Beethoven & Benefits of Long Tones
20 Wednesday Feb 2013
I have had the privilege of teaching for the past six or so summers at the Kendall Betts Horn Camp in New Hampshire. It’s been a terrific experience being part of it and getting to hang out with so many talented people who are so passionate about the horn. I have met a lot of wonderful people during this time, and I look forward to meeting new people and renewing old acquaintances. One of those is Myrlon Pressley. I’ve always been impressed with Myrlon’s seriousness of purpose about the horn. He has a busy life, but he works hard on his horn playing in the time he has. Every now and again he sends me updates on what he’s doing. I recently received a very inspiring note from him and, with his permission, I am reprinting it here. Myrlon has discovered ways to improve his playing; his thoughtful study and hard work have paid off, and we all can learn something from him. Thanks, Myrlon!
Here’s the letter [the pictures were added by me]:
“Since I won’t see you at KBHC this summer, I wanted to drop you a note and touch on a couple of things that I would have told you had I been able to come to camp in either week 2 or week 3.
Long tones and overtones
The number one thing that has helped me more than anything since I was last at KBHC in the summer of 2011 has been playing long tones every day. Some many instructors at camp had said how valuable they were, but I just hadn’t done them consistently. However, I found out right before camp in 2011 that I might have the opportunity to play 1st horn in our orchestra, beginning that fall. Combine that with what our conductor had programmed for our concerts in the fall of 2011 and the winter and spring of 2012, and I suddenly found myself with the motivation to do them, and I’ve been doing them daily ever since.
I don’t spend a lot of time on them, just over 5 minutes a day. And they are 5 minutes that I otherwise wasn’t doing anything anyway, so it wasn’t as if I had to carve out the time to do them. I do them in the morning before work, when I put the oatmeal on the stove and set the coffee to brew. By the time I’m done playing them, my breakfast is ready! (I had tried doing them in the evening when I practice after work, but it was too taxing. By doing them in the morning, I’m completely recovered for practicing after work.)
And what I do is so simple. I play the root, 3rd, 5th, and octave, beginning near middle C and working my way up to high A, Bb, B, or C, depending on what key I’m working with for the day. I cycle through the keys from day 1 through day 12 of the month — C on the 1st, C# on the 2nd and so on to the 12th, then repeat with C on the 13th, C# on the 14th, and so on to the 24th. From the 25th through the 30th or 31st, I go with the keys with the most accidentals, so C#, then B, F# and so on.
It has helped me in so many ways, from tone production, to intonation, and just simple confidence in playing really high and really low. What I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t acquiring the strength to play high that is important, but rather acquiring the strength to be relaxed when you are playing high. It is the same thing I see in Olympic sprinters. If you watch the slo-motion replays of Usain Bolt in the 100 meters, he’s clearly a muscled man from years of training, but he’s so relaxed as he runs.
After playing long tones in this manner for about a year, there was one day last fall when I was playing the A above the staff and I realized it was no more taxing than the A in the staff. That same sensation has now happened for high Bb and just last week for high B. While I can play a high C (and had to do so for the cadenza passage in last month’s concert), I haven’t had that sensation of ease just yet, but I know it is only a matter of time. I’ve since started working at high C# which will make the high C that much easier.
And all of this paid off last fall when we performed Beethoven Symphony No 4. The high Bb entrance in the second movement came out just fine in rehearsals and in the performance.
(I saw what Eli Epstein had to say about long tones in your column in the most recent issue of The Horn Call. I have to say he’s right on the money.)
I’ve just recently coupled my morning long tones with an overtone exercise I found in William Brophy’s book, “Technical Studies for Solving Special Problems on the Horn.” (It’s number 6 in his book.) It starts out with C in the staff and does a pattern of overtones 8-9-10-9-8, 8-9-10-9-8, 8-9-10-9-8. He then adds 11 to the sequence. And then 12, and so on all the way to 16. So, just like with the long tones, I do these on a rota. On the 1st of the month I play open (starting at C in the staff); on the 2nd, I play 2nd valve (starting on B); on the 3rd, I play first valve (Bb); on the 4th, I play 1-2 (A); on the 5th I play 2-3 (Ab). (He doesn’t suggest playing 1-3 or 1-2-3, but I might start doing so.) On the 6th, I start over on the open C in the staff. (And again, in the evenings, I do the lower tones. By the end of the day, I’ve covered everything.)
By doing the long tone and the overtones on a regular rotation, I get to all the pitches on a regular basis. And I do them all from memory, not so much because I was trying to memorize them, but just over time I have. What that has allowed me to do is focus on the sound, intonation, and feeling of producing these notes. I think it also is easier to play them from memory rather than from the printed page because its just easier to focus on the sound being made.
I know this idea of just playing to play is something you’ve talked about at camp, and so I wanted to thank you for making that suggestion. It has been very helpful one.
I happened upon a YouTube video of Esa-Pekka Salonen discussing Beethoven, and he said something I thought you’d enjoy. He said he wasn’t interested in being right or wrong (I thing he was talking about right or wrong in interpretation of Beethoven), and he wasn’t interested in recreating the perfect performance of something written down 200 years ago. He said what he was interested in doing was creating an experience for his audience.
I thought that was very interesting and it has helped me be less nervous when I play. It has given me the freedom to not have to play perfectly, or even to play to the level of the recordings I hear of the pieces we work on. (And it to be sure, it isn’t license to play poorly.) But I can now focus on playing to the best of my ability to create an experience for the people who come see us play. With both Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 2 and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 coming up in April, I now feel I have a healthier attitude towards playing the two horn solos in both pieces and that healthier attitude has already come through as we’ve played these pieces in our weekly rehearsals this semester.
It’s time to get my passport renewed
Our conductor has always dreamed big in the 7 years she’s been leading us. In the first year I went to KBHC, I figured there was no need for me to bother much with the excerpt du jour, because there was no chance I’d ever be playing those pieces. Wrong! Under our conductor we’ve played just about every excerpt covered at KBHC: Tchaikovsky #4 and #5, Beethoven #9 (and 4, 5, and 6 — I think 7 is just over the horizon), Shostakovich #5, Dvorak #9, Strauss’ Merry Prankster Mr. Till, and others. I would never have believed it possible, but our conductor has managed to pull them all off, and acceptably so. And now she has told us that in March 2014 we’ll be playing concerts in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria!