Low Range in the Daily Routine: To Blast or Not to Blast?

In the past I generally avoided low register “blasting” in my warm-up and daily maintenance routine, but recently I’ve had some positive results using Denise Tryon’s routine. If you aren’t familiar with this one it is worth checking out. It’s a bit shorter than some other published materials, and covers all the basics in around thirty minutes.

Getting back to low note blasting, my previous experience was that too much of it early in the day made the high range feel unfocused. I still played over the full range of the horn in my daily routine, but left the extreme fortissimo exercises for later practice sessions. However, during a recent evaluation of my regular practice materials, I decided to incorporate some low, loud patterns back into my daily regimen. After two months of doing the exercise found in the Tryon Routine every day, here are a few of the benefits I’ve noticed:

  • It really gets the air moving. Breathing exercises are great, but playing as loud as possible (with a good sound) in the low range requires moving huge amounts of air. When done efficiently, it can help open up the rest of the range as well.
  • It helps loosen up stiff chops. I realize now that this should have been obvious, but old habits die hard, and I really had to give these exercises a chance to experience this particular benefit.
  • Flexibility and consistency in and out of the low range gets a lot easier. Passages that go across the break range (ex. opening of Ein Heldenleben) have become more fluid and dependable.

Needless to say, I’ve changed my thinking about low note blasting! However, I would offer a few caveats:

  • Avoid doing it first thing. I would recommend at least a few minutes of gentle, mid-range warming up before jumping into any kind of range or dynamic extremes.
  • Avoid distorting the embouchure. Looking back on it, I believe the problems I experienced with previous forays into this territory stemmed from over manipulating and/or distorting the lips.
  • If things aren’t working, change something. If, after trying a new variation/addition to your routine, you aren’t experiencing positive results, don’t be afraid to change. Make notes about what you notice, and keep looking for ways to be more efficient.

All right, time to go out there and get blasting!

 

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Changing Up the Practice Routine

For the last several years my practice routine has been more or less set:

  • 50-60 minutes of warm-up/maintenance routine, occasionally changing up my regular materials or switching out various exercises.
  • 20-25 minute (or longer) break
  • 50-60 minutes of practice immediately following, or later in the day depending on my schedule
  • Long Break (2-3 hours)
  • Optional shorter session (20-30 minutes) as necessary

This worked pretty well for years, though from time to time I would have some issues with rebuilding endurance after heavy programs or breaks. For a variety of reasons (age among them) I decided this semester to change things up and see what differences, if any, resulted. In short, I suspected that my initial routine was too long and strenuous first thing in the day, and despite having a good break before continuing with further practice, the long first session was tiring me out instead of building things up. This is hardly a new idea, and lots of great teachers and performers have noted this before. But as any dedicated musician knows, it’s tough to change up your normal routine, even if it is less than ideal for you. For many (me included), the routine is a security blanket, a place to find refuge during tough playing times. In the midst of preparing some difficult repertoire for performances this spring, something needed to change. Here’s my newly-modified practice schedule:

  • 25-30 minute warm-up/maintenance routine
  • 10 minute break
  • 25 minute session
  • 5 minute break
  • 25 minute session
  • 5 minute break
  • 25 minute session
  • Longer Break
  • 15 minute session

It’s the same amount of time as my old practice schedule, but with more frequent breaks earlier on. In addition, I’ve made some changes to my regular warm-up/maintenance exercises. They still cover all of the essentials, but are more progressive and don’t start out so strenuously. I’ve been very pleased with the results, and feel that this the right path for me going forward. My endurance and efficiency are improved, and just as important, my recovery time after heavy performances has decreased.

I have a follow-up post coming on this, but to close I would recommend as a summer project for any horn students to switch up both your routine and practice schedule. Plan things out, take notes on how things feel at certain points in the day, and experiment with the order and pacing of your practice day. Have fun!

