Holiday Break Practice Materials

I generally dial back my practice schedule over the Christmas and New Year holiday, unless there is a performance immediately following it. The physical and mental break is refreshing, but even more important is the extra time available to spend with family and friends. That being said, I’ve only gone one day this break without practicing – Christmas day. The rest of the time I’ve been working on various materials to keep my chops in shape and to do some advance preparation for performances later in the semester. At the very least I have been putting in about an hour to an hour and a half each day. This is substantially less than my normal routine, but adequate to minimize the time needed to return to 100% when the semester begins. Here’s the repertoire on my holiday practicing list.

Of these, I’ve been doing the 60 minute maintenance routine every day, along with scale practice and a few selections from Range Songs. After that I choose from among the other materials to round out my practice session. What do you like to practice over the holidays to stay in shape? Feel free to comment below.

As this will be my last post of 2012, I want to wish everyone a safe and prosperous New Year! See you all in 2013!

More Notes from a Recording Session

Adding to this series of posts about recording sessions (Part 1, Part 2), here are some random ideas gleaned from my experiences this week. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I spent the majority of each day recording several works for horn with other instruments by Jan Koetsier. These pieces, along with a few works recorded earlier this year, will be featured on a forthcoming CD recording on the MSR Classics label. The sessions went very well, thanks in large part to the work of engineer/producer Rich Mays of Sonare Recordings, and my wonderful collaborators, Richard Seiler on piano and Jaymee Haefner on harp. Now that the recording phase of this project is completed, I can reflect on the preparation that went into it, as well as the lessons I’ve learned throughout the process.

  • Prepare, Prepare, Prepare! I knew from previous experiences that recording sessions were mentally and physically draining, and as a result I spent much of the semester gearing up for three consecutive days of recording on some challenging music. Gradually increasing practice time over the course of several weeks helped to build long-term endurance, and practicing long tones helped to solidify attacks at all dynamic levels throughout the range of the instrument. Scheduling a recital of the same pieces within a month of the recording session was a great way to make sure everything stayed fresh musically and technically. In addition to the musical and physical preparation, there were also numerous logistical considerations, such as preparing the venue (the recital hall at my university) for recording. The HVAC system and other electrical systems in the hall needed to be shut down for the duration of the sessions to minimize extraneous noise, which required advance planning and collaboration with the staff of the university’s physical plant. The sessions were scheduled for a period of time after students had departed, but while the university was still open before the holiday break.
  • Be Flexible: Despite your best planning, unexpected issues will crop up in every recording session. From scheduling delays to equipment (or instrument) malfunctions, it may at times seem like you aren’t accomplishing much. Try as best you can to handle each issue as it comes up without stressing out too much. Our Monday morning session started later than I had planned because the noise from a water fountain near the green room was bleeding over into the hall. A maintenance person had to be called to come disconnect the compressor before recording could begin. One of the best things I did was to not bring a watch into the sessions. For me it was better not to worry about how much time I was eating up on the clock, and instead to focus on producing as musically convincing a product as possible. If I wanted to take a break at a specific time I asked the engineer to let me know. Speaking of breaks, I recommend taking a short break at least every hour, and more frequently if necessary. As it was, we frequently went to the control room to listen to playback, so that provided several breaks along the way. In addition, I also found it refreshing to walk outside or even walk around the building every couple of hours to keep from going stir-crazy.
  • Be Mindful of Preconceptions: After years of performing in our recital hall, I thought I knew what would provide the best sound for a horn and piano combination. In the end, however, we went with a radically different setup than I normally use for live performances. My technical knowledge is limited, but it had to do with microphone placement and trying to maximize the sound of the hall for recording purposes. After a bit of experimentation, we went with the following placement for horn and piano.

Notice that there are five separate microphones: a ribbon microphone for the horn, two microphones for the piano, and two microphones on a tall stand for the ensemble. We also made use of an intercom system to communicate with the control room. While the placement and spacing between the horn and piano would look a little bizarre for a live performance, it resulted in the desired effect for the recording. That being said, I really liked the overall sound, and I might try a modified version of this configuration for future performances in this hall.

