Brief Review: Audrey Flores, Solo Horn Recording

This summer I was contacted by Audrey Flores, an active freelancer in New York City, with information about her recent solo recording with pianist Manon Hutton-DeWys. The self-titled album consists largely of standard 20th-century works, with the addition of a lesser-known but equally substantial piece, Barbara York’s Sonata for Horn and Piano. Here’s a complete list of the contents.

  • Reinhold Gliere, Four Pieces, Op. 35
  • Bernhard Krol, Laudatio
  • Barbara York, Sonata for Horn
  • Otto Ketting, Intrada
  • Trygve Madsen, Sonata for Horn, Op. 24

These are solid recordings of repertoire that every serious horn player needs to know, and Flores and Hutton-DeWys play with great style, tone, and phrasing. Even if you own other recordings, these are definitely worth a listen. The real gem on this album, though, is the Sonata by Barbara York. Composed in 2009 for Chief Musician Heather Doughty of the U.S. Coast Guard Band, this three-movement work is both lyrical and athletic, requiring plenty of technique, endurance, and flexibility. The third movement is given an especially impressive rendition by Flores, in what may very well be a world premiere recording. But don’t take my word for it – you can listen to the entire album on both Spotify and  YouTube. I love learning about new repertoire for the horn, and I’ll be adding the York Sonata to my list of recital program material for the near future. It’s worth noting that York has another work for horn and piano, the Arioso Gloria.

Bravo to Ms. Flores and her collaborators on this fine recording!

 

Brief Review: Horn Technique by Jeffrey Agrell

During the summer I tend to take a break from reading horn-related books and articles, reading more science fiction and other types of “for-pleasure” stuff than I do during the academic year. This summer, though, I made it a point to dive into Professor Jeffrey Agrell’s magnum opus, Horn Technique: A New Approach to an Old Instrument. As John Ericson noted in his review on Horn Matters, a “brief” review of this nearly 500-page tome is next to impossible. But…if I could offer only two words about Professor Agrell’s new book, they would be “buy it!” You won’t find a more thoughtful, comprehensive, top-to-bottom, nuts and bolts discussion of horn playing anywhere. In a holistic yet meticulously detailed way, Agrell addresses not only horn playing, but overall musicianship as well. While many of the chapters cover traditional material – warming up, practice strategies, fingering, etc. – Agrell’s approach is always fresh and full of unique ways to tackle familiar problems. Jeff loves to challenge our (mis)conceptions, and brings to bear decades of teaching and performing experience. In some ways, though, the title is misleading, as Horn Technique is much more ambitious in its scope. Agrell proposes a reboot of the traditional way we approach music education. Instead of obsessing about note names and fingerings as beginners, we ought to learn music the way babies learn spoken language – through imitation, improvisation, and memorization of brief patterns which can be built upon later. Only once those basics are mastered should notation be introduced.

Stepping back a bit, here are some of the big themes I took away from Horn Technique. There are certainly more, but these are the ones that jumped out to me.

  • Horn (and all brass) players need to have a detailed working knowledge of the overtone (harmonic) series. We need to know the overtone series number and intonation tendency for every note on the horn – Agrell calls this “horn math.”
  • Warm-ups and practice sessions should begin without using the valves (all overtone series) and then progress to using the valves. Historically, the horn developed this way, and it makes sense from a physical perspective as well. Many of the exercises in Horn Technique begin without valves and add valves later.
  • We need to know how to apply our knowledge of music theory to create real-world practice strategies. Agrell walks the reader through this approach, showing us first how to identify and analyze patterns, and then to create our own custom exercises based on those patterns.
  • Less Notes, More Music. One of the big principles in Horn Technique is that we spend entirely too much time with our heads buried in a music stand. Agrell advocates for more notation-free practice. Related to this, Agrell is also a big proponent of performing from memory.
  • Question Everything! At the heart of this book is the idea of questioning traditional approaches to horn playing. There is of course much to be learned from the great players and teachers of the past, but Agrell asks that we be willing to consider alternative methods along with traditional ones.

Although I’ve read the entire book cover to cover, I’ve only just begun to dig into Horn Technique. The principles and exercises in it will keep both my students and me occupied for some time. And at $19.99 for the hard copy, this is an incredibly affordable text.

Summer Project: Solo and Chamber Music Repertoire List

One long-postponed project I began this summer was to create an annotated list of the solo and chamber music pieces I’ve performed over the last 20 years. I should have begun this project years ago, but my memory has generally been good enough to keep track of most of the details about my performances. Additionally, most of the information is preserved in the form of old programs in either electronic or hard copy format. I always told myself if I really wanted to know the last time I performed a work I could dig back through my files and find out. This is of course easier in theory than in practice, and the benefits of having all the info in a central place outweigh the time and effort it has taken to put it together.  It’s nothing fancy, just a Google doc that I can update as new works are added. It contains the following fields:

  • Composer
  • Title
  • Instrumentation
  • Year Performed

In the “Year Performed” field I’m also making a note if the work was performed at a conference and/or was commissioned by me. Here’s a small screenshot showing the first few entries. (If you would like to see the complete list please email me and I would be glad to send you a copy).

While I do have access to the majority of my solo and chamber music programs, the list is not complete, for a variety of reasons.

  • There are some works that I know I’ve performed, but don’t have documentation to prove it or to provide the year. These include works performed for studio and/or master classes, works performed on tours, and other situations where a printed program was not produced. I’m debating what to do about these works; perhaps I’ll just put the info down and give my best guess as to the year.
  • In most cases I did not include arrangements or occasional works like Christmas and other holiday selections. To keep the list to a manageable size I needed to draw the line somewhere. One exception to this is arrangements which are major works in the repertoire, like Robert King’s brass trio arrangement of the Beethoven Trio, Op. 87 for example.

If you don’t already have a list like this, I strongly recommend starting one, regardless of your level. It’s very easy to set up, and the information will come in handy for future recital programming and other endeavors. Trust me, the longer you wait, the more difficult the task will be!

Cannon Music Camp Wrap-Up

Photo by Justin McCrary

Photo by Justin McCrary

I just finished up three weeks of teaching at Cannon Music Camp, held on the campus of Appalachian State University, my undergraduate alma mater. I last taught at Cannon in 2012, and was a camper myself  during the summers of 1995 and 1996. As before, it was a great pleasure to return to the Appalachian campus for a few weeks to work with several high school students. I even got to take a trip down memory lane by performing Bujanovsky’s España on one of the faculty recitals. *I performed that work on my senior recital at Appalachian on the same stage nearly 16 years earlier. My duties there included teaching the horn studio, conducting a twice-weekly horn ensemble, and coaching the orchestra brass in a weekly sectional. The schedule kept me pretty busy for the duration of the camp, but I also found time to visit with family and friends who live just a few minutes away from campus. All in all it was a wonderful “working vacation.” Coming right on the heels of a new music festival, an international conference, and a recording project, this resulted in  several back to back weeks of rehearsals and performances. In short, I’m definitely in need of some down time! But first, here are some summary thoughts about this year’s Cannon Music Camp, based on my experiences working with the horn students there.

  • There are lots of good horn players of all ages out there! My students ranged in age from rising high school freshman to rising college freshman. There was a wide spectrum of experience and ability levels in the studio, and everyone really did play well for where they were in their musical education. What I was most pleased to see was improvement across the studio in just three short weeks.
  • A Few “Musts” for the Serious High School Horn Student While there are lots of things young horn players can be doing to set themselves up for success, in our lessons at camp we kept coming back to a few major points:
    • Study Privately with a Qualified Horn Teacher – The definition of qualified is open to interpretation, but if possible I recommend studying with someone who has at least an undergraduate degree in horn (either music education or music performance). A professional player or college professor is even better, provided that they have space in their studio for high school students.
    • Find and Establish a Daily Routine – One of my first questions to new students, regardless of their level, is what type of daily practice/maintenance routine(s) they use. I’m not looking for a specific book or author to be named – there are many great materials available – but rather an indication that the student practices fundamentals of some kind each day. If not, then I make recommendations based on the student’s goals and current ability. You want to find something that can be realistically practiced most if not every day, and that builds confidence in your current abilities as well as challenges you and encourages growth. For a short list of recommended routines, see here. In short, if you are serious about getting better at the horn, start practicing your fundamentals now.
    • Get a Good (Better) Mouthpiece – One of the easiest upgrades you can make is a better mouthpiece. Not that there is anything wrong with the ubiquitous Holton, Conn, and other products one finds in many high school bands, but for the serious student there are lots of other options available. Consult with a private teacher or simply search the web for recommended horn mouthpieces to get some ideas. This summer I ended up directing students towards Laskey and Houser mouthpieces, primarily the 75G or 75F and the Houser Houghton line.
    • Learn Bass Clef! – This might seem inconsequential in comparison with the above points, but knowing bass clef will really set you apart from a lot of high school players, even very accomplished ones. The reason is pretty simple – good players tend to spend most of their time playing high parts (usually first), and thus spend little time performing or practicing in the low range. In addition, many high school players rarely have the opportunity to play in a horn quartet or horn ensemble – the low parts in these groups use bass clef extensively. If you don’t know bass clef yet, spend a few weeks this summer working it out. You’ll be glad you did! If you don’t know where to start I highly recommend Marvin McCoy’s 46 Progressive Exercises for Low Horn, available as a digital download from McCoy’s Horn Library. 

Teaching at this year’s Cannon Music Camp was a great experience, due largely to efforts of the camp administration and staff. Everything ran very smoothly, making for a great working environment. I hope to teach there again in the future!

 

A Visit to Gebr. Alexander with Andrew Downing, Part 2

This is the 2nd of a two-part interview with Andrew Downing about his recent visit to the Alexander showroom in Mainz, Germany to hand pick a new Alexander horn. You can read Part 1 here.

JB: What did you play for your trial on each horn?

AD: I brought a folder of my favorite music that I thought would give me the best representation of my playing. I didn’t bring music that was intentionally flashy but brought things that would demonstrate a high quality of tone, intonation, and articulation. I used the Gliere Concerto as my core demonstration piece as I feel each of the movements are really excellent for demonstration purposes and cover the whole range of the horn. I also brought a few low Kling etudes and a few melodic excerpts from the Brahms and Mahler symphonies.

JB: Besides the consultant, who else was in the showroom with you? Did you feel comfortable playing in the room and for the consultant?

AD: The appointment times for their showroom were strict – each player (or players if travelling together) are seen one at a time for a four hour window. If they exceeded their time, they would be asked to leave and wait until the next client had made their selection. The staff at Alexander works regularly with some of the finest players on earth and they seem intent on giving you privacy unless feedback is requested. My appointment began promptly at 1pm and Reimund began my visit with a walk through their facility. Prior to my appointment time a pair of professional hornists from Italy had not yet made their selections and were forced to leave and wait until I finished! They found a local coffee shop to pass the time and patiently waited for me to finish selecting my instrument. When I began my trials my wife and brother were invited to join me in the showroom. They were given coffee and chocolates to enjoy while I tried the horns – I was jealous! Both are professional horn players and their input was very helpful. My trial experience there was incredibly enjoyable and relaxing overall.

JB: What kinds of feedback did the Alexander consultant provide? Did you find it helpful in making your final decision?

AD: Periodically Reimund would enter the demo space and ask if I wanted feedback. He would turn his back to me and listen to what I would play. When I would finish a passage he would ask me first what I liked or didn’t like and then share his opinion. I ultimately found that we both have different sound preferences – I was seeking a balanced sound that had a certain weight to it and he preferred a brighter sound with pronounced overtones. Ultimately the 1103 has a slightly larger bell and more open wrap that gives the horn the heft that I was looking for. It’s interesting that very few of these models make it to North America as I found it has a nice blend of the Alexander “zing” but is much more closely in line with current trends in American horn design and sound.

JB: Were you surprised by any particular model of horn? In other words, did you have any preconceptions that were disproven?

AD: I had one very common preconception justified through this experience: that many Alexanders of the same model will play very differently. This is common in many other manufacturers of brass instruments so it should come as little surprise. I was really taken by how each horn I tried had a special trait or two but might be limited in another. Ultimately the horn I chose had the best balance of all the characteristics I was seeking. If you are in the market for a new Alexander I would strongly recommend travelling to their workshop or a horn convention to select one. The feel of each was quite different! Alexanders are often generalized as having poor response in the low register but I was really impressed with the brilliance many could make down there. Alexander horns now seem to make a very exciting low sound and many hornists who watch the Berlin Philharmonic on the digital concert hall should find this as no surprise. I have since used my horn for a heavy low horn job and found it no trouble at all.

JB: What horn did you end up choosing? Were you able to take it home right away?

AD: I settled on an un-lacquered yellow brass 1103 with a spun bell. All the horns I tried came with a detachable bell so if someone was seeking a fixed bell option they should communicate that well ahead of time. Alexander does not provide a case but there were a wide assortment of horn cases to select from. Once I made my selection I was given a tour of the manufacturing side and was able to see where the horn was built. I found the freezing process of their bell tails particularly interesting: they fill their unbent spun bell tails with water and freeze them below zero. When bending it give the metal a very consistent shape and it also very eco-friendly. There is an excellent video of this bending process as part of a documentary on making a 103 on YouTube I would highly recommend. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XD3_c05JqNo&t] Here it would stay for two weeks to be finished while I spent time while with my family.

