Brass Pedagogy Interview Questions

Earlier this semester I was contacted by David Mercedes, a doctoral tuba student at the University of Iowa, with several interview questions for his Advanced Brass Pedagogy course with Professor Jeffrey Agrell. David had some very insightful questions, and I have shared these (and my candid responses) below, with David’s permission. The questions are similar, though not exactly the same, as those posted by John Ericson at Horn Matters. I assume both projects are for the same pedagogy class – BRAVO to David Mercedes, Professor Agrell, and the rest of the Advanced Brass Pedagogy class on a fantastic project!

During your years of collegiate teaching, what do you think you have brought to your studios that has been most valuable to them?

I think I’ve brought a variety of professional experiences as well as enthusiasm and passion for what I do.

What is the best way you motivate your students?

Leading by example! I never ask students to do anything I don’t already do or have done in the past. I try to be as excited as I can about whatever it is that they/we/I are doing, with the hope that my excitement is contagious. Attitudes are contagious, and having a positive attitude is one of the most important attributes you can bring to your teaching.

How do you work with students who don’t seem to be motivated, and are complacent with not progressing as a musician?

I try to find something that they are interested in, whatever that may be, and use that as a conversation starter. Students almost always have something they are passionate about, and I try to help them transfer some of that passion to their musical studies. I ask them to provide both long and short-term goals, and we use that as a basis for materials and strategies covered in lessons.

What are some of your recruiting strategies?

Recruiting has been and continues to be a major component of my current position. Here is a short list:

  • Regular visits to local schools
  • Recruiting tours with other brass faculty
  • Develop a robust, professional online identity through website, social media, YouTube videos, etc.
  • Email, hand-written letters to prospective students
  • Annual on-campus recruiting events (Brass Day, Horn Day, etc.)
  • Building relationships with local music educators

How strict is your personal practice plan? What makes you stick to it, and how often do you change it?

I’m fairly regimented in this area, although age and experience have taught me to be more flexible. I strive for 2 hours of focused practice throughout a work day, unless rehearsals, performances, or other obligations prevent it. I enjoy practicing and learning new repertoire, and that’s what keeps me motivated. I am almost always planning a future program in my mind and thinking over repertoire choices.

How did you go about getting invited to perform at festivals, conferences and other institutions?

Persistence – keep applying for as many of them as you can and eventually your proposals will be accepted. Ask for feedback on your proposals from others who have been successful in applying for those festivals/conferences. Cultivate relationships with people in and out of your field – you never know when those relationships may bear fruit. Be a GOOD PERSON.

What advice would you have for someone who is looking to follow a career path like yours?

Stay interested in what you do, and stay positive. Figure out what it is that you do well, and continue to improve on those things. You can’t do everything, and no one expects you to. Seek out others who are doing the same kinds of things you are and ask them questions about their success, failure, etc. Be honest with yourself and your capabilities – this is very important in avoiding burnout. Try to avoid over-committing yourself. Be especially careful in how you represent yourself on social media. This is incredibly important today.

What is a typical day like for you?

It really varies depending on my teaching and performing schedule. I almost always start the day with some meditation and breathing exercises, followed by a warm-up/maintenance routine. I feel like if I can get that part completed early in the day then I am well-prepared for whatever challenges come my way.

What is the on – campus interview like?

Varies depending on the position and duties, but here are some general components.

  • One or more meetings/meals with the search committee
  • Exit meeting with search committee
  • Q&A with faculty/students
  • Meetings with various administrators
  • Master class and teaching demonstration
  • Rehearsal with collaborative pianist and a recital performance, hopefully not on the same day.
  • Reading session with faculty ensembles (if applicable)

These can be stressful, and you should make sure you take time throughout the day or days that you are there to relax and have a little time to yourself. Remember that from the time you are picked up at the airport until the time you leave that you are being interviewed. The members of the search committee will probably be very relaxed and social with you and each other, which is a good thing, but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security about your words and actions. Always represent yourself as positively as possible!

What do you think has been your biggest challenge as a musician?

Balancing the physical demands of playing with achieving musical goals. I tend to be an analytical player, which is helpful as a teacher and performer, but can sometimes get in the way.

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!

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.

