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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

March 8, 2012

For the longest time there has been this concept that I wanted to post about.  I have made draft after draft, but the resulting post has always been terrible.  What follows is mildly better, but it is still really poorly explained, stick with it and see if you catch what I am getting at.  As always, very interested to know your thoughts and comments!

Right now, I want you to think about a technical issue in your playing.  Now think about your approach to practicing this issue.  If you were to make a chart of your practice time, I am sure a significant amount of time every day is dedicated to it.  That makes sense, right? If something is terrible, work on it.  A common issue is that we hit a plateau in our progress.  When this happens it can be so wildly frustrating and confusing.  What is the solution?

The phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” can limit our mind when looking for solutions.  Mastering the horn is not like putting out fires, rather it is more like peeling away layers of an infinite onion – there is always another layer of efficiency to be revealed.

Let’s relate it to a real world example:  I have been working on my high register for YEARS, and after countless lessons, reading every book I can find, labeling innumerable exercises as “the one”, it still sucks. In a recent lesson I was working on being a little more efficient in my middle register (something that teachers have always labeled as one of my stronger points).  The change was small, both in terms of physicality and in the sound produced, but it opened my high register up significantly.

Why? I found greater ease in producing the sound I wanted in the middle register, my physical set up wasn’t taxed so early and those positive fundamentals were carried up higher.

All this to say, if there is a technical issue you have been struggling with for a long time without much improvement, perhaps stop tackling it head on, rather see if there are ways to better some of your existing strengths and see how that effects your main issue.

… See?  How poorly was that explained? Hope you got my point in the end!  Feel free to drop me a line at andrew.swinney@gmail.com or just leave a comment below! Happy practicing!

What are some great horn resources?

March 5, 2012

The internet is awesome, right!? There are so many brilliant sites out there to help us brass players in mastering the instrument, so I thought I would piece together a small digital reference sheet of some of my favorites.  If you have others, please send them my way!

Hornexcerpts.org – A staple for anyone preparing an audition and a must visit.  This features all the most commonly asked for audition excerpts with recordings.  Some of the recordings might be a little suspect, but it is a great place to get started.

Imslp.org – Do you have any idea how much music is public domain?  A ton! Not only does IMSLP have horn solos like all the Mozart concerti, but it also has some complete etude books… like Kopprasch!

HornMatters.com – Everything you could want to know about horn.  Tons and tons of articles, tips, links, ect.

Hornworld.wordpress.com – A blog by University of Louisiana –Monroe professor James Boldin.  Regularly updated with interesting and relevant articles.

Howtopractice.com – They got the URL right.  This site is loaded with articles and ideas to help make your practicing more effective.

Bulletproofmusician.com – Run by Juilliard faculty member, Dr. Noa Kageyama, this site is loaded with articles on the addressing the psychological side of practice and performance.

JeffNelsen.com – Jeff Nelsen has done many things, but he is possible best known for his “Fearless” concepts for performance.  To get a rough overview, check out this video; http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxBloomington-Jeff-Nelsen-Fea

Youtube.com – Obvious right?  There are TONS of amazing videos and channels out there. Some channels that you must check out are;  OHSTeacher, HornSolos, Berlin Phil, and Horn Channel.

As always, please let me know your thoughts and comments! Happy practicing!

Where did the modern horn come from?

March 2, 2012

As some of you may know, I tech a horn fundamentals class for undergraduate music education majors.  Below you will find a brief write up I prepared to help students understand the evolution of the horn and the solo literature of the time.

The 1900’s were an interesting time for the horn playing world.  The invention of the valve was being applied to the natural horn to reduce the problems implicit in the crook system that had been utilized for the past 100 years, a change that would have serious implications on aesthetic, performance practice, and compositional technique.

