How to Shoot the Ground Hog
01 Thursday Nov 2012
Funny thing about horn players. As students we get introduced to a warm-up/workout routine in high school or college and we learn it (a good thing) and then proceed to repeat it for the next umpteen years. Routines have one big positive: you know how it goes, they cover a bunch of stuff – all good stuff – and you can zip through them and feel good about yourself. You’ve done your duty, taken your daily vitamins, and now you can go practice. What could be wrong with that?
Nothing – it’s all good. Except that one little thing…
Routines are called routines for a reason. They are, well, routine. The same. Every day. They all have good things, but only those things. Kansas was nice, too, but Dorothy discovered all kinds of new things and challenges and friends and vistas when she got to the colorful world of Oz. Routines, besides being narrow/limited and lacking in challenge (or new challenge, anyway), also infect the mind with boredom. As you zip through your material, it’s hard to stay focussed. The mind wanders. It grits its mental teeth to endure one more time through. If there are little scratches in the run-through, it’s easy just to keep going, ah, well, I know how it goes, I’ll be doing it again tomorrow. The mind is bored and wants to move on.
Minds are funny things. On one hand they like novelty. It’s engaging – the mind focusses on the new challenge. On the other hand, people don’t like change. Most of us only change when we are forced to. We stick our routines because they are familiar, comfortable. It takes effort, energy, exertion, and ideas to change. Why bother? Also, there’s the ego thing. If you try something new, you are not going to be as good at it as the old stuff. You will have to slow down. You will face less fluency doing anything new. That is stern stuff for adults, who expect themselves to be at least competent if not some degree of expert in everything they do. It’s tough to start over or start something new and be a beginner. New anything means trial and error. There will be mistakes. It’s a natural part of the learning process, but it’s tough to accept that as an adult. Classical music has a deep culture of wrong-note-avoidance at all costs. Mistakes! Eek! Not that! Tension! Product over process. Stick what’s already working! New is scary. We say we do, but we don’t really play the horn. We serious it. We are preternaturally careful, the better not to make the dreaded mistake. Unfortunately this also works to stifle learning, to try new things. Where children gleefully try new stuff every day for the sheer joy of it, our musical world as adult players has a tendency to shrink. Our tastes may expand as we learn about more musical styles and have various performing experiences, but our spirit of adventure in horn (and other subjects) is may well slowly wither on a steady of routine and being careful and avoidance of new stuff. Compare going to the gym. What would you say if your personal trainer told you that the routine he gave you is it – the only one you’ll ever do for the rest of your life? No change, always the same exercises. Wouldn’t you protest a bit? You should fire him on the spot: trainers are there to develop you, and they should give you a new routine about every six weeks or so. The body gets bored, too; it adapts to the exercises and needs new ones to continue development. Horn routines should be no different, and yet it does not seem to occur to us that we ever need to change (I did the same thing for decades; it was only terminal boredom and staleness that finally jolted me into trying something new, and alleluia for that).
Seen the movie Ground Hog Day with Bill Murray? One of the greatest movies of all time. The premise is that Murray’s character experienced the same day, every day (there is no explanation why – you have to suspend disbelief and accept the premise). The character – initially obnoxious and egotistical – changed because he was forced to by the circumstances. He changed a little every day, trying new things, very gradually realizing his potential in all kinds of positive ways before he was finally released from the cycle. The movie begs the question for us: how do we get out of our Ground Hog Day routines?
The long answer is (warning: shameless plug) the book I’ve been working on for some years on horn technique (hope to have it finished by summer).
The short answer is: change something.
The easiest way to wake up your mind and learn something new is simply to start altering your routine in little ways. Change is tough, so make it modest – but continual (i.e. something every day) – change. Examples: Play some of what you do a little faster. And then a little slower. Change the articulation; mix up tongued and slurred in various ways. Add accents. Play stuff a little louder. And a little softer. Add dynamic hairpins. Start before the beat. After the beat. Change the meter: if it’s duple, make it triple, and vice-versa. Redo any exercise in an odd meter: 5/8, 7/8, 3+3+2. If you only play scales or arpeggios in octave units, change the lengths. Play stuff higher. Lower. Change the note values (why do they all need to be the same, e.g. 8ths?). Start on different notes. Change directions at will. Mix up scales in different key orders. Mix up scales and arpeggios. Play new kinds of scales (whole tone, diminished, klezmer, Phyrgian, Lydian, Lydian/Dominant, Dominant, etc etc). Play extended chord arpeggios (1 3 5 7 9 etc). Make some of your decisions according to what you are currently working on in solos, etudes, and excerpts. Make some of your decisions according to how your chops feel today.
You get the idea. Every day doesn’t have to be Ground Hog Day. Make it a new day. Change something. And watch your smile come back.