Success! BSO Academy 2016

I’ve been attending the BSO Academy since 2011 making this my 6th year. It is the clearest way for me to evaluate how I’ve improved as an amateur horn player.

The Baltimore Symphony Academy is fundamentally an eight day program where adult amateur musicians play side by side with the pros of the BSO culminating with a major concert in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. One of the best things about this incredible opportunity is that there are no auditions required to get in. You apply and if there openings for your instrument you are in. So back in 2011 there was space for me and I got in.

In 2011 I had been playing – and I use that term loosely – for around two years. That June I had finished my first year of school going for a music degree. I don’t remember what we played but I do remember looking at the music when it arrived in the mail. Whoa. There wasn’t much that I could play. Fortunately one of the major premisses of the Academy is that you play what you can and listen and learn from the pro sitting next to you. Most of the time the pros will play with you if you want them to. I opted to try and play all the 4th horn parts. I couldn’t play much but just walking out on the Meyerhoff stage was an awe-inspiring experience never to be forgotten.

For year two I also asked to play all 4th horn parts. I did a bit better with the music but still couldn’t play much of it. Bruce Moore, the pro at the time on 4th horn, was wonderful. I listened and learned and was gently pushed to play a few of the harder passages but always with Bruce as my safety net.

In year three I started to see some real improvement. A lot of the music was manageable for me and I played a lot more of the music and left out much less of it. I played 2nd horn for one piece! The difficulty of the music was similar each year and now in year three I was finally playing a good deal of it.

On to year four. It’s now 2014 and I have completed my music degree. I played 1st horn for one piece. Wow. I played all of it by myself. It was one of the easier pieces that we’ve played over the years but I did it. Marin Alsop conducting. Fear inducing. I did it. A pretty big milestone for me.

Last year I asked for the 1st horn part for the Russian Easter Overture.  I played all of it by myself. I also had a 2nd horn part and a 3rd horn part. I had some very exposed notes in the Russian Easter Overture. I played them. I listened to the recording and I did well. If you were listening to the recording with me I would say ‘hey that’s me’ with a smile on my face.

This year was huge for me. I already wrote about my success in the chamber music concert.  Before that concert I played two movements of the Hindemith Horn Sonata in F at the solo with piano class. That went well. Some mistakes but generally decent. Last night I had the 1st horn part for the third movement of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony. Holy sh*t. Me. I didn’t play the whole movement entirely by myself, Phil Munds helped me out a bit, but I did play all the solos. I feel like I did well. People told me I did well. The recording will tell all but I’m very optimistic.

Rewind back to 2011 and then look at 2016. I could never have played what I played last night, actually what I played all week, in 2011. Even last year it would have been quite a stretch. In fact I would not have asked to play that part. It’s so exposed that the fear alone would have overtaken any possibility that I could play it.

Attending the BSO Academy is an unbelievable experience. Just imagine as an amateur getting the opportunity to play in a great concert hall. The Academy gets better every year and it’s proving to me that I’m getting better every year.

 

Performing

Last night I nailed my horn part in a quintet performance. I mean really nailed it. It was the best I have ever played anything. I’m at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Academy for my 6th time and last night was our chamber music concert.

So I’m thinking about the factors that contributed to this performance. We played two movements, 1 and 3, and I nailed the 3rd movement. The first movement was more typical of how I usually play. Some strong spots and some weak spots. The third movement was damn near perfect. Scary word, perfect. I know nothing is ever perfect no matter who plays it. There is always room for improvement. But in this case I think it’s the right word to use.

So back to why. I worked on my part for about 6 weeks. I worked on both movements, more on the first than the third because the first was the harder movement. One clue here is that the third movement was technically comfortable for me however the horn part was also much more exposed and had two gorgeous solos.

The little voice in my head that says, ‘I know I can play this but there’s this issue, that problem, and I hope I don’t get lost’ was in my head for the first movement but not the third.

The third movement was slow. Slow doesn’t mean easier. There are plenty of opportunities for screw ups but in my brain, the important part of this paragraph, it usually means easier.  In all of my performances I’ve had both slow and fast phrases and I’ll mess something up in both of them. I think the concern about the fast parts leads to mess ups in the slow parts.

But the crux of the matter is that, unequivocally, I knew I could play this movement which leads to the most important piece of all this – confidence. I’ve walked out on stage feeling pretty confident but never totally confident. I felt rock solid about the third movement and I nailed it. No doubts in my head at all.