Textbooks, OERs, and a Free Scale Book

The end of our spring semester and academic year is a good time to reflect, and this post will focus on a couple of things that should be of interest to college students and teachers. Last fall I joined a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) at my university, tasked with discussing and developing Open Educational Resources (OERs) for current and future courses. While I was already aware of OERs, this faculty group gave me the opportunity to delve into them in much greater detail, and discuss other pedagogical issues with colleagues from across campus. In addition to myself, the members included a diverse group of faculty from education, health sciences, history, political science, English, communications, chemistry, psychology, and mathematics. We ranged in experience from first-year Assistant Professors all the way to Full Professors with decades of teaching experience. Participation in this FLC was a year long commitment, with monthly meetings. It was a great experience, and I would recommend it to any university faculty who have the opportunity to participate in a group like this. *One perk that we did not know we would be receiving prior to joining was a new Samsung tablet, and a stipend(!)

One of the driving reasons behind the formation of this FLC is the rising cost of college textbooks. If you haven’t bought any yourself or paid for someone else’s lately, you are in for some severe sticker shock the next time you visit a college bookstore. There are several reasons for this high cost, but they are beyond the scope of this post, and were beyond the scope of our FLC. To sum things up, many college textbooks are far too expensive for students to reasonably afford, with the end result being that many simply do not buy them. As you can imagine, this impacts passing rates, retention, etc. While faculty have the academic freedom to choose the textbooks they feel will best fit their courses, it is important to at least consider the financial burden on students. This is where OERs come in. While music as a discipline is lucky when it comes to textbook costs – if you don’t believe me check the cost of an introductory biology book, for example – I was able to find and present on several great OERs for music. I have used many of them in the past, and in many cases they are as good or better than their paid (or higher cost) counterparts.

OERs aren’t the answer to everything, of course. Developing quality course materials is a time-consuming process, and the convenience of well-researched textbook and ancillary packages from big publishers can’t be underestimated. It is a thorny question, and our FLC did not come up with all the answers. However, we did our part to present the issues to other faculty in our respective departments, and discovered (and even created) some new OERs.

To finish out this post, I am including an OER developed a few years ago, a book of intermediate scale studies. My original thought was to publish this text at some point in the future, but I’ve decided to share it here as an OER, under a Creative Commons Attribution License.  Provided that you give appropriate attribution, you are free to do the following:

  • Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format

  • Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.

You may already have developed something similar for use in your own studio, but if you are looking for something or simply want a change from your current materials feel free to check it out! DOWNLOAD HERE: Intermediate Scale Studies for Horn

Here is a list of other free (or low cost) OERs for music. There are of course many more, but these are the ones I use on a regular basis.

Naxos Music Library *Free access if your university has a subscription.

SmartMusic *Student subscription ranges from $4 to $12/year

Sight Reading Factory *Student subscription as low as $2/year

Horn Matters *Free

Hornexcerpts.org *Free

IMSLP *Free

 

Horn Pedagogy Videos and More from Eli Epstein

Renowned horn pedagogue and performer Eli Epstein has a posted a  new video on Breathing and Breath Support to his YouTube Channel. Mr. Epstein gives a concise, yet detailed and anatomically correct, explanation of breathing, and also demonstrates how to put these concepts into practice. Before further discussion, you should watch the video!

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, Mr. Epstein’s approach to the horn is relaxed, methodical, and overwhelmingly positive, which makes for a very effective teacher. One especially unique element is the use of a chair to engage the same muscles used in breath support. Mr. Epstein expertly demonstrates by playing Mendelssohn’s Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, accompanied by a silhouette and animated meter showing varying levels of breath support There is a lot of information packed into this six and half-minute video, so it should be viewed multiple times if possible.

If you like this video and find it useful, be sure to check out his other videos on Relaxation Before Performance and Radical Practicing. The relaxation video comes at a very fortuitous time, as many of us in the education field are approaching the end of our academic year. If you find yourself getting tense and more stressed than usual, take five minutes to listen to this video. You’ll feel more relaxed afterwards.

