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.

Updates – Nerves

I haven’t posted in about 5 months because I have been insanely busy with school and then the holidays and then school again. I’ll cover what’s been happening in the next few posts starting with performance anxiety.

I have a bad case of nerves and I can’t seem to play for people anywhere close to what I can do in the practice room. I’ve been working on this issue starting by attending ‘FAT’ camp run by Jeff Nelson at Indiana University back in August. ‘FAT’ stands for Fearless Auditioning Training. The week consists of some lectures and tools to help with nerves and lots and lots of playing for judges and for the other people in the class. The first time I had to play I was a basket case but as the week went on I did get more used to playing and had less anxiety. The last day was the ‘final’ mock audition which seemed to be more important than the previous ones. For me, this change brought back all the anxiety in spades.

I also think I shot myself in the foot by choosing music and excerpts that were a bit of a stretch for me. I think the biggest reason that I get nervous playing in front of people is that I don’t trust myself, I don’t trust that the correct note will come out of the horn, and I don’t have the confidence that I know the music well enough to play it decently. I don’t think having an audience is the problem. I can get up and speak in front of a thousand people, and I have done that during my former career, and have absolutely no nerves at all. I should have selected music that I knew inside and out. I think that would have shown me that I can play something I know without too many nerves.

I am getting better playing in front of my teachers. With my first teacher, Lynn Steeves, it took me many lessons to get calm. With Scott Bacon it took me months to get calmer and I only recently have gotten completely comfortable. When I met Debbie Schmidt when she was checking my horn she had me play for her and I was terrified. When I worked with Debbie for the FAT camp it took me a few lessons to put some form of decent playing together. With my latest teacher it took about three lessons for me to get calm and play the way I do when I’m alone.

When I got back from FAT camp I went to see a therapist to work on my nerves. These sessions helped quite a bit. She had me bring my horn and one of the things we worked on was picking up the horn and getting good imagery into my head. I had an audition for the college orchestra and for most of it I did okay. I think I played Strauss’ Nocturno reasonably well, the fast section at the end of Strauss 1 sort of okay, but then an A major scale was a disaster. I have discovered that I get more nervous instead of less nervous as I keep going.

I’ve had three more opportunities to play for people at school. Every time I play I get ever so slightly less nervous. By the time I got to my jury exam I played my three pieces decently and wasn’t too shaky. However, I completely blew an A flat major scale at the end. I need to keep finding opportunities to play which is hard to do.

My biggest accomplishment was playing Laudatio by Krol at my mother’s memorial concert a few weeks ago at the Manhattan School of Music. I managed to get up on stage in front of a room full of professional musicians and play decently. I was nervous but I managed to control it well enough. Last week I had an audition for band and I wasn’t very nervous. I didn’t play very well but that was because of stiff chops and not nerves. All in all I’m making progress.

Summer 2010

I’ve been incredibly busy this summer hence the lack of posts. It seems I’ve been saying that since the spring and I guess I’ve just been gradually getting busier and busier.

In June I went to the International Women’s Brass Conference in Toronto and then straight to the Barry Tuckwell Institute (BTI). The brass conference was very good. Fergus McWilliam, hornist in the Berlin Philharmonic, led the best master class I ever went to. It’s hard to describe how but he managed to get 4 students to play about ten times better than they started out at the class. On top of that he was funny and a really nice guy. It was so good that after the hour and a half no one wanted to leave and they found another room for him so he could continue with more students. One of his rules is that he says to sing the piece, part or whatever until the intonation is spot on. Then whistle or ‘whoosh’ again with solid intonation, then buzz the mouthpiece again with solid intonation and then play the horn. The horn doesn’t go on the face until the intonation is perfect. Then he went on to talk about phrasing and to make the horn sing. I’m not really doing justice to what he said. I did try to follow his advice when I got home and discovered that I’m a really terrible singer.

I met Julie Landsman at the conference and in the small world category, my husband and Julie went to high school together. I found this out when I emailed him that I was about to go to her lecture and he said find out if that’s the Julie Landsman who played French Horn in my high school. So I asked her and she said she remembered him. Then at her lecture she announced to the entire audience that she “went to high school with Tina Barkan’s husband.” That was somewhat embarrassing. Her lecture was about how she managed to stay at the top of her game while getting older and finding the physical aspects of horn playing harder and harder to deal with. Those of us who are her age or older know exactly what she’s talking about.