By the year 1800, crooks were being manufactured in every key.  Not every horn player could afford all of the crooks and carrying all these crooks around became a cumbersome task.   In the years between 1811 and 1814 we see some documentation of patents and experiments into valves, but it isn’t until 1815 when Heinrich Stolzel performed in Berlin on a horn utilizing his valve, that we see momentum towards the modern horn.  While no one knows what Stolzel’s original horn looked like, we do know it was only equipped with one square/box valve from an 1818 patent.  Halary and Labbaye improved on this design, making it round, and putting two on a horn, one two lower by a semitone and one by a full tone.  The horn become fully chromatic in 1819 when C.F. Sattler added a third valve that lowered the horn by a tone and a half.

These advancements were not widely accepted, especially in France.  Most notably Gallay and the faculty of the Paris Conservatoire objected to these advancements, citing the valves “ability to even out tone color.”  The concern of this sentiment is summarized well by Louis Dauprat, a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire who obtained a valved horn in 1827 but quickly abandoned it.  He said that the addition of valves would cause the horn to “lose its character and the true qualities of its natural and stopped sounds.  Most of these latter have a charm that is particularly theirs and which serve, so to speak, as shadings and nuances which contrast with the natural sounds.”

While this sentiment was shared in other countries in Europe, most areas and composers began to accept it around 1840.  France held out until close to the end of the 1900’s. Composers served as the catalyst for this change, most notably Wagner who composed parts in his Ring Cycle that were only performable on the modern horn.  Some early modern horn concerto experiments include Gounod’s Six Melodies for valve horn (1840) and Saint-Saens Andante for valve horn and organ (1854).  Of course there are exceptions to this trend; Brahms wrote almost all of his horn parts for the natural horn.

During this time, there was another curios invention that attempted to merge the chromatic flexibility of a valved horn with the tonal responsiveness of the hand horn, the omnitonic horn.  Omnitonic Horns came in different designs but were all essentially a complete set of crooks stuck on one horn with a mechanism allowing the player to change between them “very quickly.”  The only version that was marginally successful was the Radius French Horn in London.

In spite of its lack of popularity, Saint-Saens “Morceau de Concert” is believed to have been premiered on an omnitonic horn.

When listening to works composed for the natural horn, it is useful to remember some of the compositional considerations demanded by the technical limitations of the instrument.  Here are just a few;

1)      Low notes should be approached from above and by step

2)      All pieces are notated in C and then “crooked” into the desired key

3)      Stopped notes can only exist between open partials.  This being the case, this color is best obtained in the middle register.  Low register notes do have this possibility, but are technically very difficult to achieve.

4)      Stopped notes do not project as well as open notes.  Important consideration for peaks of phrases and chord voicing.

5)      Some notes are achieved by removing the hand completely from the bell (B-flat, F-sharp, A).  These notes sound best when played at the fortissimo dynamic or when hidden within fast technical passages.

Here is a listing of horn literature from before, during, and after the valve horn revolution.  See if you can notice some of the compositional techniques mentioned above.  Links to interesting YouTube performances have been included.  Listen to some of the natural horn ones (especially Mozart and Weber) and see if you can relate to Gallay’s argument!

Composer Work Title

Date of Composition

Horn Written For Musical Era
Mozart Horn Concerto No. 1

1791

Natural

Classical

  Horn Concerto No. 2

1783

Natural

Classical

Horn Concerto No. 3

1787

Natural

Classical

  Horn Concerto No. 4

1786

Natural

Classical

Haydn, Joseph Horn Concerto No. 1

1762

Natural

Classical

  Horn Concerto No. 2

1781

Natural

Classical

Hoffmeister Horn Concerto No. 1

1791

Natural

Classical

Beethoven Horn Sonata

1800

Natural

Classical

Cherubini, Luigi Horn Sonata No. 1

1802

Natural

Romantic

  Horn Sonata No. 2

1802

Natural

Romantic

Rossini, Gioacchino Prelude, Theme and Variations for Horn and Piano

1804

Natural

Romantic

Weber Concerto for Horn and Orchestra in E Minor

1815

Natural

Romantic

Bellini, Vincenzo Horn Concerto in F

1833

Natural

Romantic

Reissinger,Carl Solo per il Corno

1830

Natural

Romantic

Gounod Six Melodies for valve horn and piano

1840

Valved

Romantic

Czerny Andante and Polacca E-major for Horn and Piano

1848

?