  • Other Observations: One interesting thing I noticed about my approach to recording sessions was that I tended to play it very safe on the first take of a passage. This first take was usually pretty accurate, but also boring! It wasn’t until the third or fourth take that I hit my stride musically and started to really go for phrases and stylistic nuances. Why didn’t I just do this on the first take and save myself some time? I think knowing that we had at least one accurate take “in the can” gave me the confidence and freedom to take chances in subsequent repetitions. I don’t perform this way live, and if anything I probably take too many chances on occasion and sacrifice accuracy. Has anyone else had a similar experience in a recording session?

There are lots of other details I could discuss, but this just about sums it up in terms of the overall experience. I am very glad to have this phase finished, and am eagerly anticipating the editing and production phase! More updates to come.


Audio, Video Updates

Although the Kopprasch Project is on hiatus until January, I’ve been adding a few videos to my YouTube Channel as well as updating the Audio and Job Listings pages on this site. The three most recent videos are selections from a recital at ULM on November 29th. Overall I was quite pleased with the outcome, and am looking forward to recording these and other works by Jan Koetsier in the very near future. Hopefully these videos will interest you in Koetsier’s music for horn – they really are nice compositions and would be great on any recital. If you want to hear more you’ll have to check out the CD! Look for a release sometime in Spring 2013.

Jan Koetsier,  Sonatina, Op. 59, No. 1 for Horn and Piano

Jan Koetsier, Romanza, Op. 59, No. 2 for Horn and Piano

Jan Koetsier,  13 Etudes Caractéristiques, Op. 117, VIII, Rythme comme “Le sacre du printemps”

High School Recruiting Trip FAQ

As part of a busy month of performances, the members of Black Bayou Brass (resident faculty brass trio at ULM) presented a series of concerts at several high schools in southern Louisiana. The concerts went well, and our audiences were very eager and attentive. There are some strong instrumental music programs in that part of the state, and it was our pleasure to perform for them. After doing these kinds of performances for a few years, I’ve started to notice some commonly asked questions from students, which are compiled in this FAQ. The first two provide some background information about the group and our program from this year’s performances, but the rest are based on actual questions we’ve received from students.

  • Who are you? We are the Black Bayou Brass, the resident faculty brass ensemble in the Department of Music at The University of Louisiana at Monroe. Our current members are Alex Noppe (trumpet), James Boldin (horn), and James Layfield (trombone). (After our opening number one of us usually introduces the group and mentions a little bit about our performing and teaching duties.)
  • What pieces are you going to play? Our program varies widely depending on what repertoire we are currently preparing for upcoming recitals, but we have worked very hard over the past few years to put together an engaging, lively set of pieces for young audiences. Much of our repertoire is home-grown, having been arranged by current or former members of the ensemble. For this tour we performed the following:
    • A Philharmonic Fanfare, Eric Ewazen
    • Duncan Trio, David Sampson (selected movements)
    • Csárdás, Vittorio Monti/arr. James Boldin (trombone feature)
    • Trio, Daniel Schnyder (selected movements)
    • Rondo, from Horn Concerto, K. 495, W.A. Mozart/arr. James Boldin (horn feature)
    • Libertango, Astor Piazzolla/arr. Anna Suechting
    • Finale from William Tell Overture, G. Rossini/arr. James Layfield
    • Flight of the Bumblebee, Rimsky-Korsakov/arr. Micah Everett
  • How often do you rehearse? Once a week for two hours.  Most students are surprised by this answer, and we always take the opportunity when students ask this question to stress how important it is to come into rehearsal having already prepared the music to a very high level. A group rehearsal is not for individual practice, but rather to put together the music as an ensemble. Unless a piece is quite difficult (Jan Bach, Daniel Schnyder, etc.), it really doesn’t take us (or any other professional group) that many rehearsals to have it ready for performance.
  • How long have you been playing your instruments? I’ve been playing the horn for over 20 years.
  • What kinds of scholarships are available for music students? This is a big question, and varies widely depending on the size and resources of a particular institution. At ULM we have good scholarships for both music majors as well as students that aren’t majoring in music but who want to continue playing their instruments in a college ensemble. These awards can include out-of-state tuition waivers as well as other types of scholarships. In addition to music-related scholarships, our university has several prestigious academic scholarships for high-achieving students. This brings me to the next question in this FAQ.
  • What can I do to improve my chances of getting a scholarship or increasing the amount of  a scholarship? If you want to major in music I think you need to focus on two main things as a high school student. The first is reaching the highest level of proficiency you can in your concentration, whether it’s performance, education, composition, theory, etc. For music education and performance you should strive to play (or sing) as well as you possibly can by your senior year. Take regular lessons with a qualified private instructor, and pursue as many different performing opportunities as you can, not just All-State band or orchestra. Form a chamber group, and request coaching from local university faculty or symphony musicians. For some specific ideas on what to practice, check out this post. If you want to major in music theory or composition, you should already have some experience in both areas by the time you go to college. Take responsibility for your education; go online and find help, or better yet, reach out to area teachers and ask for their input. The second area of focus is your grades. Grades matter! No matter how talented you are, there are very few music schools that will accept you (or award a scholarship) if your grades are poor. If your GPA is suffering be proactive and take the proper steps to improve it: ask for extra help from your teachers or seek out tutoring services in the community. Trust me, earning good grades will pay off when it comes time to apply for college scholarships and financial aid.