On the second day of the conference I dropped my bell after trying to screw the bell on for at least 15 minutes. It fell about 1 foot onto carpeting but that was enough to have the screw ring go out of round and not screw on the horn. Of course I brought the good bell and not the stock bell. Fortunately one of the pros there loaned me an Alex 103 and I used it for the rest of the conference. Very different horn than my Otto. So I spent the rest of the conference texting Scott Bacon, who I bought my horn from, and making arrangements to get my horn fixed or borrow a horn since I was going straight from Toronto to Tuckwell and definitely not stopping at my house for my other bell. As it turned out Scott managed to get my bell on my horn, loaned me a fixed bell case, and said don’t take the bell off. I’m headed up to his shop on the 12th to get it fixed properly.

I enjoyed attending my second BTI. There was a lot of opportunity to play but the biggest thing to me was how much I have improved since I went last year. I had no trouble with the music the horn choir played or with the music in the quartet I was in. It was really nice to be able to play these pieces with the confidence that I could do it. Barry Tuckwell led a warm-up class where basically he said just warm up enough to be able to play. This is something that my new horn teacher is saying and I’ve been doing this with some success. The one thing that was quite disappointing was the master class that Barry held. I actually felt sorry for the students playing in the class. One student who did a nice job with a Mozart Concerto learned that she shouldn’t have water in her horn (there were one or two water pops.) Although this is true, I don’t think it was the learning experience she was hoping for.

Once I got home from these events I started taking a music fundamentals class at our local community college. (My July schedule was class, homework, exams, practice, duets, rehearsals, concerts, plus all the usual house stuff.) This class ended yesterday. Some of you may wonder why I would sign up for this class but I didn’t take any music classes in college so there are big gaps in my musical education. I mentioned in one of my posts from many months ago that I was thinking about going back to school for music. I needed to take this class in order to enroll in the music program at this school which I have done and I start classes on August 30th. I’m going to a community college in order to see if I really want to go back to school which is a major lifestyle change for me. They have an excellent music program and are less expensive than a four year school.

As if all this isn’t enough, before I start classes I am attending Jeff Nelson’s Fearless Camp at Indiana University. I have a really bad case of nerves when I play in front of anyone, even my teachers, and even when I have my recorder on to record my practices. I’m hoping that this class will help me overcome my nervousness. I’m leaving on the 12th and get home around August 24th – I’m driving to Indiana so the dates are iffy. School starts 6 days later. I think that’s enough for one summer.

Improvement

The weekend before last I went to the Northeast Horn Workshop at the University of Delaware. Compared to the one in Ithaca a year ago where I felt totally out of place, at this one I felt quite at ease. Another year of playing really made a difference. For the most part I was able to keep up during the ensemble readings and I could really tell that I have improved a lot. I also learned a lot more from the lectures and master classes than I did the year before.

I’ve also made another mouthpiece change which, so far, has made a big change for the better with my playing. I’d been thinking about changing the stem of my mouthpiece for a while because the one I’ve been using was made fatter to try to compensate for my former Hoyer horn and it’s sharpness problem.  At the workshop I chatted with Scott Bacon about this and he suggested that I try a Moosewood AW11 Megamoose. This stem is heavier and has a deeper cup than the Moosewood B12 that I was using. I was under the impression, as it turns out incorrectly, that I would play better with a smaller cup and smaller bore so I’m very surprised at  how well I play with this stem. Among other things, I’m missing a whole lot fewer notes, slurs are better, my range has stayed the same and playing just seems easier. Plus my endurance is better. I didn’t change my rim so I don’t think I’m going to go through one of the new mouthpiece disasters that I have in the past.

In addition to the two bands that I’m in, I’m playing in a horn quartet this spring as well as a chamber music group. Learning the new music doesn’t seem as hard as it used to be. In the chamber music group I’ve been assigned the 1st movement of the Brahms Horn Trio. As I’m working on the music, and forcing myself to learn Eb transposition, I’ve managed to go from being completely terrified to thinking that maybe I can actually play it. I’m also starting to feel better about playing 16th notes. A couple of months ago I just couldn’t seem to get my fingers and my brain to sync up for really fast passages. I still can’t get quite up to the tempo the passages should be played at but I’m a lot closer than I used to be. In the horn quartet we are working on a Telemann piece that I’m feeling quite positive about. As recently as last week I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to play it. I think that for the first time since I started playing again I actually believe that I have gotten measurably better and it’s a nice feeling.