This leads to something about performances that I have learned the hard way. For me, not necessarily everyone, it’s important to start performing with pieces that are within my ability. During my recent years in school I had to play music that was too hard for me. Consequently many performances, especially at Post, were train wrecks. Villanelle probably the worst one. Every time I walked out on stage I knew there were parts of the piece I literally couldn’t play. I never walked out with confidence. Since Post I have been choosing pieces that were mostly within my ability and my confidence has been improving. Last night everything meshed into a great performance. The first time will not be the last time now that I know I can do it.

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.

The New Normal ???

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to change my expectations of how I play and how I will perform. I’ve had many teachers tell me ‘you’re better than you think you are’ and my instant reaction has always been no I’m not. Well, I’m starting to rethink that. Since last June I’ve had some performance successes that are making me realize that I have really improved but I’ve also had some hiccups along the way. So is there a way to reset one’s personal expectations and does using the thought process of ‘the new normal’ help in any way?

The new normal was a way to describe the economic downturn back in 2008. Most people had to reset their expectations, particularly their financial expectations, and do with less. But is there any reason to associate the new normal only with downturns? It seems that the term could equally apply to upturns though it’s not typically used that way.

So back to horn playing. How one internalizes how they play is completely subjective. It’s not like baseball where you have a batting average that tells you and everyone else exactly how good you are. You know how you are doing over time and how you did in any game.  We don’t have a batting average – 30 misses out of 100 notes equals what really? One flubbed note in a long solo equals what? Our heads are our own worst enemy.

Back to me. I had three performance successes – where I felt I played well – recently and I realized that I can change my mindset from my old normal – ‘I always screw up performances’ – to my new normal – ‘I play well in performances.’ Since how you think is usually how you do it’s way better to go into a performance assuming you will do well.

Now for the hiccups. I took a two week vacation in September and I didn’t bring my horn. Before that I hadn’t missed more than three days in a row.  When I resumed practicing I played badly for several weeks and I was really unhappy and frustrated. I would have had a better mindset if I just reset my expectations to my new normal – not playing as well as I had before I went on vacation. It is what it is and it’s better just to accept it.

Then when I finally got back to where I was before vacation I had surgery on my right hand and had a monster bandage that filled up my entire bell. I really couldn’t play. I was flipping off notes all the time and my sound was awful. Once I got the bandage off and a cast on my playing improved ever so slightly. I really had a new normal that I had to accept. The alternative was a whole lot of negative thinking with a trip down the rabbit hole.

I don’t think resetting one’s expectations is appropriate for changes over short time frames. For example if you think you play badly one day or one week. But if there is a change that will be more long term, negative or positive, maybe it makes sense to put a label on it. Is it your new normal? Say yes and you’ll be happier for it.

Hand surgery

I’d been putting off fixing a painful problem with my right thumb for years but since I’m not in school anymore I decided that now was the time for the surgery. My other reason for choosing the end of November for the surgery was to make sure I was healed by the time warmer weather was back.

I had the surgery on November 21st and came home with a huge bandage and a huge amount of pain. Clearly there was not going to be any horn playing happening for several days at best. Once I got off the really good drugs I decided to give it a try and I discovered that I couldn’t play anything. For one thing my bandaged right hand didn’t fit in the bell so I tried various places on the edge of the bell. Then, no matter where I put my hand, I couldn’t hold any note steady above third space C. I’d start a note and it would wobble all over the place. After about 20 minutes I gave up.

The next day I tried again with pretty much the same results. Now I was getting worried. I had some rehearsal and performance commitments coming up not that far away and I hadn’t expected to have a problem playing. After a few more days of struggling I found a place to put my right hand that seemed to clear up the wobbly note problem and I managed to get thru a rehearsal a few days later reasonably okay.

On December 3rd my doctor removed the bandage and put on a cast. Phew. The cast was smaller and a lot easier to deal with. Little things like screwing my bell on and off the horn became possible with the cast. Again it took me a few days to overcome the wobbly note issue. Now I had to find the best place for my right hand with the cast instead of the bandage. This was a little easier than with the bandage but I never really found the perfect spot. I was still having issues with high notes. I don’t know the physics behind how air moves through the horn and bounces off the right hand but it seemed to me that the cast changed the air flow enough to give me problems both with steady notes and pitch.

Last week, on January 5th, I got the cast replaced with a removable splint. Now I could take it off for showers (yay) and horn playing. Within about 20 minutes my playing was back to normal. What a relief. A couple of days later I started my morning practice routine and I was playing terribly and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. After about 45 really frustrating minutes I looked at my right hand and I had the splint on. I took it off and everything was okay again. Some people have suggested that the changes in my playing were just me playing badly and not from the bandage and then the cast, but I think the air flow changed and that’s why I struggled with wobbly high notes. Next week I won’t need the splint anymore and after some intense physical therapy over the next four weeks I’ll be healed and have a pain free right thumb.

