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.

 

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.

BSO Academy 2012

The BSO Academy is a week long summer ‘band camp’ where adult amateur musicians get to play with the members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Their slogan is “side by side with the pros.” I went last year also and this year, amazingly, was even better than last year. Both experiences were awe inspiring. I think the difference was that this year I felt more comfortable with myself as a horn player. Last year was a ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting here’ experience but I was much more nervous and I played the music in my part very quietly and with great trepidation.

The music was much harder for me last year than this year. This year I played my parts with confidence. There wasn’t anything that I just couldn’t play. Last year there were passages in the music that were way beyond my capability. Granted, I chose to play 4th horn again because I didn’t feel I was ready to play anything that was exposed. I made a promise to myself to choose at least one part next year that wasn’t a 4th horn part. The really nice thing about the Academy is that we are sitting next to the pros. We are encouraged to play what we can and drop out, if necessary, when the music just gets too hard. This year there were only two measures, low, pp and exposed, where I opted not to play. The intonation had to be flawless and I just wasn’t comfortable doubling it.

There were 104 attendees this year, 56 of us returnees, and we were split up into two orchestras. Sitting on the Meyerhoff stage, seeing Marin Alsop walk out and start the rehearsal, was just as jaw-dropping this year as last year. The orchestra I was in played Tchaikovsky’s Cappricio Italian, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and suite 2 of de Falla’s Three Cornered Hat.  All music that I really enjoyed. The Three Cornered Hat was the hardest for me because it has really tricky rhythms. At the first rehearsal I struggled with it but I had it down pat by the dress rehearsal.

In addition to playing in the orchestra, I also signed up to be in a chamber music group and to participate in the “Solo with a pianist” opportunity. In the chamber music group we performed the 1st and 2nd movements of Beethoven’s Septet for Violin, Viola, Cello, String Bass, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn. We had enough rehearsals to mesh as a group and I think the performance went very well. I had a few solos and I played most of them decently and I completely nailed the most important one in the 2nd movement. I was probably the least experienced member in the septet and I’m glad that I played well enough to not let our group down.

The ‘solo with a pianist’ option offered us an opportunity to perform a short piece with piano accompaniment. I chose to play the 2nd movement of Mozart’s 4th Horn Concerto. We had one short rehearsal and then the performance was the next evening.  I’ve performed that piece 4 times now, first at the Northeast Horn Workshop where I crashed and burned, then at my jury for school where I also crashed and burned (not just this piece but the entire jury), at church where it went ok, and then at the Academy where I think it went quite well. I still don’t perform well, usually playing well below my capability, so I was happy with this performance.

In addition to all the performing, the Academy keeps us busy with numerous seminars and master classes. Only a few were similar to last year and worth hearing a second time. This year I volunteered to play or be a guinea pig right from the start of the week. By the end of the week whenever volunteers were asked for people would shout out ‘Tina will play.” Last year I think I played only at one or two classes. This year I played in every class. Yay.

For more information, there are two interesting articles on BSO Academy written by Dan Wakin, attendee at the Academy and a writer for the NY Times, Band Camp for Grownups (I’m in the cover picture!) and Every Player in this Temporary Orchestra has a Story.

School and other frustrations

So my second year back in school is going okay but it’s a lot harder than last year. My biggest challenge is my aural skills class. I used to have a good ear, or at least I though I did, but I’m having real problems hearing intervals, inversions, and chord progressions. Plus, rhythm. Oh boy. There’s that song – ‘the rhythm is gonna get you’ – truer words could not be said. Rhythm dictation is not going well. It’s frustrating to struggle with something and not see much improvement. In my other classes I can study until I learn the material. In this class it feels like more of an innate thing that over time should get better but possibly not at the speed necessary to pass the class.

I was worried about my music history class and memorizing composers, dates, titles and the like but I think that’s going to be okay. It’ll take work, but I can handle that. Theory is an interesting beast. We’re studying secondary dominant chords and modulation along with writing four part chorales right now. There are so many things to remember that I sometimes end up making really stupid mistakes. Aaaargh. One of the really good things about school is that all my teachers are really great. My classes are very interesting and the teachers are superb at explaining their subjects.

Horn wise, I am definitely playing better than I did last year but I still get frustrated and I still have bad days. Not as many as I used to have but enough to get me down in the dumps now and then. Fortunately I don’t have bad weeks anymore and I can eventually figure out what I’m not doing that I should be doing. Usually it’s air or the lack thereof.

My biggest frustration is that I can’t find an orchestra to play in. In my first semester at school I took orchestra and it was interesting but not that fulfilling because I was the only wind player. It took me a while to get used to being the only one but I did and I enjoyed it, especially the dress rehearsal and concert when we did finally have a full complement of players. For the spring semester I opted to play with the band and wind ensemble but I really missed the orchestra. That led me to audition and get into a small orchestra in New York City.  I played with them last spring and enjoyed it but they changed their rehearsal time for this fall and, sadly, the new time just doesn’t work for me. Back to the search. So far, no dice except that I got permission to sit with (not play) the horn section of a good Long Island orchestra that rehearses a few minutes from my house. On one hand it feels really weird but on the other, I am learning something. I follow the music and I get to hear good horn players. There’s a possibility that I’ll be able to fill in now and then and play with them in the summer. At least I’ve got the first inch of my big toe in the door.

