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The operating system of the horn is the overtone series. [OS = OS!]. We will henceforth use the abbreviation OTS for overtone series, partly to avoid any confusion with the common use of OS meaning (computer) operating system (isn’t the alphabetical coincidence fascinating…), but mostly as a shorthand way of conveying information (which is what abbreviations are). More such shortcuts are to follow. I know, it’s sometimes annoying to have to learn new stuff, but think of how much faster you were able to work at the computer when you learned the basic keyboard commands like (on a Mac) Command-P for print, Command-C for copy, Command-X for cut, Command-V for paste, Command-S for save and so on – instead of having to reach for the mouse each time. Although new ways always have a learning curve, once you get used to working in a more efficient way, it’s hard to go back to the old way. Bear with me and learn some (possibly) new conventions (some outlined in the last post) and you will enjoy having both the understanding of the processes and the efficiency of the procedures. You will be able to apply them to your own playing and introduce them to your students right away.

The Overtone Series

Although we were all raised from Day One on the horn on playing with valves, control of the horn in fact is first and foremost the acquiring of control over movement around the overtone series, that is, all those notes that you can play with any one fingering. That’s what makes horn so challenging. Piano: one fingering, one note. Clarinet, one fingering, one note. Guitar: one fingering, one note. Horn: one fingering, 16 notes! Sounds like musical mission impossible, which may be why method books try to skirt the issue by going to valves right away. But, as the saying goes, the obstacle is the path. Horn players (and all brass players) need to confront this music elephant in the room right away and every day to start acquiring real control of this beautiful beast from the get-go. Putting valve work ahead of OTS work dulls the sense of where the center of the notes are and what you have to do to get there.

Most warm-up routines include some work with the overtone series (sometimes called flexibility studies), but – incomprehensibly – they just give you the fingering and say, “Do this,” without mentioning the overtone series, what “horn” each fingering corresponds to (F:0 = F horn, F:2 = E horn, F:1 = Eb horn, etc.) or what the overtone numbers are. The overtone series is how the horn works and there is simply no good reason to be deprived of knowledge about it. Valveless work is heart and soul of horn study; it’s how the horn was played for, oh, three hundred years. Valves are really just quick switchers between overtone series, but they help less than we think they do. Valve work helps us deal with how music works, but we all need to spend a good amount of time on how the horn works – the overtone series – before we overlay valve technique.

Since a knowledge and understanding of the overtone series is essential to better horn playing, we ask that if you don’t know your OTS numbers, start now, because we will be calling out OTS numbers and will expect you to know what notes we are referring to. The good news is that learning them will be quick and easy and will pay considerable dividends now and later in all sorts of ways. Also, using overtone numbers and ‘horns’ makes my job of communicating to you ideas and procedures about technique much easier and quicker. I can use these terms as shorthand to give you examples and exercises very quickly, not even needing music notation once you know how it goes.

Example: Say I give you the instruction: “4-5-6-5.” The numbers tell you which overtones to use, and a system of default settings (i.e. we don’t need to say what they are unless something different is desired) tell you how to play the notes. Settings include which horn (i.e. fingering), tempo, articulation, and progression (what’s next).

Thus, for the instruction “4565”, you know to start playing C E G E (OTS 456 is our central major triad – check the chart) F:0, go up and back, slurred, starting quite slow, accelerating gradually to the edge of control on your fastest tempo. Then repeat through the fingering series (F:0, F:2, F:1, etc.) down to C horn (F:13); begin again with Gb horn (Bb:23), going up through the horns until you reach the highest one, Bb alto (Bb:0).  You will have repeated the same exercise through 11 horns (pitch levels/fingerings). [These are the default settings I prefer. You are free to tweak or make up your own, and you can change them day to day. But it’s nice to start with something.]

All this from the simple instruction of the 4 digits. You didn’t need to write it out because the knowledge is in you and not on the page. Any deviation from the defaults would have been announced, such as “4-5-6-5, 2 & 2, 3 speeds.” 2&2 refers to articulation: two tongued and two slurred. 3 speeds: slow – moderate – fast. Or: “4-5-6-5, move the shape up one and repeat, then down one and repeat.” This clearly indicates that you play the defaults the first time through, then repeat using overtones 5-6-7-6 (starting with the next OTS note up), then again using 3-4-5-3. It would take pages to write out, but doing this way, all it takes is one sentence and you know exactly what to do. Knowledge of a few basic principles and procedures gives you great power and flexibility in your practicing, not to mention efficiency.

An analog to this would be how they call plays in football. The quarterback does not tell each player what to do for each play – imagine how long that would take. Or he doesn’t pass out sheets of paper detailing what everyone is supposed to do. The players know the language of football, so that all the QB has to say is “Ace Right z-Dig x-Shallow” and everyone knows what to do. We can do the same.

So let’s play!

