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!

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Recording Review: Orchestral Excerpts for Low Horn, by Eli Epstein

Although in my last post I mentioned that it might be the final one of 2014, I’ve recently acquired some great new recordings that I felt should be reviewed before the year’s end.

This week’s review begins with a short story. One of the first horn recordings I purchased was David Krehbiel’s Orchestral Excerpts for Horn, which I picked up in a Tower Records store in Charlotte, NC during my freshman year in high school. At the time I knew very little about orchestral music, let alone the important excerpts for horn, but something about the CD attracted me to it. Had it been a tape or LP I would probably have worn it out long ago, but thankfully the CD is still in great shape after countless playings over the last 20 years. In retrospect, I think this recording is what really made me fall in love with the sound of the horn, and it introduced me to some of the great orchestral parts for the instrument. My only regret was that Summit Records never pursued a sequel, though the important horn passages in orchestral music could surely fill up multiple discs. And while an entire album of unaccompanied horn playing might seem boring, or at the very least, esoteric to a general audience, I thought it was fantastic.

This brings me to the subject of today’s review, which is, as far as I’m concerned, a perfect sequel to the original horn excerpts CD. I’m a big fan of Eli Epstein, a former member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and a renowned horn pedagogue. I’ve reviewed his book, Horn Playing from the Inside Out, and his YouTube video on the finger breath, both of which address numerous pedagogical issues. What I like most about Epstein’s approach to the horn is the balance between technical and musical considerations. He not only explains how things should sound, but lays out a step-by-step process to help you achieve that sound. In Orchestral Excerpts for Low Horn, Epstein discusses and performs 21 low horn excerpts from the standard repertoire, providing a wonderful resource for teachers and students tackling these challenging passages. The accompanying website (www.epsteinhornexcerpts.com/), which includes pictures, diagrams, and links to recordings, is a great companion to his other pedagogical materials.

Of course, the real star is the recording itself. Though there are numerous valid approaches to these excerpts, you would be hard pressed to find more nuanced, musically substantial performances anywhere. Every note has a purpose, and every musical decision has a concrete, logical reason behind it, which is explained in the commentary preceding each excerpt. Mr. Epstein plays with a warm, fluid sound, with the just the right amount of brassiness when the music calls for it. Rhythm and intonation are impeccable, and these recordings would be great to play along with when preparing either the excerpts themselves or the corresponding first and/or third horn parts. Epstein’s enthusiasm and love for this repertoire come through clearly in his commentary and performances, and I highly recommend this recording to anyone who plays the horn. Whether you are studying these passages for the first time or are reviewing (or teaching) them for the umpteenth time, I am certain that you will be encouraged and inspired.

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