Blogging consistency –>

JoyKeys and a lesson

My most recent lesson: There are numerous adjectives that come to mind – horrendous, horrific, terrible, embarrassing, productive. You might wonder how ‘productive’ got into this list. I take lessons from Scott Bacon (Siegfried’s Call) monthly and this one was torture. I had a really bad practice session the day before my lesson and this seems to be cyclical with me. I have a string of bad days followed by a string of good days and then back to bad days, and so forth.

I started my lesson telling Scott that I didn’t think I had improved much, if at all, from my last lesson. Good thing I said that. We started off with some warm-ups and I could tell that my chops weren’t responding well. Very stiff. My high range was non-existant, my tone was awful, my intonation was awful and I was clamming notes all over the place. We kept going anyway. Kopprasch #3. We worked on the different articulations, rhythm, dynamics, continuity and kept to the middle range. Then we moved on to Singer #7 – quarter note arpeggios. Again we skipped the high notes and concentrated on continuity from note to note and steadiness of tempo. It really didn’t matter that the quality of my tone was bad. It would have been nicer if I sounded good but I still learned a lot.

I’m working on the adagio movement of the Schumann Adagio and Allegro so that was next. We went measure by measure working on phrasing and rhythm. There wasn’t a prayer in hell that I was going to get the high C so we took it down an octave. For this piece I really wished that I sounded better but I still got a few “that was very nice” comments from Scott. After two hours and ten minutes I was spent so we stopped. When we started the lesson I didn’t think I was going to get much out of it but in the end it really was productive. As Scott was walking me to my car he said that even though I sounded bad I played much more musically. I spend so much time focusing on getting the notes that I usually don’t play very musically. I think both my teachers find getting me to play musically is like pulling teeth. This time I already knew that getting the right notes was a crap shoot so I was able to focus on musicality. From Scott’s I drove three hours straight to my 2 hour band rehearsal. Irony of ironies, I played great. No range problems, no tone problems and very few clams.

JoyKeys: While I was up at Scott’s for my lesson I had him install two JoyKeys to replace my water keys. The JoyKey is designed by Andrew Joy, a hornist working primarily in Europe. It’s a replacement for the traditional water key. Instead of using a water key there’s a metal mesh plug in the JoyKey that releases the water continuously but maintains an air seal.

I decided to get them when I was up at my previous lesson with Scott and he didn’t have to dump water once during my entire 2 hour lesson. I had them installed, replacing my water keys, before I started this lesson and I didn’t have to dump any water during my lesson or during my band rehearsal even though the horn sat in the back of my car for three hours on a very cold day. Occasionally I have to blow into the horn to get rid of some residual water. So what’s the downside? Ahem. My pants get wet. Actually more damp that wet but still visible on jeans if you know where to look. I wouldn’t wear khaki pants. That could get embarrassing. I’m planning on getting a nice chamois to put on my lap but until I get one a towel does the job. So far I’m happy that I had them installed.

Rehearsal Etiquette –>

Mouthpieces again

Four days ago I wrote about how I thought I had finally gotten through the mouthpiece fiasco. I was wrong. Monday morning’s practice was pretty bad and at my band rehearsal that evening I could barely play. I would have chalked this up to a random bad day except that Tuesday and Wednesday were just as bad if not worse. I’m playing the horn to have fun and enjoy making music. I haven’t had much fun during the past six weeks. Yesterday morning I was practicing and I was so frustrated that I felt like throwing the horn through the window.

I’ve been using my Laskey mouthpiece since the end of September. I went back to the Moosewood for a day or two here and there because I was struggling so much with the Laskey but I have been, for almost the whole time, sticking with it. I know that using the Moosewood at all during this time was not a good idea but it’s very hard to keep sticking with something that’s not working.