My school journey – the first two years

Back in the spring of 2010 I decided that it would be a good idea to learn some theory. I went over to Suffolk County Community College and tried to register for a theory class beginning in the fall. They said no, you have to enroll in the music department and be a full-time student. Oh boy. And you have to pass a music equivalency test or take a music basics class over the summer and convince the music department to accept you. Huh? This is a community college. At least I didn’t have to audition. I opted to take the summer class since I had no formal music education and when the class began I realized that I knew nothing. Fortunately I did well in this class and I decided to continue as a full time student. I was thrown into theory, aural skills, piano fundamentals, and of course horn lessons, ensembles and juries. OMG.

When I started classes I worried a bit about how the other students would react to having someone older than their mothers in their classes. I didn’t need to worry. The kids were great. For about two weeks they weren’t sure how to talk to me but we all got comfortable with each other and I was treated like any other student. What a relief.

In the beginning of the first semester I didn’t do well and I really didn’t understand why. I had no trouble understanding the lectures but I wasn’t passing my tests. I took a careful look at my incorrect answers and realized that I was reversing the alphabet constantly. If the answer required building an interval a major second above C I would start on Bb instead of D. All the time. Even when I figured out what I was doing and went back over the answers I still messed up the alphabet.

I went for testing and found out that I’m dyslexic. Wow, that explains a lot. I was given twice the time to take tests and usually by my third or fourth pass over my answers I found all the mistakes. If I hadn’t figured this out I wouldn’t have made it past the first semester. Some of the issues I still face due to the dyslexia is an inability to play scales even though I work on them every day. My sight reading is atrocious as is playing the correct rhythm. It’s all slowly getting better. I’ve done a lot of research on musicians with dyslexia and my problems are typical. For a while I used this as an excuse for why I couldn’t do some things but recently I finally realized that it was just going to take me longer to learn and that this is okay. I’m also coming up with different ways to learn. No more excuses, no more ‘can’t do that.’

On to year two. The classes were a continuation of year one except instead of piano I had music history. That has to be the hardest class I’ve taken so far. Brutal. There were many times during that fall semester that I wanted to quit. I was really overwhelmed and I constantly questioned why I was putting myself through this. However, I didn’t quit and I got my associates degree. The next step, Long Island University, Post Campus.

Horns are not frisbees

The night of my senior recital was Thursday Dec. 12th. It was a very good day and a not so good day. My recital went well but when I was putting my Dieter Otto 14 month old horn away my case dropped my horn. Well it was my fault  – you can’t really blame an inanimate object for dropping a horn or can you? I put the horn in the case and closed the top but got distracted because people were talking to me after the recital. I picked up the ‘closed’ case and the horn flew half way across the room. I hadn’t zipped up the case even though I ‘always’ check it. I stood there in stunned silence and didn’t really react much. It was like, huh, what just happened?

At first look it didn’t seem to have much damage. The first valve was stuck but I didn’t see the less visible damage. I took the horn up to Siegfried’s Call where I bought it and Scott Bacon showed me all the rest of the damage. Not good. The ferrule was compressed and the valve cluster was pushed in. There’s more damage than just that but it seems that the ferrule is the worst of it. The entire horn has to be taken apart to fix it. Fortunately Scott was able to get the horn playable, though not how it usually plays, for me. The repair cost is pretty hefty but the good news is that I have an instrument insurance policy that is covering the entire repair. The best $71 dollars I ever spent.

My horn is at Scott’s shop now and the repair will take about a week and a half. I have a high quality loaner horn but it’s making me crazy. I can’t play it in tune, it feels like I’m playing thru cotton, and it’s doing a great job of reminding me why I love my own horn. I also own a 3/4 size double horn (every one who is asking why, that’s a very good question) and it is easier for me to play, most likely because I’m used to it, than this loaner except that it cramps my left hand up so badly that I can’t play it for more than 15 minutes.

So, is it the case’s fault? It’s true that I’m the one who didn’t zip up the case but the case has no straps to hold the horn. If it had straps I wouldn’t have closed the case without strapping the horn in first. Now the latest version of this case has straps. I’ve heard from a well-known pro that this has happened to ‘a lot’ more people than just me. I’ve ordered a new, very expensive, carbon fiber case that should make it very difficult, but probably not impossible, to have the horn fall out of the case. I can see myself forgetting to zip up my current case again. I knew that forgetting to zip it was a potential problem and yet I got distracted and forgot. The only good news is that my horn fell after my recital, not before it.