JB: Any other thoughts you would like to share about this experience?

AD: Mouthpiece, mouthpiece, mouthpiece. I should have thought ahead but realized once I began the trials that the leadpipe would not fit my American shank mouthpiece. If you have an American shank and are in the market for a german horn I would highly recommend reading John Ericson’s article regarding the impact of different leadpipe tapers. [http://hornmatters.com/2010/05/european-shank-mouthpieces/] I tried all the horns on a Yamaha 32C4 (my standard mouthpiece for years) but after some trial and error have since settled on a Tilz McWilliam 1 that was specifically designed for an Alexander. In retrospect I would have enjoyed going over with a European shank mouthpiece I was comfortable on. Alexander has a cabinet with hundreds of mouthpieces on site but time is valuable and trying to pair a new mouthpiece with a completely new horn is almost too much for one day.

My final thought is that anyone that plans carefully, creates a realistic savings plan and understands the value of a great instrument can find a way to get a beautiful handmade horn in their hands. Yes, the high end market is expensive these days but there is some magic to having something built, prepared, or even customized for you. In the realm of high end instrument pricing horn players are quite lucky. Woodwind and string players may have to buy instruments that cost as much as a house to play at the highest level: our top of the market is basically equivalent to a used car. The experience of finding your ultimate horn might just be worth that memory of a lifetime!

Andrew Downing lives in suburban Dallas, Texas. He is an active freelance artist and is a member of the Mockingbird Brass, a quintet based in North Texas. More information about him can be found at: http://www.mockingbirdbrass.com/about.html

A Visit to Gebr. Alexander with Andrew Downing, Part 1

My longtime friend and colleague Andrew Downing recently visited the Gebr. Alexander showroom in Mainz, Germany to hand pick a new horn.  Andy was kind enough to answer some questions about his experiences there. His 2-part interview offers some fascinating insights into Gebr. Alexander’s manufacturing and sales process.

James Boldin: You recently had a rare opportunity for American horn players: visiting the Gebr. Alexander showroom in Mainz, Germany and hand-picking a new horn. Could you give some brief background on how this visit came about?

Andrew Downing: I have a younger brother, Tom Downing, that studied horn throughout high school and chose to enlist in the US Army Band services at the age of 18. Upon leaving the military music school in Norfolk, VA he was given a chance to choose his post and elected to join a band that was stationed at the time in Wiesbaden, Germany. Wiesbaden is a beautiful hillside town across the Rhine from Mainz which is known to most horn players as the home to Gebr. Alexander. Tom served in the Army for many years before his departure to join the American military support work force in Wiesbaden. Tom and his family graciously invited my wife Ashley and I to visit them this spring and I was suddenly facing the chance to visit the legendary Alexander workshop and potentially purchase a new horn. I knew I might have few chances like this in my life and decided to begin creating a savings plan. The VAT tax savings and current exchange rate made the travel worth the effort. The scheduling process took close to a year and began with an email to one of their primary sales managers. Once he confirmed it was possible the planning began.

JB: Why Alexander Horns? Have you always had a special affinity for them?

AD: I spent a few years of my collegiate studies playing on a 1960’s era Alexander model 103 I acquired from a European professional that had moved to the states. I immediately fell in love with the special character of Alexander horns – dark and velvety in softer dynamics and brassy and bright when played loudly. There is an unmatched color they make that seems to encourage many European horn sections to use them down the line to generate a uniform sound. I have always felt that the best Alexanders I’ve played seemed to vibrate in the core of the horn rather than at the embouchure much like the way a great bowed instrument resonates from within. I played many memorable concerts on my old horn and only gave it up in the early 2000’s to get on the Geyer-style horn bandwagon for American auditions and jobs I was taking. It also needed quite a bit of work and I ended up selling it to someone that wanted to invest in the restoration. I have missed it ever since.

JB: Was it difficult to schedule a time and day for the visit? What was the overall customer service experience like?

AD: The sales experience began in the early fall of 2016 with an email to Reimund Pankratz, one of the sales managers for Alexander. He was extremely welcoming to my request and was pleased that I was planning so far out. Reimund took time to discuss my options and talk through the buying process. Once we settled on my instrument preferences we agreed on a set time and date to visit during my trip early on to select a horn. I would then wait about a week and a half for finishing. No deposit was required for the trial and the payment takes place at the time of final selection. All horn trials in their shop are done with their horns in “raw condition” – their term for unfinished brass with much touch up work to do to the finish at solder points. Once my choice was made and I had completed my purchase they would move it to their shop for touch up and customization per my requests. Based upon my experience it seems that the best chance for someone to secure an appointment for a horn trial would be to contact Alexander nine to twelve months prior and attempt to secure a date. They focus on a very private trial experience and their time and space are limited for demos.