There are lots of other questions I could add, but these cover the major concerns I’ve heard from hundreds of students in dozens of high schools. Is there a question you think should be on this FAQ? Feel free to comment below.

Horn Handouts from the Midwest Clinic

This time last year I was putting the finishing touches on the materials for a stopped horn presentation at the annual Midwest Clinic, one of the world’s largest band and orchestra conferences. It was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has not attended. The number of concerts, clinics, and exhibitors is staggering, and the number of attendees is around 16,000 annually. With this year’s clinic just around the corner, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the various horn-related presentations from the past several years. The Midwest Clinic has an extensive archive of handouts going back to 2000, and these materials can be downloaded for free (see below). If you weren’t able to attend any of these clinics, the handouts provide a good overview of the topics and concepts covered. Presentations on horn playing have been a frequent occurrence at the Midwest Clinic, although there aren’t any scheduled for this year unfortunately. Although the titles of the six clinics shown below vary widely, they all share the common goal of making the horn a more approachable, friendly instrument for band directors and their students. If you are a horn teacher and have an idea for a presentation, I strongly encourage you to write up a proposal and submit it for the 2013 Midwest Clinic. It is a wonderful event, and is a great place to network and meet new friends and colleagues. If you want to read more about my experiences at last year’s Midwest Clinic, check out parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of my report.

A Blast from the Past: My First Horn Recital

Thanks to a friend and former high school classmate, I tracked down a VHS recording of my very first horn recital, which I shared with the same friend. The date was August 16, 1997, and my part of the program was:

  • Francaix, Canon in Octave
  • Mozart, Concerto, K. 447
  • Damase, Berceuse

At the time I was a rising high school senior, and knew I wanted to pursue music performance in college. Listening and looking at the video is really fun, and the playing isn’t half bad (I was also skinnier back then!) Rhythm and tone quality are pretty good, and I was also working on lip trills and E-flat transposition for the Mozart concerto. Earlier that year I had shifted my mouthpiece placement to favor the upper lip, which drastically improved my tone and low range, but required an extensive rebuilding of the high range (perhaps more on this in a future post). This actually took several years, but in the end I think it was the right thing to do in my case. I certainly wasn’t the best high school player around, but I was studying with an excellent teacher and was willing to work hard to improve my playing. The video below is an excerpt from the recital, the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto, K. 447. The cadenza is my own, I believe, although I “borrowed” heavily from recordings by Dennis Brain, Barry Tuckwell, and others. Thanks again E.J. for this blast from the past!