BSO Academy

Wow. I spent last week at the BSO Academy and it was an incredible week. The Academy is run by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and it’s a week long ‘camp’ where amateur musicians get to play and perform along side the BSO musicians. Their very fitting logo is ‘side by side with the pros’. The week was jam packed with lessons, lectures, ensemble rehearsals, and of course orchestra rehearsals led by Marin Alsop who is the music director of the BSO. All of this led to the final performance on Saturday night in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

I spent the week in disbelief that I was actually sitting on the stage of Meyerhoff Hall and playing with this wonderful orchestra. I applied back in January and I didn’t really expect to get accepted. Getting the acceptance letter was the first of several ‘jaw dropping’ experiences. The second was receiving the music and finding out that I was going to play the first movement of Mahler 2nd, Overture to Candide, and Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso. The Academy was set up with two separate groups because we had 88 attendees. Group 2 performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappriccio Espagnol and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis. As I mentioned, just playing with the BSO orchestra was another ‘jaw dropping’ experience never to be forgotten. Playing with a professional orchestra was so different than playing with the community orchestra and bands I’m in. The rehearsals were ‘no nonsense’ and very efficient. At the beginning of the first rehearsal Marin Alsop stopped for a minute and the usual community orchestra chatter started. She gave one ‘shush’ and it never happened again. Just watching her lead the orchestra was a tremendous learning experience.

The week started with a fabulous performance by the BSO of Verdi’s Requiem. Then we met the BSO musicians and had a chance to chat with the musicians in our section. They were so welcoming. I never felt that they didn’t want to participate in the Academy. In fact, it was just the opposite. They helped us with our parts, let those capable of playing the solos play them, and answered any questions we had.

The week continued with sectionals, our ensemble rehearsals, and many very informative classes including classes on breathing, injury prevention, Alexander Technique, practicing effectively, using tuners and metronomes productively, yoga for musicians, and conquering stage fright. At many ‘camps’ classes like these provide only fluff but these were well prepared with very useful information.

In addition to the final orchestra performance, we also had a chamber music concert and a solo with piano recital. The typical ensemble was led by a BSO pro either playing or coaching. I was in a brass quartet – two trumpets, trombone and horn. We played a piece by Arthur Frackenpohl which I had to work hard at to play it well. Our coach was outstanding and very patient with me dealing with a piece that was slightly above my ability level. By the time of the concert I was able to play the piece well. I didn’t sign up for the solo with piano class though I should have. I would have had an opportunity to play for a very caring and forgiving audience.

I took two lessons, one with Mary Bisson who plays 3rd horn and one with Phil Munds who is the principle horn. Both lessons were extremely worthwhile. We worked on breathing and sound, which I continually struggle with. I got several very valuable exercises that I could tell helped my air and sound. Now it’s a matter of me doing them correctly without their guidance.

All in all the BSO Academy was an amazing, awe-inspiring experience that I will never forget. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to attend again next year.

The past few weeks

This semester feels harder than last semester was and I’m not sure why. Some of it is that I’m doing a bit more non-school stuff and another thing is that my piano class is pure torture. I dread going to class. My personality and my way of learning is a total opposite to how the piano teacher is teaching the class. She runs (literally – she’s even leaped over piano benches) around the classroom stopping at each student and says ‘play this.’ If you make any mistake she corrects it instantly – “no, that’s the third finger” or “that’s a Bb” and she does it so fast that I don’t digest what she said and I just make the change like a robot. I need to fix my own mistakes to learn unless I get into real trouble figuring out a passage. I find my hands shaking and of course that leads to more errors. New pieces or techniques that she teaches in class she expects us to learn in about 5 minutes. There isn’t a prayer that I can do that. We are expected to practice a minimum of one hour per day which is more than the requirement for our major instruments. Of course I try to practice the horn at least two hours a day and one or the other gets shortchanged. Usually it’s piano so I am struggling in this class.

On the positive side, I’m doing well in theory class and I really enjoy it. We’re doing four part chorals and it’s lots of fun. Lots of rules to follow but I’m good at things that I get specific instructions for. I like my aural skills class but I am realizing that I don’t have the ear I used to have. I am most worried about this class.

The band situation that I wrote about has finally improved. The student who plays first horn and who can’t seem to leave his cell phone alone whenever he’s not playing got caught by a guest soloist we had the other day. He now has to put his cell phone on the piano near the conductor. He has also been replaced as section leader. However, he doesn’t know what to do with himself when he’s not playing so at the last rehearsal he spent his time writing his name in his bell with spit.

In my last blog I mentioned that I auditioned for a community orchestra in NYC. Well, I got in. Yay. We rehearse on Sunday mornings and since I live about and 1 hour, forty five minutes from the venue and the rehearsal is 2 1/2 hours I lose most of Sunday for studying. I’ve been to two rehearsals so far and losing Sunday for studying and piano practice is turning into a challenge though I don’t regret playing in the orchestra at all. I’ve been trying to find an orchestra to play in for a long time. It seems quite easy to find community bands to play in and very hard to find orchestras to play in.

Since the fall my horn teacher has been working with me on my sound and we’ve really zeroed in on sound for the past two weeks. I’ve been doing a lot of listening to pro horn players on CDs and also listening to my teacher play and the other horn students play. I’ve been told that my sound is too bright and I agree and it’s frustrating me. My husband says I sound more like a trombone than a horn. I’ve been working on opening my throat and using different vowel sounds and that helps a bit but not enough to solve the problem. I was able to test a Conn 8D, a Paxman, and a Reynolds and I sound much better on all these horns. They have other challenges but at least I can get the sound I want. My horn is only a year and a half old so I can’t really afford to replace it yet but this isn’t the ‘forever’ horn I had hoped it would be. I’ve got the Conn and the Reynolds on loan for a while so maybe I’ll be able to get past the challenges – like my high range on the Conn and a very painful hand position on the Reynolds. My jury exam is on May 6th. Maybe I’ll use one of these horns for the jury so I have a sound closer to what the judges are expecting.

 

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.