Monday, March 15, 2010

Horn Diary

The intonation issues I wrote about in the last entry had several causes.

One was the position of the right hand. I had decided it was too far out of the horn and ended up having it too far in. To my ear it seems that having the hand too far in affects intonation of the different valve positions differently.

That problem was exacerbated by not using my embouchure well for that final tweak on intonation. A year ago, when I began incorporating Balanced Embouchure principles in my horn practice, I also switched to a different mouthpiece with a thicker, more pillowy, rim. ( A Farkas/Holton MC instead of a VDC.) I was less happy with the tone, as it was brassier, but that's what the band directors seem to want, and it made playing easier.

What it also did was to increase the amount of lips being pressed against the mouthpiece and unable to have an effect on the intonation.

At the same time, I also pushed all the tuning slides all the way in, thinking to reset them over time, but didn't, because just pulling out the primary slides of each horn worked.

So now I'm back to the VDC mouthpiece, all tuning slides pulled out various lengths, and my right hand seems to be in closer to the right place.

For the first time, here in the past six months I can hit the high F with no problem. Before that I could occasionally, but never with both good tone and intonation. The F# and G above that are passable most of the time and the Ab and A are like the F used to be. 

I seem to be in the minority on preferring the less brassy tone of the VDC mouthpiece, but have decided to go with it most of the time as I so much prefer it.

Also have switched back to the normal sitting position for playing the horn. The other one was a bit easier on the back muscles and made it easier to play with the volume needed to make the one horn sound more like a section. Our new director is really working on the band playing with less volume overall, which I'm realizing is one way to improve the tone quality of the group.

Recently my cello and fret-less bass friend Andy was here for an afternoon of music and we recorded some things on the Sony. I was just as close to it as he was, but with the bell pointed away, and even though he was unamplified, the cello is louder in the mix that the horn. With the flute the balance was much better.


  1. I'm relieved that you've returned to a conventional seating posture, and that you have stopped having your valve slides pushed all the way in.

    Stand firm on looking for a smoother less brassy tone. You can always make the tone more brassy for effect when particular occasions demand it, but brassy all the time gets boring to listen to. If the composer wants a brassy sound in a tenor range, he would give the part to the trombones.

    But the best news of all is that your band director is looking to get the band to play softer! Playing loud is easy. Playing soft is hard - it requires that everybody trusts everybody else also to play softly. It doesn't come naturally. But if you can play softly when required, you can make so much more of a contrast when you do come to a loud bit!

    The general principle is that when you don't have the tune, then unless instructed otherwise you should play 2 notches quieter than the written dynamic - so if the music is marked mf, you play p. If you are sharing the tune, you play the written dynamic, and if you are solo on the tune, you play one or two notches louder than written. If everybody adheres to that, then you'll find the texture of the sound suddenly becomes wonderfully clear, and the band director then has the opportunity to bring individual details out from the background - asking the players of some particular countermelody or other flourish to play out a bit.

  2. Jonathan - As always, thanks for the comment. Glad to hear your thoughts on brassy tone. Somewhere on one of the horn blogs I remember a dismissive comment about the VDC mouthpiece and the tone it creates. Of course, I'm such a contrarian, going against the grain comes naturally.

    Want to do some more posts on tone - thanks again for all the info and ideas there. One thing I've realized is that I don't have as clear a grasp of what the dynamic markings mean for me on the horn as I would descriptions of the tone quality desired. There's a huge overlap between the two I hadn't realized until you pointed it out. That sort of explains the lack of talk about tone in band, along with the incessant pointing out of the dynamics.