In Radical Practicing, Mr. Epstein discusses and demonstrates the importance of varied repetition as the pathway to learning new material. When we repeat material over and over in exactly the same way, we become bored, even if we continue making the same mistake. Varying our repetitions to target specific elements of a passage is a much more effective way to learn and retain. On a personal note, this concept played a huge role in the development of my etude book Solo Training for Horn.

If juries, final exams, and other end-of-term tasks are starting to stress you out, take a break and view the above videos. It will be time well spent!

Performing from a Tablet

I took the plunge recently and performed from a tablet. Overall, the experience was very positive, and I thought it might be worth sharing some thoughts. I’ve noticed my colleagues and others using tablets for the past several years, and while I understood the benefits – convenience, organization, etc. –  I just didn’t have a compelling reason (until now) to make the switch from paper.

The impetus was an upcoming performance of Dana Wilson’s song cycle for soprano, horn, and piano, Love Me Like a Beautiful Dream. After preparing the horn part individually I realized in rehearsals that my performance would benefit from using a full score, which I’ve done many times in the past, especially with new music. However, the page turns were so fast and frequent that it proved difficult to do so with a paper part. After considering a few other options, such as reducing the part and attaching the pages to a large board (percussionists do this frequently), I decided to explore the tablet option. Here’s the equipment I used:

  • Tablet – Galaxy Tab A 10.1 with S Pen 16GB (Wi-Fi)I already had this model in my possession, courtesy of a program from my university. While not a top of the line tablet, it was more than adequate for my needs. Its 10.1 inch screen makes it one of the larger tablets out there, without getting into significantly higher-priced iPad Pro territory.
  • Footpedal – PageFlip ButterflyNot the priciest model, but a reputable brand with lots of good reviews. The bluetooth connection is strong and dependable, and setup is very easy.
  • Operating System and Sheet Music Software – Android OS and MobileSheets Pro I had to do a bit of searching to find a suitable music reader for Android, as the most popular app, forScore, is only available for iOS. I wanted an easy-to-use app that would allow me to make and save annotations using my tablet’s stylus. After trying the free version of MobileSheets, I upgraded to the paid version.

First, the positives:

  • The performance went very well, with no malfunctions or user-error with the tablet, footpedal, or software.
  • Page turns with the footpedal were easy and seamless.
  • Annotations in the score were easy to make and save using MobileSheets. The zoom feature allowed for precise markings.
  • Backlit screen means no worries about lighting.
  • Don’t have to worry about loose pages getting out of order.
  • Easy to organize and transport hundreds of works – anything in PDF format can be imported, and the software’s import and organize features are user-friendly. I can easily see myself using my tablet in lieu of a stack of books and solos, especially on vacation.

And now, some drawbacks:

  • Coordinating the footpedal for fast page turns took some practice, especially when standing. By the time of the performance I felt pretty comfortable with it, but in order to have my right foot poised and ready to tap the pedal, I ended up putting more weight on my left foot. This created some fatigue that I don’t normally experience when standing. Using the footpedal while seated avoids this issue though.
  • Despite the screen being larger than many tablets (with the exception of the iPad Pro), I still found the display a little smaller than I was used to seeing with printed music. You can zoom in, but then the entire sheet does not fit on the display. A tablet with a larger display is an option, but not one I’m willing to consider at this point.
  • While I didn’t experience any issues with this, I would stress the importance of making sure your tablet and footpedal are fully charged before a performance, and that all alerts are turned off. *Bluetooth must still be enabled in order to connect to the footpedal though, and set your display not to automatically sleep.

Though I haven’t decided to scan and import all of my sheet music and books to a tablet, I have been using it frequently for works that are already in PDF format. This list is continues to grow, and I foresee myself using a tablet more frequently in the future.

Brass Pedagogy Interview Questions

Earlier this semester I was contacted by David Mercedes, a doctoral tuba student at the University of Iowa, with several interview questions for his Advanced Brass Pedagogy course with Professor Jeffrey Agrell. David had some very insightful questions, and I have shared these (and my candid responses) below, with David’s permission. The questions are similar, though not exactly the same, as those posted by John Ericson at Horn Matters. I assume both projects are for the same pedagogy class – BRAVO to David Mercedes, Professor Agrell, and the rest of the Advanced Brass Pedagogy class on a fantastic project!

