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!

Coming Soon From Mountain Peak Music: Solo Training for Horn

I’m long overdue for a new post and an update on my forthcoming publication from Mountain Peak Music, but with the end of the semester now in sight I can finally carve out some time to remedy that! In short, the first draft of Solo Training for Horn is over 50% complete, and I anticipate finishing it by the end of August. Intended as a companion to Solo Duet Training for Horns, this book will contain exercises and routines specifically designed to help players tackle challenges found in eight standard horn solos. As with the previous book, all of the works are in the public domain. There is some overlap with the duets, but there are also plenty of new pieces as well. Here is the list:

  • Beethoven, Sonata, Op. 17
  • Dukas, Villanelle
  • Haydn, Horn Concerto No. 1, Hob. VIId:3
  • Mozart, Horn Concerto, K. 495
  • Saint-Säens, Morceau de Concert, Op. 94
  • Schumann, Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70
  • Telemann, Horn Concerto in D, TWV 51:D8
  • F. Strauss, Concerto, Op. 8

Though there are some commonalities between the duet book and this one, I found my work on Solo Training to be much more involved and thus slower. While the material is of course largely based on the works listed above, creating these derivative exercises required a different mindset and approach than the earlier book. To help explain and demonstrate some of these exercises, I put together a brief video to accompany this post. FYI, I will be giving an expanded version of this presentation at the 48th International Horn Symposium in Ithaca, NY this summer. The presentation won’t be an advertisement for my book, but will instead focus on ways you can use some of the same techniques to create your own derivative exercises. These are not new ideas, but I think that students and teachers will find them especially useful because they are now organized and collected in one place.

Fragmentation/Transposition: Taking a short motive or motives from a challenging passage and transposing it to different keys. This builds more comprehensive technique and greater awareness of the intervals than simply repeating the same passage at the written pitch level. For example, mm. 96-102 from the first movement of Beethoven’s Horn Sonata, Op. 17…

beethoven…can be adapted into the following progressive exercise:

beethoven_exercisesHere’s a demonstration of the complete exercise.

a la Kopprasch: This means taking a familiar pattern and changing the rhythm and/or articulations to create a more engaging and challenging exercise. For example, this triplet passage from the Villanelle by Paul Dukas…

dukasbecomes:

villanelle_exerciseAnd here it is demonstrated.

Flow Study: Removing all but the most important notes from a lyrical or technical passage, and reducing it to a flow study. Notes are gradually added, while maintaining the same basic melodic shape and direction to the air stream. Transposing the exercise to other keys makes it more useful and interesting to practice. The familiar opening of Mozart’s K. 495…

mozart1

Becomes:

mozart_exercise

Here’s the video.

Here are two more examples which combine several strategies. Both are based on this passage from K. 495.

mozart2

The first exercise deals with a small portion of the phrase:

mozart_exercise2

And now the video:

The second exercise deals with the passage as a whole, with varying rhythms and articulations.

mozart_exercise3

And the video.

I hope this brief introduction to Solo Training for Horn has whet your appetite for more, and if you like any of the exercises presented above feel free to print them for your own use. The book will have many more exercises and routines, roughly 12-15 for each solo work. I’m very excited about completing the book, and look forward to sharing it with the horn playing community. Stay tuned for more updates!

Brief Reviews: Quality Tones App and The Big Book of Sight Reading Duets

Today’s brief reviews will consider two new products for brass players: Quality Tones – an app for iOS and Android devices – and The Big Book of Sight Reading Duets, from Mountain Peak Music. Both provide a creative, fresh approach to learning fundamental musical skills.

app-iconQuality Tones was designed by Spencer Park, a member of the San Antonio Symphony Horn section, and is available for a reasonable price on both the Apple Store and Google Play. I first heard the term “Quality Tones” at a master class given by William VerMeulen, though the concept can probably be traced back to Arnold Jacobs. Essentially, quality tone studies are meant to train the brass player’s mind and body to produce any pitch at any dynamic, with varying lengths, articulations, and tonal shadings, all with a consistent and beautiful tone quality. The Quality Tones app provides a means to achieve that end, by presenting a fully customizable selection of random notes, dynamics, articulations, etc, presented on individual “slides.” The app is meant to be practiced with a metronome, and notes can be repeated until the desired effect is achieved. After trying out the app myself and with a few students, I found it both fun and easy to use. The capacity for variation built into Quality Tones is fantastic, and training sessions could easily be created for a wide range of playing levels. Development is ongoing, with updates planned for adding drone, tuner, metronome, automatic slide advancement, and tone/decibel feedback features. One other tweak that might be helpful is to include time signatures for each quality tone study.

