Performing and Teaching in Mexico: An Interview with Claire Hellweg

Performing and Teaching in Mexico: An Interview with Claire Hellweg

outside bio picAt last year’s International Horn Symposium, I had the opportunity to reconnect with several alumni from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We had a wonderful time performing and reminiscing together with our teacher Douglas Hill, and my only regret is that I did not have more time to speak with everyone about their experiences over the past several years. When I met Claire Hellweg in the fall of 2002, she was pursuing her undergraduate degree, and I had just begun a master’s degree. At the time, she was  already playing the horn at a high level, but it was Claire’s work ethic, positive attitude, and friendliness that made the biggest impression on me. Since then, Claire has won professional orchestral auditions in Mexico, studied with Frøydis Ree Wekre in Norway, organized an international brass festival, and become a mother. Needless to say, we did not have nearly enough time to discuss any of these experiences in detail last summer in Los Angeles. However, I asked Claire if she would be willing to share some more information about her life and career in an interview, and she graciously agreed.

James Boldin: Where are you currently performing and teaching?

Claire Hellweg: I play Principal Horn in the Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra and teach at the University of Guanajuato and a private music program for low-income kids called Orquesta Trinitate.

JB: Could you talk briefly about your background, and how you arrived in your current playing and teaching positions?

CH: I did my undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Douglas Hill. I was freelancing in the Midwest when I moved to Mexico in 2006 and started playing low horn in the Yucatan Symphony. In 2008 I took a contract playing third horn in my current orchestra, and about a year later moved to Norway to pursue my masters degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music with Frøydis Ree Wekre. I came back to Guanajuato in 2012 and won the principal horn job and was eventually offered the teaching jobs after that.

JB: Have you always been interested in teaching?

CH: Yes!  For me, teaching fills me up and orchestra empties me. I love playing in orchestra and I wake up every morning excited to do it, but at the end of a rehearsal or a concert I am usually tired and once in a while somewhat disenamored of music. Teaching is the opposite – I always think I don’t want to go do it, but every single time I leave full of energy and totally inspired. Teaching is a very important part of staying inspired as an artist for me.

JB: What is the music education system like in Mexico? How does it compare to music schools in the United States?

CH: There are no instrumental programs in public schools in Mexico and very limited musical education in public and private schools. So all music teaching happens outside of schools and there aren’t really music educators or people that focus on just teaching music. Most music teachers are active performers, even youth orchestra conductors and teachers of beginners. This is beginning to change as the number of musicians is starting to outnumber the amount of available performing work and as more and more music schools have bigger and bigger budgets. The biggest thing that is expanding are the government run music programs in low-income neighborhoods, based somewhat on the Venezuelan El Sistema. These programs are totally free for the kids and provide them with instruments, music, spaces, teachers, etc.

JB: What is the audition process for orchestras in Mexico? How does it compare to the audition system in the United States?

CH: There is not a standard audition process for all orchestras in Mexico. Some orchestras still operate without auditions, just based on contacts and conductors having the final decision. Most orchestras do have auditions, however, and they are similar to American auditions, although often much less notice is given for the audition (a month to even two weeks is typical). Few auditions use piano accompaniment, and the focus is mostly on excerpts. I don’t know the details for other orchestras, but our orchestra has an audition committee comprised of the director, concertmaster, one elected representative for string auditions and another for wind auditions, the principal of the section, or co-principal if necessary, and an invited expert on the particular instrument (a respected performer or teacher within the country). The candidates play behind a screen and each member of the committee has one vote. The trial period is two years, and at the end of the two year period the musician has to play a final audition (not competitive against other candidates, just them, not behind a screen), and from that, and review of their work in the orchestra, is granted tenure or not. For some auditions they have accepted videos for a first round or as a substitute for a live audition (this was somewhat controversial and won’t be done again).

Let me mention here that the classical music scene in Mexico is much more extensive than many American musicians realize.  There are at least 20 full time orchestras and around four full-time youth orchestras.  While orchestras around the world are folding or facing cuts, there are actually new orchestras being created in Mexico!

 

JB: Are there any other differences you’ve observed between life in Mexico and life in the United States?

