Kentucky/Ohio Tour and Technology Presentation

James Boldin, Jacob Coleman, Jeremy Marks (photo by Bradley Kerns)

October has been, and will continue to be, a busy month, with concerts and other activities happening every week. Last week my colleague Jeremy Marks and I shared a faculty recital at ULM (performance videos coming soon), and then traveled to the University of Kentucky in Lexington and Ohio University in Athens for some additional performances and masterclasses with their students. A huge thanks to our generous hosts Bradley Kerns, David Elliott, Lucas Borges, C. Scott Smith, Joseph Brown, and Laura Brown, for their hospitality and kindness during a very busy part of the semester. Both schools have very fine music programs – there is some great teaching and playing going on in the horn and trombone studios there! In addition to performing and teaching at these schools, I also gave a brief talk called “Technology and Horn Playing.” In my correspondence with David Elliott at the University of Kentucky prior to our visit, he requested that I speak to his students about my experiences using technology as a horn player in the 21st century. The presentation went well, and it is one that I plan to continue to develop in the future. Being somewhat familiar with technology, I created a series of bullets to use as talking points and as the basis for future discussion. Those points are listed below, with active hyperlinks where applicable and a few explanatory comments that weren’t in the original handouts. I hope you find them useful, and feel free to comment if you feel so inclined.

TRENDS

  • Mobile apps – ubiquitous
  • Facebook “Live” [for performance/audition preparation and promotional material]
  • Short Promo/Informational Videos (2 minutes or less) [Better to have several short videos on a topic than one long video. Research shows that shorter videos are more engaging to viewers.]
  • Texting/Messenger/Instant communication (Email old fashioned?) Snail mail now prestigious?
  • “Research” being done through social media (“where can I find…”)
  • Playing advice on social media [A mixed bag of sometimes helpful and sometimes irrelevant advice.]
  • Online lessons/master classes [More and more popular as technology improves and travel costs increase.]
  • YouTube great for discovering new repertoire – going to conferences is even better!
  • Death of compact discs – replaced by streaming services and websites like hornexcerpts.org

RECOMMENDED DEVICES

WEBSITES I USE EVERY DAY

  • www.random.org Create random lists of….anything! Sight-reading, scales, excerpts, etc.
  • www.toggl.com Time and task tracking software. Free, easy to use, with mobile apps.
  • www.drive.google.com Great for organizing/collaborating materials

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED WEBSITES/APPS

SOCIAL MEDIA…BE WARY

  • A powerful tool in the right hands, but can also be damaging to careers and personal well-being
  • Keep a tight rein on what you post, share, and/or like on social media. If you have to ask yourself “is this appropriate?”, then it isn’t!
  • Turn off commenting on YouTube videos [Some of the comments you receive will be less than helpful, and those who really want to reach you will use email or some other method of contact. In my experience, leaving comments on for YouTube videos invites trolls.]
  • I prefer blogging to social media – less reactionary, gives the opportunity for more reasoned discourse.
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Brief Review: Horn Technique by Jeffrey Agrell

During the summer I tend to take a break from reading horn-related books and articles, reading more science fiction and other types of “for-pleasure” stuff than I do during the academic year. This summer, though, I made it a point to dive into Professor Jeffrey Agrell’s magnum opus, Horn Technique: A New Approach to an Old Instrument. As John Ericson noted in his review on Horn Matters, a “brief” review of this nearly 500-page tome is next to impossible. But…if I could offer only two words about Professor Agrell’s new book, they would be “buy it!” You won’t find a more thoughtful, comprehensive, top-to-bottom, nuts and bolts discussion of horn playing anywhere. In a holistic yet meticulously detailed way, Agrell addresses not only horn playing, but overall musicianship as well. While many of the chapters cover traditional material – warming up, practice strategies, fingering, etc. – Agrell’s approach is always fresh and full of unique ways to tackle familiar problems. Jeff loves to challenge our (mis)conceptions, and brings to bear decades of teaching and performing experience. In some ways, though, the title is misleading, as Horn Technique is much more ambitious in its scope. Agrell proposes a reboot of the traditional way we approach music education. Instead of obsessing about note names and fingerings as beginners, we ought to learn music the way babies learn spoken language – through imitation, improvisation, and memorization of brief patterns which can be built upon later. Only once those basics are mastered should notation be introduced.

Stepping back a bit, here are some of the big themes I took away from Horn Technique. There are certainly more, but these are the ones that jumped out to me.