JB: What horns did you try?

AD: Reimund and I discussed the models I wanted to try and settled on the 1103, the Geyer-style or “K Model” as they name it. I chose this because I play quite a few gigs in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and most players here are on Hills/Rauch/Schmids, etc. I wanted to have an instrument that fit more closely with those types of horns than the omnipresent 103. The reason we settled on one model, not many models, is so they could prepare the model of my choice with various options. The 1103 comes in yellow or gold brass, hand-hammered or spun bells, and even cryogenically frozen bells. Alexander makes over a dozen horn models and it’s virtually impossible for them to prep all of their horns in all their options for one visitor. Ultimately they prepared five 1103s for me to try with a variety of features. Anyone that wants to visit should be careful to pick their base model to try prior to beginning the planning process to allow for the widest assortment of options. That being said I also had the chance to play a few 103s, a forthcoming prototype not yet ready for the market and even a Vienna horn! A particularly impressive part of their trial space is their Wagner tuba display. Alexander consulted with Richard Wagner to design the original tubas for the Ring cycle and as a gift he gave the company a handwritten manuscript of Das Rheingold, the first opera in the cycle. A facsimile of the score covers a wall of their showroom.

Andrew Downing lives in suburban Dallas, Texas. He is an active freelance artist and is a member of the Mockingbird Brass, a quintet based in North Texas. More information about him can be found at: http://www.mockingbirdbrass.com/about.html

Coming up in Part 2 of this interview: testing out horns, selecting a horn, and final thoughts.

 

 

Recording Project Update: Music by Eurico Carrapatoso

As mentioned in an earlier post, one of my big projects this summer was recording several works for soprano, horn, and piano for a forthcoming album of music by Eurico Carrapatoso. I’m pleased to say that we recently wrapped up recording, and I thought it would be good to share a few observations about the process while details are still fresh in my mind. Thank you to my colleagues Claire Vangelisti and Richard Seiler for inviting me to participate in this project, and Bravo on your inspiring work!

Engineer/Producer: We were very fortunate to be able to work with engineer and producer Richard Price of Candlewood Digital on this project. Mr. Price has a fantastic reputation, and even if you don’t recognize his name I would be willing to bet that you own or have heard his recordings. I had not worked with Mr. Price previously, but after two solid six-hour-plus days of recording, I would recommend him to anyone without reservation! His incredibly discerning ears and easy-going demeanor made him a joy to work with as a producer and engineer. While I don’t know the exact technical aspects of what he did with microphone placement and other variables, I do know that the sound he was able to capture was great – warm and nuanced, with exactly the right balance among all three parts. And this was just from the raw takes! The final edited and mastered recording should be really fun! See below for a few shots of the stage setup.

Horns, Endurance, and Rehearsals: As I’ve mentioned before, much of this project emphasized high and light playing, for which I used an older Paxman Model 40M double descant horn. My sincere thanks go out to Craig Pratt for the generous loan of this fine instrument! There were a few movements on which I used my regular Yamaha 671 double horn, but the majority of the playing on this album is on the Paxman. In my preparation for the recording sessions I focused on familiarizing myself as much as possible with the tendencies of the instrument, as well as getting creative with some different fingering choices.  Despite the intense schedule (on both days we did a 3-hour session in the morning, followed by a 2.5 hour break, and concluded with another 3-hour session in the afternoon, plus about another 30 minutes on a third day to wrap up some minor things), my endurance held up well. For those that might be interested, I believe this success can be attributed to a few different factors:

  • Balanced practice between double and descant horn It was tempting to cram in lots of practice on the high horn, especially in the days leading up to the recording sessions. However, I can speak from experience that too much intense practice on the High F side can tire out your chops quickly! I didn’t practice more than 25 minutes at a time on the descant horn without a break, and always made sure to end each day on the double horn with some relaxing low register playing.
  • Mindful Warm-Ups/Warm-Downs I crashed and burned once in graduate school by practicing too much on the day of a recording session, and vowed never to make that mistake again. On each day I warmed up very lightly for about 25 minutes, beginning in the mid-low range and gradually expanding outwards (but still avoiding extremes). At the end of each day I warmed down for a few minutes, then followed up with light massage and alternating cool and warm compresses on my cheeks and upper lip for 5-10 minutes after getting home. *The cool “compress” was a soft drink can from the refrigerator, and the warm compress was a washcloth soaked in warm water. I was tempted to try some ibuprofen, but not really being in the habit of taking that type of medication I decided to forgo it in favor of the compresses.
  • Lots of Great Rehearsals One other major factor in the success of this recording was being able to perform and rehearse frequently with my colleagues before starting the recording process. It seems like an obvious assertion, but is probably worth mentioning anyway. Having performed and rehearsed this repertoire frequently just prior to the sessions made things go very smoothly for the most part. Most of our discussions during the actual recording had to do with minor variations in interpretation, and adjusting to the modified stage setup. Because of the sight lines and lighting, I ended giving lots of cues for both piano and voice.