 

CH: Pretty much every single aspect of life is different in Mexico than in the US, but I’ve been here so long that I don’t even notice it anymore. Now when I go back to the US it seems strange there. A big one is that there is no climate control (indoor heating or air conditioning) and the temperature can range from 55 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, people have less money and are just used to that so everyone carpools as much as possible, uses and reuses things and gets them repaired instead of buying new ones, and generally just lives somewhat simpler than in the US (for example my family has one car, no dishwasher, no dryer, no microwave, etc.) The pace of life is much more laid-back – it is typical to arrive 5 or 10 minutes late to events (rehearsals do start on time) and things tend to change at the last minute but people don’t get upset about it.

Family and good food are the most important things, and the food is amazing!  The cheaper the better, and you can find really good, fresh food on almost every corner.  People really take the time to prepare and enjoy great flavors.

It has taken some getting used to, but I really appreciate the Mexican way of life now where people have time to stop and chat with you and are always offering to help and support you.

JB: In addition to studying with Douglas Hill at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, you also studied with Frøydis Ree Wekre at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Could you talk about your experiences in Norway, including any advice or logistical information for those interested in studying abroad?

CH: Frøydis is a whole separate interview (I wrote an article in the Fall 2011 Horn Call about studying with her.)_  My biggest advice to those interested in studying abroad, or whatever you’re interested in doing, is have your dream and then just stick to it. Talk to everyone you know about it, make all the connections you can, apply for every scholarship and grant, learn the language, hone other skills which you can use when you’re there, write to teachers and tell them what you want to do, get yourself out there.  If you keep your eye on your goal and stay open to all the possibilities of how to do it, it will work out.

It was my dream to study with Frøydis ever since I met her my freshman year at UW-Madison. When I finally was ready to do it I just wrote her and told her that. Then I went to Banff one summer to work with her for the first time. Then I started applying for grants. I applied for the Fulbright twice – once I was rejected and the second time I was an alternate. I planned to audition for the Norwegian Academy of Music one year and it didn’t work out (I got really sick and had to cancel my trip) but then the next year I was able to stay 6 weeks and work with Frøydis to prepare the audition. I was put on the waiting list (only two students were accepted to the masters program in horn) and then at the end of June they called and asked if I wanted to come in August. I sold my car, quit my job, and just went. I cleaned Frøydis’ house the first year for cash and then started getting a few gigs. Then I started to get grants: from the American-Scandinavian Foundation, the Sons of Norway, the Norway-America Association, and then I started to get much better at the horn and do well at auditions and then finally everything just fell into place. My point is it definitely did not work out at first for me, but I continued to look for possibilities and stayed true to what I really wanted to do.

It was amazing studying in Europe as an American. In my horn class there were people from Norway, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland and France. I got to hear so many different sounds and styles. Frøydis wasn’t attached to a particular way of playing just as long as you had a great sound and a very convincing musical plan. She was hard on us but it paid off. It’s also great to do auditions in Europe because you realize how much more interested they are in your complete musicianship rather than just technique and not missing notes like in the US. Auditions are much more of an art than a sport in Europe.  This focus has really helped me continue to grow now that I have a job and continue to stay excited about what I do.

JB: Who have your major musical influences been, horn playing or otherwise?

CH: Aside from Doug and Frøydis, the four main people that have inspired me and influenced me in my current job most are Chip Williams, Ryan Gruber, Jesse Durkan, (Ulster Orchestra) and Julius Praenevicius (now the horn teacher at the Norwegian Academy of Music). Chip was my high school band director, a terrific musician, and the reason I got into this all to begin with. He saw something in me and didn’t keep quiet about it and started me out on a very satisfying path for my life. Ryan, Jesse, and Julius are the three principal horn players I got to play with a lot as a younger player and I really learned a lot from observing them. The biggest thing I learned from them is that they said very little to the section. This is hard for me to do but really important I think. They all just focused on playing great and leading by example – very inspiring. Other than that I would say Ani DiFranco, Alison Krauss and Hector Lavoe.

JB: When balancing a busy performing and teaching schedule, do you practice any specific routines or exercises to keep your fundamentals in shape?

CH: Let me just say that having a busy performing and teaching schedule is a piece of cake compared to being a mom on top of that. Since my son was born in 2012 I honestly don’t have a lot of time to practice. For me the key has been my study of the Alexander Technique. The fundamentals of the technique can be practiced while reading a book to my son, walking from the car to the hall, sitting in rehearsal, just about any time, and it is what most makes a difference in every aspect of my playing. The other benefit is that the main exercise is laying down in “semi-supine,” laying on the floor with a book under your head and your knees bent, feet on the ground.  But it actually requires a lot of mental attention to be done effectively. If I only have 10 minutes before a rehearsal I will do semi-supine instead of taking out the horn.

