Notes from the Past (on horn playing)
08 Monday Oct 2012
When I first started playing professionally in an orchestra many years ago, some interesting things happened. Life was a little different than I had imagined before that. Everyone’s experience is different; what happened in mine back then was, first of all, the job was a different experience than I expected. I had imagined musical excitement every day – what a dream to get to play music for a living! Well, sometimes. A good bit of it was, after a while anyway, pretty routine. A small part of it was sheer terror. But that part is not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the other thing that started happening back then…
The job had rehearsals most mornings, with evenings either rehearsals or performances. Every afternoon was free. I could do anything I wanted. In school days, if I had an unscheduled afternoon, I would have practiced most of it. Now, if there was a 3 hour rehearsal in the morning and the same (or a performance) at night, I was probably not going to practice much or at all. What would I fill the time with?
Some of the times I did this:
•Go hiking. Or biking. Switzerland has more trails than roads. Lots of spectacular scenery.
•Go to the gym. There were a bunch of years where I worked out 3 to 4 hours three or four times a week.
•Play guitar. I got back into classical guitar first. Worked up some of my old repertoire (started playing when I was 15; did it in parallel with horn a lot); even gave some lessons. Then got a steel string guitar and started playing folk, then bluegrass. Wanted to learn to improvise. Got a Gibson 347 (like a 335, but with a brass bridge) semi-hollow body, started taking lessons. Then paired up with an English jazz guitarist who was way ahead of me. Learned a lot. Practiced a lot. Wrote tunes. Performed as a duo here and there. Got tendinitis. Bad. Now I maybe play classical guitar on Christmas morning (the simple pieces); can still get through a standard (with a Real Book) at a party, which doesn’t come up much. Still have about 7 guitars in closets. I wonder if they still have strings. Also a mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, and autoharp. All my percussion stuff is at school. Still would like to get a solid body guitar; the only kind I don’t have. Been thinking of getting either a Telecaster or one of those slick looking Schecters. The only problem is I actually have to start playing again for such a purchase to make any sense. Oh well. Some day, maybe.
•Read. This was the big thing right away. I had been in school a long time and hardly ever had read a book that wasn’t assigned. With every afternoon free, I could read whatever I wanted. I started reading and reading and reading. Up to four books a week. I would discover authors that I liked and mine them like a seam of coal. Or discover a topic and read many books on that. Heaven. Read read read. School was over. My education could finally begin…
One side product of the reading was thinking. I hadn’t thought much in a while. Just practice and memorized. The books made me think. So I started writing thoughts down (if for no other reason so that they didn’t keep me up at night). I like to write. Always have. Language is like a big sandbox for me. I love to play with words and ideas. The notebooks were a mix of ideas from books and ideas about music, about playing horn, about education. I kept these notebooks for some years and then stopped, more or less. I wish I still kept them; in a way I do; I just turn thoughts into blog posts or articles for the Horn Call these days.
Not too long ago, I ran across one of these old notebooks. Pages and pages of tiny writing on yellowed paper. Hard to read. So I typed some of it in the computer so that I could read it without getting a headache. Interesting stuff, some of it. I wrote a series of articles for the Brass Bulletin in the late ’70s; I can see the seeds of some of the articles in these random notes/thoughts that I set down. Below are some samples from back then (too many for one post; more later):
The kid has gotta try before he learns the rules – the spontaneous behavior must come first.
First you show the sailor how to take the torpedo apart, then later you teach him the theory (imagine if a kid’s intro to music was music theory – you start out playing – pure enjoyment). Theory later to refine goals. -> improvisation.
The problem of method (left brain) teaching of music (right brain). JPM’s [Jean-Pierre Mathez] book is good – it begins with improvisation.
Music is pure right brain, pure experience and this is a problem in an educational system like this in a society with these attitudes. The whole class is ranked strictly on reason; kids made to feel they are ‘better’ somehow than the lower numbers. Everyone is a number; common problem in society.
Identity is more of a number now – You can’t rent a car with MONEY – you need an ID and credit.
Recordings = Plato’s ideal world – perfect.
Imperfections in the real world – everything is imperfect and hence unique. Every student, every concert (Plato says this). Japanese idea of beauty: imperfection, ugliness, non-complete. Wabi-Sabi!
Concert goers in West pay money for the ideal.
Mistakes form a very small part of the performance of a master – but the mistakes or not are not the measure of his mastery.
The title of Milan Yancich’s book “A Practical Guide to the F. Hn” is more accurate, but on the other hand, Farkas’ book is part of a series of the “Art of ….” put out by Summy-Birchard and such a title does sound nobler…
The system tolerates.. .- but with a left brain emphasis on “good and immediate results” win, win, win! rather than the right brain doing while gradually working toward an inner goal.
Science takes apart, art restores the whole, “gets it all together.”
Experience is a whole, you always do everything at once when you play horn.
