28 June, 2009

The Lip Trill Sermon

None of these blogs so far have concentrated on pedagogical matters of horn playing; however, indulge me while I preach about an obvious, ordinary, and yet often neglected aspect of practice.  

While giving master classes, students around the world often ask me for a quick fix or for something concrete they can do which will make a dramatic difference in their playing.  Those who have worked with me know that "practice lip trills 5 minutes a day!" always makes an emphatic appearance in my advice, delivered with missionary zeal.  The students nod politely and repeat, "Okay, 5 minutes of lip trills a day."  I can almost hear them thinking, "Yeah, right, like who's got time for that?  I hate doing lip trills / they never get any better / how is that going to give me a high C / take the fuzz out of my tone / win an audition /etc. etc."  

Well, I'll tell you. :->

First, here are two suggestions on how to practice lip trills effectively and efficiently.  You might find it helpful at first to get a metronome clicking, at a comfortable tempo (try quarter note = 104 or so.)  Each pattern lasts 8 beats.  Start on written C in the middle of the staff & slur quarter notes up a whole step to D & back down, C-D-C-D-C etc.  Then do 8th notes on the same pattern (twice as fast), then triplet 8ths, then 16ths, then sextuplets, then 32nd notes, finishing off with a beautifully held out C (all in one breath if you can manage it.)  Repeat this pattern in descending and ascending half-steps, striving always for evenness of rhythm and purity of sound, remembering to finish each pattern with a held note.  When you play trills in "real" life, you will finesse them into a phrase ending anyway.  So you'd might as well practice that.

Once you've got this down, you can do a shorter exercise, like the one I do every day after my scales.  I start on the written Eb at the bottom of the (treble clef) staff (fingering: F 2&3.)  Its a bit wider than a whole step.  As you go up by half-steps, the overtones will gradually get closer and closer together.  I trill evenly for a full breath on each note, looking always for a lovely tone and rapid, clean, smooth trills.  Also, don't be afraid to go higher than is initially comfortable.  I usually ascend at least to the G or Ab above the staff while doing this exercise.  IMPORTANT:  Play around with the dynamics. Try trilling softly, loudly, with crescendo, diminuendo, as well as trying out passages in the horn repertoire with trills in them (for example, the 1st movement of Mozart 4, the bit with the Eb trills.)

I tell students that if you do this every day for two weeks, your trills will automatically get better.  Some people trill with more conscious tongue movement, others feel the shake in the throat, lips, or even abdomen.  The most important aspect is keeping the air flow steady and alive throughout the trill and focusing on the sound you are producing.  Always go for the sound and don't obsess with any one physical point of resistance, such as the embouchure or tongue.  In my 30 years' experience with the instrument, I've usually found this to be a recipe for disaster, creating a scapegoat for any technical or artistic issues (example:  I can't do ______  because my stupid embouchure is _____.)  Don't get stuck in this victim-oriented thinking.  Become a pragmatist and find what works best for you.  Keep experimenting, and when you find the magic formula, practice it and make it really great.

So, what benefits can you gain from daily, correct lip trill practice?  Here are just a few, in no particular order:

- The need to focus on air flow gets your breathing apparatus functioning properly.  You need a lot of well-directed air to get the trill turning.

- You develop much greater endurance, as the subtle motion of the embouchure muscles strengthens and vitalizes them.

- If you can make a beautiful sound on a lip trill, you can definitely find this sound on non-trilled notes, i.e. the rest of the time.

- This practice is good for slurs and legato playing by increasing your flexibility and awareness of what happens between one note and the next.

- When you come to a passage with a lip trill in the repertoire, it won't throw you for a loop.  Geoffrey Winter of the American Horn Quartet often uses the analogy of the "tool box" - making sure you have all the technical tools in your "box" you will need to play anything that may occur in your score at any given time.  Excellent lip trills belong in the top shelf of this kit!

- Trilling gives your lips a pleasant little tickle.

Five minutes a day, initially for 2 weeks... then 2 more weeks... then 2 more... and so on!  Make it a lifelong habit.  Some people were blessed with naturally fast trills.  I was not.  But practice really does bring enduring results.  Just do it!

Sermon over.

25 June, 2009

Checking back in, and notes on the AHQ tour

It has been months since I last offered a blog posting on this website - writing has always been a balance of activity and introspection for me.  The fact that nothing has appeared here since March probably shows an overdose of the former, and lack of the latter.  Now that a friend of mine, Bruce Richards (principal horn in the Liège Philharmonic Orchestra), has started blogging at my urging (check out his worthy musings here,) I feel inspired to take up (virtual) pen to (cyber) paper once again.