During your years of collegiate teaching, what do you think you have brought to your studios that has been most valuable to them?

I think I’ve brought a variety of professional experiences as well as enthusiasm and passion for what I do.

What is the best way you motivate your students?

Leading by example! I never ask students to do anything I don’t already do or have done in the past. I try to be as excited as I can about whatever it is that they/we/I are doing, with the hope that my excitement is contagious. Attitudes are contagious, and having a positive attitude is one of the most important attributes you can bring to your teaching.

How do you work with students who don’t seem to be motivated, and are complacent with not progressing as a musician?

I try to find something that they are interested in, whatever that may be, and use that as a conversation starter. Students almost always have something they are passionate about, and I try to help them transfer some of that passion to their musical studies. I ask them to provide both long and short-term goals, and we use that as a basis for materials and strategies covered in lessons.

What are some of your recruiting strategies?

Recruiting has been and continues to be a major component of my current position. Here is a short list:

  • Regular visits to local schools
  • Recruiting tours with other brass faculty
  • Develop a robust, professional online identity through website, social media, YouTube videos, etc.
  • Email, hand-written letters to prospective students
  • Annual on-campus recruiting events (Brass Day, Horn Day, etc.)
  • Building relationships with local music educators

How strict is your personal practice plan? What makes you stick to it, and how often do you change it?

I’m fairly regimented in this area, although age and experience have taught me to be more flexible. I strive for 2 hours of focused practice throughout a work day, unless rehearsals, performances, or other obligations prevent it. I enjoy practicing and learning new repertoire, and that’s what keeps me motivated. I am almost always planning a future program in my mind and thinking over repertoire choices.

How did you go about getting invited to perform at festivals, conferences and other institutions?

Persistence – keep applying for as many of them as you can and eventually your proposals will be accepted. Ask for feedback on your proposals from others who have been successful in applying for those festivals/conferences. Cultivate relationships with people in and out of your field – you never know when those relationships may bear fruit. Be a GOOD PERSON.

What advice would you have for someone who is looking to follow a career path like yours?

Stay interested in what you do, and stay positive. Figure out what it is that you do well, and continue to improve on those things. You can’t do everything, and no one expects you to. Seek out others who are doing the same kinds of things you are and ask them questions about their success, failure, etc. Be honest with yourself and your capabilities – this is very important in avoiding burnout. Try to avoid over-committing yourself. Be especially careful in how you represent yourself on social media. This is incredibly important today.

What is a typical day like for you?

It really varies depending on my teaching and performing schedule. I almost always start the day with some meditation and breathing exercises, followed by a warm-up/maintenance routine. I feel like if I can get that part completed early in the day then I am well-prepared for whatever challenges come my way.

What is the on – campus interview like?

Varies depending on the position and duties, but here are some general components.

  • One or more meetings/meals with the search committee
  • Exit meeting with search committee
  • Q&A with faculty/students
  • Meetings with various administrators
  • Master class and teaching demonstration
  • Rehearsal with collaborative pianist and a recital performance, hopefully not on the same day.
  • Reading session with faculty ensembles (if applicable)

These can be stressful, and you should make sure you take time throughout the day or days that you are there to relax and have a little time to yourself. Remember that from the time you are picked up at the airport until the time you leave that you are being interviewed. The members of the search committee will probably be very relaxed and social with you and each other, which is a good thing, but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security about your words and actions. Always represent yourself as positively as possible!

What do you think has been your biggest challenge as a musician?

Balancing the physical demands of playing with achieving musical goals. I tend to be an analytical player, which is helpful as a teacher and performer, but can sometimes get in the way.