Etude Talk: Interview for the HornZone

Kyle Hayes, Memphis-area freelancer and editor of the International Horn Society’s HornZone, recently contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to share a few thoughts about etudes (image at right linked from the HornZone page at I was glad to do so, and the following is the result of our conversation. It should be appearing very soon on the actual HornZone page, but with Kyle’s approval I am also posting the interview here. After you read this, be sure to check out all of the other great content at the HornZone! N.B. I have done some minor editing of the text I submitted to Kyle, and added the relevant hyperlinks to the etude lists at the end.

Etude Talk: Interview for the Hornzone, International Horn Society

Hornzone: How do you know what each etude is trying to teach?

James Boldin: In some cases – Kopprasch, for example – it’s pretty obvious what the composer is focusing on in a particular study. It might be arpeggios, scales, various kinds of articulations, or a combination thereof. In others – an extended concert etude, for instance – the focus might be on several different things at once, or it might shift during the course of the etude. In that case, it’s beneficial to concentrate on one section at a time, working out the specific difficulties in each one. Looking at the question from a broader perspective, the best way to improve at interpreting a composer’s intentions is to study music history and theory as well as take private lessons. This will train your ear and eye to recognize patterns and see the “big picture.”

HZ: How do you practice etudes? (Compare Kopprasch to Maxime-Alphonse.)

JB: I don’t know that I would necessarily practice Kopprasch or Maxime-Alphonse differently. I guess I’ve never really thought of it that way. One time-tested method that seems to work for practicing just about anything requiring speed and/or technique is to proceed s-l-o-w-l-y, gradually increasing tempo. The results may be almost imperceptible at first, but it really does work. Another effective way to practice is to spend more time on the difficult passages, and less time on the things you can already play. That might seem like an obvious statement, but students often fall into the trap of playing something over and over that they can already play and call it “practice.” There is, of course, a time and place to play through entire works without stopping – during the final stages of preparing for an audition, concert, or recital – but during the learning process I think it’s more efficient to focus on the challenges. In both Kopprasch and Maxime-Alphonse, there will be passages that you can execute easily on the first time through, and also passages that will need to be picked apart and practiced over and over to achieve proficiency. It is those difficult passages that should occupy the majority of your practice time. Playing through the entire etude should be done only once the difficult passages have been more or less mastered. Some unoriginal, but still highly effective, methods I use are mouthpiece buzzing unfamiliar/awkward intervals, slurring a tongued passage and vice versa, changing/alternating the rhythms, and working backwards from the end of a difficult measure or group of measures.

HZ: If we aren’t students but we still want to practice (adult amateurs), how do we know when we have studied an etude well enough to know that it’s time to move on?

JB: This is a great question! If you’re like me, when you first started taking lessons you knew it was time to move on to another etude when your teacher said so. As I progressed through lessons at the graduate level, and certainly once I got out of school, I began to take more responsibility for the repertoire I covered, looking into as many different kinds of etudes as I could, and working out of several books at once. The longer I’ve been out of school and away from regular lessons, the more I’ve had to rely on my own judgment about what to study and for how long. I think as long as you are having fun and not getting too bored or frustrated you should stick with an etude or series of etudes for as long as you like. Variety is good too. As great as Kopprasch is, horn players can’t subsist on it alone. Try combining lyrical etudes, Concone for example, with technical ones like Kopprasch. It’s also fun and motivating to set personal goals for yourself, and then to move on afterwards. For instance, you might pick a future date and say “I will prepare this etude to the best of my ability by then and move on to another one.” One reason I started video recording the Kopprasch etudes was to give myself a tangible goal to work towards in my preparation of each study.

HZ: In the case of professionals that are just keeping themselves in shape, do you study a few every day or every week and then move on?

JB:  Yes, similar to what I said in the previous question. I will also pull out etudes I’ve worked on in the past and use them for maintenance or diagnostic purposes. I also like to rotate through etudes I’ve studied previously and new ones. They can either be new publications I’m looking at for review or teaching purposes, or classic studies that I just haven’t gotten around to yet.

HZ: In the case of etudes like Gallay’s 12 grands études brillantes, Op.43, since they aren’t designed as a training tool but for performing, how would you approach them?

JB:  For the technical problems I would prepare them in much the same way as any other etude, and definitely break them up into smaller sections. Musically speaking they could be approached like an unaccompanied solo, going for maximum contrast and expression. You might also take a few more liberties with tempo, including pauses for dramatic effect as well. I really like Michel Garcin-Marrou’s edition of these, published by Gérard Billaudot. He includes some great information for historically informed performances of Gallay’s music.