Romantic

Kaliwoda Introduktion und Rondo op. 51

1848

?

Romantic

Schumann Adagio and Allegro

1849

Valved

Romantic

Saint-Saens Andante for Valve Horn and Organ

1856

Valved

Romantic

Strauss, Franz Concerto No. 1

1865

Valved

Romantic

Draeseke, Felix Romance in F Major for Horn and Piano, Op. 32

1885

Valved

Romantic

  Adagio in A minor for Horn and Piano, Op. 31

1885

Valved

Romantic

Saint-Saens Morceau de Concert

1887

Omnitonic

     Romantic

Removing Assumptions from the Practice Room: Part 2

January 22, 2012

Let’s just jump right in and frustrate ourselves with a riddle! This one is a little complicated and long, so feel free to read it as many times as needed!

A door to door insurance salesman is, you guessed it, trying to sell insurance to a mother of three.  He asked how old her children are and she says “If you can guess the ages of my three kids, I will buy insurance from you.”

The salesman said “I need a hint” and the mother said “The product of my kid’s ages equals 36 and the sum of my kid’s ages equals the number of the house next door.”  He thought for a while and said “I need one more hint.”  The mother said “My oldest daughter plays piano.”

That’s it.  That is the riddle.  As random as that information seems, that is enough information to answer the riddle, and here is how.

We know that the ages, when multiplied together, equal 36.  So let’s make a list of all possible combinations that would equal 36;

1*1*36

2*1*18

3*1*12

Ect…

The mother also said that when you add her kid’s ages together, you get the number of the house next door.  This in and of itself is not a huge hint, because we do not know the houses number.  What does help is the fact that the salesman needed another question.  Why would he need one more if he knew the houses number next door?  Surely, that would give him the combination of ages?  Unless there were two sets that gave the same number!  Well, there is;

9*2*2  —-and—- 6*6*1 – Both have a product of 36 and a sum of 13.

The final hint was that the oldest daughter played piano, so we know that there is an oldest child, so the answer must be 9*2*2.

Amazing right?  At first glance this seems impossible!  There isn’t enough information and the information we do have seems too unrelated to be of any use… but it wasn’t!  The assumption here is that the system is flawed.  Think about a class where everyone got an F on a test, the assumption is that the teacher didn’t prepare the class, or the test was too hard.  In music we see this manifest in phrases like “I need a new mouthpiece” or “My chops just don’t feel right today” or “This piece sucks, who would write this?”  or “I can’t follow this conductor.” Maybe those things are true, but won’t there ALWAYS be something wrong with the environment?  Don’t we live in an imperfect world?  Just because the answer isn’t easy and obvious doesn’t mean that there isn’t a workable solution waiting to be discovered.

When something isn’t going your way, embrace it.  Accept that as your current reality and find a way to thrive in it. Don’t argue how things should be different, rather perfect what you have.  So you challenge for this week is to keep a sheet of paper on your stand.  Any time a thought like that comes into your mind, write it down.  If you make an excuse, any at all, be it “I am hungry” or “I am tired” or “I have this big test coming up” – no matter what, write it down.  When you write it down, think about what this excuse is enabling.  Does it allow you to miss notes?  Play with a bad sound?  Write that down next to the excuse.  Now, spend the next 5 minutes working on the opposite of what it enabled.   If you played with poor articulation for whatever reason, spend 5 minutes focusing on playing with the most crisp beautiful articulation you can manage.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts!  If you take the challenge, send me a copy of your sheet, let me know how it changed the way you practiced!  You can get in touch by finding me on Facebook, Twitter (@BrassChatter), or by emailing me at Andrew.Swinney@gmail.com

Happy practicing!

Removing Assumptions from the Practice Room: Part 1

January 20, 2012

Everyone knows the saying “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” Only one sentence in and I have made an assumption, I just assumed everyone knows the saying!  In this multipart series I will explore some common assumptions and how they can cost us in the practice room.

