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.

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.

Back to the gym

You might wonder what going to the gym has to do with horn playing but, at least in my case, a whole lot. I’ve struggled with keeping my weight in check most of my life. There was one year, 1980, when I was actually too skinny. That didn’t last long. The rest of the time I’ve had to work on keeping the excess weight off.

My most recent big weight loss began in the fall of 2005 when I retired from work. I had gained a ton (well not really a ton) of weight during my last year at work. I retired because I came down with fibromyalgia in 2004 and that stopped me from exercising so everything I ate just stuck on my body. I was probably eating poorly as well though if you asked me that I would deny that this was the case. I set out to get the weight off beginning in early 2006 and lost 85 pounds during 2006 – 2007. I did this by limiting calories, eating healthy food, and exercising every day.

When I started playing the horn again I was in great shape. I was riding my bicycle between 20 and 30 miles daily, weather permitting, or working out in my gym in my house and, for once in my life, reasonably happy with my weight. Fast forward to the fall of 2010 when I went back to school. I was at school all day, four days a week, and I started eating junk food lots of the time because that was what was easy to grab in between classes. I also got a lot less exercise. With classes during the day and homework at night I exercised less and less and by the spring of 2011 I had gained the ‘freshman 15.’

At this point my sloth-like behavior hadn’t hurt my horn playing. I played ‘off the leg’ and could easily play standing up for long lengths of time. During the summer of 2011 I tried to take off the 15 pounds but that didn’t happen. My plan was to take it off by exercising more but the summer on the east coast was extremely hot and I rarely got out to ride. I also didn’t go back to my healthy food diet. Once I started eating junk food it was very hard to stop eating junk food. I realize that the heat and junk food are merely excuses and I just didn’t have the necessary motivation to lose the weight.

During the fall of 2011 I started to see the impact that the lack of exercise and the weight gain had on me when playing the horn. Playing standing up got more and more difficult. But what really worried me was that I was running out of breath. I was working on Malcomb Arnold’s Fantasy for Horn for my December jury exam and I was getting completely exhausted trying to play it. I needed to take extended breaks at the end of every phrase. In fact, anything fast just wiped me out.

The weight gain continued to spiral out of control as I kept eating junk and I couldn’t exercise because I had knee surgery in October. I couldn’t play standing up for more than 10 minutes and by January 2012 I started playing with my horn resting on my leg again. I made this change for sound quality but quickly realized that it was less exhausting as well. Now playing standing up got even harder because the horn was heavier when I wasn’t resting it on my leg.

By March I had gained another 15 pounds and I finally got motivated to get the weight off. I realized that the impact the extra weight had on my horn playing was unacceptable, never mind all the clothes in my closet that didn’t fit. Between March and the middle of June I lost 15 pounds by following the Nutrisystem food plan but I still didn’t get back to exercising. Then I went on vacation and got shingles and gained back 3 pounds. Thank goodness it was only 3 pounds. At this point in time I’m still following Nutrisystem but I haven’t started exercising and I haven’t seen much positive effect yet on my horn playing. There are 6 weeks left before school starts. I’ve got the food under control but I have to start exercising. I don’t think I’m going to see a positive effect on playing my horn unless I exercise. My goal is to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and to lose a pound a week. I’d like to get back to where I was before I started school by my birthday in November.

Choosing a school

My first year back at school (2010 – 2011) went very well and this past fall I decided that I wanted to continue on to a 4 year school. The first thing was to look at which schools on Long Island had decent music departments, were affordable, and not more than an hour’s drive from my house. I whittled down my choices to two schools – State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook and Long Island University, Post Campus. (Formerly known as C.W. Post.) Post is a private school and would be way out of the ‘affordable’ range except that they offer great scholarships based on merit which I qualified for.

The next step was to apply, write the dreaded “why do I want to go to this school” essay, send in transcripts and then wait to hear if I got in. First I had to get accepted into the school and then audition for the music department. Fortunately I got into both schools and I survived the auditions and got into both music departments as well.

So now I had to decide which school to go to. Stony Brook is about 20 minutes from my house and Post is an hour from my house not counting the misery of driving during rush hour. That easily adds another half hour to the trip. So clearly, Stony Brook wins when it comes to commuting to school.  The required curriculum is similar, though Post doesn’t require a language and Post accepted all of my transfer credits from back in 1972. They also accepted all my music credits from Suffolk. Stony Brook was putting me back a year for theory and aural skills. Hmm. Suffolk and Stony Brook are both SUNY schools and I had a 4.0 in Suffolk. I found that odd. Post wins for credit acceptance.

Post has a program called ‘spend a day with a music student’ which I attended. I enjoyed the day except for the junior level theory class which I found bizarre. We spent the entire class singing and I felt it was much closer to an aural skills class than a theory class. I was very concerned because aural skills is by far my weakest subject. So that one class tipped the scales toward Stony Brook.

