – i.e. the whole piece.

I had a lesson yesterday (day 6) and Lynn, my teacher, and I were talking about what’s changed. In addition to my discovery of using air better, two weeks ago she had me add what I call high harmonics to my warm up routine. These start at third space C on F horn and are lipped up to G, then back down. (Not fingered.) Then second valve down B up to F#, first valve down Bb to F and so on. The notes need to be evenly spaced, smooth, and clean. Last week we added Bb horn up from C# to G#, D to A, finishing with F to high C. At first I could barely do the F horn side. Now I can do them all well.

My warm up routine starts with low C slurs up to G back to C, then C to G to middle C and back and so on up to third space C which is a hit or miss affair. After that I do arpeggios starting at middle C. After these I have added the high harmonics to the warm up. Then I go back to another round of low C slurs.  My complete warm up and practice routine, other than the high harmonics, is covered in A lesson and practicing.

I can’t guarantee that adding the high harmonics to my warm up made the difference but it certainly points to that. It could be that all my practicing has finally led to recognizable improvement. The good news is that it didn’t occur because of a change in equipment. It is actually me that improved. I’m cautiously optimistic that this improvement will continue and that this week hasn’t been a fluke. And yes, today, day 7, was another good day.

Horn playing, breathing, and…cancer? –>

A lesson and practicing

This is the sequel to Practicing May to Dec. 08. It’s late January and nothing seems to be going right. I’ve got the new horn. I keep switching among my eight different mouthpieces (bad idea). I buy a weight that goes on the mouthpiece and is supposed to improve playing (not). I work on the Balanced Embouchure exercises. It’s so frustrating. I have the occasional good day but overall my playing is mediocre or bad.

As I mentioned in After the meltdown and the Balanced Embouchure I decided to take a lesson with Scott Bacon (Siegfried’s Call), who I bought my Hoyer from. I was lost and trying too many different things. I was struggling with endurance. My low range was poor. I was also still worried about the intonation of my new horn.

The first thing we did at the lesson was work on my low range. I could play the G below middle C but nothing lower except pedal notes. After about a half an hour he had me down to low C. My warm-up marching orders were to start every day trying to hit this note as the first note played. Then play long slow slurs from low C to G and back with the goal of increasing the range. C – G – C then C – G – middle C – G – C then repeating up to E, etc. By the end of the lesson I could just eke out C – G – middle C and back.

Scott set the metronome at quarter note = 60. It’s on for the rest of the lesson. The next thing we worked on was Exercise #1 in Embouchure Studies for French Horn by Joseph Singer. This exercise looks deceptively easy and is anything but. It’s a series of half note, half rest, half note, half rest, whole note starting on 1st space F and going to G above the staff. All breath attacks, no tonguing. Brutal.

Then out came Kopprash and we started on #1. I’m not a fan. Another exercise that looks deceptively easy. Well not only is it not easy, it’s a real lip killer. We’ve been working for about an hour and fifteen minutes and we are working in the order that he wants me to practice.

Next up is the 2nd movement of Mozart 3. Scott is meticulous. We worked on the first two measures – only – for about half an hour. By this time my chops are done. Really done. It’s the longest I’ve played since starting up again. The last time we did those two measures it sounded like gibberish.

As I left we reviewed my practice routine – warm-ups starting on the low C. Then Singer #1. Rest for a minimum of 20 minutes. Then Kopprash #1 followed by the Mozart. In addition scales, slurs, and tonguing (I’m sure I’m forgetting something.)

The lesson with Scott was really worthwhile. I didn’t need an embouchure change. Phew. I did have to promise that I wouldn’t switch mouthpieces anymore. I learned how to practice developing my low range. I learned how to get more out of practicing – breaking down the problem areas into the smallest steps and repeating it and repeating it and…..I still had issues with the intonation but I’m pretty convinced it’s me since Scott can play the horn in tune.

By following Scott’s practice routine my low range improved dramatically in about a week. I changed to practicing in twenty minutes chunks followed by twenty minute rests. By doing this I was able to increase my actual practicing time to about two hours. Now there is enough time to actually work on everything I want to work on.

Since my first lesson I’ve had two more lessons with Scott. I ‘graduated’ from exercise 1 to exercise 2 in the Kopprash book. He added exercise 4 in the Singer book – quarter  note slurs starting from G going to C, then A going to D, B to E, etc. – and we’ve gotten to the 16th notes in the 2nd movement of Mozart 3. Boy I really struggle with those. If I set the metronome to eighth note = 110 (really slow) I can just about play them. Usually I’m either lagging behind or rushing ahead or sometimes just tuning out the metronome altogether (my favorite).

