Friday, October 16, 2009

Horn Diary

From time to time I've read about a horn player having a "meltdown" and always thought it meant just getting a few more notes wrong than usual. Having had one last Sunday at band rehearsal, I now know what they were talking about and that it's a whole different thing than regular playing. One part of me was mortified at the errors being made, but the clinical part of me was fascinated by observing what was going on and trying to figure out what was happening.

It may well not be a physiologically correct way of putting it, but it felt as if the muscles right there where the lips meet the mouthpiece went into tiny tremors or spasms and that that disrupted the feedback loop between my brain and embouchure, so that I was either over or under correcting. 

The precipitating factor has been trying to play higher and faster than I'm currently able. Once we got to the easier stuff, everything got better. And even though I'm the only horn, with the OK of the current band director, I've switched to the 2nd horn parts and practice sessions this week have been a delight. I can play everything and still have lip left over at the end. Without all the effort going into simply trying to get the notes it's much easier, and much more fun, working to develop the musicality side of things.

The general lesson learned is that good technique is a whole body phenomenon, not just the part of you that comes in contact with the instrument. To crack a whip, it's the motion of the whole whip that matters, not just the bit at the end. Trying to play beyond my current ability led me to overwork the muscles right at the mouthpiece without the support of all the surrounding muscles in the embouchure - up to the nose, down to the chin and the cheeks and jaw. It's like trying to strum a guitar using just the wrist and not the rest of the arm up though the elbow and to the shoulder. If you don't use your body wisely, the part you're overusing is going to suffer fatigue early and often.

The other thing this brings up is that my materials may not be the answer, but our little community band trying to play arrangements without players for all the parts is what helped create the situation for my little debacle. Seems like there's a huge niche between having nothing and having arrangements calling for dozens of instruments and players who can play them. 

I'm convinced it's possible to come up with arrangements that are fun and allow for mixed levels of ability (and improvisation) that let folks who aren't driven by the competitive goal of the first chair to simply have a good time making music and advancing at whatever rate suits them. 

I had a recent exchange with Greg Sandow and told him what he was up to reminded me of that vogue phrase of a decade or so ago in the psych world - "client centered". He's looking at the issue of increasing audiences for classical music by thinking about what the audience wants, not want the arts organizations need. Bruce Hembd just posted on something that gets horn students excited but that the education establishment seems uninterested in. I think that over time most bureaucracies and organizations tend to become more concerned about their own needs than those of the clients they're meant to serve.


  1. It's horrid when that happens!

    I fully agree with your comment about technique as a whole body phenomenon. Far too many players concentrate solely on the lip muscles when in fact their problem is elsewhere.

    You've also very quickly discovered what I suspect is the most effective technique for recovering from a meltdown - a rapid retreat into your comfort zone while your lips recover. There is nothing wrong with this. If that is what it needed, then you do it, and then make another attempt at pushing the boundaries another time when you are ready for it.

    In physical terms, it sounds as if your lip was getting tired and unresponsive, and your brain started over-controlling to try and compensate. One of the major reasons why orchestras employ an assistant 1st horn is so that the 1st horn can rest sufficiently that this doesn't happen in a concert. For instance, the first horn part of the last movement of just about any Tchaikovsky symphony is pretty much unplayable without an assistant.

    One of the "cheats" I mentioned may be appropriate to you in your band - listen out for whoever may be doubling you, or for places where it won't be noticed if you drop out for a while, and just stop playing for a few bars to give your lips a rest. Band parts are notorious for not giving players enough rest, and an enlightened conductor will understand this and may even be able to suggest passages where you can safely drop out for a while.

    And it may also be that you find yourself more suited to playing low parts rather than high anyway, so in an orchestra you would have a preference for playing 2nd or 4th horn instead of 1st or 3rd. The world needs as many low horn players as high, so again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.

    An aspiring professional of course needs to have a mastery over the whole range, but even so, there is nothing at all wrong with choosing to specialise more in either high or low.

  2. Jonathan - I have really appreciated all of your comments, but this one really hits the spot (over and above that wonderful British usage of "horrid"! ). I'd sort of imagined it possible someone such as yourself, with such a strong foundation and such a considered understanding of technique might never have experienced it. That you generally agree with the self diagnosis is wonderfully validating. There will certainly be a follow up on all this, if only to talk about having four or five good horn players from the closest big town (Charlottesville) come for one rehearsal and then play in the concert in November. Have never played with more than one other horn, and that only occasionally. Right now I'm beginning to feel my meltdown was actually very helpful in that it helped/forced me to think through basic issues I'd been sliding over, not to mention motivating the new band director to call for reinforcements.

    Thanks so much for your help and support.

