Simplifying Things (Post-Recital Reflections 2)

A few days after my August 31 faculty recital, I wrote a short post summing up some positive things as well as some areas where I felt I needed to improve.  Part of that post is included below.

Now, as for areas of improvement, I have a couple of ideas which I took away from this recital.  One of them – which I knew already but was reinforced – is that solo performances are a great proving ground for various methods and approaches.  Things that seem to work in the practice room don’t always get the job done on stage, and in the coming weeks one of my big goals is to work on simplifying some aspects of my playing.  Once I’ve worked things out a bit in my own mind I’ll post some more details on that topic.

In the nearly two months since that somewhat nebulous statement I’ve been doing quite a bit of work in several different areas of my playing, and I am happy to report significant improvement.  Overall I felt like my basic technique and approach to the horn were fine, but leading up to and during that recital there were a few issues that I thought needed some work.  Though these were really only minor changes, this “tweaking” of a couple of things has had a cumulative effect.

After what amounted to a two-year long “experiment,” I have switched back to a mostly wet embouchure, rather than a mostly dry one.  Aside from the past couple of years, I have always played with moist lips, but a couple of years ago I happened to notice that I had increased endurance and range with dry lips, and started playing that way.  Being a person who forms habits quite easily, the dry lips thing stuck, although I wasn’t always happy with the results. True, I did for some reason have better endurance and range, but it usually took quite a while to get my embouchure set up and ready to play.  For that reason I rarely took the horn off my face, except in between movements or in long rests.  Another area which dry lips negatively impacted for me was first attacks.  Since it was taking so long to get my lips feeling comfortable on the mouthpiece, tension began creeping into my attacks, which as most people know usually doesn’t help accuracy.  After this recital I found myself with about a month-long period with a relatively light performing schedule (only one orchestra pops concert), so I thought that would be a perfect time to try switching back to a wet embouchure.  It did feel a bit weird for the first couple of days, but after that things settled down nicely.  My attacks have improved just from that switch, and I’ve also been practicing daily out of Nicholas Smith’s Don’t Miss! Ideas, concepts, and exercises designed to increase accuracy on an inaccurate instrument. It’s a great book, with some excellent first note exercises in several keys.

I also felt like dry lips had become a crutch for me, especially in the high register, and I wanted to get away from that and really work on developing range and endurance with a wet embouchure.  After trying several different range and flexibility exercises I settled on Wendell Rider’s “Lip Control” exercises.  These are essentially an addendum to his book Real World Horn Playing, and they can be downloaded for free on his website (left-hand side, top of the page).  After years of  playing Farkas, Brophy, Stamp, and other range exercises, I wondered if these would bring anything new to the table, and they really did for me.  In a few weeks of going through these exercises – make sure to read Wendell’s preface and to follow the instructions for executing them exactly – I was developing a stronger, more reliable, high (and low) register.  I still do some other exercises, especially out of William Brophy’s Technical Studies for Solving Special Problems on the Horn, and they are actually easier after going through Wendell’s studies. In addition, with wet lips I am also able to get the horn off my face and back on in much less time, resulting in improved long and short-term endurance.

In closing let me emphasize that this is a personal story, and is not meant to be a blanket endorsement of either a wet or a dry embouchure.  As both John Ericson and David Wilken have pointed out in other posts, the topic of wet vs. dry embouchures is not fully settled, and players should be willing to try different approaches, if for no other reason than because it makes you reconsider your own technique.  Who knows, by experimenting just a little you may happen upon something that could open up new areas in your playing.

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Post-Recital Reflection

My faculty recital on Tuesday went very well, and overall I was pleased with the performance.   See this post for a rundown of the program.  And although I usually like to relax and forget about a solo performance for a few days afterward, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts while things were still fresh in my mind.  On the positive end, this was the earliest I’ve ever given a faculty recital (second week of school), but also probably the most prepared I’ve been.  When I put this program together I didn’t realize how demanding it was going to be for me in terms of physical and mental endurance,  but as I continued to work on things throughout the summer I realized I was going to have to figure out a way to train my mind and body to consistently render these pieces at a high level. To that end, I continued to refine technical and musical details up to the last minute, but about a month before the recital I started running the program twice a day on weekdays, and once a day on weekends.  This may sound a bit extreme, but by the week before the performance I was easily making it through the whole recital twice a day, with several hours rest in between, of course.

Now, as for areas of improvement, I have a couple of ideas which I took away from this recital.  One of them – which I knew already but was reinforced – is that solo performances are a great proving ground for various methods and approaches.  Things that seem to work in the practice room don’t always get the job done on stage, and in the coming weeks one of my big goals is to work on simplifying some aspects of my playing.  Once I’ve worked things out a bit in my own mind I’ll post some more details on that topic.

The second idea has to do with creative programming and ways of engaging an audience.  About a month or so before the performance I started thinking about the best way to explain Messiaen’s “Interstellar Call”  to an audience which would include several community members and music appreciation students.  After thinking about various lecture/demonstration type things, I settled on creating a powerpoint presentation to accompany the piece. I found all of the images on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive.  There are some pretty amazing pictures on this site, and since the recital was free and educational in nature I am assuming use of the images would be legal under “Fair Use.”  Once I picked the images to go along with the piece it took a little trial and error to get the right timing on the slide transitions.  I used an LCD projector connected to my laptop to display the images on the rear stage wall, with the stage and house lights turned completely off (and a stand light for me).  Even with the added “stimulation” of a slideshow, I was concerned that the audience might find 6-7 minutes of unaccompanied horn a bit much.  However, I was delighted at how quiet they were during the entire piece – no shuffling of feet/programs, no dropped keys, etc. – and I got quite a few compliments from music appreciation students after the recital on that piece in particular.  Although Messiaen may not have intended for this work to be performed in such a way, I think in this particular situation the multimedia component was effective.  We are bombarded with multimedia in today’s tech-savvy society, but with the right piece and the right audience it can work for some pieces.  I would love to hear if any readers have performed traditional (or non-traditional) solo works with multimedia, and whether you feel the combination was successful.

Another question which comes up often for lots of students after recitals is “what now?”  After spending so much time preparing a specific program, it sometimes takes a few days to regain one’s direction and figure out how to spend practice time.  Quite often I spend a few post-recital weeks reading new repertoire and working on etudes and orchestral excerpts, just to get my mind off the pieces I was working on so intensely before.  I will certainly do that this time around, but I will also be working on some things related to my playing mechanics, as well as starting work on a program I’d like to present in the spring.  In addition, the orchestras I play with regularly have got some great programs coming up – the Symphony No. 2 of Brahms, and the Symphony No. 4 of Tchaikovsky.  Both have great writing for all four horns, and I need to brush up on the first (Brahms) and third (Tchaikovsky) parts on these pieces.

To close, I’ve included a portion of the recording from the recital.  The piece is the Fantasie, Op. 2, by Franz Strauss, with Dr. Richard Seiler on piano.

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