(Photo credit: Iguanasan)

I tossed out a question last month (Dec. 11) and then never finished it. Let’s have another look. The original question was

“What is the best thing to play in those situations where you have only a very short time to warm-up, e.g. before you go on stage for a performance (recital, band, orchestra, chamber music) or for an audition, etc.?”

I got three thoughtful comments, from Nick W., Susan A., and Andy H.

A summary of what they said:

Nick: Flexibility (overtone) exercises. Low chromatic scale (get air going). Sip of water (nerve calming)

Susan: Stretches (gets rid of tension). Breathing exercise (ditto). Flexibility exercises or scale in the key of the work coming up. One beautiful long tone. Mental practice. Quote: “Mental focus, prior preparation, and good breathing/posture are essential for any hornist in a hurry.

Andy: Intense breathing “to re-connect my brain to the breathing.” [details of breathing exercise]. Low flexibility exercises. “Then I’m ready to go.”

I think everything they said is great advice. What I might add is this: before determining what to play (or not) in this situation, it’s useful to ask “What do I need?”

The answer (to me) has two components: mental and physical.

Mental is the toughest part. We practice and practice – scales, repertoire, excerpts, etc. But we rarely do much with mental preparation. After all, how do practice for being on stage (or in an audition, etc.) unless you’re on stage? We are then too often surprised when the mental part of playing breaks down to some degree in stressful situations (i.e. all performance to some degree). But how good could it be if we practice it too little? Reframing what it is we need might help a little. What we need is those situations is the ability to focus. We can develop this  if we practice it ((let me hear a loud chorus of Duhs!). How to do that? It’s pretty simple, actually: do one of the following on a regular basis: sit comfortably and quieting and put your attention on 1) your breathing or 2) a mellifluous word (e.g. “one”; “horn”; not: Gesamtkunstwerk, garbage can, etc.) or 3) an object (whole note, spot on the floor, candle, etc). You can’t suddenly start practicing focus on the day of the concert or audition any more than you can suddenly start to practice horn then and expect good results. It’s a long term process.

All three of our commenters included something for the head, i.e. ability to focus. What you do exactly can be different things, but it’s important that you do something to invoke the state of mind where you can be alert and focussed on what you are doing (horn or otherwise).

Physical: this means getting your lips ready to play. This part of it would do well to include 1) a check of the condition of the lips – how they are responding now, right now. That will depend a lot of what you did yesterday or earlier today. If you played a lot, your lips may be a bit stiff and slow to respond. You then can use that information to try to get your lips looser, to respond better: low range, flexibility (overtone series) exercises. You may have to add an extra level of dynamics when you start playing if you notice that your lips are not responding optimally. If you haven’t played much, you might have a very responsive embouchure – but without as much endurance as you would have with more playing. So if possible, take as many “breaks” – microrests – as you can when you play, and make sure your air support is as good as you can make it so that you are not tempted to add mouthpiece pressure too much or too soon, which will reduce your endurance even more.

After you determine the State of the Chops, you might want to do a little Calibration – what do you have to do to get from one note to another in various ranges. This is probably best done with overtone (flexibility) exercises more than valve exercises (e.g. scales) because your chops have to do all the work.

If you are a very experienced player, you are likely to know the state of your chops (you have orchestrated their condition to be in pretty good shape every day) with (very) little actual playing. Which means that you can focus almost entirely on the mental part of the process. Breathing. Focus. Alert relaxation of any tension.

A nice place to be.


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