I’m now taking lessons with Scott every four to five weeks and with Lynn once a week. I think of lessons with Scott sort of like a master class. Lynn and I work on the nitty gritty stuff that has to be worked on week to week. We also finish each lesson playing some duets which I really enjoy and it helps my sightreading. It also ends each lesson on a positive note – pun intended. Scott is about a three hour drive from my home so weekly lessons with Scott are not an option. If both of them lived near by I would have a really tough time choosing one over the other. They complement each other very well and I learn so much from each of them.

Day 7 and counting –>

Missing Blog Entries – Updated 05/02/09

Note: A list of all my posts in located on top right side of of the page. I will not be updating this page.

The first entries that I wrote for my blog have disappeared from the list on the right. They are:

The Beginning

Time for a Teacher

Progress? Fall 2008

Buying a Horn

The New Horn

The New Horn Part 2

My Mouthpiece Saga

Joining a Band

The Meltdown

A complete list of my posts are at: All My Posts.

Today’s Practice Session :(

Friday April 17th: Ugh. I was very surprised that this morning’s practice session was so poor. It’s been a really busy week for me so I didn’t practice as much as usual. Usually I get in about two hours everyday. Tuesday I only played at band rehearsal. Wednesday I didn’t practice at all and yesterday I had a lesson but didn’t play other than that. I didn’t play that well at my lesson but I usually don’t. Something about playing in front of my teacher makes me nervous. It shouldn’t but it does.

I expected to play really well this morning considering that I didn’t play much during the week. Instead it was almost another meltdown day. Major frustration. I practice in chunks of 20 minutes – play, rest, play, rest, play etc. My first 20 minutes was ok but it’s basically a warm-up. Lots of easy low notes and long tones. The second and third 20 minute sessions, not so much. In fact it’s been months since I have played so poorly. I couldn’t even play a scale without clamming a few notes. Nevermind Kopprash. I completely butchered Mozart’s 3rd concerto something I usually play decently.

I am going to resist the temptation to overanalyze this. I’m going to practice for another hour later this afternoon and I’m hoping it will be better. If it’s not then I have to decide to lay off tomorrow, play just a little or just practice as usual and play through the slump. Hmm.

Yesterday’s Practice – Part 2 –>

Bits and pieces

Some non connected things I have learned:

Screwbells – If you are a klutz like me don’t get one. Just kidding, well only partially kidding. My Yamaha is a fixed bell horn so this screwing on the bell thing is new to me.  My bell from my new Hoyer has recently spent too many seconds flying through the air. I was trying to insert into the bell sleeve in my Marcus Bonna case. Fortunately I caught it but there is now a thumb and finger squeeze type dent in the bell and a ding in the body of the horn where the bell hit the horn. I also find aligning the body of the horn to the bell difficult. The horn is heavy and if I don’t get both sides lined up quickly I have to put the horn down, rest for a second, and try again.  However, If you are going to travel with your horn, a screw bell is almost mandatory.

Horns on the floor – Don’t do it. It’s so tempting to just set it down and go answer the phone or whatever. But until you take a flying leap over it and just barely miss the horn you may not appreciate this advice.

Grease those slides – You will inevitably ding the bell as you try to yank out the third valve crooks.

Don’t eat and blow – Be nice to your lead pipe please.

Be careful snaking – If you try to use a snake to clean out your horn, don’t push it so far into the valves that it gets stuck. It’s really, really hard to yank it back out. And the heart attack you get as you ponder what you’ve done isn’t pleasant.

Horn to mouth disease – Be careful bringing your horn to your mouth. Banging the mouthpiece on your lip is painful. Two times and counting so far.

Watch those risers – it’s not that funny when your chair falls backwards off the riser during the Star Spangled Banner.

Sleeping on the job – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yx6N5lGlbZY&feature=email_. Watch to at least 50 seconds. Just in case you can’t tell, this is not me.

Lesson with a pro – Make sure you know your F horn fingerings – yes, all of them. Nuff said.

Count rests – Don’t come in a measure early when playing Fanfare for the Common Man.

Watch what you say – Don’t ask the 1st horn player what brand of ear plugs he uses when he’s actually removing his hearing aids.

Taking practice notes –  If you are going to review what you’ve written write more meaningful notes than ‘yuck’.

Watch for part 2. I’m sure there will be more.

After the meltdown and the Balanced Embouchure –>

How much is too much?

Practice, practice and more practice. But how much is too much? Is there anyway to know for sure when to stop playing and put the horn down?

This is a question that I struggle with all the time. If I’m having a good day and actual music is flowing out from my horn I want to keep playing. The pieces I am working on just click. These are the days that make all the hard work worthwhile. These are the days when I know that I can play this instrument. Too bad they are so few and far between. On a good day I stop practicing when the good day starts going south, typically around two hours of playing with lots of breaks.