Final Thoughts: Recording a classical album can be a grueling process, and the bar for technical perfection and artistry is extremely high. High quality microphones and a great producer will quickly expose any and all weaknesses in your playing! I’ve always found it a humbling yet enjoyable experience, though distinctly different from the act of live performance. Though a major part of the work is now complete, the project is still a ways off from completion. Now comes the editing, followed by mastering and various other procedures involved in the production of a commercial recording. Be on the lookout for more updates in the coming months!

Brief Reviews: Solo Documentary Film, Snark Tuner, TuneUp System

Over the past academic year I have accumulated some new materials and equipment, but only recently sat down and put together some brief reviews.

Solo Documentary Film

First up is Solo, a unique documentary film from Limbus Production, written and directed by Přemysl Havlík. Here’s the trailer.

And here’s a description from the Limbus Production vimeo channel.

Documentary film about today’s best horn player, world renowned musician Radek Baborák and about what it is to live on the “Olympus of fame”. The film captures this musical titan in his engagement in one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic, and uncovers his private opinions through intimate conversations, as well as his doubts about the meaning of his line of work. Apart from our horn hero, whose career takes an unexpected turn in the course of the film, we have the rare chance to see gathered here several other musical stars, some of whom are top interpreters and living legends in the field of classical music. Conductors Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim, Sir Simon Rattle or musicians such as flutist Emmanuel Pahud or horn player Gerd Seifert unveil their opinions on the pitfalls of orchestral and solo playing.

The primary subject of the film is world-famous hornist Radek Baborák, who won the Solo Horn position with the Berlin Philharmonic and then resigned a few years later. The film unfolds through a series of interviews with Baborák, interviews with various conductors and colleagues, and brief historical information about the horn. Though a concrete reason for Baborák’s resignation from the orchestra isn’t given, one can surmise that there were disagreements of an artistic nature. The film is entertaining, and full of fantastic horn playing by Baborák and his colleagues. There is also some interesting information about the Berlin Philharmonic and its audition and hiring practices.  The subtitles are clear and easy to understand, and the DVD plays just fine on a laptop drive. It is a little difficult to obtain; currently the only way to get it in the U.S. is to send a PayPal payment directly to Limbus Production. I was a little hesitant to order it, but after sending payment the disc arrived promptly and in good condition. Worth watching if for no other reason than the great horn playing.

Snark Clip-On Tuner

The Snark is a chromatic tuner that clips directly to an instrument, receiving input through either a microphone or vibration from the instrument itself. If you are in search of an inexpensive, lightweight tuner for traveling, the Snark fits the bill. The display is bright, uncomplicated, and easy to read, with good battery life. Though I haven’t rigorously tested its accuracy, it would seem to be just as accurate as my go-to tuner app on my phone. While iPhone and Android apps are ubiquitous now, I think there is still a place for the standalone tuner and metronome. For one, leaving your phone off the stand (and silenced) removes the temptation to check email and/or social media during practice time. And second, a lightweight, cheaper device is less likely to be knocked to the floor and damaged. The added benefit of the Snark is that it securely clips to the horn when in use, and can be clipped to a stand for storage.

TuneUp Intonation Training System

Stephen Colley’s intonation exercises have been around for several years, but I only recently obtained a copy. As I mentioned in this post, Christopher Dwyer of the St. Louis Symphony highly recommended the book, which in turn was recommended to him by members of the Chicago Symphony. After working regularly out of the book for the past few months, here are my observations on the TuneUp system. First, the pros:

  • The approach to developing pure (just) intonation is systematic, thorough, and effective. Colley provides copious explanations and exercises in every key to help you learn where each chord member belongs, as well as your tendencies on each note. My favorite exercises are the “Interval Studies,” in which you perform first a tonic reference note with the CD, and then a series of chord tones with CD accompaniment. The first several lines go through Root, Fifth, and Third in whole notes (with whole notes in the CD), followed by half-notes (Root-Fifth, Root-Third, Third-Fifth), once again with whole notes in the CD. The final two lines in each key include seventh chords and inversions, followed by an exercise in the relative minor.
  • The accompanying CD includes a tonic drone in every key, as well as  major and minor chord progressions in all keys. The timbre of the reference CD is intentionally stark and artificial in quality, which makes it extremely easy to hear intonation discrepancies.
  • Regular practice with this system will definitely improve your ability to hear and adjust intonation! The book is available in a variety of transpositions (C, Bb, Eb, F or Bass Clef) as well as A=440 or A=442. Although I have only used the book on my own or in lessons with students, I would assume that it would be equally effective when used with a small ensemble or even a larger group.

