My rustic office has only one wall. My laptop is on a table against the outside of the log cabin camp office. It’s horn camp time again – I’m back for my annual two weeks at the Kendall Betts Horn Camp at Camp Ogontz in the beautiful White Mountains of upstate New Hampshire. Most days I will be pretty busy and may not have time to do much internetting; this office is the only building of the 100 Camp Ogontz buildings that has wifi – if you’re not sitting right here, no wifi, which, after you go through your withdrawal symptoms – wonderful. Without electronic distractions, the brain can think and plan and speculate and conjour again. Without being in thrall to electrons for a change, stuff can happen. Do you think Bach would have been able to do a fourth of what he turned out if he had had email?
So I can do an occasional quick email fix here (ok, and to play a bit of Hanging with Friends), but all the rest of the time, I get to focus on horn. And thinking about horn. I filled several pages of horn/music/technique thoughts in my notebook last night and early this morning, something I haven’t done for a while (perhaps not since last year’s camp…). Man, it felt good. To have the peace and lack of distraction to think again. And try stuff. And write it down.
All teachers, certainly including horn teachers, amass a lot of material over the years in the ceaseless quest to increase their knowledge and improve their craft, the better to continually upgrade what they teach and how they teach it to students. It’s a lot of work, and it never stops. Vacations are always packed with special projects to increase skills and knowledge, creating new teaching materials and revising old ones. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but the good news is that it is always interesting. Learning is life; stagnation is brain death. Back to the materials part. We all create a lot of materials. Sometimes the materials become books that are published and thus spread the materials far and wide, like Doug Hill’s Collected Thoughts..., a wonderful compendium of some the materials and articles Prof. Hill has turned out over an outstanding career spanning over three decades. My Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians is an augmented & edited collection and method that comes from the first half-dozen years of teaching my “hobby” course, Improvisation for Classical Musicians. My upcoming book A Systematic Approach to Horn Technique is the product of years of thought and experimentation. I’ve also turned out a fair number of articles and compositions over the years. There are a lot of teachers, especially university teachers (who have to continually file CVs and demonstrate creative production), who create new teaching materials. But I have to take a moment to salute a man who apparently never sleeps or gets sidetracked with distractions like email, Facebook, Twitter, eating, sleeping, and so on (may I have the envelope, please):
Overplayed or not, one of the most delightful aspects of the Christmastime holidays is the glorious music that floats everywhere. There is in fact a very large variety of flavors of it, and alleluia for that. There’s Bing crooning White Christmas, vast choirs raising the roofbeams with Hallelujahs, boys’ choirs sounding like angels, medieval madrigalesque tunes with exotic-timbred winds, strings, and drums, country-western songbirds warbling plaintive homespun yearnings, jazzy choirs or bands syncopating and jiving through the old tunes, and I love the lot, although I think it should be a felony to begin commercial Christmas-themed advertising displays of any sort (visual or audio) until after Thanksgiving.
Most of the above descriptions refer to what’s available on CD, radio, or TV. What may well be missing from too many people’s experiences is the same that may be missing in general: 1) Hearing the music live, either in a formal concert or informally in from carolers (does anyone do this door to door any more?) and 2) Doing It Yourself. The iPod and all its cousins have brought us instant and ubiquitous access to every shred of audio or visual material (albeit in Lilliputian format), but this same ease of access also brings us distance from the process of making music ourselves, which is apparently and sadly an endangered charm unique to the the human species.
The fact is, we don’t play our horns. We serious them. Although the Ur-roots of music making undoubtedly sprang from vibrant, playful, spontaneous expressions of emotion and storytelling, since the rise of organized music education (Paris Conservatory, 1795?), we have increasingly dispensed with the playful, exploratory, expressive nature of music in favor of the more easily measurable elements as accuracy, standard technical requirements, and consistency (be able to do it the same way every time). We’re not so good expressing anything personal in music, but, oh, are we good at recitation. We know how to relate how Herr Strauss was feeling in Bavaria a hundred years ago, but have no way to say in personal music how we’re doing right now. Fun is not really part of it. Music is serious, isn’t it? It’s not supposed to be fun. Fun is suspect. Fun is low status. No fun is high status. Get through that warm-up routine one more time, same as before, get through the scales, arpeggios, other technical work. That’s the way it’s done. Fun? What’s that? What good is it? We think: if I want to get better, I don’t think about having fun. It’s irrelevant.
Fun is, however, well, fun. Wouldn’t it be ineffably peachy if you could have your technical cake and have fun with it, too?
“Horn playing is easy – you just take a big breath and pucker your lips and put your whole life through the horn.”