For practice in simulating concert ‘pressure’ – do it 10 times perfectly; start over for any mistake. Notice your body – does any pressure build up as you approach 10? If so, try again and count it as a miss is there is any tension (anticipation, desire of the outcome), PLUS being perfect technically.
Playing the whole piece consists of playing a lot of little things that we can already play as above.
Finally – your awareness is only of the musical ebb and flow – not of the horn, not of the audience, not of the desire to show off or the desire to achieve.
No horn, no paper and ink, no you – only the MUSIC.
As you ‘get into it’, more and more in this way, the fast (trouble) spots seem very clear – not just a blur of notes. Time seems to slow down and every detail is clear in your awareness. Enemy is impatience: too fast too soon, not enough repetitions. And if it is a blur, you can’t see the music, and you get afraid and tense.
With repetitions, you must abandon the idea that you can logically (pure left brain) select a number of times – only so you can move on – change change change! Listen to your body, your inner self. Once you give up desiring to move on, or ‘progress’, and are content just to repeat and repeat a passage until you have ‘many’ experiences of it technically perfect and tension-free – you have a chance to approach mastery.
And once you get this far, you will have no feeling (sensation) that you are playing it; rather that you are watching as it is being played.
It may drive the neighbors crazy to hear the same half phrase being played over 743 times in one afternoon (and all correctly!), but not you…
Q: But aren’t you then trying to reach in this way an Ideal just like Plato?
A: An Ideal is one frozen (*in the sense that we need models to direct our efforts in the right direction). But we must realize that our final result will never be just like the model and we can free our happiness from depending on the achieving of the model or comparison with the Ideal) something, as a recording. Our goal is to establish and retain an inner calm as we experience playing in an observed way that will lead to technical mastery. The result is that we will be free to allow the music to flow through us – as we, the horn, and the music become One. The audible result is not a frozen rendition, but one that is a little different every time – everything in the world and all of us are in the process of changing and becoming. No one can be just like anyone else – even remaining just the same ourselves. Anyone who feels the stress, the pressure of his position is no master, even if his technique is perfect (= Herseth story]. He is not forcing himself to reach and fit the single set ideal; he is aiming for something within himself that allows a masterful performance.
Brass players, especially horn players have a problem: they can’t play as long as finger instruments can. So if something is high e.g. takes a lot of lip; maybe you better spend the whole practice time on just it – with rests. It still needs repetition!
Brass players can save 80% of lip time by
1. Working out all finger problems away from the horn; or on B horn an octave lower.
2. Singing the piece until the phrasing is 2nd nature.
Trick: start crescendos later, end later. The reason the alps look higher than the Rockies is because they crescendo abruptly where the Rockies start up at the Missouri border.
The student must abandon all desires to progress. He must learn to sit comfortably at the level where he is until his diligent practice and constant repetition of things correctly one day suddenly makes a quantum leap forward. To progress, he must enjoy (and focus on) the playing and not the progressing.
Status. The ‘better numbers’ = ‘better people’ theme carries over into horn: better players = better people. Yikes.
In playing (passage, scale, arpeggios, high note, etc) it is far worse to lose your inner peace in missing a note than the missing itself. If you feel a reaction to either the right or wrong note, then you are saying that the measure of success for you is correct notes – so you can’t complain if the Unenlightened judge you this way. Obviously it is important to you….!
What is really important is what goes on inside you, not what anybody thinks.
Practice accuracy exercises – attacking single tones – at different metronome settings, to get used to coming in at different tempos and not being thrown by different breathing rhythms.
Excerpts and solos should be practiced in the last stages with the rests in tempo – the music in mind.
Record listening – fine for providing models, but one must remember that to sound exactly like that is a false goal. There are those who feel a failure at any imperfections and cannot enjoy anything they play or hear. Always apologizing, feeling that if they don’t show that they feel terrible about their performance with the small imperfections, that others will think that they value imperfection.
Performance begins with the first step on the stage and ends when the performer is out of sight (recordings begin only with the first note – they are not performances in the real sense. Now days they are not even ‘records’ because they are splices of the best parts of numerous takes.). Contemporary recordings are “records” of performances that never took place.
Measure of a teacher – not what he knows or has written or can play – but how well he can lead his students into genuine and correct experiences in their own horn playing.
In practicing, one can always practice ‘artistically’ – pick the smallest part of the phrase (1st note?) that you feel comfortable with and play it as a whole. Then go on to the second thing (2nd note? Always better to start with segments too small than too large). Play till comfortable – as a whole, then combine with first element and play that as a whole. Continue on until end, combining larger and larger units until the whole piece is secure. Then when it is time to perform, 1. every part will be secure 2. every part will not be seen as a part but as a part of the whole, and thus the mind and eye will not get hung up on anything as it flows past, even if a clam happens along.
Rather than trying to find excuses to ‘go on’ – keep trying to find excuses to go back and do it again, one more time, regardless of how many correct times.