Thursday, February 16, 2012

Horn Diary

The following comment just came in on a Horn Diary post back in 2009:

Before I get too far into anything, I should probably say up front: yes, I realize that this was posted in 2009... I guess I'm posting on hope. I have been having 'meltdowns' with embarrassing frequency the past few months. It is almost entirely my fault. I'm a freshman in highschool, but I have been playing the french horn since fifth grade. Four or five years, overall. The problem is that I practiced very rarely during the last school year, not at all over the summer, and in a very inconsistent fashion during this school year... In short, I had more endurance two years ago on a single F horn than I have now on a double horn. If I practice consistently for a week, I'm fine, but I have no buffer -- three days of not practicing and I'm back at square one. Again, my own laziness -- which no one can correct but myself. So, people have been giving advice -- very good advice which I will keep in mind in the future -- for band rehearsals. Which leads me to this: I have a solo very rapidly approaching. I realize that there's very little I can do in time for this particular performance that's going to save me from my own laxity, and I look forward to the eminent embarrassment... [Okay, not really.] But I'm curious. Does any one have tips for preserving your chops during a solo performance? (People here are also mentioning that they find the mental attitude of people in bands sometimes... disappointing. Thought I'd add my own observations about this high school band which I'm suddenly thrust into. All of a sudden I've gone from being one of two [the second was a late arrival, even] french horn players to the second least experienced one of six. This is also the first time I've experienced chair tests/auditions. Is the level of competition and the slight feeling of animosity [or aloofness] from the higher chairs common?)
By Anonymous 

I'm bringing this comment up to a new post to make a few points and to see if any regular readers have anything to add. 

The commenter realizes that regular practice is the real answer to the problems cited, so as a music therapist I'm very curious as to why the practicing slacked off here lately. I'm so old I can't even remember what it's like to be a freshman in high school, but maybe the lack of practice just has to do with lack of time. The thing is, though, in my experience, the horn, unlike the guitar, demands regular practice or the lips just stop working well. So the question becomes, is playing the horn something you care enough about to make the time commitment?

(In my personal experience, that last question becomes, do I care enough about playing horn that I'm willing to learn all this concert band music that doesn't really appeal to me as much as the small brass ensemble things I'm arranging myself.)

It's my sense that part of what goes on in music educators' classrooms is a winnowing out of people that aren't as committed as others. So at the bottom of all this, you have to decide if playing the horn in this context is something you really want to do and are willing to make the commitment.

As to tips for saving chops during a solo performance, other than full preparation through daily practice, I don't really have any. I will say, though, that how you practice is crucially important and that I found Jeff Smiley's The Balanced Embouchure method a lifesaver. I was on the verge of giving up the horn (and was encouraged to do that by a music educator who thought taking it up in my 50's was somewhere between ill advised and insane), but working with the exercises in that book brought better endurance and range within a few weeks of regular practice.

As to the chair issues - as a music therapist I find the competition based methods of educators not helpful for what I want to do, but understand why it works for them. It's the people they want to winnow out I most want to work with. I will say that the horn players I've had the chance to work with have been wonderfully helpful, but that they've been imbued with that extreme competitiveness from an early age and it's sort of always there. As a therapist I can't help wondering if the new psycho/social situation you've been "thrust into" is the precipitating factor for a lot of this. Playing the horn is unlike any other instrument I've ever worked with, and one's mental state, e.g. confident or unconfident, is a huge factor.

My best wishes to the commenter, and please come back to continue the conversation if you'd like. To close I'd say that all the new research points to making music regularly as being very beneficial, and that for me personally, the horn has taken me to musical places I didn't know existed, so is worth the commitment. But the bottom line is to figure out what it is that's really important to you and spend your time pursuing that. 

1 comment:

  1. To Anon: The solution to endurance is regular practice, starting moderately and gradually building in duration and intensity. Your teacher can map out a schedule for you, but only you can decide whether you're going to stick to it.

    Sticking to it religiously is what it will take if you want to survive doing solo parts in band. Nobody gets to play to a high standard without putting in lots and lots of practice.

    As for preserving your chops for a solo performance, the answer is that you play less in the tutti passages beforehand. If there are 6 horns in band now, you hand off as much as possible of the tutti stuff to whoever is playing assistant 1st. That is what they are there for, they will be keen to play more, and you get to save your lips for the solo. That doesn't mean you play nothing until the solo, you just play less. Your contribution to the performance will be judged almost wholly on the quality of the solo, and hardly at all on the quality of everything else.

    As for the competitive aspects, its pretty much inevitable. Eventually most people (though not everybody!) grows out of it once they reach adulthood and play for the fun of it. The only thing I can suggest is that you let your playing talk for you. Don't try to talk other players down. They will only do it back to you and it will just make things worse.