Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Summer!

Things that you like are naturally included in your spare time. This goes for horn too! I hope we all like horn playing. If you do it should naturally follow that you play over the summer. If this sounds oppressive, then just play for fun! Any playing helps, even a little bit. I know how it is to just want to relax and do nothing over the summer (guilty!) but I hope that everyone can pick up their horn and play through etudes or solos that they like.

I certainly plan on playing. My goal is to go through the entire Schuller etude book (mentioned in the previous blog). I might also be practicing the Telemann horn concerto.

Because we aren't being pressed to play because of school, you should make sure to keep it fun! But also remember that learning and challenging yourself can be refreshing and invigorating. So keep yourself fresh over the summer! You will not regret it.

Gunther Schuller's Studies for Unaccompanied Horn: a review

While the book could've simply been called 'etudes for horn,' I believe this is one of the better atonal etude books out there. Each of the 13 etudes are based off of a repeated rhythmic or interval-based pattern. Like other atonal etude books, this one will certainly improve your sense of pitch and your accuracy. But unlike some other atonal studies, each etude to me has a nice easy-to-identify idea, a nice flow, and a real sense of musicality. The first etude for instance is slow and lyrical, and even seems to have antecedent and consequent phrases.

The Schuller etudes are excellent for improving your large-interval slurs! Almost every etude has slurs that span augmented octaves and beyond.

I would highly recommend this book for those of you who are looking for a refreshing type of etude.

Pedagogy Gems

- the tongue doesn't start the note, the air does. Just let the tongue fall as the air pushes through.
- practice isolated single tones in all registers

A Daily Routine
- the routine for every player is unique
- avoid distractions
- your routine must work on your problem areas as well as reinforce fundamentals

- the note before the high note is almost more important than the high note
- low range is all about sensitive adjustment of the oral cavity
- high range air = small volume, high speed. Low range air = large volume, low speed

Improv Part III: Listening

Improvisation also shows you the ideal way to listen to music. While improvising in a group, you must be constantly thinking about rhythm, tonality, style and form, and about what you need to add that is appropriate to the piece. You must listen intently and know exactly what is going on on every level. This type of in-depth listening goes beyond what is necessary for the average player, and can serve as an example of how we should be listening to music in the first place.

Not a single note or rhythm in a composed piece was placed there by accident; they are all there to express an overall mood, feeling, image, or story. If every aspect of such music has a purpose, it should all receive attention from our ears. Listening this way increases the satisfaction that one can get from listening.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pedagogy Gems

Over the years, I have acquired many little teaching phrases or sayings that can help in correct playing technique. I shall share some with you here!

- bring in the air naturally from the lips
- inhale so no one can hear it
- let the notes float on a steam of air

- use a half-pucker, half-smile
- for a better tone, use less "squeeze" in your lips

- a good buzz is halfway between loose/airy and tight/constricted
- keep your mouth an oval shape, as if you had an egg in your mouth
- aim for a big, rich sound

More categories to come!

Improv Part II: Technique

Improvising also puts you at the edge of your abilities in scales, arpeggios, intervals, and overall technique on your instrument. When creating or even copying a melody in a certain key, you are forced to think of the scale as a horizontal palette of available pitches, not just an up-and-down sequence. This use of scale can sharpen your sense of interval, especially when imitating another player or playing a melody that you have in your head. This kind of practice will make run-of-the-mill scales a walk in the park.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Franz Strauss Fantasie (Op. 2): a review

This is an absolutely wonderful piece, one of my favorites from the Romantic era for horn. It features four main movements (the second of which is a theme/variations, sort of 3 mvts. in one), each with its own character.

The 1st and 3rd movements are slow, very legato, and provide an excellent opportunity for very expressive and Romantic (over-the-top emotional!) playing. The 2nd movement is a theme and variations. The Thema is only in quarter notes, but the two successive variations take from the style of The Carnival of Venice (don't worry, it's not as difficult!). Plently of Kopprash-like passages in here! The fourth movement is a Russian dance, and has a delightful, bouncy dance melody that'll get stuck in your head.

Overall the Franz Strauss Fantasie is an excellent piece, chock full of delightful Romantic idiosyncrasies, and with plenty of opportunities for technical and lyrical playing.

TED video: Music and Passion (Benjamin Zander)

This is a video I absolutely MUST share with anyone who likes (or even dislikes) classical music. A well-known educator, Benjamin Zander, talks at a TED conference about classical music, its essence, and how it is so important still today and how it awakens passion within us. He is charismatic, enthusiastic, and engaging, and I guarantee you won't want to stop this video after you start it. Enjoy!

Here is the link.

Improv as a Practical Tool

Can improvisation, which involves no written music, be practically helpful to an instrumentalist? Let’s answer this question with another: is there a link between artistic expression and written music, or are we just following the directions? Do we just play that crescendo, or do we sometimes feel ourselves energized by it? If a marking on a score says to play a passage “joyously,” how do we know what that means?

