SuMMer Practice

Hi All!

Elise and I are on a delightful "gig-cation" in Oregon, staying at our friend Carolyn's gorgeous house and looking after her gardens and apiary while she walks across the UK. Elise played Mahler's 7th Symphony with the Oregon Symphony shortly after we arrived in the PNW and now, I'm playing a pretty light gig, "Faust" with the Portland Opera. Light, as in not too much to worry about as fourth horn. Not-so-light, in terms of subject-matter, of course. After the opera, I'll be teaching at YMA and then heading home.

Even with my light obligations, I need to stay in decent shape. The City of Tomorrow is recording an album at the end of the summer and hey, my self-esteem is just better when I get some practicing in. So what does one practice when there's not much on the horizon (and one did not necessarily pack a ton of music in one's car driving from Tennessee??)

For a warm-up, I'm doing one or two sections of the Standley Edition. I've been thinking very much about the scientific method when warming up: trying my best to observe when things are not as they should be - not ignore, that is, when my intonation is off, when tone suffers, or articulation is unclear. Make hypotheses and test them. I've been writing some of these processes down and noticing that my inclination is to not always go with the simplest answer when I probably should.

 Summer Etudes!

Summer Etudes!

After warming up, I have been working one etude from each of the three etude books that I brought with me this summer, the 5th "Cahier" of the Maxime Alphonse books, the Verne Reynoldes 48 Etudes, and Studies by the Italian horn player Agostino Belloli by way of Gumpert and Chambers. These are probably three of my toughest etude books and I am learning to love them more every day. I use a random number app on my phone to choose an etude every day. It feels special when I get to repeat one. That happens pretty frequently with the Belloli, since there are only eight in my book. So far only once with the Reynoldes.

After carrying on like this for a while, the Maxime Alphonse is starting to feel really easy. I find the Reynoldes etudes to be at times very poignant and at times hilarious. I wonder if he was at all inspired by the Ligeti Piano Etudes for some of them. At the beginning of the summer, I couldn't usually get all the way through my final Belloli Study, (they're very long and operatic) but now I'm getting pretty good at it. 

After etudes, I'll take a look at anything hard in my Opera lit, or work a little on solo repertoire I'm keeping up. I'm avoiding practicing the City of Tomorrow music too soon. I don't want to get bored of that and I know I'll be practicing it really hard, come July.

Here's a little clip of the beginning of a Belloli study.

So, what is YOUR summer routine like, these days?

Middle and High School Student Recital

 Afterwards - everyone is relieved and happy!

Afterwards - everyone is relieved and happy!

Today my private studio of middle and high school students gave a recital at Rhodes College. I was very proud of everyone - many folks had learned pieces in a relatively short period of time! It was most of these students' first time playing with piano accompaniment, as well. We had all kinds of repertoire: Glazunov's Rêverie, Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, and Hindemith. I started off the show with the third movement of the Beethoven Horn Sonata. Congrats, students!

 Warming up together before the show.

Warming up together before the show.

The Five Powers

Sometimes when I practice, I feel like I'm reinventing the wheel. That is to say, I am creating methods and making discoveries that have been figured out by many other people, probably a long time ago. Reinventing the practice wheel isn't bad or embarrassing - it's good and natural. My teacher may have told me when I was eleven years old (and I'm sure he did) that I need to put my lips close together before I begin playing... but until I discover this again for myself (perhaps years later) during my own practice session, the practical application of putting my lips closer together before I play will likely go over my head. The cool thing about the lesson was that it gave me the idea in the first place, which made it easier to "discover" later on. I had a back pocket full of wisdom to apply to a challenge, when I thought about it enough.

A few of us will make totally new discoveries in the realm of music and the horn. Most of us will rediscover, remember, and perhaps modernize methods from practitioners both living and dead.

I've been taking some wisdom from somebody who was REALLY EARLY in discovering great methods for practicing the French horn. Early... like twenty-five hundred years or so ago. Perhaps you've guessed it by the title of this entry; I'm talking about the Buddha (or "Gautama Buddha" to be more specific, since Buddha is really more of a title.) Gautama didn't know how to play the French horn, you say!? The instrument wasn't even invented? Welp, here's what the Buddha was good at: figuring out how to do HARD THINGS. 

In Buddhist texts, the Buddha talks to various people (including a musician!) about what he calls The Five Faculties or the Five Strengths/Powers. (Two helpful wikipedia articles about this are here and here.) These strengths are what the Buddha felt were needed work on becoming enlightened (A REALLY HARD THING.) The strengths are:

  • Faith/Conviction (which controls doubt)
  • Energy/Effort/Persistence (which controls laziness)
  • Mindfulness (which controls heedlessness)
  • Concentration (which controls distraction)
  • Wisdom/Discernment (which controls ignorance)

The beauty of this list is that these powers are helpful to practice ANYTHING DIFFICULT, not just (haha - just!) the work of becoming enlightened . They work great for learning the French horn, for example. For my own practice and teaching, I slightly westernize and secularize the list. Here is my checklist of mental powers of practice:

Confidence - Energy - Mindfulness - Concentration - Wisdom

How does this work in practice? Well, I use it before and during practice, performance, and even teaching. As an example, here is one way that I use this checklist before beginning a practice session:

Before practice, I run down the mental checklist. This can be a really quick process ("Hey hey, I feel great! Full of confidence, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom!") or... not. Check out some of my solutions below.

  • Do I have confidence? If not, I might remind myself of all the really productive practice times I've had, even under less ideal conditions. Remind yourself of anything that gives you more confidence.
  • Do I have the energy to practice? If not, maybe what I need is a glass of water or quick snack. Maybe I need to stand up, instead of sitting down or turn on more lights. If you often have energy problems, make sure that you're taking decent care of your body!
  • I start to engage in mindfulness by simply scanning my body and noticing how it feels, today, right now. I scan my surroundings, notice the condition of my instrument, notice other sounds, smells, temperature, etc.. This should only take a couple seconds.
  • Do I have concentration? This is usually, for me, the most important question. Sometimes, the answer is YES. Especially when I have something important coming up, I am highly motivated and concentrated. But on an average day, when I may or may not feel particularly excited to practice, the answer might be NO. To help with my concentration, I often use my method book. Some kind of course that is structured and has a definite end helps me to saddle up and get in to it. Other ways to get concentrated include sitting quietly for five minutes, setting timers for short bursts of concentration, or having an accountability practice buddy. Let me know if you have other ways - I'm always interested in learning more! Overall, it's important to remember that concentration is a skill - just like horn playing - that improves with practice. The more you TRY to concentrate, the better you will become at it in the long run.
  • Lastly, I apply wisdom. It's funny how we might not do this until we have a reminder. If one of the powers above is JUST NOT HAPPENING for you today, wisdom tells you it might not be a good time to practice. Wisdom will also tell you that if you have a long recital coming up, you should try to focus on strength and endurance or if you don't have much time, you should do an abbreviated warm-up to get to the things of high importance. Remember, you have a huge reservoir of wisdom, from your teachers, your own experience, or simply your own intelligence at your disposal. Awesome things start to happen when you use it regularly!

Do these powers sound useful to you? Do you think about them already in some way? Let me know in the comments or email me. Thanks for visiting!