  • Horn (and all brass) players need to have a detailed working knowledge of the overtone (harmonic) series. We need to know the overtone series number and intonation tendency for every note on the horn – Agrell calls this “horn math.”
  • Warm-ups and practice sessions should begin without using the valves (all overtone series) and then progress to using the valves. Historically, the horn developed this way, and it makes sense from a physical perspective as well. Many of the exercises in Horn Technique begin without valves and add valves later.
  • We need to know how to apply our knowledge of music theory to create real-world practice strategies. Agrell walks the reader through this approach, showing us first how to identify and analyze patterns, and then to create our own custom exercises based on those patterns.
  • Less Notes, More Music. One of the big principles in Horn Technique is that we spend entirely too much time with our heads buried in a music stand. Agrell advocates for more notation-free practice. Related to this, Agrell is also a big proponent of performing from memory.
  • Question Everything! At the heart of this book is the idea of questioning traditional approaches to horn playing. There is of course much to be learned from the great players and teachers of the past, but Agrell asks that we be willing to consider alternative methods along with traditional ones.

Although I’ve read the entire book cover to cover, I’ve only just begun to dig into Horn Technique. The principles and exercises in it will keep both my students and me occupied for some time. And at $19.99 for the hard copy, this is an incredibly affordable text.

Cannon Music Camp Wrap-Up

Photo by Justin McCrary

Photo by Justin McCrary

I just finished up three weeks of teaching at Cannon Music Camp, held on the campus of Appalachian State University, my undergraduate alma mater. I last taught at Cannon in 2012, and was a camper myself  during the summers of 1995 and 1996. As before, it was a great pleasure to return to the Appalachian campus for a few weeks to work with several high school students. I even got to take a trip down memory lane by performing Bujanovsky’s España on one of the faculty recitals. *I performed that work on my senior recital at Appalachian on the same stage nearly 16 years earlier. My duties there included teaching the horn studio, conducting a twice-weekly horn ensemble, and coaching the orchestra brass in a weekly sectional. The schedule kept me pretty busy for the duration of the camp, but I also found time to visit with family and friends who live just a few minutes away from campus. All in all it was a wonderful “working vacation.” Coming right on the heels of a new music festival, an international conference, and a recording project, this resulted in  several back to back weeks of rehearsals and performances. In short, I’m definitely in need of some down time! But first, here are some summary thoughts about this year’s Cannon Music Camp, based on my experiences working with the horn students there.

  • There are lots of good horn players of all ages out there! My students ranged in age from rising high school freshman to rising college freshman. There was a wide spectrum of experience and ability levels in the studio, and everyone really did play well for where they were in their musical education. What I was most pleased to see was improvement across the studio in just three short weeks.
  • A Few “Musts” for the Serious High School Horn Student While there are lots of things young horn players can be doing to set themselves up for success, in our lessons at camp we kept coming back to a few major points:
    • Study Privately with a Qualified Horn Teacher – The definition of qualified is open to interpretation, but if possible I recommend studying with someone who has at least an undergraduate degree in horn (either music education or music performance). A professional player or college professor is even better, provided that they have space in their studio for high school students.
    • Find and Establish a Daily Routine – One of my first questions to new students, regardless of their level, is what type of daily practice/maintenance routine(s) they use. I’m not looking for a specific book or author to be named – there are many great materials available – but rather an indication that the student practices fundamentals of some kind each day. If not, then I make recommendations based on the student’s goals and current ability. You want to find something that can be realistically practiced most if not every day, and that builds confidence in your current abilities as well as challenges you and encourages growth. For a short list of recommended routines, see here. In short, if you are serious about getting better at the horn, start practicing your fundamentals now.
    • Get a Good (Better) Mouthpiece – One of the easiest upgrades you can make is a better mouthpiece. Not that there is anything wrong with the ubiquitous Holton, Conn, and other products one finds in many high school bands, but for the serious student there are lots of other options available. Consult with a private teacher or simply search the web for recommended horn mouthpieces to get some ideas. This summer I ended up directing students towards Laskey and Houser mouthpieces, primarily the 75G or 75F and the Houser Houghton line.
    • Learn Bass Clef! – This might seem inconsequential in comparison with the above points, but knowing bass clef will really set you apart from a lot of high school players, even very accomplished ones. The reason is pretty simple – good players tend to spend most of their time playing high parts (usually first), and thus spend little time performing or practicing in the low range. In addition, many high school players rarely have the opportunity to play in a horn quartet or horn ensemble – the low parts in these groups use bass clef extensively. If you don’t know bass clef yet, spend a few weeks this summer working it out. You’ll be glad you did! If you don’t know where to start I highly recommend Marvin McCoy’s 46 Progressive Exercises for Low Horn, available as a digital download from McCoy’s Horn Library. 