HZ: When it comes to practicing etudes to help you learn music and excerpts, how do you know what to pick? (Example, Opening to Ein Heldenleben, Shostakovich 5, low tutti part in mvt 1, Beethoven 9, 4th horn solo.)

JB: It’s a really good idea to make your own exercises or etudes out of the difficult passages in the orchestral and/or solo literature. A great example of doing this can be found in Randy Gardner’s book Mastering the Horn’s Low Register, published by International Opus. In addition, you want to keep practicing a variety of different kinds of etudes; Kopprasch, Maxime-Alphonse, Reynolds, Gallay, etc. They all are good for different things, and the more etude books you have experience with the better you’ll be at choosing appropriate studies for yourself or your students. For orchestral music specifically, Maxime-Alphonse has a few studies, Franz Strauss has a set of concert etudes on themes from Beethoven, and more recently, Brett Miller has a created a series of new etudes based on orchestral music by Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, and Russian composers. These are available digitally through the International Horn Society’s Online Music Sales, Jeff Agrell published a great index to technical etudes in the October, 2007 issue of The Horn Call. The list organizes etudes into twenty-seven categories, ranging from accuracy to echo horn. Ricardo Matosinhos has also created a website dedicated to horn etudes at It’s a wonderful resource, very detailed and easy to use, and he updates it regularly.

HZ: What etudes would you recommend to be learned by 7th/8th graders, 9/10th graders, 11/12th as a part of their band programs (for the directors to assign for individual practice/playing tests)?

JB: There are a number of good etude books available today, including new editions of classic collections as well as newly composed studies. I think the best approach is to work out of at least a couple of different books at the same time, although there are several one volume collections that cover a variety of issues. Here are just a few of many possibilities. Directors should feel free to adjust or modify things depending on the ability level of each student.

7th/8th Grade:

9th/10th Grade:

11th/12th Grade:

The Week in Review: Eli Epstein’s New Video, A Radio Interview, and More

In lieu of a more cohesive post this week, here are a few random highlights that you might find interesting.

A New YouTube Video by Eli Epstein: Eli Epstein is a big name in the horn world, both for his captivating playing as well as his insightful teaching. It was my pleasure to review his new book Horn Playing from the Inside Out, and I’m also very excited to share this new instructional video. Subtitled “Finger Breathing,” this nearly 20 minute lesson with Mr. Epstein ties together the major concepts from his book in one easily understood exercise. Although I have seen other pedagogues utilize the finger breath, I had not seen it used in this way before. In addition to demonstrating three different variations on the finger breath exercise, Mr. Epstein also performs several standard orchestral excerpts. It’s worth watching the video just to hear his playing!

Radio Interview Promo for My New CD: Here’s a brief interview with our local public radio station (90.3 KEDM) discussing my new solo CD. There are some nice excerpts here from the CD that you won’t find anywhere else! Special thanks to my colleague and friend Dr. Jason Rinehart for setting up the interview.

2013-06-24 14.26.27International Horn Symposium Mobile App: Ok, this probably doesn’t qualify as recent news, but the 45th International Horn Symposium is a little over a month away. In addition to the usual all-star lineup of performers, clinicians, and exhibitors, this year’s symposium may be the most technologically advanced one yet, thanks to symposium host and IHS webmaster Dr. Dan Phillips. The event website looks great – and, more importantly, is very functional – but on top of that the symposium boasts a free mobile app by Bloodhound. I haven’t explored all of the features yet, but at first glance it looks like it will be very useful in navigating the various venues and events at the symposium. The screenshot above shows the first couple of events on the first day.

Have Horn, Will Travel: An Interview with Lauren Robinson, Part 2

This Part 2 of a 2-part interview with Lauren Robinson, a professional horn player living and working in Denmark. Read Part 1 here.

You’ve been active in music education as well, working as a teaching artist for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s School Partnership Program. Can you talk a little bit about this program and your experiences with it?

First of all, I believe every musician should be required to read Eric Booth’s fantastic book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible. Seriously, go read it. Now.

