New York Woodwind Quintet Concert and Tips on Soft Playing

On Tuesday evening my wife and I had the opportunity to hear the New York Woodwind Quintet in concert at nearby Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA.  This group is one of the preeminent wind quintets out there, and was co-founded by John Barrows.  This was my first time hearing the group live, and the playing was incredible!  They played with an incredible amount of energy and contrast in a program consisting of both standard and relatively unknown works in the repertoire.   Here’s the program.

  • Anton Reicha, Quintet in C Minor, Op. 91, No. 6
  • Pavel Haas, Quintet, Op. 10
  • Elliott Carter, Woodwind Quintet No. 1
  • Jean Francaix, Quintette

I was familiar with all of the composers and works, with the exception of the Quintet by Pavel Haas.  According to the program notes this piece “is of the highest quality and is gradually finding its rightful place among the seminal woodwind works which emerged in Europe in the 1920s.”  It was a great piece, although my personal favorite on the program had to be the Francaix.  I have fond memories of hearing the Wingra Woodwind Quintet (a resident faculty ensemble at UW-Madison) perform this piece, along with many other standard works in the wind quintet repertoire.

As I said before, the playing was absolutely dynamite, and I was especially wowed by the musicality and control of William Purvis.  He made even the most intricate passages sound effortless, and blended with the ensemble in a way not often heard in other wind quintets.  For those interested, I believe he was playing a Schmid triple, although I couldn’t tell for sure if it was in high F or high E-flat.  If I had to guess I would say high F.  His soft playing was really something special, and I came away from the concert inspired to work on my own pianissimos.  This is an area of horn playing technique which can be easily ignored, but is nonetheless crucial to being a professional player.  To that end, I spent some time this week looking through various resources for tips on playing softly.  In addition to the written material quoted below, many of the sources listed have specific exercises to develop soft playing, and I highly recommend all of them.  (Bibliographic information is listed first, followed by quotations from that source.)

Richard Deane, The Efficient Approach: Accelerated Development for the Horn, Atlanta, GA: Atlanta Brass Society Press, 2009

With the exception of Long Tones, there is no more important thing that we can practice than soft playing. Not only will this practice enhance our ability to do this very difficult technical process, but the visualization practice it provides for “gripping” the air stream and building strength in the best possible way is unsurpassed.  Practice soft playing every day! [p. 58]

John Ericson, Playing High Horn: A Handbook for High Register Playing, Descant Horns, and Triple Horns, Tempe, AZ: Horn Notes Edition, 2007.

Horn repertoire is full of soft, exposed attacks. These should be addressed on a daily basis; unmastered, these will make or break your performances, especially in the upper register. [p. 4]

Philip Farkas, The Art of French Horn Playing, Evanston, IL: Summy-Birchard, 1956.

1. Adjust the lip opening to accommodate the air-stream so it will produce the maximum vibration. The air will go through the lips without vibration when the opening is too large. Too small an opening, and the weak air-stream is in danger of being cut off.

2. Avoid mouthpiece pressure. The delicate vibrations of pianissimo must not be “pressured” out of existence.

3. Keep steady diaphragm pressure, but control it with the larynx to let out a relatively small stream of air. This air-stream, though tiny, is characterized by immense steadiness and control, the result of the quite definite pressure on the diaphragm. [p. 65]

Douglas Hill, High Range for the Horn Player, Eau Claire, WI: Really Good Music, 2005. (see the “Quieting Exercises”)

David M. Kaslow, Living Dangerously with the Horn: Thoughts on Life and Art,. Bloomington, IN: Birdalone Books, 1996.

Quantity of air has already been discussed as the general foundation for all that we do with the air column. Specifically, air quantity plays a role in producing both dynamic levels and the large range of notes of the horn: soft notes require a smaller quantity of air per unit of time than do loud ones, high notes require a smaller quantity of air per unit of time than do low notes. [p. 26]

Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan, The Brass Gym: A Comprehensive Daily Workout for Brass Players, edited for Horn by John Ericson, Mesa, AZ: Focus on Music, LLC, 2007.

Playing softly is not holding air back. Rather, it is blowing air slowly. Relax in all registers to stay resonant on every note. [p. 18]

Nicholas Smith, Don’t Miss! Ideas, Concepts, and Exercises Designed to Increase Accuracy on an Inaccurate Instrument, Wichita, KS: Hornsmith Publishing, 2010.

Articulations in the extreme upper register must also be done with precision and great focus. Starting a passage in the extreme upper register is an art form in itself particularly if it is a soft entrance. Remember the phrase, 2% louder is 20% more confidence when starting a tough high-register passage. Another technique for starting a note in the extreme upper register is to think of the start of the note as a sort of mini forte-piano. This gets the note started and then you can drop back. [p. 37]

Milan Yancich, A Practical Guide to French Horn Playing, Atlanta, GA: Wind Music, Inc., 1970.

Pianissimo playing is a technique learned by blowing slowly through the mouthpiece without breaking the buzz sound. To acquire the ability requires constant attention and practice. Some techniques of horn playing can be acquired and retained with a fair amount of facility, but this is not true of pianissimo playing.  [p. 75]

One other technique that can be very helpful when playing extremely softly is judicious use of the right hand – either through stopping or echo horn.  Although I couldn’t see Mr. Purvis’s right hand during the concert I suspect that he may have been using this technique to marvelous effect.  All in all, this was an exciting and inspiring performance, and I look forward to hearing them again.

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