Tech Project #1: Running the OTS

Enough background for now. Our first project will be to hone our control of the horn by getting under the hood and forcing our embouchure/aperture/air to do all the work by staying moving around one overtone series. A lot of our problems in horn playing would disappear if we worked this way before involving valves. Valves do a lot less than we think they do. We have been bamboozled from Day One by band methods that treat us as big curled trumpets and have us work with valves instead of the actual way the horn works, the OTS. Football players and other athletes do a lot of drills of all sorts for strength, speed, flexibility, etc. before they run plays in scrimmage. As novice horn players our band directors and band methods threw us into scrimmages right away. So let’s go back and fill in what gaps there are in our technical upbringing by doing these OTS exercises (or, mostly likely, adding them to what we already have). When you add valves, horn playing will seem a lot easier.

For Project #1, we are simply going to run the OTS up and back, using different horns, different speeds, different lengths. The articulation will be mostly slurred. Think of these exercises as wind sprints, except that we will start off strolling and gradually end up sprinting.

Reminder the defaults: Articulation: slurred. Tempo: start slow, gradually speed up until you reach your limit of control.

Part I

1. Start with C horn (F:13) on OTS #8 (=G4). Your assignment is to “grow” the overtone “scale” above OTS 8, i.e. start with the narrowest interval (OTS 8 to 9, i.e. C to D) and successively add one more adjacent overtone until you reach the octave, OTS 16 (G5). Thus, your first “scale” will be 2 notes: OTS 8 to 9 (G4-G5). Yes, I can’t fool you: that is, in fact, a trill. Start off with a very slow trill, and gradually find your limit. Play with your eyes closed so that you can be in close touch with the kinesthetic sense of what is happening.

2. Take a short break, then go on to add another note. Now you are going up and back playing the pattern OTS 8-9-10-9 (G4-A4-B4-A4).

Don’t be in a hurry to go too fast too soon. Go for both quality and quantity. Speed will take care of itself if you are 1) using proper technique, which comes from oodles of correct repetitions and 2) relaxed (speed comes through relaxation of as many muscles as possible, using on the ones that accomplish the desired motion.

Then: 8 to 11. 8 to 12. And so on, up to 8 to 16.

If you’ve put in the time (and there is no rush, but there is a need to show up regularly and consistently), you can play through any length of this 8 to 16 overtone scale at any speed.

Great! Now start over (after a break) with a slightly shorter horn: the Db horn (F:23). Now you are up a half step, which makes it a little more strenuous. Repeat all.

Continue until you reach F horn (F:0). Advanced players may continue the exercise, continuing with Gb horn (Bb:23) and finishing (if chops allow) with Bb alto horn (Bb:0).

There is enough material here that you can do something a bit different every day. Examples: Do one length, but go through all horns (from C horn to as high to the edge of what’s comfortable), say 8-9-10-9 or 8-9-10-11-12 and back. Or the whole octave. You could also do different speeds: Day 1: 1 speed: slow. Day 2: 2 speeds: Slow – Fast. Day 3: Slow to as fast as you can. Articulation: we do mostly slurred, but you could also do the exercises all tongued or mixed tongued and slurred.

Part II

In Part I we spent time working on single lengths: 3 notes, 4 notes, 5 notes. When that kind of movement is fluent, you don’t need to spend so much time on each and can review all lengths quickly, one after the other: 8 9 8 9 10 9 8 9 10 11 10 9 8 etc.

Do first all slurred, then all tongued. Do at least 3 speeds (slow, moderate, fast as you can control it); doing it very slowly is more of a challenge than you might think. Repeat in Db horn, and on up as high as is comfortable. Take short breaks in between each horn.

Part III

What do you do when you get really good at jumping rope? You add another jump rope. It’s very attractive once you have mastered something just to sit there and repeat your triumph over and over. While it’s a good idea to review what you already can do and thus keep the rust off, what is healthier and more interesting (if harder on our adult egos) is to add another musical jump rope, i.e. challenge.

If you can do Parts I and II, great. But there are always more jump ropes we can add.

Now go back and repeat PI and PII but change some things:

1. Rhythm. Who says everything has to be the same note value? Try the following:

•Add accents: duple, triple, 2+3, 3+2. 2+2+3. 3+2+2, 3+3+2.

•Add a repeating rhythm: Long Short Short (LSS), SSL, or SLS.

•Syncopate the line against a steady metronome (or other rhythm source).

•Move up and down the OTS scale using spontaneous rhythms – make it into music!

2. Add other stuff: Dyamics. Varied articulation.

3. Do any or all of this with a playing partner: turn it all into duet! You can play in unison, or canon, or in thirds (or any other interval), or just have an improv free-for-all up and down the OTS.

Overtone Trivia

It’s not really trivia (i.e. unimportant facts), but sometimes we call fascinating bits of information trivia (it’s fascinating to me, anyway. I’m also very interested in flossing).

•Numbers double at the octave, e.g. all C overtones are a multiple of 2 (4, 8, 16…).

•Multiples have the same characteristics. 5’s and 10’s are a bit flat; 3, 6, and 12 are very slightly sharp.

•We usually write 7 as Bb, but the pitch is halfway between Bb and A. We write 11 as F#, but the pitch is halfway between F and F#. We write 13 as A, but it sounds more like Ab.