So many projects have come and gone since March, but for me, by far, the highlight was the American Horn Quartet's European tour, where I filled in for David Johnson (recovering from a broken eardrum.)  We played 10 concerts and offered master classes and coaching in various locations in Germany, Luxembourg, France, and England.  It was on rather short notice that I received the entire 3rd horn book for the tour, many notes to learn, with a Luxembourg Philharmonic tour to northern Italy and Prague in the middle of it all.  Even though I have been a guest of the AHQ on several other occasions (mostly on Kerry's popular The Casbah of Tetouan, but also a few other multiple horn performances here and there on various continents), it's truly a different animal playing as part of this magnificent quartet, à 4.  We hastily put together a program for a gig for the German Criminal Defense Lawyer's Association near Bonn, and shortly afterwards met again in Bonn for two days of intense rehearsal.  One of the secrets of the AHQ's success is that very little, if anything, is left to chance in the performances.  Pieces and passages are rehearsed into the smallest detail, including metering crescendos and diminuendos exactly by beat, arrows indicating when to change the intonation of a held note according to the chord changes, ornaments and lengths of articulations, etc.  You wouldn't believe how many fingerings I wrote in for the fast passages in the Turner Quartet #3, for instance.  Luckily, I was playing from copies of David's music, and the fingerings he wrote in for stopped passages and tricky bits were absolutely brilliant.  I even bought a cheap (and yes, pretty nerdy) pair of reading glasses to aid me in the rehearsals.  

The first official concert on the tour was at the Stumm'sche Reithalle in Neunkirchen, near Saarbrücken, Germany.  This photo, used for later publicity on the tour, was taken just outside the concert locale.  Even though I felt extremely prepared, the program was taxing to the limit of endurance, as well as one requiring constant concentration.  Playing at this level is like driving a race car, in that one moment of inattention can cause a crash.  I was also concerned with showing that their trust in me was warranted!  Then, as we walked together on stage to warm applause and began the first piece, "America-Tonight" from Walt Perkins' arrangement of West Side Story, there was no time to think about anything other than the task at hand, the next bar, the turn of this phrase, the tuning of that chord, the mapping of energy to get to the high C at the end of the piece... and this continued throughout the concert.  On the one hand, the absolute devotion to the moment and the mental focus and clarity required to carry off such a task blot out everything but the performance itself; on the other hand, I felt throughout the tour that this state of mind was the most natural thing in the world.  There is room for bold musicality and gorgeous emotional phrasing, but always in a calculated and intelligent way.  The first concert went off without a hitch, as did the following nine.  Each evening we were faced with a different acoustic.  For instance, the chamber music hall in the Luxembourg Philharmonie was quite live with the sound bouncing off in an unexpected direction; in Saint-Nazaire, the acoustic was dry as a bone while we were all glistening with sweat in the heat; the cavernous American Cathedral on the Avenue Georges V in Paris caused us to alter our program to fit the church's resonance; and so on.  

We traveled from venue to venue in a rented Renault Trafic minibus, in which Kerry had posted homemade signs in the back window.  Nearly 5,000 km passed under the odometer as we drove from place to place.  Waiting for the ferry in Calais to take us to Dover for our weekend at the Tonbridge School, we pulled out our horns and practiced on the quay (to the amusement?? of the other ferry passengers.)

You can see a few videos on YouTube from performances on this tour, 2 with students from the class of Xiaoming Han at the Hochschule in Saarbrücken: Take 9 Fanfare and Farewell to Red Castle, as well as a video of our encore in Versailles, Bach's Air on the G String.   

It was an absolute, unadulterated joy for me to be a part of this project.  Geof, Charlie, Kerry, and Sherry (Geof's significant other, who took care of the merchandise sales on the tour, as well as helping with the driving and providing me with some female companionship!) were ideal travel cohorts, and were in high spirits for the duration of the tour.  They made it very easy for me to "drop in" to this world-class ensemble, and I am grateful for that.  The problem with being on a 3-week high with this sort of gig is, well, coming back to the real world!  Though I also love orchestral playing, returning to the rank and file felt like being a steeplechase horse who had just been harnessed to a plow.  That plow pays the rent though, and the yoke is relatively light...