Yesterday afternoon I took the Moosewood out again and made a decision to stick with it no matter what. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and mine has been telling me to use the Moosewood for weeks now. I’ve been sticking with the Laskey because it is ‘supposed’ to be a better mouthpiece for my Otto horn with it’s bowl shaped cup and I promised Scott Bacon that I wouldn’t change back to the Moosewood until I saw him at my next lesson. Well, I’ve broken my promise but ironically he called me today to ask about the mouthpiece problem and, after I went through telling him about all the trouble I’ve been having, he told me to switch back to the Moosewood. (I didn’t mention that I had already done that the day before.) What a relief. I feel like a huge load has been taken off my shoulders.

As I expected, I played very well – ‘very well’ meaning that I was happy with the way I was playing – yesterday afternoon and today. It’s so nice to just pick up the horn, especially since it’s a brand new horn, and just enjoy playing. I expect that I will experience a set back in a week or so but I am just going to have to get through it.

Adding piano –>

I’m playing better

I think I have finally turned the corner from my mouthpiece disaster and lower lip bite. Just under two weeks ago I settled on using the Laskey mouthpiece even though I didn’t really want to. I decided that I had to trust Scott Bacon who I bought my Otto horn from and who really wanted me to use the Laskey with this geyer wrap horn.

After about four days of pure misery, including numbness and pain on top of the awful playing and biting my lip three times on Friday and Saturday, last Sunday things started getting better. I had a band concert that afternoon and I played really well despite the lower lip bites and the changed mouthpiece. I couldn’t play at all Saturday but Sunday morning I warmed up and didn’t feel too bad. Then I did some flexibility exercises before the concert. We did a two hour program with a 20 minute intermission and I was okay, with some occasional pain, through the whole thing.

During this week I’ve had a few revelations as I struggled with the mouthpiece and the bites. One had nothing to do with the either of those. Our conductor brought in two extra college students for the concert bringing our horn section from five to seven. One doubled me on 4th and I asked her to sit to my left so she wouldn’t hear me and my inevitable mistakes and so I could hear her. I learned what playing the horn loud means. Now I understand why my teachers tell me I’m not playing loud when I think I am.

I also think that a large part of my mouthpiece struggle was due to endurance. A new mouthpiece uses, to some extent, different muscles. My first 20 minutes of warm ups were always fine. The awful playing started after about ten minutes into my second practice session and I really couldn’t play after about 45 minutes (this includes the first 20 minutes). That’s about where I was a year ago. Now I’m almost back to my usual two hours. On Thursday I made it through an hour and ten minutes of practice followed by an hour long lesson later that afternoon.

I noticed that once I start playing poorly my bottom teeth start digging into my lower lip. With the bite injury I have there it gets quite painful. When this happens I can barely get to middle C when I try to do a low C arpeggio. Usually I can get to 3rd space C easily and many times to the E above that. If I pay very close attention to how I set my horn on my face I can then play those arpeggios to 3rd space C and when I go back to what I was practicing my tone gets much better. So somewhere along the way as my endurance lags I must be subtly changing my embouchure in a bad way to cope with it.

I’ve had my share of lip injuries – tearing skin off with ice cubes, banging mouthpieces and water bottles into my lips, biting the inside of my lower lip – since I started playing again. Reading Julia Rose’s blog about her recent injury reminded me of them and how I deal with playing while hurt. Julia talks about first getting a more minor injury where she expected to play after a day or two followed by a significantly worse injury that demands a solid rest from horn playing. I always try to play through the pain, which I imagine is a bad idea, because I worry a lot about taking breaks from practicing. When I was sick back in June and didn’t play for close to a week it took a few days to recover from not playing. Plus I actually enjoy practicing and I don’t know what to do with myself when I have those extra hours. I’m retired and I play for fun and if I don’t play well the only person it effects is me. Concerns about injuries must be a lot worse for professionals.

I use Vitamin E and ChopSaver lip balm when I have an open wound on my lips. ChopSaver is the best lip balm I’ve ever used and my non brass playing family swears by it too. (I promise I don’t own stock in the company.) I’ve been putting ChopSaver directly on the wound in my lower lip and it is really helping. It should have gone away by now but I keep re-biting it. I did try Ambesol on it but it also got on my lips and I learned what feeling numb really feels like. I think I wasn’t as numb as I thought I was using the Laskey mouthpiece. I thought briefly about playing while the Ambesol was doing it’s thing but I’ve used up my being stupid quotient for the month.

Mouthpieces again –>