Long Tones: A Love/Hate Relationship

This semester I added long tones back into my practice routine, and I’ve noticed some positive results over the past several weeks. To clarify, I normally play long tones in my warm-up routine, but it’s been a few years since I did any additional long tone work during the day. In graduate school I practiced them regularly, using ear plugs to protect my hearing in the mostly tile and glass practice rooms at UW-Madison. Over time, though, I felt like the long tone exercises I was doing were tiring out my chops rather than helping. Perhaps I wasn’t doing them correctly, or perhaps I was doing too much strenuous playing in addition to the long tones, but at any rate that experience turned me off to those kinds of exercises for a long time. However, after reading Eli Epstein’s Horn Playing from the Inside Out, I was inspired to pick them back up using the routine he provides in the book. His exercises are similar to many others, but they incorporate breath attacks and plenty of rest to help keep things fresh. They are still tiring, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks this time. Some of the benefits include more secure attacks, a more consistent tone across the range and at various dynamics, and improved endurance. Are these improvements due entirely to the long tones? Probably not, but I think they have definitely contributed. If you find yourself getting bored with long tones, try changing up your routine, or cycling through variations of the same exercise over a week or so. Not convinced that long tones can be beneficial? You don’t have to take my word for it; just consider these quotes about long tones from several noted pedagogues.

Verne Reynolds, The Horn Handbook, p. 32

We never outgrow our need for long tones. They allow us to concentrate on

  1. breathing techniques
  2. body support
  3. attack and response
  4. intonation
  5. release
  6. mouthpiece pressure

Douglas Hill, Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performancep. 20

There is no one single type of exercise that receives more praise from one group of players and more disdain from the other than long tones. “Long tones are boring!” “Long tones solved all of my problems!” Extremes perhaps, but both are true to an extent.

Randy Gardner, Mastering the Horn’s Low Registerp. 19

Many aspects of superb tone production can be related to the steady air stream that the performance of long tones mandates.

Frøydis Ree Wekre, Thoughts on Playing the Horn Well, p. 26

Long tones can be practised in many different ways. Some people find them boring and stiffening, but I find them interesting and strengthening. I do prefer them, however, in the evening rather than in the morning.

Wendell Rider, Real World Horn Playingp. 65

As brass players, we need to develop a secure sense of tone and pitch by playing relatively simple exercises that allow us to focus on a minimum of variables. Long tones let us concentrate on the air flow and a relaxed, consistent vibration.

Barry Tuckwell, Playing the Horn, p. 32

Long Notes: The term is self-explanatory; however, the object in playing long notes on brass instruments is to develop a sure control of breathing and embouchure…Always try to maintain a beautiful sound at all times. (Long notes are tiring and care should be taken not to play beyond certain limits.) If at all possible, every note from pedal F to top C should be played each day, but if undue strain is felt it may be a good idea to curtail this exercise.

Richard Deane, The Efficient Approach: Accelerated Development for the Hornp. 56

Long tone exercises in their many forms can be tedious and somewhat strenuous, but should never be “boring” because, of all the daily exercises we do, these actually give the most useful feedback to the player.

Eli Epstein, Horn Playing from the Inside Out (electronic version, so page numbers vary)

Playing daily long tones has long-term benefits: We develop excellent breath control, a round, clear, centered sound, and stable pitch as we change dynamic levels. The more quality we infuse into long tones, the more we get out of them. A famous principal horn player calls them “quality tones.”

Thoughts on Lip Balms: Comment on Horn Matters Article

Over at Horn Matters, John Ericson is wrapping up a great 14-week online course on horn pedagogy, and one of this week’s topics is lip care and lip balm. Dr. Ericson has invited comments on this issue, but rather than take up too much space on his site I thought it would be best to put down my thoughts here. I’ve used various kinds of lip balm regularly for most of my playing career, and have experimented with quite a few brands and formulas. Here’s a sampling:

Of these, the only ones I’ve really used for an extended period are the ChapStick Moisturizer and Chopsaver, which is my current lip balm. Over time, the other products either dried out my kips or otherwise made them more – rather than less – uncomfortable, as pointed out in the Horn Matters article. I use Chopsaver at night before going to bed, and other than that I use it sparingly. Two notable exceptions to this are during long flights and car trips, when lips can get more dried-out than usual. Combined with drinking lots of water, a bit of Chopsaver (or your lip balm of choice) while flying or driving for several hours can help prevent chapping. The climate in Louisiana is humid most of the time, so I rarely experience chapped lips. If you live in an arid climate and/or spend lots of time outside with or without your instrument you might consider something different. During winters in Wisconsin I always covered my face when going outside, and I suspect that this precaution actually did more to prevent chapped lips than using lip balm. Although I haven’t done this, I have heard that the contents of a Vitamin E gel capsule applied directly to the lips can help heal any splits or chapping. **Use caution when trying any new lip product, and if you suspect a reaction of any kind consult a physician or pharmacist. If you are planning to try a different lip balm it would also be a good idea to give yourself a window of at least a few weeks when you don’t have any performances. There are lots of good products out there, but in general I recommend going with something that has relatively few chemicals, and definitely staying away from camphor, phenol, and menthol (also noted in the Horn Matters article). Just to put things in perspective, in Henri Kling’s Horn-Schule of 1865 he notes that “for the cure of cracked or slightly inflamed lips, the use of a little coldcream is to be recommended; a mixture of vinegar and water is likewise very serviceable, as it contracts the lips and thus imparts firmness to them.” (p. 77) Has anyone tried this remedy?

‘Tis the Season…

After a nice break for Thanksgiving, things are back in full swing for the end of the semester and the holiday season. This time of year is usually quite busy for musicians and especially brass players, and with the end of the semester coming up it makes for a very full schedule. I’m thankful for the work, of course, but such a packed schedule requires that I fight my natural inclination to waste time and instead focus on short, efficient practice sessions.  Here’s some of my upcoming performances over the next few weeks.

  • November 29th: Faculty Recital, Music for Horn by Jan Koetsier
  • December  2nd: Rapides Symphony Concert
  • December 4th: Black Bayou Brass Christmas Concert
  • December 5-7: Black Bayou Brass tour (Southern Louisiana)
  • December 8: Monroe Symphony Concert
  • December 15-16: Shreveport Symphony Concert
  • December 17-19: Recording Session, Music of Jan Koetsier

In addition to rehearsals and performances, there are juries to hear, exams to grade, and various kinds of paperwork involved in wrapping up the semester. If this seems excessive, I’m sure it’s nothing compared to what full time orchestral players and top freelancers in major cities do. For me, though, it’s just about the limit of what I can comfortably take on and still put forth my best effort. Finding this balance is an important issue for students to deal with during their college years, as life often gets busier afterwards. I really wanted to play for The Nutcracker this year, but it just wasn’t possible with the other obligations in my schedule.

To all my colleagues out there who are doing the same thing, I wish you safe travels, great chops, and lots of relaxation time afterwards!

Horn DIY: Changing Mute Corks

Here’s another entry in the “Horn DIY” series, changing mute corks.  My go-to straight mute is Ion Balu’s “Red Mahogany” model.  Over time the corks that came with the mute have worn and even started to break apart in a few places (see below).

If you look closely at the top of the corks you can see that the one on the right side is missing some pieces. I contacted Ion Balu and he very generously sent me some of his new replacement corks, shown here.  Pictured beside them is the box cutter I used to carefully remove the old corks.

Step one in this project is to remove the old corks, using a box cutter or razor blade to cut or pry them loose. My corks began to break apart as I pried them away from the body of the mute, so I resorted to carefully shaving them away bit by bit. Using a very fine sandpaper, I removed the residual cork pieces. What I was left with was a smooth mute without any corks.

Here’s a closeup of the old corks.

Next I attached the new corks, making sure to keep the same placement as the old ones. There are probably a number of adhesives that will work for this task, but I recommend using something that bonds pretty quickly.  Here is the final result.

And another view from the top.

Why replace the corks?  Well, other than the obvious aesthetic improvement, the mute now plays better than previously. These new corks came with a foam backing (visible in the above pictures) that I assume allows for a more customized fit in the bell. I immediately noticed an improvement in response and overall clarity with these corks. It is a very easy process, requires only a couple of tools, and can breath new life into an older mute.

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