She said it when she was six years old. She wanted to see what playing the horn was like, so I held the horn up and gave her some basic instructions and she made a mighty blast and then cooly summed up the experience with that quote. When it was time to join the band in the fifth grade, she chose the horn. But she also chose not to study it – take lessons (except for the intro band director lessons). She just likes playing in band. And that’s OK with me. I am fine with her having a musical experience of her own choosing on her own terms that she enjoys. I’ve had a very special time with her since the end of May – mom is in Italy for five weeks leading an opera workshop. I had to give up being on the faculty of the Kendall Betts Horn Camp this June, which I miss very much, but this time has turned out to be a terrific (and mostly likely last) chance to get to know my daughter better one on one. She has never had much interest or knowledge about what I do exactly at work, but a couple days ago she asked to see this horn blog (since she started a blog of her own a couple weeks ago as a way to keep mom informed about current events here). She had a look, and then asked if she could write an entry. With a modicum of trepidation but no hesitation I said, “Sure. If it’s appropriate and I reserve the right to edit (everyone needs a good editor).” That night she sent me the following, her statement on what playing the horn means to her plus a short history of her experiences in elementary and junior high band. I present it to you with no editing. It doesn’t need it; it’s more important to let the unique flavor of her speech, ideas, and passion come through than to correct spelling and grammar. It’s the best Father’s Day present ever.
Confessions of a Reluctant Horner
In Part I talked about the fun and benefits of working together with another player, as coaches, mentors, and playing partners, especially in playing duets with the great benefits of sight-reading and transposition, among others.
There is another kind of duet and another kind of benefit to be had if you make up the duets yourselves. That is: improvising them.
Improvising means “thinking in music,” something that is nearly never done is traditional pedagogy of horn or any other instrument. More’s the pity. Now, why would you want to do something like that?
I greatly enjoy going to gatherings of horn players such as the recent 2009 IHS Symposium in Macomb, hosted by Randall Faust. Besides the pleasures of oogling rooms full of instruments and having to take out a second mortgage because of sheet music purchases, it’s great to reconnect with old friends and to make a lot of new ones, and to tank up on new ideas and inspiration from all the energy and activity there. One of the inspirations I took home from IHS 09 was the exhortation to start a horn blog but none other than archblogger (bloggist?) himself, the indefatigable John Ericson, who has been blogging up a storm since 2006.
Many blogs are tropes on personal opinion, and there will be some of that, but I would like to use the blog as a spotlight to bring attention to interesting thoughts and information on all aspects of the horn – teaching, playing, equipment, and more. I suspect there will be a good bit of ‘fall-out’ from the University of Iowa Horn Studio web site (www.uiowa.edu/~somhorn), which I have had fun building up over the past three years. The Resources section has the most comprehensive set of (annotated) links to information on horn on the web (as far as I know), and as I run across interesting stuff, I may bring some of it here for commentary and to call attention to it. Below is some of that:
Who Plays What?
John advises me to be brief, frequent, and just talk about whatever has my attention at the time. With the help of a lot of people, I have started a list of orchestral, university, jazz, and other well-known horn players from around the world (although it’s mainly US players) with what horn(s), make and model they play. There is a link to it on the home page of the UI Horn Studio web site; otherwise you can find it at Resources>Links>Instruments>Who Plays What?
It’s interesting to see what current players are using. It’s a very different list from one that might have been made, say, forty years ago. There are still some of the old stand-bys: Conn, Schmidt, Alexander, Paxman, but many names of new custom horn makers. The latter have blossomed during recent decades; many of them make Geyer models. In the Midwest alone we have Hatch, Lewis, DeHaro, Hill, Berg, Medlin, and Sorley – quite amazing! Many professional players and teachers have clearly put their money where their mouthpiece is and are playing these horns. It is somewhat reminiscent of beer microbreweries (is it purely coincidence that both horn playing and beer really got their start in the same place, Bohemia? ; > ). Not so long ago, almost all beer sold in the US was made by a very small number of very large companies. Enter microbrews, and, alleluia and mirabile dictu, the consumer had a much greater choice and vastly broader palette of types and flavors of beer and ale. As we have seen with the banking industry and other industries, bigger is not necessarily better or wiser or healthier. It’s grand now that players have so much choice of so many fine instruments. The competition also keeps the big companies on their toes.
Another thing that the list shows is the widespread popularity of triple horns of various makes and models, as well as descant horns (strictly speaking, a descant is a single high F horn, but in popular usage it means a Bb/high F double).
I’m also happy to see the monolithic sentiment of only one make/model of horn ‘allowed’ in a section is breaking down. People should play what they are most comfortable on. Too many people judge sound with their eyes (there have been a number of blind tests over the years demonstrating this). A given piece of equipment may sound very different depending on who’s playing and their concept of sound.
If anyone has additions or corrections for Who Plays What, or wishes to comment on what they infer from the listings, I’m delighted to have them.