Financially, Post wins the tuition battle because of the scholarships I received. The tuition is around $31K and I got $27K in scholarships. However, I had to add the cost of gas and mileage on my car which did get the cost of the two schools closer together.

So at this point, Stony Brook is ahead on commuting (which is a big deal) and their more normal theory class. Post is ahead financially and for accepting all my credits. They are also ahead because they are so nice. Every time I visited the school, no matter who I was seeing, I felt like they genuinely cared about me. I felt much more like a number when dealing with Stony Brook. Even so, I was leaning toward Stony Brook until I finally realized that the most important reason for choosing a school was the horn teacher. And in that category, Post wins hands down. Sharon Moe has great credentials, but more importantly, I’ve had more than a few lessons with her and we get along really well and we communicate well. At Stony Brook, I’d be stuck with a TA. So, despite the commute, the likely hood that I’ll probably spend more than a few nights in a hotel because of late night rehearsals, and that weird theory class, I’ve picked Post.

Catching up

As usual, it’s been ages since I’ve posted anything here. In the past few weeks a few people have asked me to write again and now that it’s summer I have some time. My second year of school was a lot more intense than the first year. Consequently, practicing and then homework had the highest priorities. I did graduate this May with an Associate degree in Music.

As was true of my first year of school, I really enjoyed all my classes again this past year. Theory was still my favorite. It took some work to understand some of the more advanced analysis of tonal music but I got it and I really like digging in and figuring out the structure of a piece. The last month of the class covered atonal music and the twelve-tone row. Although this music is not my favorite, analyzing it was very formulaic and I found it really easy.

I had a great teacher for music history and I did very well in the class. Back in September I didn’t do that well, getting a grade in the low 80s on the first quiz, until I figured out how to study for it. Once I came up with a method that worked for me, I aced all the exams – high 90s and then the last three 102 for each test. It took a tremendous amount of work – hours and hours of homework or studying almost everyday – but doing really well in the class made the work worth it. Plus I really found the material very interesting once we got past the 5th century chant stuff.

Aural skills remained the hardest class for me. I still struggle hearing intervals and with rhythm which made dictation tests very difficult, especially at the end of the year when we worked on bitonality. Fortunately, I had a wonderful professor who took the time and had the patience to help me get though the class. (In fact, all my professors at Suffolk were really excellent and I think that is a big reason why I was able to stick it out and graduate.) The other thing that saved me is that I do very well with sight singing so my grades on sight sighting balanced out my not so great grades on dictation tests.

I played in both the wind ensemble and the symphonic band at school, plus the two community bands I’ve been in for a few years. I did find that all the playing was hard on my chops. Most days I was playing at least three hours and at least twice a week, five hours. In the fall semester that wasn’t too bad because I was playing mostly low horn parts but in the spring semester I was playing 1st in the school bands and that’s when I started to really feel the impact to my chops. I ended up with a split in my lip right where the mouthpiece edge sat on my lip and ended up with a bloody mess on more than one occasion. Although my lip is healed I can still feel where the split was and I have to be careful not to split it open again.

I did a lot of performing this year between recitals, juries, some chamber music, master classes and auditions. I am very slowly getting past the insane nervousness though I still don’t play my best when I perform. I hope that eventually this will change. I can tell that I am playing better than I did last year. Improvement is slow but relatively steady. My biggest problem is still air – “I didn’t hear you breathe” or “you didn’t take a big enough breath” are typical comments during lessons.  Next is probably rhythm, or maybe intonation, or maybe articulation, or maybe accuracy, the list seems endless.

I will write on my choice of a four year school, the 2nd BSO academy that I attended, and SummerTrios in the next few days.

Summer 2011

Like everyone else, I’m wondering what happened to the summer. Usually I remember what I didn’t manage to get done that I had hoped to – bicycling, exercise, piano, school review, etc., etc. – but I realized the other day that I did do a lot of horn stuff and that’s a really good thing. In addition to attending the BSO Academy that I posted about last June, I played in a trio at the 92nd Street Y in NYC, took numerous lessons, sometimes more than once a week, practiced at least 2 hours a day and attended Jeff Nelsen’s Fearless Camp again a few weeks ago. I also bought a 1969 N series Conn 8D a few weeks before the BSO Academy.

So to start, why did I buy a Conn horn or any horn for that matter? Back when I started going to school last September, I was getting a bit beat up about my bright sound and I began what has turned into a year long effort to warm up and darken my sound. A lot of this effort is working on air, support, vowel sounds, and opening up my throat. Some of it is trying other horns and mouthpieces, one of which was the Conn. It solved my bright sound problem and amidst my ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ get another horn agita, my teacher’s comment, “Just get the big assed American horn” sealed the deal.