Before I get started, I have to confess much of the content and inspiration of these posts come from a hero of mine, Sean Plott (Day[9]).  If you would like to see his presentation on the dangers of assumptions as they relate to StarCraft2, you can find it here; http://blip.tv/day9tv/day-9-daily-400-p1-special-episode-eliminating-assumptions-5888689

Let’s start with a riddle!

Rebecca lives on the 12th floor of an apartment complex.  Every morning she gets on the elevator, pushes the “1” button, rides to the first floor and then goes on with her day.

When she comes home she gets in the elevator, pushes the “6” button, and rides the elevator to the 6th floor then uses the stairs for the final 6 floors back to her apartment.

Why?

Did you figure it out? Don’t continue reading until you have given it an honest go.  Get it? The answer is; Rebecca is a 6 year old so the highest button she can reach is the 6th floor.  Brilliant, right?  NO! It’s annoying! Why is THAT the answer?  Why can’t it be that Rebecca is 800lbs and everyday she wants to get exercise, or that on the 6th floor at the same time another 800lbs person gets on and the elevator is over the limit?  Or maybe that her best friend is on the 6th floor so she stops to say hello?  The “Right” answer to the riddle is clever, but it doesn’t mean the other answers aren’t just as right.  This riddle works because it hides critical information from you to create a strange scenario.  Once you know the “Secret” the riddle makes sense.

Think about the way our school system is set up.  Very similar, right?  Think back to the last time you took a test and even though you studied, the questions on the test focused on information you had barely or never even covered! How about when a teacher gives you hints for what will be on the next test? Students take out their pens and paper and feverishly begin to write down what secret knowledge they need to know to be successful.   The assumption here; Secrets or Hidden Knowledge = Skill.

People naturally look for short cuts, quick bits of information that will allow them to be more successful.  In music that can be the magic mouthpiece, or the newest etude book, or routine, or a golden nugget received in a lesson.  Now, I am in no way shape or form discrediting those things, a mouthpiece can make a huge change, and sometimes it is the right answer.  Instead, I am encouraging everyone to abandon the “If I get X then Y will be fixed” mentality and begin to associate the process with skill.

My biggest bugaboo is my high register.  IT SUCKS! For the longest time I would read and read, take lessons, talk to people, do everything I could think of to try and find the answer to the high register.  Hoping that one day someone would say “Oh, just do XYZ” and then my register would open up and magic would come out of the bell.  News flash for me, that is not going to happen.  What will help is for me to play up in the high register every day.  I could get into the details of how I am working on my high register, but that is not the point of this so I will refrain from totally nerding out.  Rather, I want you to see the assumption and how it was holding me back from progress, progress that is found in the process.

So, your challenge for the next week is to check for this assumption in the way you are practicing.  Look around you; do you know other players who are doing it?  Be mindful of this and let me know what you discover!

Happy practicing!

Share your discoveries, comment, and ideas with me;

On Facebook

On Twitter @BrassChatter

Or email me! Andrew.Swinney@gmail.com

What makes some performances great?

January 15, 2012

Before you read any more of this post, watch this video;

http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html

The first time I saw this video, I was just lukewarm on it, I found it interesting but it didn’t grab me like a lot of the Ted talks usually do.  I thought about it for a while, came back, and watched it again.  It wasn’t until I was waiting outside for the bus that the message started to sink in and really got me excited.

Have you ever been to a performance that got you fired up?  That made you want to race home and practice? Or made you happy, or sad, or evoked any emotion?  Now, have you been to a professional performance and acknowledged that it was well performed, but you felt a little “whatever” at the end of it?  It was clean, everything was there, very well played, but you didn’t get that same emotional reaction that you had experienced elsewhere?  I know I have, but I have always wondered why, what really makes the difference?

A similar question I have asked myself a lot, especially at auditions, is what makes me special?  What will make the winner special? What do I need to do to set myself apart from the mass of technically proficient players?

