The Alchemy of Synergy, Part I
23 Monday Nov 2009
The title of this post is taken from a book by creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson entitled: The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. I’m about half way through and am enjoying his insights very much. I’m in Chapter Five, “Finding Your Tribe,” which is about finding the group of people to hang out with who are passionate about the same things you are, which will enable you to go much farther than if you were in isolation. This rang something of a bell with me since at a critical junction in college, I decided that I was really much more at home with musicians than chemists. Although I had and still have an interest in science (Discover magazine is usually my choice of airport magazines), at that time I choose to go after this music thing and see what might come of it. To cut to the chase, with a lot of work and even more luck, it all worked out.
But this post isn’t about seeking the tribe or the vocation. It’s about the idea of working with another like-minded person so that you each make each other better, challenge each other, mentor each other. As musicians we are accustomed to a lighthouse keeper style existence for much of the time working long and hard alone in a practice room. There is no way around a whole lot of that, but at the same time we should not overlook the great capacity for increasing both learning and fun when we work á deux.
First of all, it simply feels good to be with someone else who is as passionate about horn playing as you are. That Significant Other might be supportive and sympathetic, but unless they’re one too, it’s not the same. It helps your attitude to have someone else be there and understand your obsession. You can hang out with this person (or persons – it could be a Tribe, too), and have great conversations about all the details and minutiae of the domain (the Realm of Horn Playing) – players, equipment, history, recordings, literature, teaching, on and on. You can listen to recordings together and trade oohs and aahs over great solo playing and orchestral excerpts. You can play Trivial Horn Pursuit and see if you can stump each other.
A great help in achieving mastery is getting feedback. You get this from your teacher, but you only see your teacher an hour a week. Not much! Not enough! You can and should get your own feedback from recording practice and analyzing the results. But nothing is better than a live coach right there, who listens and suggests. So enlist your playing partner to do regular weekly sessions of coaching/mentoring. You will learn much more quickly than by yourself.
Another way for the two of you to enjoy the synergy of collaborative effort is duets. Make a point of buying duet books regularly, and have your playing partner buy them too; if possible, coordinate efforts so that they buy different duet books than you buy. You can both hone your sight-reading abilities playing duet after duet in many different styles. Transposition is a sine qua non for horn players, but – let’s face it – is not the most exciting thing to practice on your own. But with your playing partner it becomes fun. One afternoon of concentrated effort and you both will be among the 1% of hornist in the country who are comfortable sight-reading horn in B natural!
Two players working together can advance their knowledge and know-how much farther than either could alone. As Stephen Nachmanovitch in his landmark book on improvisation Free Play says:
One advantage of collaboration is that it’s much easier to learn from someone else than from yourself. And inertia, which is often a major block in solitary work, hardly exists at all here: you release each other’s energy. Learning becomes many-sided, a refreshing and vitalizing force.
There are a ton of duet books out there. To mention a few:
Bipperies (Shaw) – 2 Vol.
Odd Meter Duets (Gates)
Otto Nicolai duets
Barboteu “4 Duos”
Contemporary Rhythm & Meter Duets (Del Borgo)
12 Duets (Mozart)
20 Duets (Duvernoy)
30 Duets (Kling)
Five Canons (Bernard Heiden)
60 Selected Duets (L.A. Horn Club – publ. Southern)
Six Sonatas for 2 horns (Schenk – transcr. Reynolds)
Amsden’s Celebrated Practice Duets
Fiddle Tunes for 2 horns (arr. Agrell)
Selected Duets for French Horn Vol. 1 (Voxman)
Selected Duets for French Horn Vol. II (Voxman)
Six Canonic Sonatas – (Telemann, arr. Shaw)
Ten Pieces for Two Horns (Hill)
22 Duets (Wilder)
Don’t forget that although there are many collections of horn duets on the market, you can also profit by stealing duets from other instruments: give your bass clef a workout by getting books of duets for bassoons, trombones, tubas (old bass clef!). Or work on your high range with trumpet duets. Vocal duets can also be a great source of material. Get books of duets in many different styles.
You also don’t have to be limited to just horn/horn duets. There are fewer choices, but there are also books for horn plus one other instrument out there. Go for it!
In any case, find a playing partner and dive into the great enjoyment and deep pool of benefits from working regularly with another horn player (or other instrument).