Teaching at this year’s Cannon Music Camp was a great experience, due largely to efforts of the camp administration and staff. Everything ran very smoothly, making for a great working environment. I hope to teach there again in the future!

 

The Daily Routine: A Modular Approach

While working on a forthcoming project, I’ve been thinking a lot about routines, and how the various exercises we choose to play each day can be structured. For much of my playing career, I’ve tended to choose one routine and stick with it for an extended period of time. Recently, however, I’ve been experimenting with putting together a routine by selecting various exercises from multiple sources. I still cover all of the basics: sound production, flexibility, range work, technique, etc., but instead of playing literally the same exercises for days on end, I have been rotating through sets of similar exercises. This modular approach has been lots of fun to play around with, and has the added benefit of keeping me interested and engaged in what I’m doing every day. There are certain parts of the routine that stay more or less the same, but after the first 15 minutes or so I begin to vary things. Here’s where I’m getting my material these days:

For ease of use, I photocopy exercises (or groups of exercises) out of each collection and keep them together in the same folder. From these pages I choose exercises which best fit my needs for upcoming performances. As an example, I’ve been focusing on high range and endurance a bit more in preparation for some contemporary repertoire at the New Music on the Bayou Festival, as well as a recording session in June.

Of the items listed above, William Vacchiano’s book is probably the least familiar to horn players. Jeff Nelsen introduced me to this collection several months ago, and it’s been really fun working through some of the studies in it. Vacchiano was a legendary orchestral player and teacher, and his book actually contains 11 complete routines. The exercises are generally pretty short (less than a page usually), and incorporate many of the important trumpet excerpts in the orchestral repertoire. As compared to horn routines, these studies are more technical and tend to emphasize the high range. While I don’t recommend using them exclusively, several exercises work pretty well on horn. Here are two of my favorites.

Don’t these sound fun? I usually balance these out with some low range and stopped horn work.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you throw away your trusted routine. In fact, it’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable enough with my own playing to try swapping things in and out of my routine. If used correctly, a good routine instills confidence, while at the same time being challenging enough to promote growth. If the modular approach appeals to you, begin by substituting a small portion of your regular routine (5 minutes or less) and see what you think.

On a related note, I’m very excited to dive into Jeffrey Agrell’s new book Horn Technique: A New Approach to an Old InstrumentIn the Introduction, Agrell suggests a similar modular approach to the daily routine.

Friday Review: Horn Playing from the Inside Out, 3rd Edition, by Eli Epstein

epstein_thirdedIn today’s review we’ll look at another great pedagogical text, Horn Playing from the Inside Out, by Eli Epstein, now in a revised 3rd edition. I first reviewed this book back in 2012, saying:

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

At the time I was preparing for a solo recital, a recording session, and an orchestral audition, and found Epstein’s book to be incredibly helpful in all three endeavors.  The chapters on vowels and managing performance anxiety were particularly useful for me. Since 2012, Mr. Epstein has published two more editions of his book, incorporating the latest scientific and pedagogical information available. If you don’t own a copy of the first or second edition, the third edition is a must, and even if you already own the book it’s worth taking a look at this new edition. Here’s a brief look at content created or modified since the first edition.

  • Expanded and more detailed sections on breathing, vowels, articulation, and dynamics, informed by the latest real-time MRI imagery. Eli Epstein and Dr. Peter Iltis have created a YouTube channel to introduce the world to this exciting new realm of research. Explanations in the book are accompanied by detailed MRI images, which help us to visualize difficult concepts.
  • New chapter on Finger-Breathing, which also has an accompanying YouTube video.
  • Revised commentary and tips on several of the most-requested orchestral excerpts, which have been recorded by the author and are available on iTunes.
  • An appendix on How to Choose a Horn: This is one of the most comprehensive and practical guides to choosing a new instrument that I have seen.

There are numerous other tweaks and updates in this new edition, but the above list hits on most of the major ones. While the first edition was (and is) fantastic as a standalone text, the addition of videos and recordings as companions to the third edition make it even more valuable for horn teachers and students. Part pedagogical treatise, part practical handbook, Horn Playing from the Inside Out should be in every horn player’s library.

Friday Review: Low Range for the Horn Player, by Douglas Hill

hill-low-rangeReturning to my review series, which has been on hiatus for several months, we have a new edition of a publication by Douglas Hill, Low Range for the Horn Player. Originally published by Really Good Music, this new engraving has been made available through the efforts of Daren Robbins, Editor of the International Horn Society’s Online Music Sales program.