These days, it’s really not enough to just play great. We are all required to be ambassadors for our art. I do not know a single musician who doesn’t also teach and/or do some sort of outreach. I was lucky enough to teach for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s School Partnership Program on a weekly basis in various public elementary schools in Philadelphia. Over the four years that I worked in this program, I worked in three different schools with students in grades 2 through 5 doing engaging music activities every week. I partnered with the classroom teachers for this, which means that I was in their everyday classroom, not their music classroom. Students would come to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, as well as other concerts in the Philadelphia area. We did all sorts of things– cross curricular activities tying orchestral music into something they were learning in their literacy classes, for example. Or learning the theme to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony on the recorder. Students did a lot of group work with compositional techniques. The sky was really the limit, and I really got to be creative with my lesson planning.

This program is based on the idea that we must engage our audiences before we inform them. Get people of all ages involved in the process and they’ll be more invested in the result. Some of the work that I am most proud of as a musician came from working with these teachers and kids, bringing them into the world of orchestral music

I could go on about this program and the importance of audience engagement for quite awhile, but rather than me jabbering, why don’t you all just go buy the book??

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

I’ve been truly blessed to have some great teachers on the horn. Cindy Carr, Doug Hill, and Adam Unsworth are my formal teachers and I’ve taken a great deal from studying with each of them. I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration from Denise Tryon and Froydis Wekre. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Sarah Willis but she’s also someone I really admire.

Do you do anything physical (besides practice!) to keep your horn playing in shape?

I practice yoga and run. I enjoy the yoga because it clears my head and helps to stretch my body after long hours of playing. Studies repeatedly show that sitting is one of the hardest things for our bodies, and in an orchestra, you do a lot of it! Yoga can also really help with core strength, which just helps everything. It helps with sitting for long hours, it helps with holding the horn, it helps with awareness of your body. I would really encourage brass players to try it, and make sure you try lots of different teachers and styles of yoga if you aren’t sure about it at first.

I also took up running about two years ago. I’m not fast by any means, but I have found that cardiovascular activity REALLY helps my playing. I find that I breath more efficiently on my horn when I’ve been running regularly, even if I’m not going huge distances. I completed my first half marathon last year and run the occasional road race. I often put symphonic repertoire on my playlist while I run, so it has the added bonus of being a time to listen to some of what’s coming up. (This has mixed results, sometimes the slow movements just aren’t great to run to!)

 Any other projects you want to talk about?

In 2011, I started a chamber music festival in British Columbia, where my husband Jeff has some roots. I actually have ceded control of the festival to a colleague of mine since moving to Denmark, but I still want to talk a little about it because it ties in with a lot of what we’re talking about here.

When I started out freelancing, I didn’t feel like I got to play chamber music on a really high level. And I found, talking to my friends, that they felt very much the same. My husband’s family has a condo in Invermere, British Columbia and Jeff and I had remarked for a long time that it would be a great place for a summer music festival. So sometime in the winter of 2011, I decided to start a festival. I had no idea what I was doing because I’d never done anything like that before. But I just picked up the phone and started making some calls to the local arts organizations and to my friends who I thought might want to come play music and hang out on the lakeshore when we weren’t rehearsing.

I think, in hindsight, what happened was that I had become so wrapped up in auditions and working as a freelancer that I didn’t have much of my own direction. And I realized that if I wanted to play chamber music in the summer, then I couldn’t just sit around and wait for the phone to ring. No one else was going to start that festival, and I knew it was a great idea and there was an audience for it. And I was right. And it is a TON of work, but it was also fantastic, and rewarding, and it was MINE. I could program what I wanted, hire who I wanted, it was GREAT. Unfortunately, moving to Europe really made running the festival unrealistic, but I’ve been invited to play in a chamber ensemble here in Denmark that I’m very excited about that is starting up this summer. And I already feel like I’m able to take a lot of the things I learned from my own festival and apply them here.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Sure, as long as you’re giving me a soapbox to stand on, I’ll take it.

Winning a job in an orchestra is not easy. Preparing for auditions is a skill set all on its own. And you have to be intense about the process, and relentless for it to pay off.

