Review: Horn Playing from the Inside Out, by Eli Epstein

As promised, here’s a review of Eli Epstein‘s new book, Horn Playing from the Inside Out (cover image linked from http://www.eliepstein.com). Mr. Epstein is a former member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and serves or has served on the faculties of numerous prestigious institutions and festivals, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, New England Conservatory, Music Academy of the West, and the Aspen Music Festival. In addition, he is in high demand as a guest clinician, soloist, and chamber musician, presenting workshops on horn playing and musicianship throughout the country. I had the opportunity to work with Mr. Epstein at the Brevard Music Center in the summer of 1998, and I remember him being an incredibly friendly and supportive teacher. No matter what level of player he was working with, Mr. Epstein always seemed to be able to find the right combination of instruction and encouragement. After a lesson, master class, or sectional with Mr. Epstein, students not only played the horn better, but they felt better. This approach carries over into his book, which brings together insights learned from years of experience teaching and performing at the highest level. Topics range from the technical details of horn playing to “big picture” ideas such as authentic expression and dealing with performance anxiety. Throughout it all, the language is always straightforward, and the content organized and well thought out.

In the Introduction, Mr. Epstein provides some background and an overview of the material presented in subsequent chapters. Though time and copyright law prevent me from relating all of the information contained there, here are a few of my favorite quotes from this section. NB: Because my copy of Horn Playing from the Inside Out is in electronic format, page numbers will vary depending on the font, size, and orientation of the text – nonetheless, they are still included after each quotation.

  • “Horn playing is an inside job. Our approach to every aspect of playing comes from within…I didn’t always know this. I discovered it over time.” (p. 25)
  • “Brass technique centers on regulating minute differences in air speed. Since air speed determines the speed of vibration, we need to discover and utilize reliable, replicable, and precise ways to control it.” (p. 28)
  • “Being a complete musician means marrying craftsmanship to emotional artistry.” (p. 31)
  • ‘The purpose of this book is not to create mechanical horn players but confident artists. When we feel secure in our technique, when we gain control over performance anxiety, and when we have methods to consciously awaken the subconscious creative self, we can then feel the freedom to express ourselves as never before. Our horn sound becomes our voice. This is true confidence.” (p. 35)

That final quote from the introduction certainly sums up how Mr. Epstein approaches horn playing and teaching. After reading and incorporating some of the ideas from his book into my own playing and teaching, I definitely feel more confident. And just as importantly, I can hear the differences both in my playing and that of my students.

Horn Playing from the Inside Out is organized into four large sections, each covering several topics. “Part I: The Basics” addresses the fundamental techniques of horn (and brass) playing, with chapters on posture, breathing and breath support, embouchure, vowels, articulation, elevators, and dynamics. These topics should be familiar to anyone who has studied brass pedagogy, with perhaps the only exception being “vowels” and “elevators.” These two chapters by themselves are worth the cost of the entire book, as they contain some incredibly effective approaches to improving accuracy and overall consistency on the horn. Without giving too much away, I’ll attempt to summarize what is found here. Mr. Epstein provides different syllables and approximate points of contact for the tongue, corresponding to various ranges on the instrument. Though it might sound too simple to be so effective, following these syllables really does work. The concept of elevators – or jaw positions corresponding to specific notes – works hand in hand with the vowels. Rather than putting all of the emphasis on the embouchure, Mr. Epstein explains the vital role that jaw position plays in navigating the range of horn.

“Part II: Musicianship” contains chapters on practicing, managing performance anxiety, orchestral auditions, and authentic expression. In Chapter 10, “An Empowered Approach to Orchestral Auditions,” Mr. Epstein provides a step-by-step guide to tackling one of the most grueling experiences a professional musician can face. From a guide to preparation to suggestions on what to do on the day of the audition, every angle is covered. Near the end of the chapter he shares some great advice, reminding us to “Remember that the most you have to lose is a job you don’t already have. And remember that the audition winner is not necessarily the best player, but the one who happens to fit in to what that particular committee or music director is looking for on that particular day in that particular hall.”

‘Part III: Power Warm-up and Other Exercises” needs very little in the way of explanation, except to say that even if you already have a warm-up and practice routine you love it’s still worth giving some of these a look. As with everything else in this book, the warm-up and other exercises are thoughtfully explained in order to provide maximum effectiveness to the player.

“Part IV: Orchestral Excerpts: Applying the Principles” puts into practice all of the preceding information, using 21 of the most prominent (and frequently requested at auditions) orchestral excerpts. Whether you are a seasoned professional or are just starting to explore the orchestral repertoire for horn, there will be something worthwhile for you in this section. Mr. Epstein provides numerous suggestions for perfecting each excerpt, dividing his comments into those dealing with practice and technique, and those dealing with artistry.

This is a longer than usual post for me, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. I really can’t find any faults with this book, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in improving not just their horn playing, but overall musicianship and well being. Horn Playing from the Inside Out approaches even the most challenging techniques from a very matter-of-fact, can-do perspective, which is infectious! With this book, Mr. Epstein has gone a long way towards taking the mystery out of horn technique.

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2 Comments

Great book, Eli Epstein puts very important technical details in words, and he does it right. Most of the tutors have been explaining vital aspects of horn-playing by describing foggy feelings. Mr Epstein gives you detailed physical, anatomical and psychological explanation for these aspects of the trade. He does it with grace, he’s book reads easy and IT WORKS! Thank you Mr Epstein. Fondly, Gergely Sugar, Wiener Symphoniker, Univ.-Prof. at Institut Oberschützen, University of Music and Performing Arts Graz (KUG), Austria

Dear Mr. Sugar,

I am just now reading words that you wrote in December. Thank you so much for your kind response. I’m so glad that ideas presented in my book are useful to you!

All the best,
Eli Epstein

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