This talk gives us something to think about.  In the scenarios Simon Sinek poses, the competition is just as, if not more, capable of accomplishing the task.  What Simon argues allowed our heroes to rise above the rest and be more successful was the “why” behind their drive.  It was the passion, the idea, the core value that people – be it employees, customers, or audience members – connected with.  How perfect is that for what we do as musicians?  Compare the teacher that teaches because he or she has a passion for helping younger players overcome hurdles and find joy in music V.S. the teacher who uses lessons just to pay the bills until the big gig comes along.  Which teacher will be more effective and have a stronger studio? Think about the performances you have been to that moved you V.S. the ones that were just well executed? What about your own personal performances, were there ones where you might have played less technically perfect, but you were happier with because of an emotional tie to the performance?

Geez… that’s a lot of questions, but I really want you to be thinking about what separates art from beauty.  Is a beautiful performance an artistic one?  I think all art is beautiful, but not all beautiful things are art.  What makes something art is the “why” behind it.  It turns a group of notes into something profoundly human that is easy to connect to.  It’s what makes you feel electric after some lessons, like the teacher brought you to a higher level of performance.

So, the challenge for this week is to assign a “why” to everything you play.  It doesn’t matter how simple, think about why it is important to you and pursue it with conviction!   As always, let me know your thoughts and join the conversations on facebook and twitter (@brasschatter).  Happy practicing!

Thoughts on Practicing Away from the Instrument

January 13, 2012

This past week I have been battling a cold, which as I am sure all of us brass players can attest to, is not conducive to great horn playing or quality practicing.  I was still muscling through a couple hours a day without getting much from it… really it was to not feel guilty, something else I am sure a lot of you can relate to.

Not being able to find the productivity I wanted, I began to think about ways to practice and improve away from the instrument.  I am sure many of these will be suggestions you have heard in the past, but it never hurts to be reminded of all the things we should be doing!

1)      Listening – Obvious right? Making music is what we do, so we should be listening to music all the time.  When we take the time to focus and be an active listener, it can help bring inspiration, clarify ideas on phrasing, and strengthen our mental sound concept.  I recently read a paper that said the aural cortex is directly connected to the motor cortex.  What does that mean for us?  The clearer the aural concept, the cleaner the signal sent to your muscles.

2)      Visualization – Your brain doesn’t really know the difference between actually performing a task and just thinking about it.  Scientists took a group of people, the goal being to teach them to shoot free throws.  This group was divided into 3 smaller groups.  Group A was allowed to practice 20 minutes a day for a month, Group B was not allowed to touch a basketball at all, and Group C was instructed to sit down and try to visualize in great detail successfully shooting free throws for 20 minutes every day.  The result?  At the end of the month there was very little difference between the performance of Group A and Group C.  What is more interesting is that after only 2 hours of physical practice, Group C became markedly better than Group A – not having developed any bad habits in form or technique.

3)      Study – We practice, right? Is that the same as study? Consider this; Chess players spend hours and hours reading theoretical books and reviewing opponent’s strategy.  Coaches review hours of game play.  All this being work done away from the chess board or off the field.  There is a wealth of amazing books out there addressing some of the battles we face as musicians.  Score study can also be an invaluable tool in preparing for a performance.  I find books to be inspiring and bring new insight into the practice room.  Sometimes I have been battling a hurdle for months and just reading a chapter will shed new light on the issue and allow me to blow through it.

4)      Review – This is similar to study, but I thought it warranted its own bullet point, reviewing your own work can be so beneficial.  Record a session a day, then make time to sit down and take notes.  What did you like?  What was your most noticeable flaw? Write down 5 ways to address this problem.  Set a goal for your next practice session and how you will tackle it.  Keep a practice journal, review old entries, look for patterns and trends to your playing and improvement.

How do you like to practice away from your instrument?  What has been most effective for you?  Comment below, tweet me at @BrassChatter, or comment on my Facebook and let me know your thoughts!

Happy practicing!

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