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.

 

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.

Horn playing with shingles

Oh boy. After two weeks on the road attending the BSO Academy and SummerTrios I arrived home with shingles. People get shingles if they previously had the chicken pox which for people my age is probably 90% of us. The chicken pox virus never goes away, it lays dormant in our nerves and when it wakes up it comes back as shingles. Shingles presents itself first with pain, in my case in my back, followed by an itchy feeling where the rash will eventually show up, and then with the rash itself. Pictures can be viewed here. My rash looked exactly like picture #7. If you are squeamish don’t look.

My back pain started toward the end of my week at the BSO Academy. I started aching during rehearsals but at the time I thought it was a muscle pull. It made sitting through rehearsals difficult but not impossible. The pain continued at SummerTrios. What I didn’t mention in my post about SummerTrios was that I left early. My 3 month old granddaughter got sick and was taken to the hospital so I decided to go home. The faculty understood but they had to scramble to find other horn players to play in my two quintets. I could tell they were a little peeved at me but they don’t know how lucky they were that I left when I did.

My drive home took six hours. I was achy and itchy but had no rash when I left. When I got to Long Island, the rash had shown up. Shingles is extremely contagious once the rash shows up. People who have not had chicken pox or who have weakened immune systems will get chicken pox when exposed to shingles. If I had stayed at SummerTrios I would have exposed everyone there to chicken pox.

Needless to say, I went to the doctor and was told to remain in my house for at least 2 weeks. In addition I received 3 medications. I am taking Acyclovir which is an anti-viral medication that is supposed to shorten the length of time that the rash is present. I am taking Prednisone which, hopefully, will prevent the lingering pain that remains after the rash is gone, and Vicodin which was switched to Tramadol for pain. Shingles is extremely painful because the virus is living in the nerves.

You’d think that being confined to my house would give me a great opportunity to practice. Alas, such is not the case. The two drugs that are wreaking havoc with my horn playing are Prednisone and Tramadol. The Tramadol messes with my head and I can’t play the simplest etudes without messing up the fingerings. As bad as that is, what’s worse is that I can’t get a decent sound, have trouble making notes speak, can’t play high, and have very little endurance. From what I’ve learned, it’s the Prednisone that is causing these issues. Prednisone causes some swelling and it is effecting my lips. They feel a bit tender to the touch and look slightly swollen as well.

My dilemma is how long I should try to practice or even if I should practice at all. At the beginning of last week I was trying to get my usual time in for practice however, it was very frustrating. It’s hard to practice when you can’t product the sound you want or play the notes you know you should be able to play and were 100% capable of playing the week before. As the week went on I practiced less and less because I felt like I couldn’t accomplish anything productive and my endurance was tanking. My biggest concern is whether I will end up unknowingly changing how I play to compensate for my lips and then go through this same nightmare once I go off the Prednisone.

Of course being confined to my house has prevented me from attending several rehearsals and two band concerts, plus I had to withdraw from a chamber music group I was in. So much for the summer concert season. I wouldn’t wish shingles on anyone. It’s excruciatingly painful and being under ‘house arrest’ is annoying at the very least. There is a vaccine available for people over 60. I wish I had known about it last month.

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.

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.