tenet (ten' it), noun: a principle, doctrine, or belief held as truth

Welcome to my blog! Here I will share some of my thoughts on horn playing and teaching, which I think about a lot, and maybe some other things, too. Since my job (which thankfully, allows me to do a lot of playing and teaching) keeps me very busy, as does my wonderful family, I may not write frequently. My goal will be quality, not quantity!

Please share your comments.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wine Tasting and Listening (to the Horn, not the wine)

I don't know much about wine.  I know when I taste one I like, and when I taste one I don't like, but that's about it.  The following is a description from wine.com of Wynns Shiraz 2005...
The nose shows intense dark fruit aromas, dominated by plums, raspberries and stewed rhubarb. Well integrated oak components add vanillan depth and eloquence. 
If you're like me, your forehead is wrinkled after reading that.  And that's just the "nose," or how the wine smells; they haven't even gotten to the complex flavors yet.  "Stewed rhubarb!?"  I don't have the slightest idea what that smells like, and I'm not sure I want to.  Obviously, the wine expert who wrote that review recognizes a LOT more detail in the aroma and flavor of wine than I do.

In the same way, there is a big difference between the way I listen to horn playing, and the way my students listen.  Too often, they are content just to hit the right notes in the right rhythms, when I can't help but notice the "crud" between the notes, the lack of air support, the bumpy slurs, the inconsistent attacks, the uneven tone color which is generally out of character for the piece anyway, and so on.

To progress to the next level as horn players, or just as musicians and future band directors, my students need to "train their palate" to be more sensitive to these finer details.  A big part of my job is to help them develop this sensitivity.  One of my basic philosophies of teaching is that my goal is to make myself unnecessary.  In other words, I want to give my students the tools they need to be their own teacher. 

I don't like to make things unnecessarily complex.  There is a time to keep things simple (that's the subject of my next blog), but when we practice - or teach - we need to strive relentlessly for perfection.  And that means examining EVERY nit-picking detail.  Don't settle!

A Perfect Performance is a Hole-in-One

This is an article that I wrote for a class in grad school, and was later published in The Horn Call XXXV, No. 1 (October 2004): 107.  I like golf a lot, but I only play a couple times a year.  I see a lot of parallels between golf and horn-playing: two very difficult pursuits.  Please comment and tell me what you think!

Every musician understands that no matter what degree of perfection and consistency has been achieved in the practice room, the actual performance of a piece of music is full of certain unpredictable, uncontrollable elements that can render the final effect anywhere from exquisite to abysmal.  These include external variables such as the audience, the environment (temperature, lighting, noise), or the time of day, and internal variables including anxiety, fatigue, and mental distractions.  There are also other, more intangible factors, which we horn players often describe in terms of “the lip,” as in “my lip feels great tonight,” or “my lip just doesn’t feel right.”  Nevertheless, these intangibles can have a significant impact on the performance.

Golf is much the same way.  Just as different musical performances can vary in their effectiveness, playing a hole on the golf course can result in a birdie, par, or bogey (or worse!).  For the readers who are not “golf-literate,” a par is achieved by reaching the hole in the expected number of strokes, a birdie is one stroke less than par (3 strokes on a par 4 hole), and a bogey is one stroke more than par (5 strokes on a par 4 hole).  Keep in mind that the lower the score, the better.  The premise of this article is to examine the similarities between playing a piece of music and playing a hole on the golf course, envisioning a “perfect” performance as a hole-in-one.

For the purposes of this article, a “perfect” performance will be defined as one that fulfills the performer’s expectations as an ideal execution of the piece of music.  It is necessary to specify the performer’s expectations as the ones being met because evaluating a musical performance is much more subjective than evaluating someone’s performance on the golf course.  Every witness to a hole-in-one would easily agree that a golfer’s ball went into the hole on his first stroke and that it is impossible to achieve a better score on that hole.  However, even after hearing a musical performance in which not a single note was missed (I know, rare indeed!), every member of the audience may have a different idea of what constitutes a perfect performance of that piece of music, due to different tastes and preferences regarding tempo, dynamics, articulations, tone colors, etc.

Before the golfer ever schedules a tee-time, and before the musician books the concert hall, there is a great deal of preparation that takes place.  Whether on the driving range or in the practice room, the approach and methods are very much the same.  The focus is on the fundamentals: the building blocks that make good horn playing, or a good golf game.  The horn player will practice long tones, scales, arpeggios, articulations, lip trills, flexibility exercises, high notes, low notes, loud playing and soft playing.  The golfer will practice hitting a variety of shots with a driver, a 3-wood, the long irons, and the short irons, as well as chipping and putting.  In short, both the musician and the golfer will practice all aspects of their respective endeavors in a generalized way, in order to transfer those skills later to a more specific setting: a particular piece of music, or a particular hole on the golf course.

Different holes on the golf course are labeled a par 3, 4, or 5, depending on their length and difficulty.  In the same way, the performer has a concept of the relative difficulty of different pieces of music.  For example, Mozart’s Concerto No. 1, K. 412, might be considered a “par 3,” the Saint-Säens Morceau de Concert would be a “par 4,” and Richard Strauss’ Second Horn Concerto would certainly be a “par 5.”  On the stage or on the tee, a hole-in-one is much more likely on a par 3, and would seemingly require super-human abilities on a par 4 or 5.

An important thing to remember in both golf and music is that there is more than one way to achieve equivalent results.  Even if you hit your first shot into the trees it is still possible to save par, which would be comparable to a satisfactory, but not exceptional, performance.  Indeed, two golfers could both get holes-in-one on the same hole, but could have approached it in very different ways, even with different clubs.  Going even further, it is safe to say that no two golf balls would take the exact same path to the hole.

