Thoughts on Straight Mutes

*Just a quick note that all of the mutes discussed in this post are Rittich-style mutes. Per Horn Matters, Eugene Rittich of Toronto, Canada, who was Co-Principal Horn of the Toronto Symphony for many years, is responsible for designing this most popular style of mute, used by professionals and advanced students alike. It is a simple cone shape, with a movable inner tube for tuning purposes.*

We as musicians, especially horn players, are truly blessed, because we have so many wonderful equipment and accessory options from which to choose. When I bought my first real straight mute, back in 2004, I didn’t have a lot of options. At the time, I had been using a Stone-Lined mute for years, and it was time to upgrade. I considered getting a Trumcor, but my teacher recommended a straight mute from Ion Balu, so that’s what I ordered. It was a Walnut Balu mute that cost $110, which I still have and use to this day. I had to replace the corks on it recently, but it has held up very well over the years. The market for wooden straight mutes has severely inflated over the past decade, so many of the top brands will cost anywhere from $130 to $250.

Today, a Balu mute will run you approximately $200 (US Dollars), so I’d say that the price has increased a little over the years. It has a great reputation, and it is still one of the best all-around mutes that you can buy. The Balu mute is heavy and solid, but due to its robust construction, it produces a warm and full-bodied sound that other wooden mutes tend to lack. When comparing to other brands, I am always very impressed with the quality of construction concerning the Balu mutes. I don’t feel like I’m going to break it when I hold it or put it in the bell of my horn.

Ion Balu Mutes
Balu Straight Mutes

A great “middle of the road” option, which is reasonably priced and well-made, is the Trumcor straight mute. There are a number of models available by Trumcor, but the most recommended wooden straight mute is the 45T model. The 45T is tuneable, which is what the “T” stands for, and only costs approximately $130 (it’s listed for $105 on the Trumcor site). It is also available from multiple sources, such as Woodwind Brasswind, Musician’s Friend, and even some local music stores. I know many professionals that use this model mute, and I do recommend this particular one for many of my college and high school students. It’s rare that a young student will be able or even willing to pay $200+ for an accessory that they may not use that often, so I’ve found that this Trumcor mute is a great compromise. It produces a nice sound, not stuffy or too bright, and it also feels very durable. It should be noted that Trumcor mutes are not completely made from wood, but are also made using “a specially formulated resonant fiber material.”

Trumcor Model 45T (Tuneable)
Trumcor 45T

Staying in the “affordable” range, is another wooden, Rittich-style mute produced by the Denis Wick company (sorry, no relation to John Wick). The Wick company is located in England, and it is well-known throughout the brass world for producing top-quality mutes, mouthpieces, and accessories. Like the Trumcor mutes, the Wick wooden straight mute is also lined with a special fiber that helps to dampen the sound. The sidewalls are constructed of birchwood, and the bottom panel utilizes marine plywood, which is a type of wood that is able to withstand lots of moisture accumulation. The best price for this particular mute may be found at Hickey’s Music, $108.50. Personally, I was only aware of the metal Wick mutes until recently, so I don’t have much experience with the wooden mute. I did try it once, and it seems like it would be a fine option for a younger player. It would at least be better than using the metal “silver bullets” by Wick or Jo-Ral. I would still recommend the Trumcor mute over this one, but this seems to be one of the cheaper options on the market.

Denis Wick

Another “affordable” option is the Moosic Mute, which I believe is only available through Pope Repair or Hickey’s Music. I thought that these mutes were made by Jacek Muzyk, the Principal Horn of the Buffalo Philharmonic, but I can’t find any information to support this claim. Either way, it has one of the most unique designs, and I have always wanted to try one. It is handmade, and the “design uses two layers of spiral-cut walnut and poplar veneer to create a responsive and resonant sound. It has no plastic or fiberboard and gives a very natural all wood feeling, (Pope Repair).”

Moosic Mute

The RGC mutes, which are available through Houghton Horns and produced in Spain, are a very affordable option offered in six different choices. There are three different conical versions: Ash (offers more clarity of sound and articulation), Black Ash (darker sound than the regular ash, but with same sense of clarity), and Solid Cherry (focused and projects very well, lighter than the previous two woods). All three are available for $119, and play well considering the price. Recently, after being able to try these three models at a workshop, I have begun to recommend these more often. The other three options utilize a 12-sided design, which raises the price a little, $125-$179, depending on the wood. Here are the 12-sided choices: Solid Cherry ($125, similar to the Conical version, bright sound, great projection), Cherry and Ash ($149, the Ash is meant to balance with the brightness of the Cherry), African Rosewood and Ash ($179, heavier, with a darker tone). I’m not a huge fan of the Cherry, primarily because it is a little too bright for my taste, but the African Rosewood and Ash is one of my favorite mutes. While being absolutely beautiful to look at, it also produces a very nice sound. I don’t personally own one, but after trying it numerous times at different workshops, it’s on my shortlist. My only complaint with the RGC mutes, and many of the mutes on this list, is that they are very light in comparison to my Balu mute. I’ve been using a Balu mute for so long that when I pick up other mutes, I’m always taken aback by the difference in weight. I know that all of the mutes on this list are well-made, but many of them feel flimsy when compared to my trusty Balu.

RGC Mutes Button

The last mute before we start looking at the more expensive options is the long straight mute by Don Maslet. It is currently available through Osmun Music and Elemental Brass at approximately $135. Unlike the other mutes in this list that are primarily comprised of some sort of hardwood, the sidewalls are constructed of carbon fiber, with the bottom plate being made of wood. Due to the materials, this mute produces a very bright and brilliant sound, while also being super lightweight and extremely durable. I haven’t tested this theory out myself, but I can only assume that this mute would work well for solo work or any type of muted passage that needs to cut through a big ensemble. It could also potentially work well in a brass quintet type setting. I didn’t find the brightness of this mute to be as offensive as that of the Cherry RGC mutes, but this could be due to the difference in material, carbon fiber vs wood.

Maslet_Straight
Maslet Straight Mute

Now, we’re starting to creep closer to that $200 threshold; however, we still have two makers that offer very nice mutes. The first is Marcus Bonna. We all know and love the cases, but the company also produces some very nice mutes. MB evidently has a carbon fiber option, but I’m only familiar with the regular wooden Rittich-style mutes. The latter can be found for approximately $175 from many of the major horn retail shops, and it is constructed of fiberboard and wood. MB does offer mutes with different designs on the sidewalls, but these options are also a little more expensive. Since Marcus Bonna utilizes fiberboard, their mutes are a little bit lighter than the Balu mutes, but otherwise are pretty similar in playing characteristics. If I’m already going to spend close to $200 on a mute, I would probably opt for a Balu mute over the MB mute, but at this point, it’s really up to personal preference. I prefer the solid, heavier feel and sound of the Balu mute, and I’m sure that other players might prefer the opposite.

Marcus Bonna Straight Mute for French Horn
Marcus Bonna

Horn-Crafts is a mute-making company based in the Netherlands. These mutes are sold by many of the big music retail companies throughout Europe. In the U.S., they are distributed by Dillon music, Osmun Music, Patterson Hornworks, and Pope Repair. Horn-Crafts currently offers three different models: Sylva (Beechwood), Betula (Beechwood), and Khaya (Mahogany). The Sylva and Betula models are the heavier options, 130 and 140 grams respectively. These two are also the cheaper options that are normally available for approximately $180. These models are very nice mutes, but the Khaya model, which is made of African Mahogany and weighs 125 grams, is my favorite. I normally don’t enjoy the lighter mutes, but this mute just feels and sounds better to me. It also costs about $250, which is the primary reason why I don’t own one of these models. The Khaya is a fantastic mute, but unless you have an abundance of money to spend, I would stick with the other two models. The Sylva and Betula models are very comparable in sound and feel to the Balu and MB mutes.

Horn-Crafts Horn Mute – Houghton Horns
Horn-Crafts

The Tom Snyder mutes, which are primarily sold through Pope Repair, are produced in Canada and available in the following options (wood): Koa, Walnut, Cherry, and Ebony. They are priced at $230, but I paid $200 for my Ebony mute back in 2016. I loved the look of the Ebony mute, and I loved the sound of it at the time. I tried all of the mutes that I could find at the 2016 International Horn Symposium in Ithaca, NY, and the Ebony won. It fit pretty well with the horn that I played at the time, which was a Wunderlich Schmidt. After I switched to an EB (Elemental Brass) Custom Yamaha 87, I did everything to make it work, but no matter how hard I tried to fix the issue, I couldn’t play in tune with it. I recently sold it, which is a shame, but if I couldn’t play it within a section, then the mute wasn’t worth keeping. It not only projected well, but technical passages were extremely clean on that mute. This just goes to show that a mute won’t work with every instrument, so be sure to try one before you buy it. Even though it didn’t work out in the long run, these are still great mutes, and I highly recommend them.

Snyder Mutes
Tom Snyder Mutes

This next one isn’t necessarily a new mute, because it is made by Ion Balu, but it is new to the market. It was designed by Dan Vidican, the maker of the wonderful Lukas Horns, and this mute is evidently the “Beast Mode” version of the regular Balu mutes. The Lukas mute seems to only be available through Pope Repair and is priced at $255. The site mentions that the process for making this mute is much more labor intensive, and the following characteristics are listed: “quick response, evenness across the range, and a brighter, crisp sound full of stage presence and projection in the hall.” I have not personally tried this mute, but due to my preference for Balu mutes, I can only assume that I would enjoy the Lukas mute. Would I buy one? If I performed regularly in a professional orchestra, I would maybe consider it, but as I stated previously, it’s difficult for me to justify spending more than $200 on a mute.

Lukas Mutes
The Lukas Mute, made by Ion Balu, designed by Dan Vidican

The Cadillac/Rolls Royce of the horn mute world, the Woodstop mute, which is available in Maple ($225), Cherry ($245), and Walnut ($255). These mutes are sold through The Horn Guys, Elemental Brass, and other places, but it’s actually cheaper to order the mutes directly from the Woodstop website. The Maple has a “very lively sound with a bit of edginess” and plays with great response. The Cherry is a free-blowing mute with immediate response that “gives the traditional sound with a bit more warmth.” The Walnut “gives a very warm sound with no edginess.” It is responsive and the playability is supposedly very “similar to that of your open horn.” These mutes are played and endorsed by numerous professional musicians throughout the United States. I have never tried one, mainly because it is above my pay grade, but the straight mutes and stop mutes are both world-renowned, so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.

walnut stright compressed.jpeg
Woodstop Walnut Straight Mute

Well folks, we made it! I know that there are other mute brands out there, but the ones listed in this post are the most “well-known” horn straight mutes available today. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for some profound wisdom concerning the “perfect” straight mute, then you are out of luck. There will always be debate over which one is the “best,” just like how we constantly fight over which horn is the best. It all depends on personal preference, which is why you should always try it before you buy it, or you might just get stuck with a $200 mute that you never use.

Composer’s Corner: Caccia for Solo Horn

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and since I’ve been gifted some extra time due to the quarantine, now is the moment to start sharing more information about some of my compositions. This particular piece, Caccia for Solo Horn, was somewhat inspired by the 2019 Southeast Horn Workshop in Cullowhee, NC. I had made a few previous attempts to compose a work for unaccompanied horn, but I abandoned those projects with little to show from it. For some reason, I just didn’t have the right concept or melodic ideas to make it work. I was trying to write a piece that sounded like Interstellar Call or Laudatio instead of creating my own work.

There wasn’t a particular performance that inspired Caccia, but being at Western Carolina University and exploring the beautiful mountain region surrounding it sparked an idea. The image that came to mind was that of the hunt, and I immediately began to think of the various rondos that I’ve performed throughout my career. In the beginning, I envisioned something similar to the Rondo in B-flat by Arnold Cooke, and it would be based on this central motivic figure:

Ex. 1 – Opening Motif


The “tonic” key of the piece is technically B-flat major, another homage to the aforementioned rondo by Cooke, but the opening passages do tend to gravitate more towards the dominant, F major. The opening section serves as an “Introduction,” exploring the main melodic material, which is a fusion of two different ideas: hunting horn calls and heroic motifs. I didn’t want to just write a bunch of hunting horn calls, but rather an infectious melody that conjures thoughts of heroism. I also wanted the music to give off a sense of constant forward motion, whether through rhythm or the melodic material itself. Horn calls can often halt the motion in some music, because these musical ideas are used more to draw attention and can “stop the action.” I didn’t want this opening to be a “call to arms.” We are joining the story in the heat of the chase, as the horses and hounds are barreling through the forest at breakneck speed.

Even though the piece is fairly short, approximately 2-3 minutes in length, there are four distinct sections, and each section is separated by a measure of rest. This measure of rest should be a brief pause, with a quick emptying of water if needed. Since the first part serves as an introduction, the second part is a quasi “Development” section that takes the opening motifs and expands upon the material. It contains stopped horn, mixed meter, and lots of technically challenging passages. Even though the technical difficulty is more demanding throughout this part, the music should sound fluid and effortless, which is reminiscent of a fox bounding through the forest, desperately looking for a place to hide. The performer should keep the tempo constant throughout, but some liberties and rubatos may be taken at the performer’s discretion. Slurs are marked in the part for ease of playing, but speed and keeping this section from sounding laborious should be the primary goals. If more slurs are needed in order to achieve this objective, then add more slurs. The performer should have fun with this section and keep driving the music forward.

Ex. 2 – Technical Passages from “Development” Section

The third section is much shorter than the previous one, and serves as a “Segue” or “Transition” before the final section. Here, the melody is slurred, contains less motion, and is softer. This softer, more subdued melody then gives way to a light and playful sequence of arpeggios. If continuing with the narrative approach to the music, think of this part as a slight lull in the action (a change of pace). Imagine that the hounds have lost the scent of the fox, and the animal can finally breathe a sigh of relief for a moment. The horses slow to a stop, and just as the hunting party is about to move on, the scent is suddenly rediscovered, and the chase is back on. During this part, the tempo should not change, only the mood and style should be altered. This section is also written in bass clef using new notation.

Ex. 3 – Melodic Material from Section 3 (*Bass Clef)

The “Segue” ushers a return of the melodic material of the “Introduction,” which is often referred to as the “Recapitulation.” Obviously, this isn’t a real “Recapitulation,” but I am reintroducing the original opening motifs. I added a stopped section, seen in Ex. 4, before the mad dash to the end.

Ex. 4 – More Stopped Horn

In the end, I hope that people will enjoy this piece and have fun playing it. Like I stated previously, it’s not a long piece, so it isn’t meant to be a stand alone work. It should be performed in the context of a recital, and I think it would be a great “change of pace” type of addition to any concert. While I wanted to include a lot of technically challenging issues, I intentionally kept this work from being taxing on the chops. It isn’t a clear “low horn” piece, but it definitely does include some low horn playing. As of the writing of this post, Caccia for Solo Horn has yet to be published, but it will be published soon by Brass Arts Unlimited. If you have any questions about this piece, or if you would like to perform it, please let me know. I was supposed to perform the premiere at this year’s Southeast Horn Workshop, but due to COVID-19, it did not happen. I’m hoping that I can perform it soon, but I will gladly share the piece with anyone else that is interested and wants to perform it, even if that individual is able to perform it before me.

I will update this post when it is published, and when it is performed.

I Played a Recital Recently

I can’t believe that I didn’t write about this earlier, but I actually performed a recital back on April 9th. It wasn’t a very long recital compared to what I’ve done in the past, but it was great to get back on stage. This was my first solo recital since my injury, so there was a lot of pressure. Over the past few years, I’ve had some horrible experiences, and it was important to me to finally create a positive experience from which to build and grow. Thankfully, it went pretty well. Granted, I could have played better on some things, but I played well, and I also enjoyed myself. I mean, of course, I was nervous, but I did actually enjoy myself and fought through the nerves, which was a big step for me. I’ve been crippled by my own mind for so long that it was liberating to finally have a real break through. I already feel more confident, and I finally feel like I’m close to getting my swagger back. I’m also starting to plan my next recital, which is even more exciting.

I was talking with my wife after the recital, and I asked her if she thought I was getting close to playing like I did back in Grad school. Her response was great. She said that I’m playing pretty well, but that my sound lacks the cockiness that I had before my injury. I definitely had to laugh at this, but I understood what she meant. I don’t fully trust myself yet, so I’m not laying it all on the line when I play. I’m holding back a little, which is also holding me back from taking the next step in my career. I hope to work on this issue over the summer break.

Back to the recital, I was really excited to play some pretty cool pieces. I performed three movements from Paul Basler’s Songs and Dances, which were “Tanguito,” “Soaring,” and “Moonlight.” I wanted to perform all of the movements, but I was worried about my endurance, so I programmed lightly. The next piece was my favorite, Reveries by James Naigus, which is for two horns and piano. It is a wonderfully crafted piece that I was able to perform with a good friend, which made it even more fun. After that came an unaccompanied piece by James Black titled Soliloquy. It’s written in the style of Mahler, so I was obviously drawn to it. The last piece was a transcription of a Mozart Divertimento written for three horns. Very well written, available through The Hornist’s Nest, and I would highly recommend it. Lots of fun to play!

Again, I wasn’t completely happy with my playing, but I was very proud of myself for putting in the work and making it happen. Sure, I made some stupid mistakes that I never made during rehearsal, but I got through it. A year ago, I would have cancelled the recital, so I’m just happy that I’m feeling comfortable again, and I’m also excited that I can start to think about all of the wonderful pieces that I have yet to perform. I feel like I need to schedule a recital every month just get through all of the pieces that I want to play. Oh well, after what I’ve been through, this is definitely a good problem to have.

Featured

Introduction

Welcome! I’m glad that you have decided to join me on this weird and intriguing journey. If you’re a horn player, you’ve come to the right place. I am a professional horn player and teacher, so much of what I write will have some link to the horn playing world; however, if you are a brass player, then you’ll still find some interesting stuff within, especially if you have ever suffered from an embouchure injury. Even if you are a musician of another breed, I think you will still find something of use scattered amongst my meanderings.

As I mentioned, this site is going to have a wealth of information regarding horn technique and pedagogy, but I also plan to write about any music-related topic that strikes my fancy. I will be especially interested in learning and writing more about how anxiety and depression affects musicians, and I also want to learn more about embouchure injuries. As someone who was afflicted by and suffered from the side-effects of an embouchure injury for a long time, I am very motivated to learn more about the topic in order to help others and keep them from experiencing what I had to go through.

Just remember that these are my thoughts, and even if you don’t agree with my point of view, try to keep an open mind. I will always try to keep things civil and professional, and I also hope that I will never post anything that is untrue or uninformed. again, thank you for reading my blog, and I hope that you find something useful here.

Thanks!

Dr. J

Musicians Dealing with Depression in the UK

An article posted by Classic fM (and other sites) that has been making its rounds throughout social media the past month is giving us a little more insight into the number of working musicians that suffer with anxiety and/or depression. This study was conducted by the University of Westminster in conjunction with Help Musicians UK, a charity based in London, surveying over 2,000 musicians concerning mental health. According to the findings, over 70% of the musicians surveyed at some point suffered from anxiety or panic attacks, and roughly 68% stated that they had dealt with depression. These are staggering numbers that should not surprise anyone in the business, especially on the academic or orchestral side. We know first-hand how difficult it is to find any job that pays a livable wage, let alone one within the field of music.

As someone who has dealt with this issue (and really is still dealing with it…), I can honestly say that the combination of the guilt that you feel for not being able to provide for your family coupled with the anxiety of not having a steady paycheck is a suffocating feeling. You’ve done everything that you were supposed to do. You practiced a lot, played all of the recitals, wrote all of the papers, worked yourself to death trying to finish that dissertation….and you still can’t catch a break. Plus, now that you need help, you don’t have the financial means to do so, especially if therapy is involved. For a while, I had a hard enough time trying to keep my anxiety medication filled, because we didn’t have insurance or the money to see a doctor.

The good thing about this study, even though people still don’t realize just how tough it is to make it in music, is the fact that Help Musicians UK is dedicated to help change the industry and provide free assistance to those who need it in the UK through Musicians Minds Matter. This is a 24/7 mental health service that will hopefully provide the proper care to suffering musicians. The only problem is that this is only happening in the UK and not throughout the world. Like I stated, I’m grateful that this issue is receiving attention, but we desperately need this type of service in the states.

I also wonder if the study focused equally upon artists working within the art music and popular music genres. I have a feeling that this study was aimed more towards the actual “industry,” rather than those of us struggling to make it as an instrumental performer or teacher. It would make sense, because those within the “industry” are generally high profile, but that doesn’t make those of us on the classical side any less important. If anything, I feel that the art music and academic side is even more “cut-throat” than the pop culture side. Now, I’m not trying to say that one side is better than the other or needs more attention, but I do want to make sure that all musicians get the proper respect and treatment.

I really hope that more and more people realize that the music field is broken. We have too many highly-qualified individuals and not enough jobs to go around. There are so many very talented musicians that I have met through my journeys that completely gave up on music, because of the high-risk, low-reward nature of our industry. I’m grateful that I have a teaching job and that I can teach at a couple of universities, but my salary doesn’t even come close to off-setting the amount of time and debt that went into obtaining my training and degrees. I also was not trained or prepared to deal with many of the hardships that I have had to go through over the past few years. The field is definitely changing and evolving, but I don’t know if it is changing fast enough. There’s also a big culture divide that has severely lessened the support and appreciation that the arts receive throughout this country, which is a travesty. It’s getting to the point that if you don’t live in certain parts of the country, then you may not have the same opportunities as a person living somewhere else that is more supportive of the arts. I’ll leave it at that because this is definitely yet another issue that also needs attention.

If I had access to the resources and/or the time, I would take on a similar type of research/study here in the states. My focus would probably be on academics and classical artists, but I could also devote some attention to industry artists as well. Unfortunately, adjunct professors are not allocated researching funds and most outside (non-university) grants are given to full-time professors anyway. I will have to do some investigating to see if a study like this can be done here. Maybe it already is being done and I just don’t know about it. I’m just glad that musicians with depression and anxiety are finally being acknowledged. Music Minds Matter, having just gone live this month, is in its fledgling stage right now, so it will be interesting to monitor its success (or shortcomings) over the next few years.

Here’s the url for Music Minds Matter:

https://www.musicmindsmatter.org.uk/

Dealing with Depression

This is a topic that still isn’t talked about as much as it should be, especially within the music business. Depression is real, and I suffered with it for a few years before finally pulling myself out of it. I feel that a lot of people still don’t see depression as a real affliction, and that those of us who suffer with this mental illness are afraid to seek help. We don’t want others to know, or think less of us, because there are those people who feign certain illnesses and issues all the time. It’s not fair. There are plenty of people who died too young and/or ruined their career by trying to live and deal with depression on their own. Too many people have tried to drown their sorrows with alcohol or illegal drugs.  Thankfully, I was not one of those people, but it happens.

I’m not a medical doctor, therapist, or psychologist, but if you think you have depression or a serious problem with anxiety, please go seek professional help. I did not seek professional help for my depression, so it took longer than I expected to get better. I have been taking medication for my anxiety for several years, and I do think that medication saved me from myself; however, I should have sought help and things could have played out differently. Now, I hope that I can at least use my experience to help others.

There are many different forms of depression, but clinical depression or major depressive disorder is defined as follows by the National Institute of Mental Health:

It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.

It’s a vague description, but I really think that depression can manifest in different ways depending on the person. For me, I didn’t notice this at the time, but I became a completely different person. I didn’t sleep well at all, I gained about 80 pounds, which I still haven’t been able to lose yet, and my personality changed as well. I became agitated/irritated very easily, and I just had a lot of anger for no reason. I was angry about everything. My road rage was awful, and I’m surprised that someone didn’t hurt me for some of the stupid things that I did. I also began to lie a lot. I’m the type of person that is pretty reliable and is always truthful, but I started telling little lies here and there, and then it steamrolled into something bigger. I didn’t want anyone to know what was going on, so I just made stuff up when I needed to get out of doing something. It’s a wonder that I didn’t get lost in all of the lies.

Aside from those things, I also became kind of lazy. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a hard worker, and I always did what I needed to do and more to attain a goal. After the depression really hit, I just started to give up on things very easily. Any negative thing would affect me so much that I would shut down for a little while. It was a horrible feeling, and I know that I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around through all of this stuff. I should have reached out for help, but like I said, I was afraid, ashamed, and a whole bunch of other feelings that I can’t count.

That being said, the big question is this: How do you deal with depression? Like I keep saying the best way to deal with it is with a professional. Also, you can talk to other people within the profession who have gone through similar circumstances, like myself or anyone else. It’s important to realize that you are not alone and that your mental and physical health is more important than worrying about what other people might think of you. Life is bigger than that and if someone can’t be understanding and supportive, then maybe they don’t need to be in your life. This is a tough profession, primarily because there are too many highly qualified individuals and not enough jobs. The system is broken and it unfortunately looks like it won’t be fixed anytime soon. It also means that universities and conservatories will need to change the way that they prepare us for what’s to come after graduation. I received a great education, but I was prepared to play in an orchestra, teach horn players, teach at the collegiate level. I was not prepared to be denied jobs because I am over qualified. I was not prepared for that crushing sense of despair that I felt when I realized that I could not find a job to support my newborn child.

I don’t say all of this to depress anyone or to try and deter them from pursuing a career in music. I’m still fighting the good fight, but we need to be ready to evolve very quickly. Plus, everyone needs to know how brutal it is out there. Once you graduate, you are on your own, and you better have a plan. I have a plan now, but it took me longer than I expected to get there.

So, back to the original question: How do you deal with depression? I don’t have an easy answer. It’s been a tough road, but I know that I overcame my depression, because I decided that it was time. I realized that I was the only one that could change myself. I had to decide what I wanted, and I had to make myself get to work. Once I did this, I really did start to feel normal again.

For me, I don’t like to talk to people, so this blog has been very therapeutic; however, that still doesn’t mean that you can refuse to get help and be fine. I’m lucky, but you or someone else may not be as lucky. If you are suffering from depression, seek help. If you know someone who is suffering, give them support in any way that you can. Every little bit helps.

Staying Positive & Redefining Success/Failure

I’ve been really busy lately, and very tired. Even though I’m tired, I still have to keep practicing. There have been plenty of days where I have been tempted to just skip a practice session and lie around on the couch watching television, or spend time with my family. I knew that regaining the ability to play at a high level would be challenging, and I was also prepared to make sacrifices. Probably the most difficult sacrifice has been to give up that extra bit of sleep or rest. Last year, I wasn’t really practicing that much. I would get home from work and normally choose to be lazy. Now, I’m waking up earlier to fit in a warm-up session everyday, I’m practicing every chance I have at work, and I’m also setting aside an hour in the evening to practice at home. It’s a relentless schedule, because I have something to do at every moment, whether it’s teaching, practicing, preparation for teaching, research, etc. I’m physically and mentally exhausted, because I am working harder than I ever have before. And trust me, I have bad days. Days where I just don’t feel like doing anything, or days where things just go completely wrong. In the past, these days would have discouraged me, and I probably would have just given up for that day, or for the entire week, maybe even the entire month. I knew what I wanted back then, but I just didn’t really have the drive, the belief in myself, or the belief in my plan, which is the most important thing right now. The difference between now and even a year ago is the fact that I have a plan. A detailed plan with both short and long-range goals; however, this plan looks and feels a lot different from the one that I had in Graduate school.

The short-range goals are things that are attainable. Like, developing and following a practice routine for each day, working through some anxiety issues, performing with others, working a specific piece or technique, etc. I have also had to redefine my definition of both success and failure through this process. Before, success was being perfect, and being perfect meant that I had a chance to win that job. If I didn’t get that job, then I was a failure. The very first orchestral audition that I took, I almost won. I finished runner-up, and afterwards, I expected to find success again and win a job. Each subsequent audition that I did not win began to weigh on me. My definition of success was winning a job, and I kept folding under the pressure. It wasn’t that I couldn’t play at a high enough level, it was the fact that I was putting too much pressure on myself. After not winning an audition, I would come back and practice even more, because I believed that something was wrong. I wanted to be perfect, and this pursuit led to a couple of things. It ultimately drove me to my injury, and it also drained the fun out of playing horn.

So, here’s the big question: How do you stay positive, when all you do is fail? This was what kept me down for so long. I believed that I was a failure, because I had not achieved my version of success. So, changing my perspective was the first step. Then, I had to redefine my version of success. Of course, I want to play at a high level and perform in all different kinds of settings, but, is that really success? Am I successful if I win a job in an orchestra? Am I successful if I obtain a full-time job at a university? At some point, I realized that I had to stop measuring my success through the trajectory of my career. I just wanted to have fun again. I wasn’t playing horn that much, and when I did, I was not enjoying it. My primary focus since reaffirming my dedication to the horn has been trying to find that gratification of doing something that makes me happy. If I’m enjoying myself, then I know that I’m on the right track. It doesn’t matter if I miss notes, or if I don’t win an audition, or if I don’t even get called to play gigs anymore. I’m doing this for myself, and no one else. That may be selfish, but I’ve spent too much time worrying about what others think.

Focusing on having fun has allowed me to stay positive when things get tough. Also, I’m setting different goals for myself that revolve around having fun. I still want a college job, but that isn’t the measure of my success anymore. Instead, I’m focusing on playing in chamber groups, which is something that I really enjoy. I’m writing and arranging music (and being published!). I’m practicing so that I can play/perform certain pieces, not just so that I can win a job. I’m conducting a horn ensemble and also writing music for said ensemble. I’m doing research again. I’m also focusing on becoming a better teacher for my private students. These are my goals, but they are also things that I want to do, as well as things that make me happy and that I enjoy. Whether or not these endeavors land me a university or orchestral job is a moot point. The main question that I have to ask myself: Do these things make me happy? If I’m happy and having fun, then I’m a better person, more confident, and more invested in my life.

If you’re not having fun and enjoying yourself, then something is wrong. Throughout my own process, I’ve been determined, and I set a practice regimen that I follow religiously, but I don’t know if I could have made it this far if I weren’t enjoying myself. I already tried doing this for the money and the job before, and that failed. My advice is that if you can’t find a positive personal reason for doing something, whether it’s a job or other interest, then you’re only going to get so far. Money isn’t everything. A job isn’t everything. Sometimes we need to do it for ourselves. I tried to live without the horn, and music in general, and it made me miserable. So, find out what’s important to you, and figure out a way to set goals that will and should lead to success, but without sacrificing your happiness and well-being. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, because you never know if you’ll succeed if you’re too worried about failure.

Perspective

When you hit a rough patch, it’s easy to become negative. I know, because I’ve been there. If you suddenly lose the ability to do what makes you happy, especially if said passion pays the bills, it is very difficult to NOT become depressed. I think it’s acceptable to feel sorry for yourself a little, but you can’t give in. I believe that a lot of us who have suffered through depression do so because we cannot see the bigger picture. We are so obsessed with the thing that we lost that we are unable to move forward. In certain cases, you can’t get back what you lost, and you have to learn how to cope with that fact. In other situations, you can regain what you lost. It will be hard, but attainable, and it is ultimately up to you to make the decision that it is worth that extra effort. I don’t want to wake up at 5:20 am every morning, but if that’s what I have to do to get enough practice, then so be it.

Sometimes, all we need to do is alter our perspective. Some of you might ask, what is perspective? Well, it is a broad term. Basically, it refers to your attitude towards or interpretation of a particular concept or circumstance. A person can have lots of different perspectives, but really, I think that we all are programmed to deal with events, good or bad, in our own personal ways. For instance, as I have mentioned, I am a pessimist, and I always find the bad, even in a good situation. However, others are always able to stay positive and move forward even when there is a bump in the proverbial road. Since I have a tendency to focus on the bad aspects of any situation, my perspective is obviously skewed, and I need to fix it. The big question: How?

Perspective is fickle, because it deals with the mind. If you don’t have a strong constitution, your perspective probably changes constantly and can be influenced by outside sources quite easily. My problem is that I am hyper-critical of myself, and I tend to change my own perspective, usually in a bad way. However, I am also stubborn, and when I set my mind to something, I tend to be unwavering. This was my mindset when I began my journey as a horn player. For those of you that are unaware, I played saxophone for six years before deciding to start learning horn on the side. I played both instruments until my junior year of undergrad, when I decided that I wanted to become a horn player. After I switched instruments, plenty of people were skeptical and didn’t really think that I possessed the capability to earn a masters degree on horn. This doubt didn’t discourage me, on the contrary, it actually fueled me. This drive/desire served me well until that little bit of doubt was allowed to creep its way into my mind after my injury. Once it settled in, it just kept growing and my perspective honed in like a heat-seeking missile.

For a few years, I was unable to step back and look at the bigger picture. How would I be able to change my perspective, when nothing seemed to happen the way that I had planned or desired? I wasn’t being considered for full-time college positions, and I wasn’t even being offered a job as a grade school band director. The jobs that were offered either didn’t pay enough, or were positions that I didn’t particularly want. I was mired in failure, and I did not allow myself to use these experiences in a positive way. Instead of trying to use these setbacks as a chance to improve, I focused on the negative and allowed myself to slip even further into depression. This continued until I allowed myself to see the bigger picture and understand that all of these so-called “failures” did not define who I am as a person.

So, what is the “bigger picture?” To me, it’s life, and it also represents how we live our life. Do you want to be that person sweating the little things, or do you want to be able to let things go, be happy, and enjoy the good moments to the fullest. I finally realized how unhappy I was and decided that it was time to make a change. I had a place to live, food, clothes, a car, plenty of other luxury items, two wonderful children, and a loving wife. I needed to broaden my perspective, because I wasn’t allowing myself to enjoy these great things that I already have. Most of us forget that there are people out their that don’t have enough food to eat, don’t have a place to sleep, have to live in battle-torn conditions, have to deal with racial or religious discrimination on a daily basis, etc. With all of that in mind, most of us have it pretty good, and I think we all just need to sit back and realize that sometimes. Once you have a greater perspective for your place in the world, the fear of going on stage and playing in front of people, seems trivial when compared to the hundreds, thousands of people who suffer and die everyday around the world. Be thankful for what you have and grateful for the fact that you can go on stage and share your passion with others.

Now, allow me to backtrack and address the inevitable failures that we will have to deal with and overcome in our lives. Failures are important, because anything worth doing is never easy. You need failure to grow as a person. I think that most of us who suffer with anxiety probably let our fears have too much power and dictate our lives. We also tend to blame others for our failures in certain circumstances. I fully admit that I have done this on several occasions. This “blaming” is another habit that is unhealthy and that will continue to keep us from moving forward. The only way to get past our mental roadblock(s) is to embrace our failure and turn the tables on the mental game that we play. Instead of thinking, “I must be really bad at this, because I just had a horrible audition/interview,” we have to think in a more constructive manner. First, make sure that you take the time to prepare and set yourself up for the best possible outcome. Next, if you get that job or position, wonderful! If not, say to yourself, “I know that I put forth my best effort, so how can I continue to get better?” This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t feel disappointed, but you have to treat everything as a learning experience, because too much negativity inevitably leads to more failure.

I have always set very lofty goals for myself, and in recent years, I have wondered if I should lower my expectations. The answer is definitely no, because if I lower my expectations, then I will never reach my full potential, no matter the ultimate outcome. A colleague of mine, Marcus Redden, wrote a wonderful blog post on this topic recently. It can be read here. The fact that I don’t play in a top-tier orchestra, or that I’m not a professor at a top university doesn’t make me a lesser person. Failure does not define the person, but rather it is the decision or action taken after a collapse that can tell us who we really are.

My ultimate goal has always been to become a college professor, more specifically, a horn professor. I don’t plan on backing away from that goal anytime soon. Sure, it’s disappointing that it hasn’t happened yet, but I know that there is a great opportunity waiting for me, so I just have to keep pushing myself. In the meantime, I may not completely enjoy my current job, but I have to see the positive. I have all the things that I need, I get to spend time with my kids and watch them grow, and I also get to mentor some pretty talented young horn players. My life may not be what I expected, but it’s pretty good at the moment. Ultimately, the choice is yours. You can either enjoy life, or continue to make yourself miserable.

 

Practicing in New Environments

I feel completely comfortable practicing at home, but over the past couple of years, trying to practice in a different environment around different people has been torture. I guess it’s due to the fact that I have been so self-conscious of late, and I also keep thinking about other people listening to me practice and imagining the negative things that those people must be saying about my playing. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that I am facing once again as I have to end my summer vacation.

In recent years, I used a practice mute in order to allow myself to feel comfortable playing in public. Of course, using a practice mute on a regular basis isn’t the greatest of ideas. Those torture devices can not only mess with your intonation, but also wreak havoc upon your embouchure.

All jokes aside, I do feel a lot of anxiety when I am practicing or warming up around other people, musical or non-musical. Of course, the only way to get over this issue is to face it head on, so I will be forcing myself to practice in more “public” situations over the next few weeks. Once I get used to practicing in public again, I will be one step closer to learning how to positively cope with my anxiety.

I really thought that I was past this stuff. When I was in graduate school, practicing where other people could hear me wasn’t a problem. I do, however, recall some instances on the audition trail that caused my “practice” anxiety to resurface. One happened at an audition for the Canton Symphony in Ohio. This was my third professional audition, and it was my first time driving through Ohio. I got lost and was running late to the audition, so things were already stressful. Once I got there, the warm-up room was just an open room. There were plenty of other horn players sitting around and talking, but no one was playing. I was afraid to be the only playing in front of all of these people. I didn’t want them to judge me, and I could already hear their criticism in my head. Needless to say, since I didn’t really warm up before the audition….it was pretty terrible. I learned two valuable lessons that day. One, leave really early when travelling to an audition. Second, make sure you warm up before playing an audition.

There were other factors that led to that horrible audition, but my anxiety and stress levels were very high, leading me to have severe dry mouth, shortness of breath, shaking, etc. At the time, I addressed some of these issues, but they have resurfaced and magnified since my injury. I know that my anxiety is mostly a mental manifestation of my thoughts and fears. During graduate school, I was able to overcome a lot of these anxious feelings and thoughts by being prepared and being positive. I have not been very positive about my playing since the injury, and I wasn’t practicing much, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started to fold under the pressure.

Now, I have a regular practice routine that is pretty extensive, and I am learning to be more positive in my approach to playing the horn. Whenever I have a negative thought, I try to replace it with a more positive thought, or at least something that is constructive. I am a self-described perpetual pessimist, so I feel that most of my battle is learning how to be optimistic. Changing a natural tendency is never easy, but I am up to the challenge, so we’ll see how the “pessimist to optimist” journey unfolds.

Remember: Be positive, Don’t worry about what other people think, and Use your air!

Anxiety & Fear

Unfortunately for me, anxiety is something that I have dealt with my whole life. In grade school, I hardly ever talked, because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I was always self-conscious of my appearance, and I constantly worried about how other people perceived me. These things are still true today, but to a lesser extent. I will gladly admit that I have benefited from taking anxiety medication, but the medication only works to a certain point. I don’t know if I will ever be free of the medication, and that’s fine, but I feel that it is time for me to take a stand and face my fears. I was always aware that my anxiety hindered me, but I never thought that it would eventually try to take away something that grounds me and makes me happy, which is playing the horn.

Some of you may be curious about the picture that I use as the logo for the blog. I basically stumbled upon it, but I thought that it adequately summed up my dilemma. One of my biggest fears since childhood, aside form people, has been snakes. I hate them, even the non-poisonous ones. Now, I don’t mind looking at them if they are in a contained area, but I’m gone if you take that thing out. The irony of this situation is that my horn has now become the snake. For a couple of years, I didn’t want to touch it, was afraid to touch it, and became depressed just by the thought of practicing. The stigma is not so bad right now, because I’ve been practicing a lot and have worked very hard to regain my abilities as a player. Yet, I still get nervous even thinking about playing something in front of someone. For a while, I didn’t even want to let my wife hear me practice, because I was just so embarrassed. I thought that my playing was bad and truly believed it, so I let that thought become a reality.

I love playing the horn. Practicing actually helps me to relieve stress and just makes me feel better, because I am doing something that I enjoy. It’s not just a career, but my passion. I never thought I would be afraid to play the horn, but everything happens for a reason. As I stated above, I’ve always experienced issues with anxiety. Along the way, I learned how to deal with it during performance, but I could never really make it disappear. Because of the lingering anxiety issues, I never felt like I truly performed at my best on a consistent basis. My recitals were definitely good, but there were always a couple of pieces that could have gone a little better, or there were notes that I just shouldn’t have cracked.

I want to find techniques that will not just help me deal with the anxiety, but help me to control it. Using the “cobra horn” picture is a way to put things into perspective. A few articles that I have read about performance anxiety state that using a picture as a trigger can help one to refocus if anxious thoughts begin to stir. For me, that picture reminds me that this is just a mind game that I am playing with myself. My mind is turning my horn and the audience into my enemies, when in reality, the audience wants me to succeed just as much as I do.

My horn has always served as my solace, and I am definitely getting back to that point/state. I currently feel comfortable practicing again, but I’m still struggling with playing in front of people. For a time, I wouldn’t even play in front of my students, but now, I’m beginning to feel a lot more comfortable with that as well. The plan is to take baby steps. I will attempt to perform in front of people a lot and do so in various settings. This means performing in big and small ensembles, and I plan on trying to perform some short solo pieces along the way as well. The goal is to work my way towards performing a 30-40 minute solo recital in May or June. I just have to remember to be positive and to not fret over mistakes or failures. Nothing truly worth doing has ever been easy, and I’ve already experienced some humiliating failures over the last few years, so it can’t get much worse…..right?