Whether it’s because of the process or because of schooling, many musicians believe that winning an orchestra job is the be-all and end-all. They believe it is going to be the key to their happiness, that the world will just be a better place once they win that job. To be perfectly clear: I love my job. I have great colleagues. I love playing orchestral repertoire. Going to work is not a chore for me. But being in an orchestra also means that you have to give up a lot of control. You don’t get to choose the repertoire. You don’t get to choose the hours. It’s a grind and it’s a JOB sometimes. You are a cog in the wheel of an organization that has the potential to be MAGICAL. Playing Mahler or Mozart or Beethoven– it’s a gift. But that’s not always what an orchestra job is, week in and week out. I know a lot of musicians who are severely disappointed that winning a job didn’t suddenly solve all of their problems.

What I’ve noticed about both freelance musicians and those with full time orchestra jobs is that the ones that are the happiest are the ones who have many projects. For example, teaching, chamber music, playing in a band, non-musical hobbies, sports, WHATEVER. Find out what’s important to you musically, and find other people who also want to do that. Sometimes it isn’t something that you do for financial gain. (And that can be the great thing about an orchestra job– it’ll give you the security to pursue other projects outside of the orchestra.) My point, though, is that sometimes if things aren’t great at work, or you have a bad day teaching, or one project just isn’t coming together, you can still look to the other stuff for inspiration. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that an orchestra job will solve your problems. It won’t. But it’s a fantastic way to make a living.

Thanks so much for the opportunity, James! Hope I wasn’t too long-winded!

Have Horn, Will Travel: An Interview with Lauren Robinson, Part 1

laurenrobinsonI recently reconnected over Facebook with Lauren Robinson, a friend and colleague from graduate school. I feel very lucky to have gone to school with some incredibly talented and hardworking musicians, who inspired me then and continue to inspire me today. Lauren currently lives in Denmark, where she plays Fourth Horn with the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra. Prior to moving overseas, she was an active freelancer in Philadelphia, performing as a regular musician in the Opera Company of Philadelphia, The Reading Symphony Orchestra, Symphony in C and the Ocean City Pops. She was also active as a teaching artist, working primarily for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s School Partnership Program. Lauren very graciously accepted my invitation to write down some of her thoughts about living and performing outside the U.S., freelance playing, and the life of a professional horn player. She shared some wonderful advice for students, teachers, and professionals alike. Thanks Lauren!

You recently won an audition for the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in Denmark. Could you talk briefly about your background, and how you arrived in your current position?

Sure! I grew up in central PA, came through a good music program in high school, and ultimately decided to major in music at the University of Delaware, where I studied with Cindy Carr. After that, I got my Master’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I studied with Douglas Hill. After that, I decided to head back east and got a Professional Studies Certificate at Temple University, where I studied with Adam Unsworth (who now teaches at University of Michigan.) After all that, I won a one year position in the Calgary Philharmonic where I met my husband Jeff, who plays the bass. And after a few years of long distance relationship, we got married. Jeff took a sabbatical from his job in Calgary for the 2011-12 orchestra season and we both won positions here in the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in May 2012.

What was the audition process for this orchestra? How did it compare to the audition system in the United States?

Auditions here are essentially the same as in the United States. There’s a screen, you receive the list ahead of time (although often you don’t receive the excerpt list until 2 weeks beforehand, which is quite different from American orchestras.) There’s a much greater emphasis placed on solo playing here, and there is almost always an accompanist provided at auditions. My first round was the Hermann Neuling Bagatelle for horn and piano. This is a very common piece on low horn auditions in Europe, but we almost never play it in the States. There were no excerpts at all on my first round. The second round was the entire first movement of Mozart 3 (including the cadenza) and one or two excerpts. Then the last round was entirely excerpts.

Actually, if I remember correctly, for the last round they just said “Play everything on the list that you haven’t already played for us, in any order you want.” I remember thinking at the time that I could really get into my own head and start arranging excerpts in the most convenient way, strategizing about which should be first, last, etc. (There were at least 10 excerpts left to play at that point.) But then I had this realization that the best thing to do was just go in order, start to finish. Realistically, if I didn’t know how to play the excerpts, I wasn’t going to trick anyone by playing them in a different order.

Generally, I think the committees are larger here. There were at least ten people on my committee for 4th horn. And principal positions are usually no less than 15 people. One major difference is that our music director has no say in the hiring of musicians here, so he is not even allowed to sit on committees. Of course these things can vary from orchestra to orchestra. I can only speak from my own experiences.

Are there any other differences you’ve noticed performing in an orchestra outside the United States?