Besides the Alexander Technique, I think more important than playing routines is to work on having a very convincing musical plan, being present, being confident and keeping your ears open.  These things can also be practiced in daily life!

JB: Do you have any advice for horn students who are interested in working in Mexico?

CH: Some orchestras in Mexico are starting to use musicalchairs, but still many jobs are just by word of mouth. The best thing you can do if you’re interested is find some horn players working in Mexico on Facebook and just write them and ask. There is a Facebook group called Cornistas de Mexico where people sometimes post auditions.  Just get connected to as many musicians working in Mexico as you can.  Oh, and learn Spanish!

JB: Any other projects you want to talk about?

CH: At the moment I am taking a break from projects…in January of this year my husband and I organized an International Brass Festival in Guanajuato-one week, 55 students, 4 international guest artists, 4 concerts, countless hours of work…  It was extremely satisfying, challenging, and fun and I grew a lot as a person from the experience.  However, it made me want to stop taking on a lot of extra work for a while and focus on my family.  I recently played 2nd horn on Konzertstuck with my orchestra too, so I’m happy go sit in the back again.  I just did a recital of all Norwegian music at Beloit College.  I have an invitation to put together a recital of music for trumpet, horn and marimba (does anyone know any good pieces for horn and marimba?) and I would like to do a concert with my students, from the little ones to the big ones, and finally play [Buyanovsky’s] España for that.  But for the moment, no big plans.  I think it’s really important to do chamber music and recitals as an orchestral musician.  It keeps you taking risks and making musical decisions and staying connected with listeners and why you are really a musician.  Then when you get back to work, the “big solos” feel easy.

JB: Anything else you’d like to share?

I want to talk a little bit about working together as a section and creating a good working atmosphere in an orchestra.  Nothing pains me more than to hear about a section that doesn’t get along and unfortunately you hear about it too often.  I am very lucky to have a great group of people to work with and I hope how I’ve played my role has contributed to that.  It hasn’t been perfect and I’ve definitely made some mistakes, but we continue to work well together.  I want to say that I think there are four ground rules to go by.

1) Communicate.  Don’t let even something that seems like it will pass go.  You don’t have to have a 5 hour meeting about it, but a short apology or opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding can make the difference between a good working relationship and a lifetime grudge.

2) Give each other space.  Don’t always ask to fix something or check something the first time.  Trust your colleagues to do their best.

3)  Work on yourself.  Sometimes I find myself taking out my stress on my section (not smart!!).  Continue to search to find ways to find more peace of mind, improve your confidence, grow as a musician, stay on your own path of development.  This will keep you focused on you and how your attitude contributes to every situation and relationship, and keep you away from complaining about others and blaming them for your own stuff.

4) Focus on the music.  Within a section, people will have different strengths and weaknesses and even opinions on what is most important.  Especially as principal, stay focused on the over-arching musical ideas, the inspiring points that make you excited about the music.  Those things can fix intonation, ensemble, and blend more often than not.

Thanks to my wonderful section-mates — Daniel Norman, Michelle Petit, Dario Bojorquez, and Jonathan Lusher — for teaching me some of these lessons and being great people and musicians and bringing that to work every day.

Thanks for the opportunity to share some of my experiences, James!

Surviving a Three-Service Day

nutcracker_coverDecember is a busy month for musicians, especially brass players. With frequent Holiday Pops concerts, Nutcracker ballets, and church performances, double and even triple service days can and do happen. A “service” is usually defined as a 2.5 hour rehearsal or performance, and while many orchestras and other ensembles have contract language limiting the number of them in a single day, all bets are off if you accept work from multiple organizations. Here’s what my schedule this past weekend looked like:

  • Friday
    • Orchestral Rehearsal, 7:30-10:00 p.m.
  • Saturday:
    • Orchestral Rehearsal, 10:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
    • Church Service Rehearsal, 2:00-4:30 p.m.
    • Orchestral Concert, 7:30-10:00 p.m.
  • Sunday
    • Church Service performance, 10:30 a.m.-noon
    • Orchestral Concert, 6:00-8:30 p.m.