If I’m having a mediocre day (the norm for me) with missed notes here and there, sloppy slurs and fuzzy or constricted tone then I keep going because I know I should. I am trying to increase my endurance so as my playing deteriorates I start dropping the range that I practice in so that I can keep going. Again, I take plenty of breaks and try to get about two hours of practice in. On these days I don’t practice beyond two hours. Maybe I should. Or not. I just don’t know.

If I’m having a bad day – most notes are cracked or completely missed, tone is awful, range is shot – I pay attention my breathing to see if that is the problem. Usually it isn’t. I try to push through for a half hour or so but a day like this is so bad that the only thing to do is put the horn down for the day and resist the temptation to try again later in the day.

I should point out that none of these instances involve pain. I very rarely have any pain in my chops but when I do I stop.

So for the really bad days I stop out of frustration and because I feel like my chops are rebelling. But I don’t know this for sure. Maybe I should keep playing anyway. Or maybe two hours of practice on the good and mediocre days is too much even with all the breaks. Probably if I practiced less I’d have more good days, fewer mediocre days and even fewer bad days. But, how does endurance get better then? And with shorter practice sessions how do you get better technically?

The long term goal is to increase endurance by strengthening the muscles in the embouchure without causing harm. The short term goal is to have good practicing days while increasing endurance. When there’s no pain, where’s the point that tired chops turn into harmed chops and how do you know if you are at that point?

One simple answer is to ask your teacher. I have two teachers (more on that in another post). Before I started with the second teacher I would practice for about 40 minutes straight and then fade quickly. If I managed an hour that was a really good day. The interesting pearl of wisdom here is that the first 20 to 30 minutes were almost always good. I was at this level of time for months and months. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress.

When I talked about this endurance issue with my second teacher he said to practice for twenty minutes and then take a minimum 20 minute break and go on from there. He said to drop the range as I got tired. I’ve been using this approach for about two months now and I got up to about two hours of actual playing daily almost immediately. Adding the breaks was a huge help.

On my good days I can see that I have improved significantly over the past two months. But those mediocre and bad days sure are frustrating. I have the luxury of plenty of time to practice all day if I had the chops. Maybe I should push to three hours, accept that there might be even more bad days, but then see improvement at a faster pace.  Those good days where I see the improvement are really rewarding. Or, maybe I should drop back and enjoy more good days and just deal with improving more slowly. I’m not a particularly patient person so I like option one better.

It’s a conundrum, not only for me but I think for anyone returning to the horn. We remember, or think we remember, where we were when we stopped and we want to get back there fast. We forget that back then we had been playing for years – junior high, high school, college – and that our endurance developed so gradually that we didn’t even notice it was happening.

So what to do? What did you do to develop endurance? Thoughts?

Bits and pieces –>

Ice Cubes, Oh No!

January 23rd, 2009: After a fairly strenuous practice session I decided to try putting some ice cubes on my chops. Well, I got them from the fridge and didn’t think about what I was doing and put one up to my lips. It stuck on my lips and I stupidly pulled it off taking some skin with it. Ouch.

The tear on my lips couldn’t have come at a worse time – I had a lesson and band rehearsal the next day and my new custom mouthpiece arrived that day. (Please read ‘My Mouthpiece Saga‘ for more info on the mouthpiece.)  I asked for help on the Yahoo Horn Forum and got many valuable suggestions. These included applying Close-up toothpaste, Vaseline, and Blistex. The suggestion that seemed to work the best for me was to apply Vitamin E oil by breaking open a capsule and putting it directly on my lips. This was messy but my lips felt better immediately and by the next afternoon I was playing again.

On the days when I don’t do something so stupid, I use Chop Saver to prevent chapped and split lips. This is my personal choice. I’m sure there are other products that also work well. One caveat, I have heard that some lip balm products contain ingredients such as phenol, camphor, and/or menthol that may dry out the lips and may become habit forming requiring constant reapplication.  I’ve also noticed that I play better when I stay hydrated.

But why use an ice cube at all?

My chops were tired on the day of my ice cube fiasco. At the time I thought that applying ice was the right thing to do. I’ve had cold drinks after playing and it feels very good. Now that I’ve done some reading and asked some questions I’ve come to the conclusion that ice was most likely NOT the right thing to do. Most of us know the RICE acronym. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. I’ve had enough sports injuries to know that this is what is typically recommended for an injury. But if you run a marathon, go for a long bike ride or  – insert your favorite sport here – your muscles get tired. You want to massage the muscles, creating warmth, when you are done. i.e – you want to stimulate blood flow not compress it. So with my tired chops increasing blood flow with a hot drink would have been more appropriate, not ice. Bear in mind that I am not a physician. This is my opinion based on my experiences only. Now I drink a hot cup of tea after I practice. Even if it does nothing else, at least it’s relaxing.

Twitter, Huh? –>