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Higher! Faster! Louder! Sooner! Now!

One of the selling points of music study is – or used to be – that it teaches disciplined hard work over a long period of time. But in this age of instant gratification (and everything else), patience for the process is becoming an endangered species of character traits.

High school instrumental competitions are a primary example and catalyst for this trend. Instead of working on developing solid fundamental skills, ever-younger players (and probably even more so, their parents) insist on working on contest materials nearly exclusively. All-State is All. Horn teachers are under pressure to work on solos that are several quantum levels beyond the current technical (and even more levels musically) ability. Players work on contest pieces that they wish they could play rather than what they actually can play. The thinking (?) appears to be “I’m working on a really difficult piece, so I must be really good.”

The results are frequently stress, development of bad habits (when in doubt, force it!), and demonstration in performance of what they can’t do.

There are no easy answers to ameliorate this endemic cultural condition, unless they do away with such competitions or develop a Patience Vaccine. I’ll list some ideas that have worked for me to some degree or other over the years, in the hope that it will inspire other teachers to contribute comments on what has worked for them for similar situations.

•Although you are under pressure to work on only contest materials (solo, etudes, scales), work at least half of the lesson on fundamentals (see below for a trope on this topic). This kind of work is money in the bank. Going straight for the contest materials is like practicing high speed auto racing without knowing how to shift gears, steer, signal, or put air in the tires.

•Pick a solo that the student can master in the time left until the contest, usually a couple of months (unless you face the situation of administering lightning miracles to students who come to you for one special lesson to solve all problems a week before the contest). A contest judge (most of us have been there…) would much rather hear a “simpler” piece played very well, then a Grade VI piece peppered with crashes and burns. Your job is to convince them that it is indeed a commendable challenge to play a piece within a comfortable range nearly perfectly concerning accuracy and musicality. There are many collections with selections that qualify here. Better to play a Grade less and play with much success than the usual – a grade or two or three too hard and show off shortcomings. If they don’t have a lip trill, steer them away from pieces with lips trills (Mozart and Franz Strauss come to mind); it serves no purpose to assassinate such music with (e.g.) ugly valve whole step valve trills, among other travesties. On the other hand, if they can manage a slow but measured (i.e. controlled) trill, such pieces might be possible (although there are other considerations), depending on the student and the level.

•Beware range demands. Pick a piece with a range (especially high) that matches the student’s current level of development. One of the primary features of difficulty for the horn is range. Forcing high notes is easy – just press! The results are temporary, unpredictable/inconsistent, and possibly injurious. Develop range like other parts of technique – incrementally and gradually. Trying to play something in a range that has not been “worked up” to is like trying to find a shortcut in the 100 meter dash. You can try and force something, but it is unlikely you will find satisfactory results. There are plenty of beautiful, satisfying pieces in nonextreme ranges to tackle.

•For a good bit of time, work on just the sticky bits of the solo and etudes. Concentrate on problem identification and solving. Create series micro-etudes that lead the student down a progressive ramp of incremental successes to conquer each problem, as far as time allows. Require them to play all short (e.g. a measure or two) tricky passages from memory. Students commonly like to play through a piece, ignore problems, and call it practicing. Uh-uh. Playing through pieces before mastering problems is simply practicing mistakes. Work on small bits, which very often translate into specific elaborations of fundamentals. As the competition approaches, at some point you’ll have to cut down on the detail work and start working on performance – playing most or all in one go, no stopping. If you have chosen the piece well, almost all of the problems will have been mastered by now. At this point you will also want to record the practice performance. Listen to it together and go over undesired results in minute detail; come up with solution for additional polish of the recalcitrant spots. You will also want to address the mental aspects of performance: quieting the monkey mind, the difference between practice mind and performance mind, and so on.

Some thoughts on working on fundamentals. After decades of nonthinking repetition of standard warm-up and workout routines, I’ve come up with some new ways of doing old things. The results of this thinking will be published next year in a book entitled “A Systematic Approach to Horn Technique.” The first thing that interested me was the question of what constitutes a progressive (gradual) approach to learning technique. Everything in the standard books (e.g. Farkas) is good, but is not remotely progressive. Routines like this jump over huge gaps of technique; they ask/require you to do things without helping you get gradually acquire the skills to get there (high C on page 2?). Anyway, I’ll have to cut this discussion short (get the book when it comes out…) for now and look a treatment of fundamentals in the scope of today’s topic.

•Fundamental #1: the way the horn works is the overtone series. Acquiring skill in moving fluently and accurately around the OTS is the sine qua non for horn playing. Valves don’t do as much as we would like them to do; valve skills go on top of overtone skills. We tend to try to cure problems with valves that are overtone mastery problems. Have the student learn the numbers and the corresponding notes. With this you can invent a limitless supply of OTS drills, etudes, etc. and use no paper or ink at all. Whenever possible, translate technical problems into a similar overtone shape and work it out there first. Working only with the valves dulls the sense of what’s happening and where things are. Make the aperture/air do the work using OTS exercises.

•#2 – the most basic unit of technique (besides producing a single tone) is moving back and forth between two overtones, slurred. The most comfortable pair is 5 to 6 (E to G, bottom of the treble clef staff). Start slow; work gradually to fast, efficient motion. This is a shape. Move it up and down the OTS. Don’t omit 7 & 11, etc. Gradually widen this shape to 3 notes, 4, 5… finally to two or even three octaves.

•#3 after adjacent overtone motion, the next area of technique to work on is nonadjacent motion, or leaps. Start with one leap, 6 to 8 (G to C).  Slow to fast. All horn keys (fingerings). Gradually widen the leaps. Move the shape up and down.

•#4 – After a goodly dose of overtone exercises (which may be different every session), then you can turn to the way that music works: using valves; scales and arpeggios. Think of scales and arpeggios in terms of scale degrees. A major scale is 1 2 3 4 4 5 6 7. A major arpeggio is 1 3 5 (8). A harmonic minor scale is 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7. Start with short units for scales: 1 2 3 (Core Scale) and/or 1 2 3 4 5 (Power Scale) and gradually work them up to a high degree of fluency (accuracy + speed) in all keys. Then scales to the octave or 9th. At some point you will have to have the student work on two octave scales, but delay this. Knowing only two octave scales is like studying brontosaurus anatomy and working on dogs and cats – it doesn’t exist in nature (I have never played a piece for the horn with a two-octave scale, but every piece uses short scalar passages). Students also traditionally work on long scales at moderate tempos and if they miss a note are lost and have to start over. Learning short scales at great fluency and understanding (knowing scale degrees) simply makes infinitely more sense. They are short and are quickly learned in all keys and scale types. Have the student play them only from memory, going around the circle of 5ths (descending: C F Bb Eb Ab Db F# B E A D G). I once had a very good student audition for me. I asked them if they could play for me a one-octave Db major scale. They played a very good 2 octave scale. “Very nice,” I said. “Now could you play me the one-octave scale that I asked for?” No, they couldn’t. They only knew it as one octave. The different to me in these two kinds of learning is learning to speak another language versus memorizing Berlitz phrases and parroting them without understanding.

I was a parrot myself for a long time, but I will testify that it much preferable to be able think in music.

In any case, I welcome more comments in dealing with the problem of unripe fruit pushing for untimely harvest.