And while I believe that the advantages of the TuneUp System outweigh its disadvantages, in the interest of thoroughness here are some “cons.”

  • There is a learning curve. Once mastered, intonation might be considered an intuitive process, but at its core is based on precise mathematical ratios. Colley does a thorough job explaining these principles, but there is quite a bit of text (27 pages) before the exercises begin. Though obviously interested in the topic, I found my mind wandering a bit while reading this extensive preface. Perhaps some of the text and explanations could be incorporated onto the same pages as the actual exercises, which would cut down on the amount of introductory material. I found it helpful to pencil in annotations from the introduction above the exercises to help me remember some important concepts.
  • The book+CD is expensive. When compared to other materials of this kind (book + CD), the price point for the TuneUp System is significantly higher. Maybe offering a digital and/or web-based version of the system would be an effective way to reach a wider audience.
  • There are quite a few typos. I encountered several instances of wrong notes in the text, especially in the interval studies. It was always easy to determine the correct pitch (usually the next line or space), but after finding them on several consecutive pages it became a little frustrating.

When weighed against the entire book, these are minor criticisms, and I would still recommend the TuneUp System to both teachers and students.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these brief reviews!

 

Conference Report: 2017 IWBC

Photo Credit: Cavitt Productions

I recently returned from the 2017 International Women’s Brass Conference, hosted by Dr. Amy Schumaker Bliss at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. It was a fantastic four days, full of great performances and presentations. Congratulations and thank-you to the IWBC and Rowan University for hosting a terrific event! While I didn’t attend everything – it simply isn’t possible at these type of conferences – I did make it to multiple concerts and presentations, and also ran an exhibit booth for Mountain Peak Music.

Black Bayou Brass performed on the first day of the conference, and our program of new music for brass trio by women composers was very well received. It was once again our pleasure to perform Gina Gillie’s Scenes from the Bayou, as well as other works by Gillie and Adriana Figueroa Mañas. We shared the recital with a faculty horn/tuba/piano trio from Youngstown State University: Stacie Mickens (horn, and fellow UW-Madison alum), Brian Kiser (tuba), and Caroline Oltmanns (piano). They performed two works by  James Wilding,  Distill for horn and piano, and Melencolia for horn, tuba, and piano. Both pieces were really interesting, and expertly performed. Wilding’s music was new to me, and it is certainly worthy of further study. On first listening I found his use of various colors in all three instruments particularly noteworthy.

After the brass trio performance, I spent some time setting up the Mountain Peak Music display, and rehearsing with Gina Gillie, Sarah Gillespie, and Stacie Mickens for our Saturday performance of Gina’s Horn Quartet No. 1. This challenging, multi-movement piece is a substantial addition to the repertoire, and is published by Veritas Musica Publications. Check out the YouTube demo recording, you won’t be disappointed!

Photo Credit: Cavitt Productions

We put the entire 18-minute work together in only three rehearsals, and the Saturday performance went very well. On a personal note it was great fun getting to rehearse and catch up with my former UW-Madison classmates.

My time on Thursday and Friday was spent in quartet rehearsals, at the exhibit booth, and at presentations and concerts. Here are a few highlights.

New Music: One of my favorite parts of any conference is hearing new music. Although I heard (and performed) several new works at the 2017 IWBC, one that stood out was Imaginings, by Dorothy Gates. This single-movement composition for horn and piano was composed for and premiered by Michelle Baker, recently retired 2nd horn of the Metropolitan Opera. Ms. Baker sounded fantastic, displaying great agility and expressiveness throughout the three-octave range the piece requires. I enjoyed it so much that I bought a copy for myself and am planning to program it on an upcoming recital this fall. Be on the lookout for this work in the future, I think it’s going to get played a lot!