Improvisation teaches you to synthesize these styles and emotions, and learning to do this can help a great deal to develop your stylistic and expressive playing as an instrumentalist. If you know how to make a piece that sounds like Mozart, doesn’t that mean that you understand the style? Improvisation exercises that involve expressing an emotion, feeling, or adjective also transfer directly to performance practice. If you can make a piece or a melody that expresses anxiousness, gracefulness, sorrow, fury, or alarm, that would indicate understanding of how to express those emotions through music, and you would use those tools come time to play.

The Arutunian Horn Concerto: a review

As many of you know, I played the Arutunian concerto for our studio recital. I picked the piece because I wanted something off the beaten path, and its scales and weird passages interested me.

The piece is in two movements - one insanely slow (quarter = 40) and one insanely fast (5/8 measure = 70). The first mvt. is technically easy. The only hurdle is that the horn is on your face a lot, and the slow tempo increases that. But even for someone like me with endurance problems, it was simply a matter of forcing myself to play through everything at least twice a day during the time leading up to the recital.

The 2nd movement is a beast. Given that the first couple pages really only contain scalar material, they should fly by pretty quick, as long as you can get into a grove with the 5/8 time (but that's the real trick isn't it?). The scales take a lot from Russian and eastern European folk music, and use a lot of augmented 2nds. The last page contains a monster of an arpeggio lick, which can only be conquered through repetition.

But at the end, the solo wasn't very intimidating once I got it in my head and under my fingers. Just a matter of repetition. I would recommend it!

The Indispensable Bach Cello Suites

Bach's Cello Suites, transcribed for horn, were a stepping stone for me in developing smooth large-interval slurs and a controlled lower register. Besides some Classical and Romantic 2nd horn parts (and some difficult solo passages), there are not many demands for this type of flexible, controlled playing. The Cello Suites ask you to play leaps greater than octaves as part of a musical phrase, not just as separate notes.

The music is also of very high quality, and they aren't very hard on your face. Coming from one of the greatest composers of all time, the pieces have counterpoint, complex harmonies, beautiful melodies, and a wonderful flow, all with just one line of music. A must have for any horn player.

Atonal Etudes

If there is one thing that has helped me with my sense of pitch and interval with horn, it has been atonal etudes. The etude books of Gunther Schuller, Charles Decker, Falk, and Cheynes (the last two are part of that whole French scene of etude books). Even some solos, like those of Alec Wilder, are exploratory enough to through your ear for a loop.

The Decker book is devoted to 12-tone work and is technically the easiest. Each etude is based on a row which is display at the top. The Schuller etudes are more pattern-and-variation based (my personal favorite). They are somwhat Kopprasch-like in this respect, but much more interesting and fun! The Falk and Cheynes are quite tough and require a lot of work.

If you ever want to explore new and interesting ground in your non-solo work, give these books a shot!

Friday, April 30, 2010

My Problems

Here I will post my three main shortcomings on the horn, comments and advice welcome!

1. High register

There is a barrier that I haven't been able to break for the past couple of years, and that is hitting B's and C's reliably. Bb's are starting to become easier nowadays, but can still be scary in certain contexts. The high B in the Dvorak 9 solo (and the duet with the 2nd horn) are prime examples of notes that I can't play well. I can't figure out yet how to relax and hit the note, I always feel tense and pinched off, and my tone on that note shows it. Any pointers or strategies?

2. Fast arpeggios

To some players, these types of passages (such as at the end of the Beethoven Sonata) come somewhat naturally. For me they do not.

3. Endurance

I am somewhat of a wimp as far as endurance. I never survive long with loud, sustained playing, and often get tired in orchestra, depending on what we're playing (and especially band).

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Go For It

Shyness, hesitation, and fear are not things that have ever helped any musician. It is far more rewarding to simply go for it, having no sense of shame. Don't be attached to an image of this great horn player that you want everyone to see. Wanting to show an image makes your fearful of anything that could destroy that image, including missed notes. This can make you hesitant in high or difficult passages, and can lead to negative feelings whenever you miss. You should play without shame and with no apologies. You are the player you are, and you will get nowhere wanting to portray anything different.

Having an attitude of "go for it" is much more relaxing, rewarding, and true to yourself. And I do believe that it actually makes for better playing. As far as technical development, going for it allows you to experiment with all levels of air speed, air velocity, embouchure size, and general body operations much more fully than if you were fearful. It can actually help you get better, faster. If you are fearful, you are always putting less of everything into the equation, and are not testing or learning anything. Going for it makes the learning process much more positive, and music-making much more enjoyable.

Uncomplicating Your Problems

I'm sure many of you have heard this before, and it certainly isn't my original idea, but it is something that I know that works from experience. As an alternative to analyzing what our bodies are doing to solve our problems, we can instead focus on our sound and the problems may fix themselves.

When you play your part in band or orchestra, take pride in it. Be absorbed in your sound and strive to make every note with a great tone and attack (but not too absorbed that you don't listen to others). The strategy is that if we do end up creating a great sound, it means we are doing things right. It is a way to bypass the risk of paralysis by analysis.