Whether performing a piece of music, or playing a hole on the golf course, there are going to be hazards along the way.  There is a lot to be said for practicing how to get out of trouble once you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation.  The golfer who always picks his ball up and tosses it out of the sand trap while practicing is not going to be well prepared if he finds himself in the sand during a tournament.  It is very important to practice complete run-throughs, without stopping, to learn how to deal with mistakes as they come.  These dress rehearsals, along with visualizing the audience and the actual performing conditions, will result in a much better prepared golfer or musician.

Despite careful preparation, there are times when everyone will make mistakes, partly due to those intangibles mentioned earlier.  For the golfer, this means sending your ball into the sand, or the deep grass, or worse yet to be lost forever in the woods, or the lake!  For the horn player, this may mean botching the “big lick,” miscounting the rests, having a memory lapse, or finding yourself so far off-track in a passage that you are unable to recover.  In these extreme cases, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath, drop your ball in the fairway, and play your best for the remainder of the hole.  It is important to be able to put your mistakes behind you, and not let them interfere with the rest of the performance.  Otherwise, thinking about those mistakes while trying to continue playing will only serve as a distraction, creating a snowball effect that could turn into an avalanche.

In summary, I recommend that every horn player find some time on occasional weekends to play golf.  The two pursuits share countless similarities, probably because they are both so difficult to master.  Analogies between playing golf and playing the horn, such as those discussed here, could fill a small book, and advances made in one can lead to a greater understanding of the other.  When that little white ball frustrates and exasperates you (which it will), just remember how much time you’ve put into the horn to achieve a level of comfort and skill.  But be advised, too much time golfing and not enough time playing the horn will certainly not help the latter!

In both golf and music, a hole-in-one is elusive, yet attainable.  However, if this level of performance has been achieved once, it can sustain our spirits through several “bogey” outings.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What is Your Swing Thought?

OK, here comes another one about golf and horn playing!  

Both pursuits involve complex physical and mental processes.  But, in both cases, the complexity can really get in the way of what you're trying to do, whether you're 90 yards out, trying to land the ball 10 feet past the hole and have it spin back to within 5, or if you're staring at 2 measures of rest followed by a high F entrance marked "Solo," as in the opening of Bruckner's 4th Symphony.  
If the golfer gets bogged down by all the little things that he needs to get right--keep your head still, set the ball back in your stance, choke down on the club, get a good shoulder turn (but not too much!), release your wrists through the ball, follow through, etc--then he's going to find it very difficult to swing the club with the free, fluid motion that's required.  Since there are about a million little things the golfer could try to think about as he swings the club--but doing so would leave him utterly paralyzed--golfers have what they call a "swing thought."  This is a single word or short phrase which serves as a kind of mantra, that they can focus on, thereby clearing their mind of all the other stuff.  This might be "stay on plane," "release the clubhead," "easy," or as Chevy Chase said in Caddyshack, "be the ball."

I really like this idea of a swing thought, and I apply it in my horn playing and teaching.

Why?  Because having a cluttered mind is a hindrance to a good performance.  You need to be relaxed mentally, and as relaxed as possible physically, for optimum performance.  I firmly believe that a "relaxed" performer will put the audience at ease, and enable them to enjoy the performance more.  Besides the benefit to the audience's attitude, the performance will actually be better, if the performer has a clear mind and relaxed body.  By "relaxed," I don't mean you're not nervous, or under pressure.  Perhaps a better description would be "in command."  It certainly makes the audience uncomfortable when the performer is obviously struggling with the physical demands of the instrument.
Keep in mind, there are no magic words (except "please," like your parents taught you).  No "abra-cadabra," or "Kopprasch-cadabra."  The swing thought needs to be a sort of trigger so that, if you get that right, most other things will take care of themselves.  Those other things will only take care of themselves if you've honed those skills through hours of diligent practice.
(As I'm writing this right now, I'm keeping one eye on the TV as Tiger Woods plays his first tournament in 9 months after knee surgery.  He, of course, is playing well.  Wouldn't you love to know what goes on in his head as he makes some of those shots?)

So, how about a concrete example of a swing thought for horn playing?  One of my favorites applies to the scenario of a soft entrance in the mid-high to upper register.  In this situation, the most common pitfall is trying to sneak in, and then the anemic squeak that comes out (usually late, and preceded by some airy fuzz) is a result of not having the airspeed fast enough at the outset of the note.  So, the swing thought that gets me through is the idea of launching a paper airplane.  Your fingers grip the plane lightly but securely.  Your arm moves forward swiftly, yet gently.  At just the right moment, your wrist articulates the release of the plane, and it sets sail.  If your arm hesitates, or moves too slowly, or you let go too late, the plane dives for the floor.  I just have to release the note like I release the airplane, and it will soar gracefully.
More often than not, my swing thought is really just a feeling, with no words attached.  A feeling that can't be put into words, or doesn't need to be--or shouldn't be.  These feelings come from many hours of practicing certain passages or techniques.  These kinds of swing thoughts allow for the most free mind during performance.  Ideally, what's going through my mind while I'm playing is music, not words, or clever analogies.  I can focus my mind completely on the MUSIC, and trust my body to turn those thoughts into sound through the horn.  Now, that's ideally.  In reality, I usually need a little help in certain passages, in the form of words, reminders.
So I think I have an idea what goes through Tiger's head as he swings the club.  It's most likely just a vision of exactly how the ball should fly, or how that swing should feel.

Now we need our own name for a swing thought.  Play thought?  Sound thought?  Blow thought?  Hmmm.  Any ideas?