I’m happy to report that I made it through the weekend relatively unscathed, with chops intact! However, these being my last professional engagements for the year, I’m looking forward to a few light days of horn playing. If you wind up with some double and triple-service days in your schedule, here are a few recommendations to help deal with them. Some are specifically related to brass playing, while others are more general and pertain to overall well being. If you have any suggestions based on your own experiences, feel free to comment below.

  1. Be in good shape: Going into a busy month like December, I try to make sure that my playing fundamentals are in shape. If you are working through any chop or breathing issues, recovering from a playing-related injury, or coming back from an extended hiatus, I would strongly advise against accepting double or triple services in a single day. Heavy playing sessions with relatively little recovery time between them will only magnify these challenges.
  2. Allow time for a good warm-up and warm-down: Some light, easy playing before and after a heavy day can do wonders to limber up or even prevent a stiff embouchure. Be aware that your lips may feel swollen just after warming up, so make sure you have plenty of time for them to loosen up before rehearsal begins. I personally like to warm up 30-45 minutes before rehearsal begins, and take at least a 5-10 minute break before the rehearsal.
  3. Get adequate sleep: The optimum amount for an individual will of course vary, but the usual recommendation is from 7 to 9 hours per night. For more information, see here.
  4. Drink lots of water: Being properly hydrated will help you stay focused and alert, among many other benefits. For more information, see here.
  5. Alternate Warm/Cool Compresses:  In the case of very stiff and/or swollen chops, alternating heat and cold can be helpful. For more information, see here. Other remedies I have heard of but not had much experience with personally are ibuprofen (for pain and/or swelling – if you have concerns, check with your physician first) and, believe it or not, popsicles.
  6. Know when to say when: Playing through pain or discomfort is NEVER a good idea, and it is  wise to lay out or at least back off on dynamics well before hitting your personal playing limit for the day. You only have one set of lips – take care of it!
  7. Make time for recovery: After all the services are finished, try to take it easy for a couple of days if at all possible. This means different things depending on the individual; for me it means a warm up and brief routine for 20-25 minutes for the next day or so after several days of heavy playing. I rarely take days off, but have found warm-up only days to be very helpful.

On that note, I’ll bring to a close my final post for 2015. Best wishes to everyone for safe and happy holidays, and a great start to the new year. Be sure to check this site in January, as I have several posts planned for 2016: more reviews, thoughts on time management, and an update on Solo Training for Horn, my forthcoming etude book from Mountain Peak Music.

Semester Preview: Fall 2015 Edition

back-to-school-20114097After posting a final update on the 47th International Horn Symposium, I decided to take a little break from blogging to focus on my preparations for the fall semester. The break turned out to be a little longer than expected, but I’m back now with my traditional semester preview. As always, a new academic year brings new opportunities and challenges, which I’m looking forward to. Here are some highlights from the coming semester.

Guest Artists: We are fortunate to have some excellent guest artists scheduled for recitals and master classes this fall. On October 5 and 6 we will host Dr. Justin Isenhour, Assistant Professor of Low Brass at Ouachita Baptist University and a member of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Isenhour and I attended Appalachian State University together, and I’m looking forward to hearing him play and watching him teach. In addition to his extensive performing and teaching activities, he is also a Level II certified Creative Motion® teacher. Dr. Isenhour was an incredible host during our visit to OBU last year, and it will be a pleasure to return the favor. The week after that we will host Dr. Gina Gillie, Associate Professor of Horn at Pacific Lutheran University. Dr. Gillie is a gifted performer and composer, and we attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison together. Dr. Gillie will perform a diverse program for horn and piano, including works by Saint-Saëns, Gliere, Scriabin, Gillie, Basler, and Mark Vallon. She was kind enough to ask me to join her on a performance of her new work, The Great Migration for Two Horns and Piano, published by RM Williams. I had the opportunity to hear her perform this piece at IHS 47 with Dr. Jeffrey Snedeker, and it sounded like fun!

Book Project – Solo Training for Horn: My big project for the next several months will be the companion book to Solo Duet Training for Horns. Though similar to the duet book, Solo Training will include much more “original” content, in the form of derivative exercises and etudes based on solo repertoire for the horn. I’m still in the preliminary planning stages, but the content will overlap some with Solo Duet Training. I’ll be posting updates here periodically, so if you’re interested in the new book check back often!

