Monday, November 9, 2009

Horn Diary

Yesterday was the one and only rehearsal with the extra horns before the band concert this Saturday. Three very good players from the Charlottesville Municipal Band with many decades of experience between them were good enough to drive down and join us. It's the first time in the five years I've been in the band I've had the experience of being part of a horn section. It was amazing. 

For one thing, practically everything was easier. I knew right away if I was making the right note. Whenever I was the least tired I could drop out for a few notes, so finished up the evening with lip to spare. We had great volume without my having to work as hard as I usually do being the only horn. Because the horn parts were being so well played, the structure the arrangers are going for in the pieces as a whole became much more apparent and more easily achieved.

I'd seen on the horn blogs various mentions of horn players being good people, and this was borne out. All sorts of questions and arrangements were carried out pleasantly and efficiently. Plus, they were kind enough to not even mention my unorthodox playing position. 

They were befuddled, though, by my having restrung the trigger so that doing nothing means I'm on the Bb side. To me that's mere common sense, as it's the Bb side where you're most likely to have issues with muscle tension trying for those high notes, so having a completely relaxed thumb helps me. 

One player also noticed that my individual valve slides were not pulled out. I've gone back and forth on this, but now that my embouchure seems to be settling down, I think I should go back and try adjusting them again. This summer when I was working exclusively on the F horn I'd pushed them all back in and used the embouchure to fine tune pitches.

One of the players also mentioned in passing, as I have a Yamaha horn, that she's been told by a horn repair person that "Yamahas all play sharp". I'm still puzzling on that as it doesn't make any sense to me as yet.

The only downside to it all was my old nemesis of over-stimulation. When I first started playing in the band it was a huge challenge to not let everything else going on lessen my concentration on playing the horn. Last night I made several rhythm errors I'd never made before, probably because in my mind I was often going, "Wow! Shazam! What an amazing sound! etc." and lost track of the beat without realizing it.

One other thing to mention about the rehearsal is that our new conductor works "from the front" as Bruce Hembd explains it in this post. Though I think here that approach is being taken because our new director is an old hand and knows ahead of time where the problems are going to be and has pulled those out to work on in rehearsals. Last night was the first time we played all the way through some of the pieces and hearing them complete made them seem different.


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed having the other horns there!

    Your valve slides absolutely should not be pushed all the way home, and equally none of the other tuning slides should be. All horns are designed and built so that they are in tune with all the slides out a bit. If they were in tune pushed all the way in, you would have no scope for adjustment to make the horn sharper when playing in a cold environment when the horn would be naturally flat.

    On my horn, the valve slides are pulled out by the following amounts
    F side: 1st valve 10mm, 2nd valve, 3 mm, 3rd valve 15mm
    Bb side, 1st valve 9 mm, 2nd valve 2mm, 3rd valve 12 mm.

    Of course, every make & model of horn is a bit different, and every embouchure works slightly differently, but these are the sorts of distances that you should be thinking of as being normal. One of the very earliest articles on my blog describes how to go about getting the valve slides correctly adjusted.

    As for yamaha horns "playing sharp", I'm not particularly aware of it, but then I wouldn't be as I've played an Alexander for the last 30 years.

    I'm not surprised at you being distracted by the different sound. Perfectly understandable in the circumstances. But now you have heard the pieces complete, you'll now have to concentrate as best you can for the concert. But I'm reminded very much of a wise saying my Grandad would frequently tell me.

    "Do your best - but no better!"

    So long as you're doing your best to concentrate and play well, you can forgive yourself a few clams.

    All the very best for the concert on Saturday!

  2. Jonathan - Thanks for the comment and all the help you've given me here lately, as it's one of the reasons things seem to be going so well.

    As to the slides, I worked with them and a tuner this afternoon and was reminded of my problem previously encountered. When I pull out the main slide for the Bb horn so that the open pitches are easily in tune, then test the pitches for the individual valves being down, they tend towards being flat, so pulling out individual slides isn't going to help.

    I need to spend more time on this to better understand what's going on, and will post something about it on down the line.

    The playing "sharp" makes no sense to me, because it would seem adjusting the main slide for each horn takes care of that. More to ponder.

    I recorded the rehearsal on my little digital gizmo and am practicing with it so as get used to all that other horn sound. I'm just so sorry I'm so late to the wonders of brass music. For my little group I did the Hallelujah chorus down to Ab from D and last week the reeds weren't here, so it was trumpet on soprano, horn on alto, trombone on tenor and Eb tubas on bass. Absolutely gorgeous.

  3. That is very odd about the valve slide tuning. There is definitely something extremely strange going on. Three possibilities come to mind, but at this distance I have no way of telling which is more likely.

    One possibility is that it is you - with your recent embouchure problems you have grown accustomed to blowing notes "off-center" by varying degrees, and this off-centeredness is causing you to blow flatter when you have valves pressed down. Strange, but not entirely impossible.

    Another is that there is a fault with the horn itself, perhaps a leak somewhere or a dent in the leadpipe which is affecting the acoustic properties and the tuning.

    The third possibility is that your tuner is wrong, it is low on battery or is faulty.

    You can work out whether it is the tuner by borrowing somebody else's and have them both working in front of you at the same time, and see if they both give the same results.

    If the tuner is OK, then you can work out whether it is the horn by asking one or two of the other players during the break in rehearsal on Saturday to have a quick go on your horn with the tuner and see what they make of the tuning.

    If it is neither the horn nor the tuner, then by process of elimination it must be you. If that turns out to be the case, then you need to get someone to look over what you are doing. I can't remember whether you have regular lessons or not. If you do, then mention it to your teacher. If not, I would suggest you arrange a consultation lesson or two with a good local teacher.

    As for brass music, most traditional hymn tunes sound gorgeous played by a brass quartet, and playing them that way is extremely good practice at tuning, blending and ensemble. There is also an excellent series of pieces and arrangements for brass ensembles of various sizes called "Just Brass" produced by the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble.

  4. Jonathan - Appreciate your turning that analytical mind of yours loose on the tuning slide issue. Will follow through on your great suggestions and report back.

    I agree about the traditional hymns. Part of the materials I'm putting together is a set of old (and out of copyright) hymns down a few steps and in a flat key with each of the four vocal parts put where each instrument can play them. Parts get assigned depending on who is present, but often it's brass, then reeds, the tutti for three iterations. We love playing them, and the demographic that grew up with them love hearing them even more, as it seems a lot of church musicians have tired of them and like fresher material.

    We also do the same hymns Preservation Hall style with me on guitar and the others improvising, and that's fun for all involved as well.