Horn_Cover_Web__91885.1442358992.225.275The Big Book of Sight Reading Duets, created by David Vining (horn version edited by Heidi Lucas), provides a progressive, enjoyable path to  improved sight reading. I’ve been using this book for the past several months in my teaching, usually beginning each lesson with a few random selections. It has rapidly become a favorite among my students, who are quick to remind me if we forget to begin a lesson with it! Despite several quality publications on the market, sight reading still remains a mystery to many students, who often avoid practicing it out of an ill-founded belief that one either can or can’t sight read well. While it is true that some otherwise competent musicians struggle with sight reading while others seem to have an almost uncanny gift, in my experience it can be improved provided that the necessary time is invested. These duets make putting in that time less of a chore. The 100 duets are grouped by difficulty, and each skill level includes a range of styles and challenges. Transpositions as well as bass clef versions make the horn edition by Heidi Lucas even more effective. While it might be tempting to immediately dive right into this book, I strongly recommend that students and teachers first read the Introduction, which is full of practical sight reading advice, and perform the clapping duets found in the beginning. Your students may scoff at the idea of clapping rhythms, but they won’t after the first couple of examples. In some ways the clapping duets are more challenging than the regular examples, and demand an even higher level of concentration and rhythmic integrity.

If you’re looking for some innovative ways to approach the interrelated topics of accuracy and sight-reading, check out the resources above. You won’t be disappointed!

Back to Basics: One Month with the Standley Routine

At the beginning of September I decided to take a break from my regular warm-up and maintenance routine – Douglas Hill’s Warm-ups and Maintenance Sessions for the Horn Playerand began working on the Standley Routine. Going in, I decided to commit to it for one month before making any long term decisions. If you are not familiar with the Standley Routine, here’s a brief summary, excerpted from the previous post linked above.

From 1949 to 1957, Forrest Standley performed as Principal Horn of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and later taught for many years at what is now Carnegie-Mellon University.  Two of his former students, son Gene Standley of the Columbus Symphony, and H. Stephen Hager of Southwest Texas State University, have made available a revised and edited version of their teacher’s warm-up and daily routine.  Although the Standley Routine is fairly lengthy when compared to other daily routines – one hour and forty minutes according to the original preface – the level of thoroughness and organization is unparalleled.

Before getting to my conclusions about the routine, an explanation for the switch is in order. There were a few big reasons why I thought a change could be helpful to my playing, and here they are in no particular order.

  • Endurance: After returning from a wonderful week at the 47th International Horn Symposium, I had a difficult time getting back in shape for some upcoming solo, chamber, and orchestral performances. As anyone who has attended a large conference like the IHS Symposium (or ITG Conference or ITA Festival) can attest, the irony of these events is that you don’t really have time to practice very much. I managed to get the horn on my face every day during the symposium, with the exception of the day I departed, but resuming a full practice regimen upon returning was a challenge. I did what I normally do to build endurance, which is add five minutes of practice time to my routine every other day, but wasn’t totally satisfied with the results. Having had some prior experience with the Standley Routine, and having heard that it was good for building endurance, I decided to give it a shot.
  • Concentration: As with the first reason, this one probably has very little to do with what I was practicing, and more to do with how I was practicing it. Nevertheless, after many years of playing my regular routine on a daily basis, I began to notice my focus and attention wandering during the first hour of practice – precisely when they needed to be most present. I should state for the record that this doesn’t mean there are any shortcomings in design or content with Hill’s routine, nor does it indicate that I had mastered it so well as to be bored. Nothing could be further from the truth! Still, I thought changing routines might help me break out of this habit.
  • Consistency: One of the strengths of Hill’s routine is that it covers everything, within a reasonable amount of time. I knew that if I played the full warm-up plus routine I had touched on pretty much every technique required of modern horn players. But, over time I began to think that maybe it might be useful for me to forego some of that variety in favor of more similar patterns which emphasize the same basic techniques. For example, the Standley Routine doesn’t include any stopped horn, multiple tonguing, or lip trill patterns (Hill does), but instead presents four types of exercises (scales, arpeggios, endurance, and overtone) in every key. Is it a comprehensive routine? No, not in the sense of Hill’s Warm-Ups and Maintenance Sessions, but it is very thorough.

Ok, so what has the past month with the Standley Routine been like? On the whole, it’s been very productive, and I’ve noticed improvement in all of the above mentioned areas. It is taxing, especially the endurance exercises, but seems to be exactly what I needed at this point in my career. The entire routine takes me about 65-70 minutes to complete, although instead of performing the arpeggio exercises both slurred and tongued (as indicated), I alternate articulations each day. In addition, I use a tonic drone, and play the endurance exercises on the F horn. I would also recommend supplementing with various etudes and/or exercises to cover stopped horn, multiple tonguing, and lip trills. Recently I’ve been working through Robert Ward’s 30 Etudes for Stopped Horn, which I picked up at the IHS Symposium. It’s a fantastic collection of stopped horn studies; look for a more detailed review in the coming weeks.

I plan to continue with the Standley Routine for the immediate future, although at some point I will probably return to Hill’s Warm-Ups and Maintenance Sessions. To be clear, they are both great routines, and I am not necessarily advocating for one over the other. What I think is important, though, is that we periodically take stock of our daily routines, and consider trying other patterns and approaches.