Friday, November 12, 2010

Horn Diary

Yesterday was a red letter day in my horn career. The band played for the veterans in the town park and I got a number of compliments on my playing from band members afterwards. I hit all the exposed little solos and flourishes well, and did a creditable job hitting all the off beats. We did three Sousa marches, a medley of God Bless America and America The Beautiful, a medley of all the service songs strung together, and The Star Spangled Banner. Except for dropping down to 2nd horn parts for the off beats in the service medley I played all 1st horn. 

Using a phrase of Jeff Smiley's, last piece of the puzzle to fall into place for me has been holding the horn up off the leg to play it instead of letting it rest on the leg. The middle of my back between the shoulder blades and up to the bottom of my neck is sore, but it's worth it for the way the horn vibrates so much better giving a better tone (and more volume as I'm still the only horn), combined with my having more delicate control of how much pressure I'm exerting on the mouthpiece because of the flexibility getting it up off the leg allows. I also get to move my torso more, which makes everything more fun and less rigid physically and mentally.

All that work this summer on the F horn has a lot to do with this, along with our new band director getting off the sight reading wagon earlier than others have and giving us a set list to be responsible for several weeks before the concert, which really helps remedial players such as myself have a chance to focus on a few pieces to clean up.

The other thing that made yesterday special was a number of veterans coming up to me afterwards, giving me a firm handshake, looking me in the eye, and saying very emotionally how much they appreciated the band's coming out to play. These events are emotive transactions more than performances and that kind of response still sort of amazes me.

In the two year's of blogging post I thanked all the regular reads, and here I want to thank the Regular Reads: Horn again. In the five years I've been playing horn I've not had a single formal lesson. I've picked the brain of brass players and band directors at every chance and used the Farkas book and the Smiley book. But it was the horn bloggers giving so freely of their expertise on those blogs that helped put all that in context and make choices amongst the various ways of approaching the various issues. And it was through blogging I found the Smiley book, which was the single thing that kept me from giving up about a year ago.


  1. Don't you love it when a plan comes together! :-)

    Fantastic, I'm really pleased for you that it went so well. Moments like that are what makes all the hard work work worthwhile!

    It's great that you are now playing off the leg as well. One thing that might help with the soreness of the back is to make sure your back is comfortably staight. Since you are playing off the leg, you are free to ensure that your head is comfortably positioned, and bring the mouthpiece to your head rather than bringing your head to where the mouthpiece reaches. So long as you have a comfortable back position, any tendancy to soreness should go away as the muscles get used to supporting the weight of the horn.

    Check also whether you are tensing your shoulder muscles because of the unaccustomed weight. They should be entirely relaxed, and your upper arms relaxed at your sides. The weight of the horn should be supported almost entirely as a result of the flexing of your right arm at the elbow, and held in position as a result of similar flexing of the left arm. You'll know if you've got it right if both elbows are touching or nearly touching your torso.

  2. Hi, Jonathan - It has been an amazing feeling having it "all come together". I'm not doing anything other than holding the horn up any differently than before, but there's now a kind of synergy where everything is working better with everything else.

    I remember your suggesting playing off the leg sometime back, but I guess I wasn't ready then, as it didn't have the effect it now does. So much of music is like that old saying, when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Something to post about in the future might be how we all need tom learn the same things to play the horn, but that the sequence probably varies for individuals.

    Your comments on the back and arms really fit with what I've been working towards on my own, so it's nice feeling I'm going in the right direction there.

    One other thing I didn't put in the post, but thought of, is that it may well be hearing your playing on Timepiece that led me, nearly unconsciously, to try holding the horn up. It certainly wasn't anything I'd read or had been planing to try doing.

    It may be like that post I did on Susan's flute playing which flipped some synapses allowing me to get a better sound. There's a quality to your sound that's simultaneously light and very full that I'd never quite realized was possible, but hearing it set me to trying to emulate it a bit, and without really thinking about it, ended up lifting the horn. So thanks very much for that, as well as all the advice and info over the years.

  3. Ah, what you heard is the tone I deliberately put on for wind quintets so as not to overwhelm the other instruments.

    I put a bit more weight behind it when playing in larger ensembles and orchestras, and I put a bit more buzz and brightness into it when playing in a brass quintet.

    In all these situations, it is still definitely and characteristically a horn tone, but it is shaped and shaded to fit the surroundings.

  4. Hi, Jonathan - I take your point about having one sound for a quintet and another for that Russian program you just did. What I was trying to say is that even with the lighter tone you're using in the quintet, there's way more vibrancy in the sound than I think you could get with the horn on the leg. It was hearing that vibrancy that may have begun the brain cascade that led to my trying the horn up for no apparent conscious reason.

    Slightly analogous is that wonderful feeling of playing an open hole flute as opposed to a closed hole one. Feeling the sound vibrate on my fingertips is a wonderful feeling, and yet another bit of proprioception that helps me work towards a better tone.

    As to the "more buzz and brightness" you use for brass quintet, I'm wondering if that's like that "brassy" sound the band directors sometimes ask for, but is not one that interests me very much. The reasons I took up the horn do not always conform with what the horn is expected to to in concert band. (There are plenty of band instruments that can give you a edgy sound!)

    As an ensemble, brass quintets have at least one too many trumpets for me. I realize that edge to the sound is what most people want, which is why that ensemble exists. But I'd rather one trumpet and two horns.

  5. The sound is just just a bit brassier. Not by too much, because I still want to sound like a horn rather than a trombone. But there is a bit less delicacy about it as it has to match up to the forward-facing bells of the trumpets and trombones, rather than match dound to the bore delicate tones of the woodwind.

    An interesting way of mellowing a brass quintet sound is to use cornets instead of trumpets.

  6. Great comment! Thanks. Never thought of the trombone/horn distinction quite that way, or the forward facing bells issue, and the cornet substitution is a wonderful idea.