Upcoming Concert: Black Bayou Brass

This Wednesday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m., Black Bayou Brass presents our annual faculty recital. As always, it will be a fun, challenging evening of music for the ensemble. I’ve included a program below, with links to recordings (where available). We’ve performed the Ewazen, Frackenpohl, and Debussy frequently, but the Trio by Mark Wolfram, selections from Voyage, Op. 27 by Robert Muczynski, and Triga by Frigyes Hidas are all new to our performing repertoire. Everything but the Debussy is an original work for brass trio. These are all very solid compositions, and if you are looking for some new brass trio rep for yourself or your students, consider checking out the Wolfram and Hidas especially. The V3NTO Brass Trio has an excellent recording of the Hidas available on CD Baby, and I highly recommend it. It’s also noteworthy that the Wolfram Trio was the First Prize Winner in the Brass Trio category of the International Horn Society’s 1989 Composition Contest. Though brief, it’s a wonderful work, full of contrasts and exciting lines for all three parts.

If you’d like to hear more about these works (and hear them performed) come out to our recital on Wednesday at 7:30!

A Philharmonic Fanfare Eric Ewazen (b. 1954)

 

Brass Trio (1966) Arthur Frackenpohl (b. 1924)


The Girl with the Flaxen Hair Claude Debussy (1862-1918)  arr. Christian A. Eriksen

Brass Trio (1988) Mark E. Wolfram (b. 1955)

 

Voyage for Brass Trio, Op. 27 Robert Muczynski (1929-2010)

Triga Frigyes Hidas (1928-2007) *Samples available here.

 

Review: Recipe for Success by Karen Houghton and Janet B. Nye

At our annual Brass Day event back in February, Karen Houghton and Janet B. Nye from Houghton Horns were our exhibitors and also guest presenters. While here, they gave a preview of their upcoming TMEA presentation, “Revealing the Secrets of Teaching Horn,” which was based on materials from their forthcoming method book, Recipe for Successs: A Balanced Curriculum for Young Horn Players. They were generous enough to give me an advance draft, which I’ve really enjoyed reading through and using with some of my students. Both authors have decades of practical experience as teachers and performers, and have worked with many successful young players. Recipe for Success is designed to take a player from beginner through the first 3-5 years, although the fundamentals presented are as applicable to advanced students and professionals as they are to young players. The dietary/cooking theme is fun, and makes a lot of sense when paired with musical education. This is a theme that should resonate with many age groups and levels of playing. Here’s an overview of the book’s contents and general organization.

Recipe for Success is organized into broad categories, which deal with essential components of good brass playing. Each Unit has a list of objectives, which should be very helpful for teachers of beginners, especially if horn isn’t their primary instrument. Units are divided into three levels of difficulty (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and are paired with a basic food group (Dairy, Fruit and Vegetables, Meat, Grains, Dessert). The authors note that students should work through all of the categories (i.e. food groups) at the same level (1, 2, or 3) with the guidance of a teacher. A sample study plan is included to help get students and their teachers started. The chapters and topics are as follows:

    • Appetizers – Addresses parts of the horn, holding the horn, basic maintenance, right hand position, posture, embouchure, and tuning.
    • Getting started – Covers breathing, buzzing, first notes, pitch ID, and horn vs concert pitch.
    • Breathing and Tone (Dairy)
    • Range and Flexibility (Fruit and Vegetables)
    • Technique (Meat)
    • Music (Grains)
    • Just for Fun (Dessert) *Contains duets from the classical repertory, holiday tunes, compositions by students ranging in age from 12-17, tunes for solo horn and piano, and even a Mad Lib style activity related to music.
    • Additional Resources
      • practice planning
      • theory basics
      • rhythm practice *Including some excellent word rhythms beneficial for students with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning differences. This material is based on research by Drs. Benjamin and Sara Raviotta. For more information on this topic, refer to Dr. Benjamin Raviotta’s dissertation as well as their two-part article, “ADHD and Dyslexia: Learning Differences in the Private Studio,” in the February and May 2018 issues of The Horn Call.
      • bass clef introduction
      • muting/stopping
      • FAQ for band/orchestra directors
      • Glossary
      • Index
      • Fingering Chart
      • Sample Menu (practice log)

