Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Horn Diary

Community Band has started up again, and I'm back on the Bb horn. Don't know how long it's going to last, but things are going very well and want to list some of the factors I think are helping.

Jeff Smiley's Balanced Embouchure book has been invaluable, mainly for giving me a mental construct for what's going on with the whole embouchure mechanism. Unless you're a pure natural player, the better the notion you have about how your instrument works, and more importantly, how on the physical level you make your instrument work, the better chance you have of finding your path to more fulfilling music making. Having something like that Catholic monk in China (Ricci?) called his "memory palace" for your music making is better than flailing away hoping something good is going to happen.

I've been carrying around a mouthpiece to buzz in free moments. Before I'd done some of it right before practicing, but it's different knowing that's all that's going to happen, that it's not just a preliminary. The best thing about it for me is that it allows for just the right amount of pressure for the seal, and without the distraction of actually trying to hit notes, that pressure can be calibrated very finely.

The work on the F horn this summer was a game changer for me. I'd actually gotten to where it was a toss up between frustration and enjoyment. Being able to get deeply into good tone has brought back my love of the instrument. There were times the good tone and intonation just flowed naturally without constant adjustment and I felt more like I was inside the tone than making it.

I'm using a Farkas medium cup mouthpiece, and the wide, rounded rim feels pillowed against my lips. That feels good in itself, but it also allows for me to better feel and adjust the various embouchure muscles. For my lips, this mouthpiece of the ones I've tried, provides for the most, and the most evenly distributed, surface contact.

I'm using a playing position that has trade offs, but really suits me. Back some time ago John Ericson (I think) put up a video of a horn player's audition tape of a Mozart piece and he had what's called a pip stick to hold the instrument. The instant I saw that guy's fingers effortlessly flipping the keys because his left hand wasn't having to hold any of the weight of the horn, I realized where a lot of my problems were coming from. 

Pip sticks are expensive and apparently only available in the UK. Plus, the idea of stressing the horn where it rests on the stick would make me nervous (I can imagine it loosening braces). So I just raised the guitar footrest to it's highest level to raise my right leg and rest the horn there on a folded hand towel used for drying water in the bell. Not having all the muscle involvement holding the horn in position more than makes up for having to pay attention to not letting that leg position trigger bad posture and breathing.(If you're thinking of trying this non-standard position, please see what Jonathan West has said in the comments.)
And speaking of trigger, back earlier this spring I redid the trigger so doing nothing means I'm on the Bb side. There's enough tightening up going on for the higher horn without having to squeeze the thumb as well.

Photo - at John and Kate's in Echo Valley


  1. I would be hesitant about raising your foot like that. I see where you are coming from with the idea, but having your knee raised like that will inevitably bend your back and compress your abdominal muscles and interfere to some extent with breath capacity and support.

    It also adds an extra degree of asymmetry to your posture which might conceivably contribute to back problems later.

    And finally, it means that on any occasions where you have to play standing, you lose the support you are used to, and your tension will get even greater than it was before, to an extent that will severely affect the quality of your playing when standing.

    But saying all that, you still have the problem of your left hand tightening when you hold the horn, and that is an issue which needs to be addressed. I can think of several possible approaches. Not being able to see you in person, I have no idea which of these would prove most effective, or whether indeed any of them will, so I'm taking a bit of a scattergun approach.

    1. It sounds like you may simply have problems of excessive tension when playing. take a look at my article Your throat and playing the horn and see if any of the suggestions help.

    2. It might be worth finding a qualified teacher of Alexander Technique to see if you have any more generalised issues of tension in your body that need to be sorted. Take your horn with you to the sessions so that he can diagnose any problems from direct observation.

    3. It may be that the hook for your little finger is badly positioned. A repairman can move that to a more comfortable position for you.

    4. If you don't like the weight of the horn on your little finger, you can use a Clebsch Strap or have a Ducks Foot fitted to your horn. Both work on a similar principle, which is that any weight is now supported by the slide of the knuckle of your index finger, a much stronger part of the hand. Support from there leaves your fingers freer to move - you know the horn won't slip.

  2. Jonathan - Thanks for the detailed comment. Will take it all into consideration. Things I left out of the post: 1) also playing flute, guitar, and banjo regularly these days, so it's not just the horn working on my trapezius muscles 2) regularly sit in half lotus, so I'm used to breathing deeply with legs at angle to diaphragm 3) might be self-fulfilling prophecy, but figure being 60 is not like being 16 in terms of what I can ask my body to do 4) I realize there are risks to non-standard approaches to music making (traditional approaches are traditional for a reason), but being a music therapist means being over in that territory more and being used to making cost/benefit judgments 5) I've had (and given) lots of body work (though not Alexander) and am probably more tuned in to what is going on physically when playing than the average player.

    That position does completely eliminate the left hand tension, and back tension, and puts the mouthpiece right where it needs to be.

    Again, though, thanks very much for your help on this. I'm in a great place with the horn right now due to various adjustments recently made so am very open to experimenting more.

  3. Hi Lyle,
    I was sure you wouldn't have gone into this entirely without thought, which was I expressed nothing more than hesitation. If an unconventional solution happens to be the one that works for you then fine. I was just checking whether you had yet exhausted the range of more conventional approaches.

    Also, I was thinking in terms of students (particularly high school) you might read this and think that resting the horn on their knee is the solution to their problems. I really wouldn't recommend this as a general solution to tension problems, even if it happens to work for you.

    But unconventional approaches do work for some people. Having looked at that video of Dennis Brain playing the Beethoven Sonata you posted a while back, I'm amazed at how high he held his horn when playing. It's almost in a Mahlerian "schalltrichter auf" (bells up) position.

    These days, that would be regarded as a most unconventional posture, and it makes my shoulders ache just thinking about it! But it obviously worked for him...

  4. Jonathan - Again, thanks for the comment. Your point about a student being led astray is a good one. I hope anyone interested in the post would click the comments to see your balancing thoughts. Thanks too for the comments on the Brain video, didn't realize his hold would be considered non-standard these days. What got me was the curved fingers, because somewhere I saw someone say they should be flat on the keys, which I'd love to do if my fingers weren't so long. But there are so many pronouncements like that one needs to take with a grain of salt.

  5. There's no reason for the fingers to be flat on the keys. If anything having them flat rather than curved reduces the leverage and responsiveness of your fingers because you are not making any use of the final joint.

    You are expected to play the piano with curved fingers, and in my view the same applies to fingers on keys for the horn, for very similar reasons.

    I suspect that the previous advice you received is another case of somebody finding a system that worked adequately well for himself, and who then turned a personal experience into a general principle.

    I try very hard to avoid doing that, or at least to make such general conclusions very tentative unless there is other supporting evidence available. Unfortunately there are many teachers who simply pass on what they learned without attempting to analyse it in this way.

  6. Jonathan - I can't remember where I saw the flat fingers comment, but it was from someone I took seriously, so tried making a leather wrap for the horn under the left hand to be able to do it. On balance it didn't work for me.

    You are so right about personal experience turned into general principle. I'll never forget apologizing to my piano teacher at conservatory for presenting myself to him in my late twenties without having played for years, essentially starting all over again. He went, "Oh, no! I can just teach you how to play without having to help you get rid of bad habits!" As time went on I became aware that there are technique wars amongst the pedagogues, so I evaluate what they say, but never assume they're 100% right.