I've been in a montage

I believe most humans are familiar of the cinematic trope of the montage. Rocky's got a big match coming up - life or death! - and we see him jogging all hours of the day, practicing with the bag, strategizing with the coach, etc., etc....

Welp, these last few of weeks, I've been in a montage. Getting ready for playing the Ligeti and Brahms last month (as well as a set with the Memphis Symphony) felt like a giant feat. And I have had to ma'am up and just do the work! Here's how the montage goes: 

*Me talking on the phone to my mom* - "Yeah, Christmas was great... Coming up in January? Well, I'm preparing to play the hardest piece written for French horn three different times... You're right, mom, they probably should have gotten Jen to play it."

CUT TO - Me studying the score, drinking coffee. I pause to scribble with a pencil and nod to myself, satisfied

CUT TO - At a messy instrument repair shop where my salty repairman friend (cameo role by Dan Aykroyd) cuts and realigns my thumb key while I perch on a stool and watch. 

CUT TO - Me practicing the second movement of the Ligeti over and over and over and over and...

CUT TO - New Years eve, a party at a friend's house. We all wear party hats and crowns and at midnight I kiss Elise (played by Chloë Sevigny) to show that I'm "keeping it together" and I'm not turning in to a total loner.

CUT TO - I'm jogging through the neighborhood, "Silver Lining" style except that instead of a garbage bag, I'm wearing every item of clothing I own because it's been freaking cold, here!

CUT TO - Pressing send on an application for a higher ed job and then immediately falling asleep from sheer exhaustion.

CUT TO - Second movement of Ligeti - AGAIN!

CUT TO - The performance, backstage. My trainer says, "Are you sure you're ready to take this guy?" and I reply, "It's now or never, mack."

Below, a video of that fateful second movement of the Ligeti. Enjoy!

10 Things Your Teacher Didn't Tell You About Practicing

Strange but mostly true...

1) Your fingernails grow faster when you practice a lot

...Especially the fingers you use most often. French horn? Thumb, index, middle, and ring on the left hand! 

2) The more you practice, the worse you are at sight-reading

This doesn't seem correct until you realize that before you started practicing regularly, most of the playing you were doing was sight-reading. As you practice, you are exercising the part of your brain that is responsible for remembering how things should feel and sound, not how to see something and take your best stab at it! To counteract this, practice scales and arpeggios every day and also keep your sight-reading sharp by reading though something you're not familiar with daily or every other day

3) Practicing is more tiring than almost any other type of playing

...Because you don't stop for the conductor to talk to the strings... or for the winds to tune something up... or for the violinist's cadenza. And you repeat passages more than you would in performance. For that reason, you should build breaks - short or long - in to your practice. So maybe you practice for fifteen minutes and then take a five minute break or practice for 45 minutes and then break for fifteen. In any case, you'll give your face - AND YOUR BRAIN! - a much needed rest.

4) What you work on really hard today might not sound better until tomorrow

We've all been there. You work painstakingly on a phrase, slowing it down, trying to get the right kind of ease. It doesn't work. It's still difficult and clunky. Or you are looking for a type of sound or dynamics and you just can't hit it - it seems impossible! But then, you wake up the next morning  and like magic, it's there! If something isn't working in the moment, don't despair. Know that the thoughtful work you put in will make a difference; you just might have to sleep on it! Speaking of sleep...

5) You can practice in your sleep

Well, not exactly. But your brain continues to process problems you present it with during the day while you slumber. For that reason, it can be especially helpful to visualize playing something you're working on while you're in bed, about to go to sleep. Always try to visualize a performance that's going really well. You might even realize by doing this that your brain is messing you up when you're playing irl.

6) Spinning around can help you learn something

The next time you are working on a lick that you can play but you're worried you can't play it all the time (*cough* at your lesson *cough*) try this: Play the lick facing in all directions of your practice space. Having your brain adjust to doing the same job but while taking in different scenery can help you be more consistent! This also works in a classroom setting. Students who sit in different seats throughout the semester learn and retain more than students who always sit in the same place.

7) Practice DOESN'T make perfect

You may have heard this one before. Practice makes PERMANENT. So if you've played something wrong six times and right one time, chances are you will keep playing wrong. To make sure you've really got it, play something right at least 4 times in a row. 

8) Fundamentals are for everyone

Let's say you "work out" a fundamentals issue with your teacher. You're really proud the day when you can feel like you've mastered the skill. Hurrah! You're not using "twah-twah" air or letting your tongue get in the way of your air! You can move on with your life now, right? In actuality, professional players are working out fundamental issues all the time, until the end of their careers. Your teacher? Still working on fundamentals. The principal player in a major philharmonic? Still working on fundamentals. 

9) Listening can be better than playing

Have you ever worked hard on an excerpt or piece and then finally heard it played and realized you learned it all wrong? This can be especially hazardous for orchestral or band excerpts when we don't see the whole part or score in front of us. We might not see the tempo marking or understand the texture of what we are meant to play along with. We can save tons of time by just listening to the piece before we begin learning it. Preferably, we listen while looking at a score (all the parts on one page.) Another helpful tool is to record yourself during your practice and listen back. You might be surprised by what you hear!

10) Practicing can be fun

What now? Yes, indeed, even YOU can have a good time while practicing hard to master your instrument. A lot of this depends on your personality. Maybe you're the kind of person who doesn't need to have fun while practicing. But maybe you're the kind of person who loves solving puzzles. So make each thing you do about solving. Or maybe you just like the feeling of accomplishment? So make sure you give yourself a cheer or gold star when you finally get something right! Or maybe you just like being around people. Set up a practice date with somebody! That way, you can give each other encouragement and props! 

Happy Practicing!

All Thumbs

The holidays were a success in many ways. I cooked some good food, family visited and we all got along, gifts were appreciated by those who received them, and best of all, I didn't let up on practicing. This can be a tall order for the holidays, when there seems to always be something that is more important, whether it's family time or just plain relaxing. In any case, I was able to keep my chops in working order and continue some gentle progress on the Ligeti. 

My main adversary seems to be my left thumb. A combination of driving too much and playing a lot strained a ligament that attaches at the base of my thumb. Tweaking the ligament during the course of the day is hard to avoid (tweaks include: grabbing and lifting an item like a jar, using my thumbs as a point of leverage for just about anything - a window sash or... pulling up my pants, tucking my thumb in towards my palm) and horn-playing is just a combination of all those movements, depending on how I empty my spit valve.

Luckily, I've got time on my hands and can follow best practices for treating this kind of stress/inflammation injury (except for taking a break from playing, unfortunately!) Treatment includes:

  • Wearing a thumb-stabilizing brace whenever I don't need my thumbs for something important (this helps reduce those pants-pulling-up kind of tweaks.)
  • Practicing in fifteen minute increments separated by half hour breaks. This usually stops me playing to the point of pain and starting bad compensating habits.
  • Taking an ibuprofen at the height of the work day.
  • Performing a light cross friction massage of the tendon in question.

I'm also looking in to having my thumb key reshaped and repositioned so that it's closer and more ergonomic. 

The fifteen minute practice chunks are helpful in a number of ways, besides keeping my aching thumb healthy. Much like I had to in graduate school, when I had precious moments to practice, I must plan each session carefully. Today, I spent 45 minutes warming up (key of Bb melodic minor) and then eight sessions of fifteen minutes spread through the day working on Ligeti as well as F. Strauss' Nocturno. Those sessions lasted from 12:30 until 6 pm. At the end of the day, I felt as though I had played plenty of the Ligeti and had lots of other productive time during the breaks, as well.