I’ve posted about air numerous times, frequently saying that I think I’ve figured it out. Well I think each time I put together another piece of the puzzle but I’m still learning. Another comment from my teacher, “Just blow for heavens sake”, helped. The Conn, however, has helped me tremendously as did lessons from two of the pros at the BSO. The Conn just needs more air and support and it’s teaching me to use air correctly all the time. Taking lessons from different people helps because they’ll say something just slightly differently than my teacher and all of a sudden something clicks. When I got back from the BSO Academy I realized that I had made a solid leap in the right direction using air and my sound on my Otto horn has improved significantly.

I’d be very content with my Conn and my Otto except that the mild tendonitis that I’ve had in my left shoulder has turned into screaming, stabbing horrible pain to the point that holding either horn is extremely painful. Sometime last year I bought a hornstick to try to help with my shoulder but it is quite clumsy to use and it looks dorky besides. If it worked well I’d deal with looking dorky. I’ve tried playing on the leg but that really doesn’t relieve that much weight off my left shoulder. Then in early July I was playing duets with a good friend of mine and I tried his Schmid and it was like manna from heaven. Not only in weight but in sound as well. So I placed an order for a Schmid from Houghton Horns.

I don’t have the Schmid yet and when I was at Fearless Camp Jeff Nelson got in an Otto 201 that is lighter than my Otto 180K and of course, lighter than the Conn. I sound pretty good on it too but I wasn’t sure it was ‘the horn’ so I got a loaner Schmid from Houghton Horns and I’ve been testing both of them for the past week and a half. The Schmid is still lighter by 150 grams and the balance of weight favors my shoulder. The Otto feels lighter nearer the bell. Sound wise, they are similar when I play them and depending on which mouthpiece I use I can get either one of them to sound great. I’ve finally made a decision to go with the Schmid because of the weight. With both horns sounding great, weight is why I’m getting another horn. Now I have to decide if I want to wait for the lacquered Schmid I ordered or just get the unlacquered one I have on loan.

Back to air – my big challenge now is to remember to keep the air going all the time. I understand what I need to do finally. I have notes written all over my music about keeping up air support, blowing thru notes and taking big breaths. Now it needs to become a habit.

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t post that often anymore and some of it is because I’m really busy but it’s also because my horn playing doesn’t change rapidly any more. Changes come over months of work. In the beginning, change happened everyday. Joy, frustration, extreme frustration, endurance, no endurance, stiffness, air, no air, on and on. Now I just practice. I don’t think of days or hours in terms of good or bad. I do lots of work and I get slow acceptable progress. Yay. I’ll post when interesting horn things happen.

Orchestra weirdness

At the end of my rant about band yesterday I said I would explain why I didn’t sign up for orchestra this semester. I had two reasons – one was scheduling. I had less down time waiting for band to start in the late afternoon (tues + thurs) than waiting for orchestra to start (mon – wed). I’m done with class on Wednesday at 11 and orchestra starts at 4 and it didn’t make sense to go home so that was a lot of time to kill. However I would have dealt with the scheduling issue except for reason #2.

Reason #2: I was the only wind player that took orchestra for credit so I sat at every rehearsal playing my part along with the tympanist and the strings. This was very disconcerting. Horns are loud and every note I missed was heard clearly by everyone. Of course this kept me on my A game but I still felt very uncomfortable. It was also hard to keep counting correctly for thirty or forty measures rest without any help from the woodwind and brass cues in my part. And with all the instrumentation it’s easier to listen and just know where to come in.

About three weeks before our concert (Beethoven 2nd) our conductor started getting some winds to show up so one day we’d have a flute and another day a clarinet and once we even had two trumpets and an oboe. We finally had a full orchestra for the dress rehearsal. So I got to hear all the parts and how they fit together once before the concert.  I spent hours and hours listening to the CD and trying to play along with the CD. It’s just not like the real thing. I took orchestra to get the full experience of playing with an orchestra including all the rehearsals.

So this semester I opted for symphonic band and wind ensemble. Oops. In addition to the seating issues I mentioned yesterday, I’ve played all the music already, except for one easy piece, in the two community bands I’m in. For one of the pieces I played 1st and 4th so I know the piece inside out and upside down. For the others I played 4th and I’m still playing 4th. No learning experience this semester.

This morning I asked the orchestra conductor what they were playing this semester because both the 2nd horn and I were talking about switching to orchestra. The conductor said they were just using strings this semester because no winds signed up. I have no idea what’s going to happen next semester but I suspect that if I sign up for orchestra it will be the same as last semester. So I’m still on a quest to find an orchestra to play in.