The design and overall approach of the book is light-hearted and fun, but the content is of the highest quality. This a comprehensive beginning to intermediate horn method for the 21st century, taking into account both traditional approaches as well as new information and research (ex. working with diverse learning styles, etc.) While some educators may hold differing opinions on minor points in Recipe for Success, there is hardly anything I would consider controversial. The spiral binding, quality printing and sturdy construction will stand up to multiple years of use. It is reasonably priced at $24.95, especially considering the large amount of material contained within (my draft copy comes in at 246 pages). For more information and to pre-order your copy, visit the Houghton Horns website, and the Houghton Horns Facebook page for a brief video introduction. Bravo to Karen and Janet on this fantastic resource!

Upcoming Performance: Crystal Kaleidoscope for Horn and Vibraphone by Ken Davies

IMG_20190320_141315964In addition to the Dana Wilson song cycle performance mentioned in my earlier post, I’ll be performing another brand new work in April at the Society of Composers, Inc. Region VI Conference at Texas A&M University—Commerce. The composition is by Ken Davies, and is entitled Crystal Kaleidoscope for horn and vibraphone. My colleague Mel Mobley and I commissioned it with assistance from the International Horn Society’s Meir Rimon Commissioning Assistance Fund. This is a fantastic initiative by the IHS, and well worth applying for and supporting! As of this writing, the fund is on hiatus from January 2019 through December 2019. Be on the lookout, however, for future funding opportunities.

Getting back to Crystal Kaleidoscope, Ken Davies is a very fine composer, and the works I’ve performed by him have been interesting and rewarding to play. The horn and vibraphone combination is pretty unique, and there are only a handful of other works in the repertoire for horn and mallet percussion, let alone this specific instrumentation. The first one that comes to mind is HornVibes: Three Duos for Horn and Vibraphone, by Verne Reynolds. For more information on this and other works for horn and mallet percussion, refer to Dr. Casey N. Maltese’s A Performance Guide of Selected Works for Horn and Mallet Percussion, D.M.A dissertation, the University of Miami, 2011. In my estimation, Crystal Kaleidoscope holds up very well when compared to the Reynolds, though it is quite different. Here is the composer’s note:

Look into the kaleidoscope. See the variously shaped colored crystals, their reflections producing continuous changing patterns. Each crystal has a unique structure, shape, and color—its own symmetrical, ordered, three-dimensional aggregation of atoms or molecules.

As the title suggests, this work is based on “crystals.” Though the sectional sub-titles may be whimsically named for gemstones, the musical crystals are pitch sets consisting of a few notes which are spun out into transformed patterns of melodic and harmonic variety. While the theorist/musicologist may want to delve into set analysis, I hope that others may simply enjoy the aural ride along the surface, letting the notes, chords, and timbres provide a worthy repeatable listening experience.

The writing is fun and challenging, but not unreasonably so, with lots of rhythmic and melodic interplay between horn and vibraphone. As the composer implies in his preface, there are some complex compositional operations at work, but the melodies and timbres are interesting enough in and of themselves without deep analysis. As I’ve found in other works by him, Ken likes to throw in periodic references to other styles such as funk and jazz. For instance, this short line for the horn in the final movement, “Crystal Collage,” has a pretty fun groove to it. Tempo is quarter note=92-104 or faster.

Davies Excerpt

If this post has piqued your interest in the music of Ken Davies, take a look at his website for a complete list of his many works. Here is a short list of works with horn, taken from his website.

  • Brain Fantasies for horn and two-channel audio
  • Sensuous Images for horn and pre-recorded soundscape
  • Waterscape for horn and digital media
  • Loose Connections – horn alone
  • Three Roads Diverged – brass trio – tpt, hrn, tbn
  • Concert Piece for Brass Quintet and Organ
  • Bayou Sketches – soprano, French horn, piano
  • Veiled Places for Woodwind Quintet

Brass Trio Configurations Poll

Black Bayou Brass spent part of our Mardi Gras break experimenting with some different stage setups for brass trio. Based on these brief video excerpts from Triga by Hidas, which one do you like the best?

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