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.

Fearless Performance Horn Workshop

Last weekend I attended the fabulous two day Fearless Performance Workshop run by it’s creator, Jeff Nelson. This two day session was held at Siegfried’s Call in Beacon, NY. It’s an awesome workshop that I think everyone should attend. This was the third time I attended his fearless workshop – the previous ones I went to were his four day ones – and it still was extremely beneficial for me. Some of you may be wondering why I’ve attended more than once. Didn’t it work the first time?

Yes, it worked the first time. Jeff has so much information packed into this workshop that attending more that once is really worthwhile. There is only so much information that anyone can absorb at one time and I love refreshers. Each time I’ve attended I’ve learned new ideas and reinforced the old ones. There are some things that just need to be heard more than once. My performance anxiety, which negatively impacts my performances every time, decreases each time I go to one. At this workshop there was a concert at the end of the first day and I was definitely less nervous than I have been at previous performances. There is also a lot of peer to peer performing and by the last time we did it I wasn’t nervous at all. I think these workshops are so good that I will attend again. I’ll probably attend every time Jeff runs one that fits into my schedule.

These workshops are not just for horn players, any musician or even non-musician can attend and learn. The underlying theme is letting go of fear in your life, not only in performances and auditions. This is a very simplified statement of what is covered in the workshop. The best information of what the workshop is all about is on Jeff’s website.

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.

Performing – new trouble

Although I feel like most of my nervousness when I perform has gone away, I still play badly when I perform. I’m not sure how to overcome this issue. On Friday I had my spring semester jury exam and yesterday I performed Laudatio at a small recital in NYC and I seem to have come up with a new way to screw up.

Previously I would chip, overshoot or undershoot notes but ultimately I would end up playing the correct note and continue playing the correct notes. This was all about using air correctly and for the most part I’ve finally got that figured out (it only took three years) so I chip a whole lot fewer notes at least when I remember to use my air properly. At the dress rehearsal for my jury, at my jury exam and again yesterday I played the wrong pitches on lots of passages. Not just one or two here and there but entire phrases. This is something new. I’ve always had the problem of nailing the first note of a piece correctly but this week I’ve just missed way too much. I played an awful lot of notes that Bernhard Krol didn’t write yesterday and that Hindemith and Alec Wilder didn’t write the day before.

I played the first movement of the Hindemith Sonata at my jury and I rehearsed with the pianist at least five times and the first three times went very well. We had to work on rhythm issues but I was playing the correct notes. Then at the dress rehearsal and at the final run through I started playing entire passages about a third lower. After these fiascos I went back to playing along with the recording and just practicing the piece and everything was fine. Then at the performance I again played the wrong notes. I also did this with the Wilder Sonata at the jury and I had never messed up the Wilder that way before my performance. Yesterday I did the same thing on Laudatio and I know that piece about as well as anything I’ve ever played. I played it through five times yesterday morning correctly and then blew the entire opening section at the performance.  It got better toward the end of the piece but I played way too much that was just wrong; clean notes but wrong notes.

I’ve always played worse at the performance than at any practice session or rehearsal but this has been the air problem which goes hand in hand with nervousness. As I get better with air and get less nervous my confidence that I can play better at a performance has gone up. Now I feel like my confidence level has dropped back to where it was a year ago which was pretty much non existant. I have something new to worry about and I don’t know how to fix it because I don’t know why it’s happening. Even worse, I don’t have any performances coming up until the middle of the fall semester so I have way too much time to stew over this. I’d love some suggestions on how to fix this.

Appreciable progress

This has been an interesting week. On Sunday I auditioned for a community orchestra in NYC. I only found out about this audition the Thursday evening before the audition so I didn’t have much time to work anything up. I had already put away the pieces I played for my jury exam last December and hadn’t looked at them at all since so I opted for the first movement of Strauss 1 which I will be playing for my May jury. The beginning was in pretty good shape but the fast section still needed some work, well okay, a lot of work. I also selected three excerpts – two that I worked on for Jeff Nelson’s Fearless Camp back in August and one that my horn teacher gave me Saturday during an extra lesson to prep for the audition.

I spent hours working on the Strauss but I realized, very happily, that the excerpts that I had already worked on were much, much easier to play. This is one of the first times that I could absolutely tell that I had measurably improved over the past six months. I had interpretive issues to work on but the notes and rhythms were just there. It was a nice surprise. The new excerpt Mahler 1, third movement, was also learnable by Sunday. I worked on it at my lesson late Saturday afternoon and once again practicing Sunday morning.

At the audition, another surprise. I wasn’t anywhere near as nervous as I have been in the past. I’ve spent a lot of time working on overcoming performance anxiety and it’s starting to pay off. Fearless Camp, performance anxiety therapy sessions, reading books on anxiety, and just performing at school, have all contributed to less nerves. I think because I was less nervous I played a great audition. Clearly the best I’ve ever done. I even played the fast section of the Struass very decently and no misses on the excerpts, even the new one. I have no idea if I’ll get in to the orchestra because I don’t know what level of player they are looking for but I know that I did as well as I could. It was very nice to walk out of there with a ‘yes, I did it’ feeling.

The other good thing was at Monday night’s band rehearsal. We had just done our winter concert so we had all new music to sight read. I had no problems with it. None. I found the selections fairly easy and other long term members of the band were complaining that the conductor picked hard music. Here was more proof of my continuing improvement.

Finally, in Wind Ensemble at school we are playing Festive Overture. I ‘played’, and I say that very loosely, Festive about a year ago in my community band and I really, really struggled through it. Not now. There are a few really fast runs that I have to work on but I’ve already got them in my fingers. I can really tell that there is a huge difference between last year and now.