Grooves, Notches, and Other Note Shapes

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how we conceptualize where each note lies in the harmonic series, and how this knowledge can help us navigate the range of the horn more efficiently.  In trying out various instruments over the last several months, one characteristic I was very interested in was the shape of each “groove” or “notch” for a note, particularly in the high and mid-low range.  It was fascinating noticing which instruments tended to favor certain ranges, i.e. which range of notes tended to be more stable, versus which range tended to be more unstable.  Granted, much of what I experienced was probably due to the characteristics of my own playing, but I could definitely tell when these characteristics were magnified (both positively and negatively) on a given horn.  Though the concept can be a little bit difficult to describe, the easiest way for me to think of it is to imagine that every harmonic has a a certain generic shape, like this.

The large depression is the “notch” or “slot” for the note, with higher pitches to the right, and lower pitches to the left.  You can feel this shape for yourself by picking any note (preferably one in the middle range to start).  Experiment by bending the note up as far as you can without popping up to the next harmonic, then bending it down as far as possible without slipping down to the next harmonic.  Pay attention to the sound, and try to find where that note has maximum resonance. Chances are it won’t be at the lowest or highest point where you could bend it, but somewhere in the middle.  The generic drawing above could of course be altered to reflect the characteristics of a specific horn.  For instance, I have played some horns where the notes slot very well, but can’t be bent very far up or down without popping to the next harmonic.   In this case, our note visualization might look like this.

The benefit to having a horn with narrow notches is that it might not take as long (or as much work) to find where each note resonates the best.  However, in terms of intonation, the horn might limit just how far each note can be adjusted before the sound begins to deteriorate and the harmonic becomes unstable.  Going further, there are some horns where the notes tend to slot just a little on the high side, as in the following illustration.

I’ll go ahead and apologize for my meager illustrative abilities, but I hope that you can tell what I’m getting at with this image.  It’s almost like there is a groove within a groove for a particular note, with the note slotting best when you blow up on it.  I’ve noticed this with some Yamaha horns, particularly the 667 and 667v models. Does this mean that it’s ok to play sharp?  Absolutely not!  However, it does mean there is less flexibility to bend notes flatter, and the horn itself needs to be tuned a bit lower so that things are still in tune when you blow up on a note.   On the other hand, some horns have a groove within a groove on the bottom side of each note, like this.

In this case, the note will sound best when played a bit lower in the groove. I  like this characteristic because it demands that we play each note as relaxed as possible, which the horn rewards with a centered, resonant sound.  There are of course numerous other ways to think about the idiosyncrasies of various makes and models of horn, but the images above have been useful to me in both testing out instruments and finally adjusting to a new one.  There are several exercises out there designed specifically to help you find the best place for each note, although virtually any long tone exercise can be used.  One that I like using myself and with students is called “Shwarmaaaaaa!” found in The Brass Gym: A Comprehensive Daily Workout for Brass Players, by Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan, edited for Horn by John Ericson (Focus on Music, 2007).  This exercise consists of a series of note-bending studies, and is great for working on both intonation and tone quality.

Personal Observations from Nicholas Smith

One book I’ve been reading lately is Dr. Nicholas Smith’s Don’t Miss: Ideas, Concepts, and Exercises  Designed to Increase Accuracy on an Inaccurate Instrument. The instrument mentioned in his title is of course the horn, and Dr. Smith has decades of experience teaching and performing on it, having taught for many years at Wichita State University, and having also performed as Principal Horn in the Wichita Symphony.  This book is highly recommend for horn players at any level, and includes discussions, exercises, and observations which can be applied to beginners, professionals, and those in between.  One part of this handy method book (of sorts) is Dr. Smith’s “personal observations,” brief sidebars based on his vast experience which are interspersed throughout the book.  See the quotes below for some of my favorites.  For a more extensive review of Don’t Miss, check out Dr. John Ericson’s post at Horn Matters.

On Success

Having taught students for three decades, I have found (as most teachers have) that it is most often not the most talented student who ultimately succeeds, but that student who “plugs away” and is diligent in his or her practice. Certainly, talent must be there, but it is often the student who “wants it more” or has become obsessed with the instrument who succeeds.” (p. 17)

On Loud Playing

Most every conductor will forgive the hornist if he or she can’t play as loudly as requested, so long as it looks like he or she is playing as loud as they can. However, never never play so loud that you can’t play the passage accurately. Conductors may look like they want more volume, but they don’t want missed notes with that volume. (Besides, their big, dramatic motions are mostly a show for the audience – Hey, to them it’s show biz.) (p. 47)

Warming Up On Stage

Never play excerpts from any other work than what you are playing that performance and don’t show off by playing a loud, heroic excerpt which is not on that program. It only points to immaturity and disturbs your colleagues who are also preparing in their own way. (p. 51)

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