If you are unfamiliar with this book, it is part of a series of publications by Hill covering several technical issues in horn playing. Other titles in the series include High Range for the Horn Player and From Vibrato to Trills to Tremolos…for the Horn Player.  While in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the opportunity to preview draft versions of the high range and trill books, and the low range book was published a few years after I left. Being very familiar with Hill’s teaching and previous publications, I was excited to review this book, which provides numerous tips and exercises for developing one’s low register. Hill’s explanations are practical and to the point, including a Detailed Checklist as a well as a Quick-fix Checklist for low playing. Many of the exercises were familiar to me, but there were also quite a few new ones. In addition to the traditional methods of developing the low range – long tones, pivot/shift, power exercises – many novel approaches are presented, including the use of flutter tonguing as well as multiphonics. Hill is clearly a master pedagogue of the instrument, and brings to bear forty-plus years of teaching experience in his approach to the low range. If one of the exercises doesn’t work for you or your students, there are sure to be several that do. Perhaps the next step for this publication, and others of its type, is to produce short video demonstrations of the exercises and concepts. Having an aural example to refer to or play along with would be very useful I think.
In summary, Low Range for the Horn Player should be required reading for all serious students of the horn. While it may not earn the same glory as the high range, the low tessitura is an equally important and rewarding area of performance and pedagogy.

Things I Learned from my High School Band Director

img_20161004_142042112_hdrLast week I learned of the death of my high school band director. He had been in ill health, but I was unaware of how serious his condition had become. I had the opportunity to speak with him a few summers ago, and we spent a couple of hours reminiscing, gossiping about local high school music programs, and talking about the future. It was the last time I would speak to him in person, and I am grateful that we had the opportunity. Learning of his death brought with it not only sadness, but also many wonderful memories of experiences in his band. Though not always the friendliest of people, he was a dedicated teacher and mentor to thousands of students who came through his program. As is the case with many high school students, my band director came to be one of the most influential people in my life. There have been many eloquent and poignant tributes to him shared on social media, and I would like to share a few thoughts here. Of the many, many things I learned in high school band, here are my favorites. Rest in Peace, Mr. Carswell.

  1. The Music of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Richard Wagner: To say that my band director was “old school” is a bit of an understatement. He had an abiding love for the great orchestral composers of the 19th century, and shared that love with his students through recordings, videos, and transcriptions of their works. I have vivid memories of attempting to read the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony during my freshman year of high school. After a grueling rehearsal, Mr. Carswell loaned me a recording of the piece with the NY Philharmonic and Bernstein conducting. After listening to it at home, I remember thinking, Oh…that’s how it’s supposed to go!” My first encounters with Mahler’s symphonies, Wagner’s operas and Strauss’s tone poems happened in his rehearsals, and continue to have an influence on me.
  2. Chamber Music: Chamber music has long played an important role in my musical life, with my first experiences happening as a member of my high school’s brass quintet. Under Mr. Carswell’s coaching, we prepared ceremonial music for Memorial Day, various school functions, and even the occasional gig around town. While our performances may not have been of the highest caliber, we had a great time rehearsing and laughing together. Without a doubt it was these early positive experiences in chamber music that helped make it an important component of my professional life.
  3. The Band Hall is a Safe Place: High school can be a difficult time, and I still remember the awkwardness of trying to find my “place” amidst the teenage noise and angst. My freshman year was particularly tough – no surprise there – and looking back on things I realize that my path could have easily gone in a less positive direction, had it not been for the influence of Mr. Carswell and the friends I made while in band. After casting about for some kind of identity during the first several weeks of the school year, I discovered that the band hall was a safe place to hang out and converse before, between, and after classes. I quickly made friends with the other students who hung out there, and we discussed all manner of things, including music, politics, sports, movies, and romance. Mr. Carswell was always there, and made sure to put people back in their place if the conversations ever got out of hand. I found lifelong friends among those band students, and I am grateful that we were allowed to congregate there.
  4. History, Tradition, and Legacy: As mentioned above, Mr. Carswell imparted his love of tradition and history to his students, especially the legacy of great band programs in our part of the state. Our school had inherited much of the music that belonged to the Lenoir High School Band, and we spent many hours going through the old scores and sets of parts that had been bequeathed to us. Shown above is a well-used miniature score to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that was passed along to me by Mr. Carswell, although I should probably return it to my old high school at some point…
  5. You can do this for a living? One of the pivotal moments in my life came during my freshman year, shortly after a band rehearsal. Mr. Carswell stopped me in the hall and, almost in passing, said something to the effect of “you know, you could do this for a living.”  I suppose I must have looked quite confused, because he followed up by saying that he thought I had what it took to be a professional musician. As a high school freshman, I had given very little thought to my college plans, not to mention a career. I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, but his kind words certainly planted a seed which came to shape my college and career goals. I don’t know that I ever explicitly thanked him for showing confidence in my abilities, but I hope he knew just how much that little conversation (and many others like it) meant to my fellow students and me.

