Review: Horn Playing from the Inside Out, by Eli Epstein

As promised, here’s a review of Eli Epstein‘s new book, Horn Playing from the Inside Out (cover image linked from Mr. Epstein is a former member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and serves or has served on the faculties of numerous prestigious institutions and festivals, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, New England Conservatory, Music Academy of the West, and the Aspen Music Festival. In addition, he is in high demand as a guest clinician, soloist, and chamber musician, presenting workshops on horn playing and musicianship throughout the country. I had the opportunity to work with Mr. Epstein at the Brevard Music Center in the summer of 1998, and I remember him being an incredibly friendly and supportive teacher. No matter what level of player he was working with, Mr. Epstein always seemed to be able to find the right combination of instruction and encouragement. After a lesson, master class, or sectional with Mr. Epstein, students not only played the horn better, but they felt better. This approach carries over into his book, which brings together insights learned from years of experience teaching and performing at the highest level. Topics range from the technical details of horn playing to “big picture” ideas such as authentic expression and dealing with performance anxiety. Throughout it all, the language is always straightforward, and the content organized and well thought out.

In the Introduction, Mr. Epstein provides some background and an overview of the material presented in subsequent chapters. Though time and copyright law prevent me from relating all of the information contained there, here are a few of my favorite quotes from this section. NB: Because my copy of Horn Playing from the Inside Out is in electronic format, page numbers will vary depending on the font, size, and orientation of the text – nonetheless, they are still included after each quotation.

  • “Horn playing is an inside job. Our approach to every aspect of playing comes from within…I didn’t always know this. I discovered it over time.” (p. 25)
  • “Brass technique centers on regulating minute differences in air speed. Since air speed determines the speed of vibration, we need to discover and utilize reliable, replicable, and precise ways to control it.” (p. 28)
  • “Being a complete musician means marrying craftsmanship to emotional artistry.” (p. 31)
  • ‘The purpose of this book is not to create mechanical horn players but confident artists. When we feel secure in our technique, when we gain control over performance anxiety, and when we have methods to consciously awaken the subconscious creative self, we can then feel the freedom to express ourselves as never before. Our horn sound becomes our voice. This is true confidence.” (p. 35)

That final quote from the introduction certainly sums up how Mr. Epstein approaches horn playing and teaching. After reading and incorporating some of the ideas from his book into my own playing and teaching, I definitely feel more confident. And just as importantly, I can hear the differences both in my playing and that of my students.

Horn Playing from the Inside Out is organized into four large sections, each covering several topics. “Part I: The Basics” addresses the fundamental techniques of horn (and brass) playing, with chapters on posture, breathing and breath support, embouchure, vowels, articulation, elevators, and dynamics. These topics should be familiar to anyone who has studied brass pedagogy, with perhaps the only exception being “vowels” and “elevators.” These two chapters by themselves are worth the cost of the entire book, as they contain some incredibly effective approaches to improving accuracy and overall consistency on the horn. Without giving too much away, I’ll attempt to summarize what is found here. Mr. Epstein provides different syllables and approximate points of contact for the tongue, corresponding to various ranges on the instrument. Though it might sound too simple to be so effective, following these syllables really does work. The concept of elevators – or jaw positions corresponding to specific notes – works hand in hand with the vowels. Rather than putting all of the emphasis on the embouchure, Mr. Epstein explains the vital role that jaw position plays in navigating the range of horn.

“Part II: Musicianship” contains chapters on practicing, managing performance anxiety, orchestral auditions, and authentic expression. In Chapter 10, “An Empowered Approach to Orchestral Auditions,” Mr. Epstein provides a step-by-step guide to tackling one of the most grueling experiences a professional musician can face. From a guide to preparation to suggestions on what to do on the day of the audition, every angle is covered. Near the end of the chapter he shares some great advice, reminding us to “Remember that the most you have to lose is a job you don’t already have. And remember that the audition winner is not necessarily the best player, but the one who happens to fit in to what that particular committee or music director is looking for on that particular day in that particular hall.”

‘Part III: Power Warm-up and Other Exercises” needs very little in the way of explanation, except to say that even if you already have a warm-up and practice routine you love it’s still worth giving some of these a look. As with everything else in this book, the warm-up and other exercises are thoughtfully explained in order to provide maximum effectiveness to the player.

“Part IV: Orchestral Excerpts: Applying the Principles” puts into practice all of the preceding information, using 21 of the most prominent (and frequently requested at auditions) orchestral excerpts. Whether you are a seasoned professional or are just starting to explore the orchestral repertoire for horn, there will be something worthwhile for you in this section. Mr. Epstein provides numerous suggestions for perfecting each excerpt, dividing his comments into those dealing with practice and technique, and those dealing with artistry.

This is a longer than usual post for me, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. 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.

Weekend Report

Here’s a brief report from my busy weekend. The Shreveport Symphony rehearsals and concert went very well, including the 3rd horn solos in the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms. The other pieces on the program – Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 – weren’t as involved for the 3rd horn but still very enjoyable to play. Bravo to Tom Hundemer and Kristine Coreil (1st and 2nd horn on this concert) for their marvelous trills in the final movement of the Dvořák. The conductor asked them to play bells-up during the final statement of the trill passage, which probably wasn’t any louder but was an impressive visual effect for the audience. Soloist Vadim Gluzman gave an exquisite performance of the Bruch, which also had some very nice horn writing in all three movements. I couldn’t help thinking of Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie during the second movement – see for yourself (skip to 2:30 and 6:08 for the best examples). There are also some good horn solos in his Scottish Fantasy, and as a horn player I really wish Bruch had written a horn concerto!  There are some more fun concerts coming up for me in the next few weeks, and I’ll be posting updates about the repertoire for those programs.

On Sunday, the SSO held an audition for 2nd and 4th horn, and I was fortunate enough to win the 4th horn spot. I’ve subbed with this very fine orchestra numerous times in the past, and I’m really looking forward to performing with them as a regular member. Congratulations to Adam Black, who won the 2nd horn position. Adam is a graduate of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA, where he studied with Dr. Kristine Coreil (regular 3rd horn in the SSO). Adam is currently a student of Randy Gardner at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Well done Adam!

For those who might be curious, you can check out the excerpt list here: SSO Horn Audition List

In preparing for this audition I spent a large part of my time working out of Randy Gardner’s book Mastering the Horn’s Low Register He covers most of the major excerpts that appear on low horn auditions, and provides suggestions and helpful exercises for perfecting each one. For the first several weeks of preparation I spent more time on the exercises than on the actual excerpts, which I think paid off in the long run. Constant practice with a metronome and a drone helped solidify rhythm and intonation. As the audition date got closer I practiced playing through the entire list, using flashcards to put things in a random order. Recording myself on several excerpts also helped provide some feedback. Another resource I used quite a bit in the last couple of weeks before the audition was Eli Epstein’s new book Horn Playing from the Inside Out.  His thoughts on auditions, dealing with performance anxiety, and numerous other topics were both practical and inspirational. A more extensive review of this book is forthcoming, I promise!

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