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.

Should I Warm Up on the F or B-flat Side of the Horn?

This is a question  I have seen come up in online forums several times, and it is inevitably followed by a debate about which side of the horn is best to use in a warm-up (or in general). Here’s a quick recap of the major benefits to using each side. There are certainly more good points that could be made, but I think this list hits on most of them.

F Side Benefits

  • Warming up on the longer horn, with its greater resistance and closer partials, can translate into greater accuracy, endurance, flexibility, and clarity when performing on the double horn.
  • The tone produced on the F horn is considered by some to be the ideal horn sound. Thus, spending time each day playing exclusively on that side of the horn helps to solidify one’s sound concept.
  • Warm-up patterns which utilize the harmonic series (Farkas, Dufrasne, etc.) help us become more familiar with the tendencies of each harmonic. Furthermore, striving for correct intonation and a pure tone on less stable valve combinations (1+3, 1+2+3) makes it easier to play those pitches in tune when using conventional fingerings. This is also applicable to a certain extent for the B-flat side.
  • If your horn normally stands in F (with the thumb lever up), playing on the F side in the high range can help relieve excess tension in the left hand.

B-flat side Benefits

  • Becoming fluent with B-flat fingerings and intonation tendencies opens up several fingering possibilities for both stopped and open notes.
  • Striving to create your ideal sound on the B-flat horn can help you learn to match tone quality on both sides of the horn.
  • Playing in the high range on the fingerings you would actually use in performance (B-flat side for most double horn players) helps reinforce the kinesthetic memory for those pitches.
  •  If your horn normally stands in B-flat (with the thumb lever up), playing on the B-flat side in the high range can help relieve excess tension in the left hand.  Although this has traditionally been associated with European players, I am aware of several American horn players who have made the switch.
  • Familiarity with B-flat fingerings through the entire range is a necessity when playing single B-flat or double descant horns (B-flat/high F or B-flat/high E-flat). And while the single F horn is rarely considered a viable choice for a professional quality instrument, single B-flat and descant horns are.

After reading the above list you might be wondering “Well, which is it – which side should I be using in my warm-up?”  I think the reality is that playing the double (or triple) horn means using both (or all three) sides, with the goal of being as fluent as possible going from one side to the other over the entire range. In my opinion the best way to get there is to use both sides of the horn in the warm-up, perhaps even alternating from one day to the next which patterns you play on the F and B-flat sides. In this way you can reap many of the benefits without sacrificing technique on either side of the horn. We often get so locked into our own personal warm-ups that it’s easy to zone out during what is arguably the most critical part of our practice regimen. Building in some variety is a great way to make sure that we are maintaining our awareness as well as our chops. I also periodically play an entirely different warm-up, something totally different from my regular routine. I find that after doing this I return to my regular routine with a fresh perspective. If you play mostly on the F side in your warm-up, try something that emphasizes the B-flat side, like Warming Up, by Ifor James. Conversely, if you use the B-flat (or both sides) regularly, try something that relies heavily on the F side, like the Farkas warm up or the Dufrasne Routine. Another noteworthy collection is Daily Routines for Horn, by Marian Hesse. This collection includes 8 different routines, most of which work the F and B-flat sides equally.

Long Tones in the Warm-Up

A few years ago I attended a master class presented by a well known brass soloist, and eventually someone brought up the topic of warming up.  The clinician asked the audience, “How many of you begin your warm-up with long tones?” Dutifully, most of us raised our hands – more or less assuming that this was a rhetorical question.  To our surprise his response was something like “actually I don’t recommend using long tones to warm up.”  Well, our faces must have shown what we were thinking, because he then gave the following explanation for why long tones might not be the best thing to do first thing in a warm-up.  He first noted that there are lots of parallels between music and sports, and then asked what professional athletes do to warm up. “Do they do this?”, he asked, and struck a pose like the image at the beginning of this post – a runner suspended in mid stride.  He then started jogging, and said, “no, they do this to warm up.”  The point I believe he was making is that he prefers a more dynamic way to start his playing day – not dynamic in the sense of volume – but dynamic in the sense of moving notes (dynamic) rather than held notes (static).

At the time I filed this bit of information away under the heading “hmm, that’s interesting.”  For that player it obviously worked fabulously, so there is definitely something to be said for using scales or other kinds of patterns in place of the traditional long tones in the warm-up.  However, after some more consideration, and looking at several (20+) warm-ups and daily routines for horn, I can also see the other side of the coin.  I too think there are many apt comparisons between music – particularly brass playing – and sports, and so I started thinking about how athletes warm up.  Yes, they often do some dynamic movements, such as jogging, jumping, or other types of calisthenics, but they also do this (see image at left).  To me, this type of stretching in place seems analogous to the use of long tones in a warm up.  One other thing to note about long tones is that they may seem static because the pitch stays the same for long periods, but in order to play them correctly the air has to stay in motion, not to mention any subtle movements going on at the aperture and inside the mouth.  If played incorrectly (too high/too loud), long tones at the beginning of the day could cause stiffness and/or lack of endurance later – perhaps this is what the clinician was getting at in his presentation.  However, I do think they can serve as a useful warm-up or re-warm-up if they are played in a comfortable range and at a medium dynamic.  It’s probably best to save the envelope-pushing long tones for later in the day. In looking at some of the standard (and not so standard) warm-ups for horn, I noticed that about 70% of them began with some type of long tone exercise, while nearly 100% included them somewhere in the routine.  Long tones are here to stay, but there is plenty of room for variation on when and how we practice them.  In the warm-up it’s especially important to find a pattern or set of patterns that works for you, regardless of what I or anyone else says. Whether you start the day with long tones, chromatic scales, or another kind of pattern, I encourage you to try something else every once in a while, just to see what happens.  Who knows, you might just discover a more efficient way to warm up.

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