Recital Program – Music for Voice, Horn, and Piano: Breaking with my usual routine of scheduling a solo recital during the fall semester, my colleagues and I chose to push the program to the spring semester to allow more time to prepare. I’ve already begun practicing the music, and am very excited to perform again with Dr. Claire Vangelisti, soprano, and Dr. Richard Seiler, piano. We are planning to perform works by Reissiger, Berlioz, Panseron, Carrapatoso, and Nicolai, with the possible addition and/or substitution of Gina Gillie’s To the Seasons. I’ll post the final program here once it’s decided. In addition to our performance at ULM, we will also perform at Stephen F. Austin State University and the University of Texas at Tyler. More details as we get closer to the spring.

10 years of Full Time Teaching: This fall marks the beginning of my 10th year of full time college teaching, and I thought a few summary remarks were in order. Time has certainly flown, and it really doesn’t feel like I began teaching that long ago. Many things are different now than they were in the fall of 2006 – both at my institution and in my personal life – but I am continually grateful to be working with wonderful students and colleagues. My teaching and performing schedule is as busy as ever, and the big challenge for me now is to be as efficient as possible in my work and practice habits. Based on my observations of more experienced colleagues, I have come to the conclusion that sustaining a long and productive career depends upon balancing work and home life. Though not always easy, the rewards of doing so are well worth it.

As with last year, my creative efforts for the immediate future will be focused on a large project, which will limit my blogging. However, I have posts on a handful of topics in mind, including an interview as well as reviews of some new publications.

That’s all for now, but in closing I want to wish all my colleagues a great start to the new academic year!

Old Photos: An Early Embouchure Change

Going through a box of old photos recently, I came across a few pictures showing my embouchure setup from my early high school days. These photos were taken during the summer of 1996, and beginning that fall I made a pretty big adjustment to my mouthpiece placement. In the long run it was definitely the right choice, but I remember having to work for quite a while before things felt consistent again. At the time, I didn’t have access to an embouchure visualizer or clear plastic mouthpiece, but based on these photos (and my memory), my old setup looks like 1/2 top lip and 1/2 bottom lip, or possibly 1/3 top lip and 2/3 bottom, with a more or less straight lead pipe angle. One very clear memory I have from those days is that when ascending, the lead pipe angled up, resulting in more pressure on the top lip. Surprisingly, this did not seem to affect my high range, as I was able to play up to a high C regularly. embouchure1-1 Looking closely at the first photo, you can see a slight amount of “setting in” on the bottom lip, while in the second photo you can see that the corners of my mouth turn up noticeably. embouchure2-2 Though I had a good high range and pretty good endurance – I still have some practice recordings from those days – my low range and overall flexibility suffered, and I also had trouble producing a characteristic sound in both the high and low ranges. For these reasons, my private teacher (Dr. Karen Robertson of Appalachian State University) and I decided to make the switch to 2/3 top lip and 1/3 bottom lip, setting the mouthpiece against the bottom lip, rather than setting into it. This setup also seemed to fit my natural jaw structure, which has a slight overbite. Remembering back to the days just after making the switch, my tone and articulations improved, but my high range suffered some big setbacks. It took a long time to get it back, but in the end I still feel it was the right move to make. In the 19 years since then, I’ve made numerous minor adjustments and tweaks, all with the aim of playing more efficiently and effortlessly. My placement these days favors the top lip, probably closer to 3/4 top and 1/4 bottom. Here’s a short video showing how things look and sound now.

Though not to be taken lightly, I think that embouchure changes and mouthpiece adjustments are a normal, natural part of brass playing, especially as one ages and the lips change. For any students considering mouthpiece placement and/or embouchure changes, my advice is to consult with a knowledgeable teacher (possibly more than one), take things slowly, and persevere!

Remembering Gunther Schuller

Last month the musical world lost Gunther Schuller, an immensely talented artist with wide ranging interests (image linked from hornsociety.org). There have already been a number of excellent tributes to Mr. Schuller, including his obituary in the New York Times, and today I would like to share a few items in memory of him.

First, here is a summary of my previous interactions with Mr. Schuller, originally posted here.

Horn players are probably most familiar with him as the author of  Horn Technique, which has become a classic resource for players and teachers everywhere.  And though he is generally more recognized today as a composer, author, and conductor, Schuller began his musical career as a professional horn player, holding Principal positions with the Cincinnati Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera.  You can find another biography with more details on his performing career on the International Horn Society‘s site.  I’ve had the opportunity to work with Mr. Schuller several times over the years, first while attending the Brevard Music Center, where he ran an intensive two-week conductor’s workshop.  One of the BMC ensembles I played with that summer served as the “lab” orchestra for Mr. Schuller’s conducting students.  Schuller possesses an amazing ear, and is able to hear incredibly small details through even the thickest orchestrations.  It wasn’t always easy performing under his baton, but I certainly came away from the experience with a greater knowledge of music and musicianship.  Later, during doctoral work at UW-Madison, I got a chance to work with Schuller again as an assistant for a course he was teaching as a visiting lecturer.  The course was called simply “The Creative Process,” and involved a number of great discussions between Schuller and the students about composition and art in general.

Next, I have some brief excerpts recorded from lectures he gave during his residency at UW-Madison (mentioned in the above quote) in fall 2005. I was delighted to find these buried on an old hard drive, and have been fascinated (again) listening to Schuller’s thoughts on horn playing, creativity, and talent. These are only a small sampling of the materials – recorded with Schuller’s permission – and perhaps a way to share all of them can be worked out with his estate. Details for each excerpt are included below.

Gunther Schuller will certainly be missed, not just by his friends and family, but also by the numerous performers, composers, and other musicians with whom he worked during his long and productive career. As a horn player, I can think of no better way to remember and honor him than by performing some of his music. Here’s a listing of several of his solo and chamber works which involve the horn.

  • Concerto No. 1 for Horn and Orchestra
  • Trio [oboe, horn, viola]
  • Suite for Woodwind Quintet
  • Lines and Contrasts [16 horns]
  • Music for Brass Quintet
  • Studies for Unaccompanied Horn
  • Duets for Unaccompanied Horns
  • Double Quintet [brass quintet, woodwind quintet]
  • Wood Curtain Raiser [flute, clarinet, horn, piano]
  • Diptych for Brass Quintet and Orchestra
  • Five Pieces for Five Horns
  • Little Brass Music [trumpet, horn, trombone, tuba]
  • Wind Quintet
  • Concerto No. 2 for Horn and Orchestra
  • Octet [clarinet, bassoon, horn, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass]
  • Trois Hommages  [horn and piano]
  • Three Pieces for Horn and Violin
  • Blues  [brass quintet, bass, and drums]
  • Nocturne for Horn and Piano
  • Sonata for Horn and Piano
  • Romantic Sonata [clarinet, horn, piano]
  • Impromptus and Cadenzas [bassoon, clarinet, horn, oboe, violin, cello]
  • Brass Quintet No. 1
  • Brass Quintet No. 2
  • Sextet for Left Hand Piano and Woodwind Quintet
  • Ohio River Reflections [horn, violin, viola, piano]
  • Quodlibet [oboe, horn, violin, cello, harp]
  • Quintet for Horn and Strings

A Recital Video and Some “New Year’s” Resolutions

Here’s a brief two-part post for today.

First is a video recording of a live performance from June 2013 of Sweet Rustica, by the Portuguese composer Eurico Carrapatoso. I’ve written previously about Carrapatoso and his music (here , here, and here), so I won’t add too much other than to say that if you don’t know his music for horn you really should check it out. Though the title is fanciful, his Sweet Rustica is a very substantial work for both players. At six movements and nearly 20 minutes long, this major work is suitable for advanced undergraduate or graduate level recitals. For ordering information and program notes, visit my YouTube video directly or the Editions Bim website.

For part two I’ve put together a modest list of resolutions for the upcoming academic year. While I do celebrate the new calendar year on January 1st, August and September usually feel more like the beginning of a new year to me. To get the year started on an upbeat and productive note, here are my resolutions.

  • Limit email time. I’ve read numerous articles describing the negative effects of excessive email checking on productivity (here’s one, for example, and another one), and I fell into that trap last year. From the first hour of  the day I powered up my computer and logged into my campus email account. Not only was it distracting, but it started off my day in a stressful, frenetic way. NO MORE. As suggested in this article, from now on I’m going to build in specific times during the day to check and respond to email messages, and the rest of the time I’m going to focus on the projects I was supposed to be working on in the first place. In addition, I’ve disabled the email and facebook banners and notifications on my phone. New messages will still show up, but only when I choose to check my accounts.
  • Take more timeouts. This resolution is related to my first one, and I hope it will result in a more focused and productive (but less stressful) working day. Here’s a great online tool for taking a brief break. http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/
  • Exercise and eat a balanced diet. For some personal reasons I won’t get into here I have also begun (re)focusing on regular exercise and a balanced diet. I generally eat healthily and do not lead a sedentary lifestyle, so this isn’t a major change for me, but rather a more systematic approach to things I was already doing.

They might not seem like much, but I think these three resolutions will have a very positive impact during this school year. In fact, they already have as I have been gradually working them into my summer routine. Do you have any resolutions for this academic year? Feel free to share in the comments section below. To all my friends and colleagues out there – here’s to the beginning of another great year!

The Road to Recovery: An Interview with Bruce Atwell

bruceatwellIn the world of horn playing, Bruce Atwell has done it all. He’s performed in high level professional ensembles – the Philadelphia Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, and Milwaukee Symphony, to name a few – recorded multiple solo CDs, performed at numerous workshops and conferences, and taught at the college level. He is currently Professor of Horn at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and maintains a very active performing career. I got to know Bruce while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and performed with him in the Oshkosh Symphony. His playing was always inspiring, and accompanied by a positive and encouraging attitude. Recently, I found out that Bruce had undergone lip surgery, and was in the process of getting back into shape. Since this was a topic that I felt would be of interest to other horn and brass players, I contacted him and asked if he would be willing to talk about this experience in a brief interview. Bruce generously agreed to share his thoughts, and responded with great candor.

James Boldin: In 2012 you had surgery on your lip. Could you share some background on why you had this procedure?

Bruce Atwell: Starting in 2010 I noticed a callus on the center inside of my upper lip-exactly at the vibrating surface. I tried not playing for several weeks but saw no change in the callus. I spent the next year talking to various doctors, dentists, oral surgeons, and dermatologists about the possible cause and treatment options. Most of the people I saw had no idea what had caused it and did not have recommendations for treatment. I saw a dentist in Chicago (John Kelly) who has experience with brass players. His analysis was that from years of playing, the skin on my upper lip had stretched and was now hanging down and rubbing against the bottom of my front teeth, causing the callus. He suggested using Invisalign to cushion against further damage. I tried this, but had no success in eliminating the callus. During the time my playing was becoming less and less reliable. The vibration would stop without warning and I was losing upper register. After two years of searching I finally decided that surgery was the only option.

JB: How helpful were your care providers (doctors, nurses, etc.) in explaining the procedure, and its possible effects on your horn playing? Did you consult with any other horn teachers/players before deciding to have surgery?

BA: I made a large mistake in this area. My insurance would not cover a surgeon out of network-meaning I only had access to a local oral surgeon who had no experience working with brass players. I was desperate at the time, so decided to trust him. He did warn me that he wasn’t sure what the end result would be in terms of playing. Initially, he said it would be a small incision. However, once he started the surgery, he decide that a longer incision was necessary. I now believe I should have seen Dr. Vander Kolk in Baltimore or at least a plastic surgeon locally to do the procedure.

JB: Do you know of any other horn or brass players who have had the same or a similar surgery?

BA:  I know of several who have had the orbicularis orbis repair done-but I haven’t encountered anyone with this same issue. With the former, the incision is on the skin between the lip and the nose-not directly in the lip.

JB: Was it a fairly simple procedure?  Inpatient or Outpatient? Local or general anesthetic?

BA: My incision was about three inches long right along the wet/dry line. It was outpatient under local anesthesia.

JB: How long did you wait after the surgery before you resumed playing?

BA: I waited about two months before playing anything. It was at least six months before I could really accept professional work.

JB: Did you, or do you, experience any residual pain or numbness after the surgery?

BA: I don’t have any pain or numbness. I do have scar tissue along the incision line that I think is now permanent. This restricts flexibility somewhat and has affected endurance and range. I used to be a high horn specialist (although I played fourth horn professionally for several years) with a range up to about concert C above the staff. Now I only have about a concert G and that is not particularly reliable.

JB: What kinds of materials/exercises did you practice when you resumed playing? Would you recommend these materials/exercises to other players recovering from injuries or medical procedures?

BA: I tried everything I could think of. I started with long tones and soft slurs through the harmonic series. I also contacted Lucinda Lewis and received some advice from her concerning blocked buzzing. I found that useful, but you have to be very careful with that, since in my case it caused me to play with too much tension. I’ve also had lessons with Bill Vermeulen, Gail Williams, Dan Grabois, and Wendell Rider and spoken to numerous other brass players. The best routine I’ve found is Wendell’s harmonic series exercises, following Bill’s and Gail’s advice to use only the minimum amount of embouchure tension to achieve each harmonic. This has resulted in gains in range and endurance-although I’m still far from 100 per cent.