  3. We all go through this sort of thing from time to time. I practice far less than I ought to - work and other commitments get in the way. This means that when I go on a week-long orchestral course (I usually go to the course in York in the week after Easter) I have to be careful not to overdo it early on. Even so, I find that by the end of the second full day, my lips feel like they have the strength and consistency of wet cotton wool. After that, things get better and I'm hopefully on top form by the time of the informal concert at the end of the course.

    So I know exactly what you've been through, and I now know enough about the physical early warning signs that I can ease off to preserve my lip to the end of the rehearsal or performance and avoid a full-scale meltdown. Once you know how, it is suprising how far you can extend your endurance this way, with nobody ever being any the wiser, except possibly for another experienced horn player sitting next to you who knows the signs.

    I hope you really enjoy playing inside a proper full-sized horn section. As the regular player in the band, you have the right (in consultation with the conductor) to pick whichever part you want to play. And if you want to, there is no reason why you shouldn't pick 1st in some pieces and 2nd in others. The extras will organise themselves round you - they will recognise that the regular players take priority in choice of parts, and anyway, they will get paid the same no matter which part they play! So, if you decide you want to do 2nd for all or part of the concert, do that, and enjoy following a more experienced player seated to your left.

    And of course, take every opportunity during the breaks to pick up any tips they can pass on!

  4. Jonathan - Again, thanks. In my rush last night forgot to mention I'd tried your "cheat", but with the previous director, as we got to within a rehearsal or two of the concert he would notice and ask me to play the doubled parts I was dropping out of. There was also a lot of pressure to play "brassier" and louder so as to be heard (another reason I ended up in current playing position as it makes my sound effectively louder without my having to work any harder). Currently working with your idea of "projection" for that issue as well.

    "Band parts are notorious for not giving players enough rest." Can't thank you enough for this. Thought it was just me. Current director "jokingly" asked if I was "whining" when I talked about being the only horn and I responded, "YES!". Didn't do any good until I said I was dropping out if forced to continue playing 1st horn parts.

    Since getting Jeff Smiley's "Balanced Embouchure" book and changing embouchure and mouthpiece back in January of this year I've made wonderful progress. May well be able to play 1st parts a year from now. The reason for my ultimatum about not playing 1st is that I'm convinced trying to play parts I don't really have the chops for was delaying my progress. (There's a rant coming on about music educators, but I'll hold off for now ;-)

    Have a glimmer of understanding of what you're calling "easing off" and will pay more attention to seeing what that means for me.

    I think simply hearing from inside what a full section should sound like will be a huge help. Went to hear their band last night in C'ville and from what I could hear they're very good. How the band was arranged on stage, with no shell behind them, had the horns on the back row on the right with their bells pointing back to sound inhaling curtains and backstage area. Plus the material they were playing was just beyond the band's capability and there were a number of awkward moments and palpable frustration from players and conductor.

    Again, thanks so much for these comments in particular. They're helping me play the horn better,as well as better understand deeper issues involved in ensemble music making.

  5. "Easing off" can also be expressed as "pacing yourself". Your lip muscles are just like all your other muscles. They get tired from over-exertion. You wouldn't expect a marathon runner to run the whole race at sprint speed. It is the same with your lips and playing. You have to judge how much effort you can put in, where you are still able to play at the end of the rehearsal.

    That varies according to circumstance, including:

    - your overall standard of playing at present
    - how much you are in (or out of) practice
    - how long the session is
    - whether you need to save yourself for a concert later that day
    - what is being played (i.e. how loud and how high)
    - how much of what you play is important and exposed

    Basically, the aim should be to make sure that all the important and exposed bits go right and you have enough lip for them, whenever they occur. It is for you to judge what those important bits are. For everything else, you pace yourself. You leave things out or play softer or drop down an octave if you feel the need.

    It is amazing how much your lips can recover just from taking an extra 4 or 8 bars rest, provided you do that before you get to the meltdown stage. If others are covering the afterbeats, then that is the time to drop out when you need to. Afterbeats aren't interesting, and if the conductor is insisting on them being brassy, then it means that the tune isn't coming through - whoever is supposed to be playing it.

    And if the conductor persistently asks you to play louder and higher and brassier, then you tell him you'll make a note of it and do it in the concert, but you're pacing yourself for now. He may want an example for the moment - that's fine, then you can drop back in volume.

    No matter what the conductor asks for, there is no point at all in playing so loud and high that you can't actually get through the rehearsal and have to stop because your lips have ceased to function altogether. You can do some serious damage to yourself if you continue to play in that state.

    I've been playing far longer than you, so I can probably sustain fairly high power for a much longer period than you can. But no horn player's endurance is infinite, so we all have to juggle this issue of keeping enough in reserve so we can get to the end.