Presentations: There was quite an array of interesting topics at this conference, ranging from practice and teaching strategies to discussions about auditions, gender, and race. I particularly enjoyed Dr. Stacie Mickens’ presentation on “Positive Practice Strategies” and a panel on Entrepreneurship with Mary Bowden (trumpet soloist, founding member of Seraph Brass), Beth Mitchell (freelance tubist and teacher in Los Angeles), Michael Parker (tubist with Monumental Brass Quintet, owner of Parker Mouthpieces), and Anna Skrupky (Director of Rowan Prep program, horn performer and teacher and UW-Madison alum). Dr. Mickens is Associate Professor of Horn at Youngstown State University, and presented some very solid strategies for effective practicing. I was not familiar with one of the sources she referenced, Bruce Kaplan’s Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician’s Guide to Self-Empowerment, but will definitely be reading it in the future. Kaplan’s book lays out a unique, thorough, and systematic approach to practicing. 

The Entrepreneurship panel was equally informative, and each person brought a unique perspective to the topic. Here are some of the common threads I heard in their remarks:

  • Don’t be afraid to pursue your artistic and professional goals.
  • Stand up for yourself, but be nice! You will continue to run into former colleagues, classmates, etc. throughout your career.
  • Familiarize yourself with a variety of technology in order to stay organized and promote your career. These can include: websites, audio/video recording and editing, social media, and more.

Exhibits: I didn’t have the opportunity to visit many of the other exhibits, but based on talking with visitors to the Mountain Peak Music table there were a number of big and small companies represented at the conference. Horn exhibitors included Balu Musik, Siegfried’s Call, Baltimore Brass, Patterson Hornworks, Houghton Horns, and “big-box” companies Conn-Selmer and Yamaha. I really wanted to try the new Geyer model horns from Patterson, but alas I did not get the chance. Maybe next time! One issue that I noticed, and also heard mentioned by other exhibitors, was location. Most of us were tucked away in individual rooms, somewhat removed from the flow of traffic. As I heard one exhibitor put it, conference attendees “did not have to walk past our booth to get to anything.”  To some extent this was not entirely within the control of the conference hosts. One generally cannot alter the layout of a building. However, it would have been nice if the exhibits could have been more centrally located. On a positive note, one really great idea was the use of “Gift Coupons” for competition winners. These gift cards were issued by the IWBC to the winners, and could only be used at the exhibit booths. At the end of the conference, the IWBC reimbursed exhibitors for the coupons spent at their booths. This is a fantastic idea because it encourages participation in the competitions, and drives traffic to the exhibit booths – a win for everyone! I have not seen this concept employed at other conferences, but it is something to think about for other similar events.

In closing I think the 2017 International Women’s Brass Conference was a great success, and I encourage any and all brass players to consider attending the next one!

Descant Horn “Hacks”

I’ve been playing lots of descant horn lately – mostly in preparation for an upcoming recording project, but also for some new music concerts –  and have noted a few tips to improving performance.

Find the Right Mouthpiece: After experimenting with several mouthpiece options on the descant horn, I ultimately found the best results on my regular double horn mouthpiece, a Houser Standley GS12 cup with a Model “E” rim. While models such as the Moosewood BD and Osmun Haydn cup did offer lots of ease in the high register, they just never felt quite right on my face. For me I think it had something to do with not being able to comfortably fit my lips into the very shallow cups on these models. The Standley isn’t a huge mouthpiece either, but slightly larger than the Moosewood or Osmun. However, I would recommend trying out these models (or something similar like a Schilke 29) on a descant to see what you think.

High E-flat Fingerings on the High F Horn: Yes, the descant horn responds easier in the high range, but (at least for me) intonation can be a bit goofy above the staff using conventional high F fingerings. In addition to using a slightly more covered right hand position, I’ve also found that using High E-flat horn fingerings on the High F side works quite well for the A-flat, A, and B-flat above the staff. If you don’t have a high E-flat horn fingering chart handy, the new fingerings would be: T1 for A-flat (instead of T23), T2 for A (instead of T12) and T for B-flat (instead of T1). On the horn I’m using (an earlier model Paxman 40M), these alternate fingerings really sound and feel good. Give them a try yourself.

While these and other tips can certainly improve performance on a descant horn, the best “hack” isn’t a hack at all – lots of practice on the instrument. For practice materials I highly recommend two books: Martin Hackleman’s 21 Characteristic Etudes for High Horn Playing, published by Editions Bim,  and Dr. John Ericson’s Playing Descant and Triple Horns, published by Horn Notes Edition. In addition to etudes and orchestral excerpts, the latter contains lots of helpful hints for high horn playing, including fingering charts for descant (High F and E-flat) and triple horns.

Happy practicing!