In order to best do this, you have to be a little prideful in your head when you play. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you don't let the pride affect others. Even the best athletes and musicians say that when they are in a high-pressure situation, the best mindset is one where you know you are the best out of all the others. This mindset allows them to perform at their very best as a result of a mental confidence. We can carry this to our own playing, and it can certainly be applied when we are focusing on our sound.

Being prideful in general is not what I am advocating. Arrogance and ego-centrism are bad qualities to have. But I do advocate a more secret, inner pride that makes for the best mental state of a performer. This is what you should feel while you play your part and focus on your sound.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rhythm: a rare gift

In my experience with collegiate large ensembles, the common area of musicianship to be lacking in is rhythm.

Rhythm is about discipline and focus. You have to play the pitches exactly where they are to be played, regardless of any impulses you have otherwise. This sounds like a no-brainer, but we've all had the experience of reading a rhythm, understanding it, and still playing it wrong because we aren't paying attention to what we are doing.

Rhythm is also augmented by listening to other parts around you. As an ensemble, we all move together through a crafted, intricate gauntlet of attacks and durations. Part of achieving good rhythm is the ability to follow the ensemble or another player.

Rhythm is felt. In band music especially, whenever we have lots of odd-meter shifts, plenty of tied notes, and triplets/duplets/sextuplets, I also feel like the music is a sort of dance. When I run through the passage in my head, my body just kind of moves by itself according to the impulse. I think even the most strange rhythms can be felt naturally. So when you figure out a strange rhythm, try to sing it in your head as a natural-sounding melody. This can help the passage to interface with your brain a little better.

So four points on rhythm: discipline, focus, listen to the ensemble, and feel the rhythms.

Mindful Music

At my undergrad institution, I rarely saw fellow musicians listening to classical music. Many of them didn't seem to even like it all that much. Here at Iowa, things are a little different. But today I will write very briefly about the value of classical music.

From the perspective of today's youth, classical music in general is not as immediate as pop music. Lyrics and catchy melodies and progressions grab your attention and require little effort to enjoy. Consequently, music nowadays is often listened to when doing something else like studying, surfing the internet, or talking on the phone. This is fine, but just because classical music requires a little more mindfulness is no excuse to zone out after hearing it for 20 seconds.

I will not command you to listen to classical music simply because it is your duty as a classical musician, but rather because I insist that there is some great value there. There are things that classical music can do that pop cannot. Classical music can run, skitter, shudder, jump, scream, hop, fall, fly, whimper, or even make no sound at all. For me personally, I've only gotten goosebumps from classical pieces, I have yet to get them from a pop song.

Even us hornists are a little guilty of only listening to horn music and not the rest of the stuff out there. Go listen to a Bartok string quartet, a Chopin etude, a Bach fugue, or a Debussy prelude! There's some great stuff out there, and almost all of it can be heard on YouTube...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Developing Rubber Chops: Warm-ups for Flexibility

A turning point in my progress as a horn player happened soon after I found some warm-ups that worked on wide-interval slurs and improved my flexibility. One I found at a master class from Bernhard Scully, the horn player for the Canadian Brass:

This pattern (all slurred) continues two more times, radiating out from middle C in progressively larger intervals until slurring between three C's at the end. Like any new warm-up, starting slowly and being a perfectionist with yourself lets you grasp what you need to do in order to hit the intervals correctly. This warm-up can teach you how to change your embouchure more quickly and accurately, and improve your sense of interval in other areas of playing.

A second slurred pattern I came across outlines a popular slurred arpeggio pattern from the trombone world, but takes it one step further:

This is also all slurred, and really works on smoothing out large-interval slurs. It should be played on all horns. Like the previous exercise, this one works specifically on being able to change your embouchure and mouth shape quickly and accurately.

These two exercises noticeably improved my playing. Maybe they can help you!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fun-Size Horns!

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the piccolo horn!

This tiny horn-shaped brass instrument is hardly a horn at all, except for its shape. Most are keyed in Bb and sound almost like a trumpet, but one of my aims as soon as I have a salary is to purchase one of these! Seeing a comically small horn sitting somewhere would be too alluring; I would have to pick it up and play a few notes. Here is a video of someone playing one. The guy is really weird and doesn't hold it like a horn, but you'll get the picture :)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Alan Civil: playing horn for The Beatles

Alan Civil may be the most widely heard horn player on the planet. Not because of any fame in the horn world, but because of his squeaking high (yet very controlled) solo in the Beatles song For No One on their 1966 album Revolver. I found that the solo itself outlines an F# major arpeggio, and goes up to a high D# above the treble staff. Civil's playing is ridiculously controlled, quiet, and smooth despite the register.

Civil was called upon by Abbey Road Studio engineer Geoff Emerick because, in Emerick's words, he was "the best horn player in London." As a student of Aubrey Brain (Dennis Brain's father), one would expect no less.

Civil also played in the orchestra used in A Day in the Life, another famous Beatles song at the end of their landmark album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. According to Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Revolver stands at #3 while Sgt. Pepper stands triumphantly at #1. Way to land a gig, Alan...