  6. Jonathan - Thank you so much for taking the time to make such an on point comment. You were very right to start a blog as you (for me at least) have a real gift for talking about horn playing, due both to your long experience and to a wonderfully analytic mind with the verbal skills to communicate it all. I need to read this several more times to take it all in, but here are a couple of quick responses.

    My baseline issue that crops up in various ways is not having, at any given time, as good a sense of where my lips are between the extremes of not warmed up at all and complete meltdown. No other instrument I've ever tried calls for such exquisite sensitivity. I'm never sure if I'm adequately warmed up until a challenging bit comes along; and I'll think I'm near the end of my rope when one of those brief rests you mention makes all the difference.

    Most, if not all the time, my parts are the only ones (of people present) with those ostinati off beats and the absence makes a difference. Playing them down in the 2nd horn part makes all the difference, though.

    The main thing I want to say, though, is that in all your posts and comments, your confidence in who you are and what you're doing is terrific. One thing I've noticed in this band experience (my first real contact with the whole scene) is the tendency towards autocratic behavior by directors, which is understandable. What I don't get is the subservience on the part of a lot of players. I felt I was going against the grain telling the new director I'd drop out if forced to continue to play 1st parts. If I'm a "natural" at anything, it's over on the therapist side more than the music side and I find some of the social dynamics present in those coming out of the music education sphere very odd, and not always healthy.

    All of which is to say, I appreciate your modeling well adjusted behavior in the ensemble environment as much or more than all the really helpful musical advice.

  7. Knowing how tired your lips are is something you will get better at with experience. You will come to recognise when you are starting to use more pressure than is healthy, or that high notes are getting harder to reach, or that you are splitting more entries than normal. All these things get progressively worse as a meltdown approaches, and are a warning sign that you need to ease off significantly before it arrives. As you play more, you will learn to recognise these signs.

    And yes, autocratic conductors can be a problem. Their egos, while large, are sometimes terribly fragile. One day I'll blog about the time when I broke rule #2 of my 8 Simple Rules as a high school kid in my local youth orchestra, and very nearly got thrown out as a result. So you need to deal with conductors with some sensitivity. A quiet chat in the coffee break might be a good idea, in which you mention that

    - the afterbeats will be there in the concert, because you're going to get supplemented by all the extras
    - if and when another regular horn player gets recruited to the band, you can coordinate between the pair of you to make sure you never stop at the same time

    but in the meantime, ask him to realise that you're doing your best, and that

    - You haven't been playing the horn all that long
    - You're still developing your endurance, and that band horn parts are really tough on endurance because they go on a long time without rests
    - You realise that if you stop in rehearsal to let your lips recover, sometimes the afterbeats will stop as well.
    - This just can’t be helped for the moment, and not to stop will result in you simply not being able to participate in the last 30 minutes of the rehearsal at all, because your lip has gone.
    - You hope to improve with time.

    All of that has the great benefit of being entirely true.

    The aim is to get him to acknowledge that there is a difference between rehearsal and performance, and the primary aim of rehearsal is to get it prepared so that it is right in the performance.

    In the final rehearsal with the other horns, you can coordinate with them to make sure one or other of them is playing when you take a planned break. You can mark it in the part. If 4 extras are coming and you have 4 parts, then you could play 1st and have one of them as assistent, or for all practical purposes as joint 1st horn.

  8. By the way, on the matter of observing behaviour in a musical context, I'm in an unusually advantageous position.

    I seriously thought of becoming a professional musician, and had private lessons from top players during my last 3 years of high school and through university, before going to the Royal College of Music for two years of postgraduate study (or graduate study as the Americans would call it). My sister is a professional musician, so I know how that world works even though I chose not to become part of it.

    The analytical part comes from the fact that my Bachelors degree is in Electronic Engineering. The scientific disciplines tend to foster that kind of thinking, and I keep that habit well-practiced in my day job involving computers.

    And the behavioural part comes from the fact that (as a result of various events in my personal life which I won't go into) I have acquired a a keen interest in understanding how humans think and behave, and have read around the subject a fair bit.

    And I try to integrate all three of those aspects of knowledge and experience when I offer advice and suggestions. It makes for an outlook on life and music which I suspect is not all that common.

  9. Once again, thanks. Will try to take on board as much of this advice as possible and post another horn diary on down the road.

    I completely agree on your having an uncommon outlook on life and music. That explanation as to how it came about makes a lot of sense. I'm just glad to be fortunate enough to benefit from it. If you're not teaching and have the time, you really should be, as your musical gift seems to tend that way as well as towards straight performing.

  10. Anonymous15/2/12 19:29

    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?)

  11. Hi, Anon! Working on doing a new post on this comment, both to help out if I can and because it raises some core issues, and with a new post it might attract comments from others, maybe even real horn players;-)

    Thanks for taking the time to leave the comment.