New Book: Solo Training for Horn

Solo Training HornI’m pleased to announce that my new book, Solo Training for Horn, is now available from Mountain Peak Music. If you follow my blog you probably have heard about this project already, but in case you haven’t, here is a brief summary of the book and its contents.

Solo Training for Horn is designed to help you meet challenges found in eight popular solo works. When practiced regularly and intelligently, these studies will provide the foundation for successful performance of the works on which they are based, and other repertoire as well.

This collection consists of 12-15 studies per solo, each one focused on a relatively short passage or collection of passages. Literal repetition is generally avoided in favor of varied and progressive repetition. Most studies begin from a point of ease, and gradually progress to extremes, often going above and beyond what is required in the original works.

Works include: Sonata, Op. 17 by Ludwig van Beethoven, Villanelle by Paul Dukas, Concerto No. 1, Hob. VIId:3 by Franz Joseph Haydn, Concerto, K. 495 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Morceau de Concert, Op. 94 by Camille Saint-Saëns, Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 by Robert Schumann, Concerto, Op. 8 by Franz Strauss, and Concerto in D, TWV 51:D8 by Georg Philipp Telemann.

And if you would like to hear a few excerpts from the book, here are two promotional videos.

As with my previous publication for Mountain Peak Music, writing Solo Training for Horn was an incredible learning experience. I hope that teachers and students of the horn find it a practical and effective addition to their repertoire of etudes and exercises. If you have any questions about the book or the writing process I would love to hear from you.

What’s next? Once the semester begins I will return to at least semi-regular blogging, and continue preparations for a recital coming up in early October (more on that later). I have a few bigger projects on the horizon, but for now am gearing up for the new academic year.

New Videos: Louisiana All-State Horn Etudes and Preparatory Exercises

One of my mini-projects this summer was to make new recordings of the Louisiana Music Educators Association All-State etudes for horn. I last recorded these about 10 years ago, and it was time to update at least the first set with video recordings, as well as some preparatory exercises to help guide students in their practice (similar to my Solo Training for Horn studies). I hope students and music educators in the state find them helpful. There are three main components to this collection:

  1. An unedited video recording of the Set 1 Etudes by Kopprasch and Gilson, shown below.
  2. Suggestions for performance and several preparatory exercises, which can be downloaded here: Preparatory Exercises LMEA Etudes Set 1.
  3. Video demonstration of the above exercises, shown below.

 

Review – MRI Horn Videos: Pedagogy Informed by Science

In Report No. 3 of my series on IHS 48 I very briefly mentioned a fantastic presentation by Eli Epstein and Dr. Peter Iltis titled “MRI Horn, The Inside Story: Pedagogy Informed by Science.” In short, they have been doing some groundbreaking research involving the bio-mechanics of horn playing, and have created a YouTube Channel devoted to sharing their findings. If you have not yet been able to attend one of their presentations, the videos will do an excellent job of catching you up on the present state of their research. Using some remarkable technology – Real Time Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or RT-MRI – Iltis, Epstein, and a team of scientists in Germany have been able to capture detailed footage of what happens in our bodies when we play the horn. There is much more research to be done, but their preliminary findings are very exciting, and have the potential to greatly improve our understanding of how to play (and teach) the horn. There are quite a few other MRI videos of horn players circulating on the internet, and they are all fascinating. However, the “MRI Horn” channel does the best job I think of providing the scientific and musical background for the study, and gives us a framework for understanding what we are actually seeing in the videos. Without further ado, here are the first two episodes:

Each episode is several minutes in length, but if you really want to understand what is happening in the MRI videos floating around out there you should take the time to watch them. One of the main goals of their study is to measure and analyze what elite horn players actually do when they play the instrument, and use those findings as a way to positively impact horn and brass pedagogy. As Epstein points out in the introduction to the videos, much of horn pedagogy is based on what horn players feel and think is occurring inside their bodies. RT-MRI technology shows what is really taking place, versus what we think is happening.

“But what about ‘Paralysis by Analysis’?” you might be saying at this point. “Won’t all this information just confuse students, when they should really be focusing on time-tested methods of teaching and playing the horn?” While I understand this concern, I think these videos and the MRI studies can actually help combat Paralysis by Analysis by helping us focus on useful information and eliminating extraneous physical concerns in our teaching and performing. But don’t take my word for it! Watch the videos yourself and come to your own conclusions!