JB: Aside from playing the horn, have you done any other type of physical therapy to aid in your recovery?

BA: I also saw a chiropractor who did Active Release Therapy- a type of massage to break up scar tissue. This was effective for the left side of my lip, but unfortunately was not successful in breaking up the scar tissue in the center. I am also speaking to a plastic surgeon about the possibility of having a lip filler injected in very small amounts to replace some of the tissue that was cut out.

JB: How, if at all, has your physical and/or mental approach to playing the horn changed during your recovery process?

BA: I am forced to focus much more on breathing and relaxation now. I’ve also gone back to the three well-spaced hours of practice I used to do as a student. Mentally, I still have days of extreme frustration, but I try to keep it in perspective.

JB: Did you consult with any other physicians or occupational/physical therapists during your recovery? If so, were they helpful?

BA: I did speak to Dr. Vander Kolk in Baltimore recently. He said he would be happy to see me, but didn’t really know if he could offer any more solutions at this point.

JB: Do you have any advice for other brass players who might be considering lip surgery or going through post-surgery recovery?

BA: I would strongly advise against lip surgery. I think there were other options available to me that I did not consider fully-such as an extended layoff (a year or so)-or trying different methods of playing-minimal pressure, shifting pressure to the lower lip, etc.I was resistant to a long layoff because of the financial implications-but the end result is much worse that if I had simply given up work for a year or more.  The surgery has permanently altered the structure of my lip and I’m still not sure if I will ever completely recover. Even if I am able to regain more playing ability, it will never feel the same-I don’t believe horn playing will ever be effortless for me again.

JB: Any other comments you would like to share?

BA: Don’t make decisions like this when you are in the middle of the problem. Try to get rational advice from friends and colleagues and listen to them. Try an extended period of not playing first. Then come back very slowly and carefully under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Editor’s Note: For those interested in following his story, Bruce regularly posts updates on his progress to the Horn People group on facebook.

Hiatus

My wife and I recently welcomed our first child into the world, so I’ll be taking a hiatus from posting new content for the next month or so. The Job Postings page will continue to be updated on a monthly basis, and I plan to resume regular posting by the end of the summer. For the time being, feel free to peruse the 450+ articles on the site, as well as the resources, audio, and video pages.

Looking ahead, keep an eye out over the next few months for posts on upcoming recitals, the 45th International Horn Symposium, and the release of my solo CD, Koetsier: Music for Horn.

Solo Bucket List

Over the past several years I’ve been compiling a “bucket list” of solo works that I have previously worked on, but never performed. Some of them are major works in the repertoire that for one reason or another I haven’t yet had the opportunity to perform, while others are less well known but still worthwhile. A solo bucket list comes in very handy when programming recitals, especially if I am looking for one or two more works to fill out a program. At some point in the future it might also be really fun to put together an entire recital from the list. Here’s a small sampling of my list, in no particular order.

  • Ferdinand Ries, Sonata in F
  • Francis Poulenc, Elegie
  • Eric Ewazen, Sonata
  • Richard Bissell, Lone Call and Charge
  • Paul Basler, Canciones
  • Douglas Hill, Song Suite in Jazz Style
  • Carl Maria von Weber, Concertino
  • G.P. Telemann, Concerto in D
  • Camille Saint-Säens, Romance, Op. 67 (Not the more common Op. 36 Romance)
  • Christoph Förster, Concerto in E-flat
  • Benjamin Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Ries_1

I practiced some of these pieces quite extensively in graduate school but never performed them – Douglas Hill’s Song Suite, for instance – but others I’ve really only read through a couple of times, like the Sonata in F by Ferdinand Ries (cover image at left). Ries was a contemporary of Beethoven, and there are some striking similarities between their horn sonatas. It’s a great piece in its own right, and is definitely near the top of my “to be performed soon” list. One interesting note about my copy is the signatures on the cover. This copy belonged first (I assume) to John Barrows, and then Nancy Becknell, who taught alongside Douglas Hill at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During my doctoral studies Ms. Becknell donated several boxes of music to Professor Hill’s current horn students, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on this edition of the Ries sonata.

If you haven’t started putting together your own bucket list you might want to do so, as it can come in handy later in your career. And of course you don’t have to stop at solo works. Feel free to include chamber music and other appropriate literature as well. What’s on your bucket list?

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.

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