Honestly, not really. Orchestras are all basically the same wherever you go. There are small stylistic things that I sometimes think are slightly more “European” but they’re hard to exactly put a finger on. I might have a better answer to this after some more time passes.

Since this is a horn blog, I’ll nerd out for a second here about equipment. There are 8 full time orchestras in Denmark, including the opera orchestra. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a single section with a preference toward equipment. In my section, we are a Cornford, Paxman, Lewis, and Hill. We all just play what works best for us, which I think is a valuable piece of advice for horn students: get the equipment that makes you the most comfortable, that works the best, and makes you sound the way you want.

 What about major differences between life in Denmark vs. life in the United States?

Well, I’m learning to speak Danish!! That’s sort of fun. We are a very international orchestra, with about half of the orchestra coming from outside of Denmark. And Denmark is a pretty small country, so we rehearse in Danish when we have a Danish conductor. But frankly, that’s probably fewer than 10 weeks a year. So at work, English is mostly the language of rehearsals. Orchestra meetings and correspondence are all in Danish, though. So it’s important to learn it just to keep up with what’s going on and feel like you are a full member of the ensemble.

I just read your interview with Daren Robbins (Part 1 and Part 2) and one thing he said about Thailand really resonated with me as an expat. While Denmark is certainly much more like America than Thailand is, living abroad comes with a lot of challenges. Work permits and immigration, being far from home in a new country… sometimes the smallest thing can turn into a big deal because of small misunderstandings. But if you’re the type of person who likes a challenge and is adventurous, there are a lot of great opportunities in orchestras outside of America.

You also have extensive experience as a freelancer in the Philadelphia area. Do you have any advice for players looking to get into freelance work?

I feel like a lot of people come out of music school expecting that they are going to win a big job in a big orchestra. And the harsh reality is that only a tiny fraction of those people will even come CLOSE to winning a full time orchestra job. So the rest of you are going to have to find a way to make a living making music. A lot of people treat freelancing like a crappy consolation prize, but I really enjoyed freelancing in many ways and miss certain aspects of it.

When you’re a freelancer, you certainly have less stability– you don’t get your schedule ahead of time and sometimes the money can get a little dicey. But you also don’t have to sit next to the same people all the time. You have more control over your schedule. There’s a much wider variety of things you find yourself doing and projects that you find yourself involved with as a freelancer. It can be a lot of driving depending on where you are, and it can be a really tough schedule with few breaks or days off. But keeping a good attitude about it can make all the difference. A few practical pieces of advice:

When you first start out, take EVERYTHING that comes your way. Even if it seems inconsequential, like a church gig that pays $20. You don’t know who you are going to meet at those gigs, and you have to start making connections somewhere. Eventually, as you (hopefully) climb the freelancing ladder, you won’t feel like you have to take everything and you can be more discerning. Every gig is an opportunity to make a good impression, both with your playing and your professionalism.

And speaking of professionalism… My basic rule for those just starting out (and those who’ve been in it for awhile, too!) is “Don’t be annoying.” Here are a few things that are annoying and should be avoided:

  1. Showing up late. Nothing says “this job isn’t important to me” like not showing up on time. Yes, things happen that you absolutely couldn’t anticipate. I’m not talking about those events. If you’re leaving Philly at 4:30 on a Friday, it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s traffic. Leave MORE than enough time to get where you are going.
  2. Playing with your phone during rests and tacets. I don’t care if regular members of the group are on their phone. If you are a sub, keep it offstage. Your Facebook can wait until break.
  3. Practicing your concertos and excerpts for your next audition while everyone else is warming up. Yes, you sound very nice on Pavane and Ein Heldenleben, but we’re playing a pops concert and you’re being annoying. Practice at home. Use the stage time before rehearsal to double check the parts you are actually playing and make sure you sound good on the things you’ll actually be judged on.
  4. Not knowing your part. Come on, people, in the age of iTunes and Spotify, you’re telling me you really haven’t heard it? There is no excuse for this. Period.
  5. Acting like you’re too good for the gig. Be nice, be friendly, be a good sport. I don’t need you to be a cheerleader, but don’t roll your eyes or complain.

Remember, once you’ve blown the chance to show someone that you are prepared and professional, you don’t get that opportunity back.

Know that you can be replaced. No one is obligated to call you, and there is always someone behind you who would be HAPPY for the work.

Check back soon for Part 2!

%d bloggers like this: