Summer Practice Time!

I have always enjoyed practicing (Yes, I know that I’m weird), but I’m not always able to find time during the school year to practice everything on a consistent basis. Fortunately, since I’m a teacher, I can continue the practice tradition that I began when I was preparing for grad school.

I have always had an affinity for etude books. I even wrote my doctoral dissertation about horn etude books. For some reason, I just enjoy locking myself in a room and playing through as many etudes as possible. To this end, I started a tradition of reading through lots of different etudes during my summer practice. It began with playing through 8-10 etudes a day from a stack of maybe 4-5 books. Since then, my etude collection has grown substantially, and I now probably read from 8-10 different books a day, which means that I’m playing through approximately 15-20 different etudes on a daily basis. To me, it’s not only fun, but it also helps to keep me in shape. Before I went to grad school, this was how I improved my reading skills and endurance. During my rehabilitation from Embouchure Overuse Syndrome and severe performance anxiety, this has been a valuable way to not only regain my endurance, but to also challenge myself and recover a lot of the technical facility that I lost.

I don’t always play through the same stuff, but I will revisit etude books that I’ve worked on in the past. When playing through etudes during my practice session, I try to alternate between books that are enjoyable or that I’ve mastered and those that are new or more challenging. Here is a list of all the different etude books that I have played through over the years:

Bach – Cello Suites; Basler – Legato Interval Studies; Belloli – 12 Progressive Etudes; Brahms – Ten Horn Studies; Chaynes – Quinze Etudes; Clark (ed.) – Studies in Lyricism; Concone – 32 Lyrical Studies (Wagner); Cugnot – Thirty Etudes; Denniss – Studies for Low Horn; Faust – Interval Studies; Gallay – 12 Etudes for Second Horn12 Grand Caprices22 Studies40 PreludesUnmeasured Preludes; Getchell – Second Book of Practical Studies; Grabois – Twenty Difficult Etudes; Hackleman – 21 Characteristic Etudes for High Horn; Kling – 40 Characteristic Etudes; Kopprasch – Sixty Selected Studies; Lewy – Ten Progressive Etudes; Matosinhos – 12 Jazzy Etudes15 Low Horn Etudes; Maxime-Alphonse – Books 1-6; Miersch – Melodious Studies; Mueller – 34 Studies; Pottag – Preparatory Melodies; Randall – Twenty Etudes for the Advanced Horn Student; Reynolds – 48 Etudes; Rochut – 120 Melodious Etudes (Trombone); Schmoll – 14 Modern Studies; Shoemaker – Legato Etudes; F. Strauss – Seventeen Concert Studies; Thevet – 60 Etudes; Uber – Solo Etudes for Horn; Wagner – Kopprasch Down Under

It’s a long list, and this definitely isn’t even all of it. While at WVU, I had access to Dr. T’s vast collection of etude books, and I basically had free reign over all of the music in her office, which literally took up a whole wall. I know that I have played through others, but this is what is currently in my library. Some of these books are definitely a little too advanced for some students, but I feel that this list has a lot of the major etudes that students and professionals should know.

As I mentioned above, my dissertation discusses most of the aforementioned books and rates them based on difficulty level. I would be more than happy to share my dissertation with anyone that is interested, but there is also another resource available on-line.

www.hornetudes.com by Ricardo Matosinhos

Matosinhos and I were actually working on the same dissertation topic at the same time. I was hoping to publish my dissertation as a resource book, but Matosinhos’ website is so thorough that I decided against it. Either way, it is a wonderful resource that everyone should know about and use.

I don’t do this “etude routine” every day, but whenever I play through these etudes, I am definitely getting a full workout, and I feel that it sufficiently replaces the rigors one would go through when facing a full rehearsal schedule. Some days, I will come back to the horn after doing this routine and play through other stuff: solo lit, chamber, or orchestral excerpts. During my grad school days, I would warm-up for an hour in the morning, play through the etudes for an hour during the middle of the day, and then do another hour session later in the evening. Like I said, it was a great workout, and I always felt improved as a player and well-prepared for anything after the summer months.

I’m sure that everyone has their own practice regimens, but it’s always helpful to hear new ideas and to try out new things. Just don’t forget that there are lots of etude books out there waiting to be used. I hope to have one of my own out there soon.

Happy practicing!

Value Yourself

Throughout my life, I have dealt with anxiety on a daily basis. Even as a small child, I remember having anxiety attacks and being afraid of social interaction. Finally in 2011, I was diagnosed with both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder and subsequently prescribed medication. I have had my ups-and-downs over the past several years, but in general, I can say that my life is a lot more livable and enjoyable on medication (my wife can attest to this as well). It took my doctors and I a few tries to find the right medication and dosage, but the trial-and-error process was definitely worth it.

The un-medicated years were tough, but I was typically able to conquer my demons. I have always suffered from performance anxiety, and it was definitely very bad at the beginning of my musical career. As a young student in middle school, I would play so softly, because I didn’t want anyone to hear me make a mistake. I really didn’t want anyone to hear me at all. No one really believed that I would be good at music back then, but I worked at it, practiced, didn’t give up, and I gained some confidence along the way. By the time I was in 8th grade and transitioning into high school, I was a decent musician. I wasn’t great, but I had potential, and my teachers began to notice it and started to treat me in a different way. I started to feel like I belonged in band, in the music world, and during high school, I began to break out of my shell. I started playing more confidently, I didn’t shy away from exposed parts or solos, and I let my personality show through my music.

I began to love and enjoy music so much that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it, whether that meant playing or teaching. So, I went to college, and faced a whole new array of obstacles. I’m an anxious person, and college brought a new set of people to face, a new set of rules, a new level of commitment, so I had to adjust. Through hard-work and putting myself out there, I overcame my performance and general anxiety once again. Even though it might have been helpful, I never utilized any psychological tricks during my formative years. If I had a bad performance, I picked myself up and tried again. A combination of practice, a relentless work ethic, and stubbornness helped me achieve my musical goals: getting into grad school, earning my DMA, playing in numerous professional orchestras, winning an orchestral audition, etc.

Needless to say, I have put so much effort into my musical career that it is a part of me, and a very big part of my identity. Music is not only my career, but it is my main interest/hobby. I love it so much that I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to do next. I have gained a lot of confidence through my musical pursuits, and it really transformed me from a shy introvert, to someone that finally felt comfortable in his own skin. My achievements in music became a huge part of my self-worth, the primary part, and I was really happy, because I was succeeding.

This, unfortunately, is never a good thing and turned out to be my fatal flaw. To judge one’s self-worth through achievements is a slippery slope, because these things are so fickle and fleeting. Yes, I should be happy and celebrate my achievements, but this should never solely determine how I or anyone else values themselves as a person, which is what happened with me. Unfortunately, when my injury occurred, and I started to notice issues with my playing that wouldn’t go away, I panicked. Over the course of three years, I tried weird things, constantly changed my embouchure, changed mouthpiece placement, and eventually, I lost the ability to play for a while. When this happened, my life came crashing down. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself, because playing the horn was my world. It’s what I wanted to do with my life, and I had this goal of becoming a college horn professor, and now that I couldn’t play, I didn’t know how to adjust. I put too much value into the wrong things, and I was unable to put my life into the correct perspective when things started to take a turn for the worse.

At first, when the playing injury happened, I was in denial. For a long time, I did not want to confront the fact that I had a problem (several problems), and I kept brushing it/them off to the side. I didn’t think that this could happen to me, so I wouldn’t allow myself to believe that it was that serious. I decided to keep going about my business, and I told myself that things would get better over time. I was also under the impression that I didn’t have time to deal with this injury. There are all of these unwritten rules, and if I wanted to make it, I needed to audition more and win an orchestral job. I didn’t have time to wait and let myself heal properly, because I needed to do all of this stuff to get a job, and if I didn’t get a job in a certain amount of time or before a certain age, I would be deemed a failure, and since my personal identity and self-worth was involved, I felt like a horrible person as well.

This lack of perspective didn’t allow me to listen to my body and ignore outside (and inside) influences or pressures. My embouchure was not ready, but I pushed myself too far, and put too much emphasis on career outcome/goals, which in the end, severely altered my career trajectory. It has taken me 7 years to fully overcome these problems. Just think about that…if  I had done the smart thing, maybe just take a few months away from playing, I could have saved myself 7 years of grief, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog right now.

Of course, if I’m trying to blame the system or the “rules” for my problems, then I’m lying to myself. Even though things need to change, we can’t make excuses for ourselves. We are the ones that have to take action, and I was unable to be truthful to myself and others. When my injury happened, I was afraid, so I didn’t accept it. When my career wasn’t going in the right direction, I was afraid, so I became more of an introvert and stopped trying. Instead of being happy for others and trying to emulate them in order to find similar success, I was angry. Angry at them for succeeding, angry at the system for not giving me a chance, and angry at myself for a multitude of things. Like I’ve stated in other posts, I was severely depressed, and for those of you that have dealt with depression, it is a mental disorder that is very difficult to overcome, and I suffered with it (as well as my family) for approximately 4 to 5 years.

In the end, I had to make the decision to overcome my depression. It took a while, but one thing that really helped was learning how to develop a positive image of myself. I needed to understand that even though my life had not gone the way I expected, I wasn’t any less of a person because of it. At the time, my self-worth/confidence was basically non-existent, and I had pretty much spent the past five years just continually tearing myself down. I also didn’t listen to others that were trying to support me. My perception of myself was so awful that I couldn’t take any positive comment the correct way. I would twist it in my own mind until it became completely negative and only added to my torment. Of course, my mind still tries to do this on occasion, but I value myself now, so I’m able to brush these negative feelings aside and know that they are untrue.

This is the key: learning how to value yourself as a person. Don’t judge yourself based on career success and/or failure. Careers change, goals change, and life changes constantly. Learn to be comfortable with who you are as a human being and don’t base your self-worth on merits. These things don’t last long, and just like the old adage, “money can’t buy you happiness.” It can buy you a lot of things, but it can’t fill that void. It’s the reason why people with bi-polar disorder will go on shopping sprees and buy lots of things during “high” periods. Everyone gets excited with a new gadget or toy, but what happens when that “newness” fades? There’s no substance within the relationship, which is why I had to make changes in my life.

First, I needed to change my relationship with music. For so long, I had judged myself based on my musical accomplishments that I had lost the joy of making music. I needed to find that happiness again, so I decided to make enjoyment the main reason for continuing to play. I love playing horn, and there is no reason why I should stop. During my struggles, I seriously considered giving it up, because things were just so unpleasant; however, I just couldn’t imagine my life without music, so it took some time, but I figured it out. I’m still practicing a lot and playing at a high level, but I’m not doing it just to make money or to get a job anymore. If I don’t want to play a gig or teach something/someone, I’m not going to do it. Earlier in my career, I wasted too much time worrying about what other people thought, and I took every single job or gig thrown my way. Now, I’m focusing a lot more on what fits best for me and my family, which led to the other big change that I had to make.

If music wan’t going to be the most important thing in my life, then something had to take its place. Thankfully, I had something that could and should take its place. The one thing that helped me successfully overcome my depression was my family. At first, when my depression began, I felt like a failure, because I was unable to provide for my family. I had spent 10 years in college, and I had just graduated, so I was supposed to start making the big bucks. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and I was extremely hard on myself. After wallowing in my own self-pity for a while, I finally realized that these individuals, my wife and kids, didn’t care about these things that I was constantly worrying about. They loved me and valued me for who I was as a person, and they didn’t care what job I had as long as I was present. This really helped me to develop a new sense of self-worth, and I began to realize myself that my job nor my career mattered as much as I thought it did. I had a great deal to be happy about. I was able to spend a lot of time with my kids and enjoy watching them grow up, and I was still able to teach and make a difference in people’s lives.

Even though I’m still searching for break in my career, I’m not discouraged, because now I have the proper mindset. I have a job that allows me to help provide for my family, but it stills gives me the time and opportunity to pursue my real interests. I’m still teaching my college students and private students, and I’m also trying to create my own opportunities by composing and forming groups to perform my music. It’s tough and a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I’m also still able to spend time with my family, which is super important.

In the end, I think it really is just about having the right mindset and keeping the important things in perspective. Hopefully, I can continue to keep my life in the correct perspective and not let my career pursuits dictate all aspects of my life as it once did.

 

Things They Don’t Teach You in School: Student Loans Suck!

If you are a child of the 80s or 90s, then you probably have some form of student loan debt. I know that student loans have been around for a while, but I feel that my generation was fooled the most. Starting in the 90s (possibly earlier), there was a real societal push towards the college prep track. Basically, we were told that if you didn’t go to college and get a bachelor’s degree, you weren’t going to find a good job. This mindset caused a huge influx of student enrollment in U.S. colleges during the late 90s and really transformed the higher education system into more of a big business model than a place of higher learning. Granted, I loved college and graduate school, and I am still trying to find a job as a professor, but the more I learn about the system, the more I realize that it’s all about making money. Look at the astronomical rise in college tuition as proof of this point. When I attended Augusta State University in Augusta, GA as a college freshman in 2001, the cost of attendance was roughly $1200 per semester. Today, Augusta State is now Augusta University after merging with the top medical school in the state, the Medical College of Georgia, which is also located in Augusta. AU is now a research intensive institution and is even more focused on making money rather than the quality of instruction. If I were an incoming freshman at AU for the fall, I would pay over $9000 per semester….that is an increase in tuition of approximately $8000 per semester. This isn’t even a big college, with less than 10,000 students enrolled. Needless to say, college is expensive, and I could continue to discuss the supposed reasons behind the rise in tuition, but my main point is this:

STUDENT LOANS SUCK!!

No one really warned me about these loans when I was in school. My parents never went to college, so they didn’t know, and my college professors didn’t really warn me about them either. There were a couple of passing comments about loans here and there during undergrad, but most of my professors never discussed it. The common thought at the time was, “I need a college degree to make it, so let’s do whatever it takes to get it done.” Also, don’t think that you can trust the people in the Financial Aid Office, because it is their job to get you approved for the money you need to pay for college. If you enroll in school, then that is their job security. They’re not going to warn you about the pitfalls of student loans. They won’t tell you that you’re going to accrue several thousands of dollars in interest while you’re in school, and if you go to grad school and defer, then just keep on multiplying that number. They won’t tell you that your interest rate is going to be so high that it will take 5-10 years to pay off even $1,000 of that loan debt (think of a credit card bill, but with a much higher payment and interest rate). Sure, you can consolidate through another company once you get out of college and get a job, but your debt to income ratio will probably be so high that a lot of the good and reputable companies won’t touch you.

Don’t ever take out extra student loan debt as a way to cover living expenses while in undergrad or grad school. My wife and I made this mistake, and we are still paying for it. I won assistantships for grad school, but I still took out loan money for living expenses, because we had no idea what to expect. I don’t remember the exact number, but I know that I took out around $15,000; however, through several years of deferment, we now owe over $30,000 on that loan…even after paying on it for about 5 years.

At the last Southeast Horn Workshop at UGA, I was speaking to one of the employees at the Siegfried’s Call table (very well-known and reputable horn dealer/shop), and he was telling me that a lot of students are taking out more student loan debt to pay for new horns (about $10,000 to $12,000). While at WVU, I had the same idea and took out another student loan to buy a new horn. Well, that original loan amount doubled through the deferment process, and we now owe probably a little less that $20,000 on it. If you are thinking about taking out more student loan debt to pay for a new instrument….DON’T DO IT!! It’s really easy to get that money, but paying for it afterwards is not worth it. Make the smarter choice and go to your bank or a local credit union that will work with you and give you a much better interest rate.

I put all of this stuff out there not to scare, but to inform. Please, make better choices than I and countless others in the past. I know that most musicians want to go to grad school, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t, but you need to be smart about it. Sure, we all dream of going to Eastman, Juilliard, Indiana, Northwestern, etc., but is it really worth accruing $90,000 worth of debt for a job that might pay in the $50,000 range? There are plenty of assistantships out there and a lot of wonderful teachers, so there’s no reason why anyone should have to pay for a graduate degree. Plus, like I stated above, don’t make the stupid decision of taking out loans to pay for living expenses…find another way. Save money, work an extra job, ask a family member for assistance…do what you need to do to keep from making a big mistake.

Here’s a bit of advice that we all probably need to hear and/or think about more often: Learn from other people’s mistakes and make the better choice.

An Efficient Embouchure, Confidence, and Air Support/Control

These three qualities/aspects of playing may not seem to have anything in common, but in actuality, they are very similar and all equally as important. In order to be a good musician, one must master each of these concepts. When we are learning to become a musician, we always seem to tackle these issues individually and hardly ever tend to see the association between them. Since suffering my injury and going through the subsequent rehabilitation, I have noticed a striking similarity between these three ideas. From my perspective, I have come to realize that these three qualities CANNOT exist without the other.

Once I began suffering from Embouchure Overuse Syndrome, I began to notice a drastic decline in both my confidence and the ability to use my air efficiently while performing. This was primarily due to the fact that I was utilizing an inefficient embouchure. I know that there were a multitude of problems created by my inefficient embouchure, but these are two areas in my playing that I struggled with the most during my rehab. I actually began to regain my technical facility and flexibility first after fixing my embouchure, and I believe that this helped me to begin to feel more confident in my playing, which in turn, continued to elevate my playing ability in general.

My loss of air support seemed to be directly derived from both maladies, my loss of embouchure and confidence. It didn’t happen at once, but over a period of 6 months, I began to notice a drastic decline in my ability to play long phrases, and my sound went from being very colorful to just mediocre. Personally, I know that these side effects were mostly due to my lack of confidence. Normally, when an anxious person suffers from an anxiety attack, you sweat, shake, lose the ability to concentrate, and suffer from shortness of breath. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I had been scarred so badly that I began to suffer an anxiety attack every time I picked up the horn. I was so afraid of playing and messing up that I was unable to take in enough air to produce a quality sound, and sometimes, I was unable to produce a sound at all. Initially, I thought that something else was wrong. I began to wonder if I had lost my air control and support due to my weight gain and lack of exercise (Thanks, Depression!). Maybe it was due to the fact that I wasn’t practicing enough. Yes, I’m sure these things had an affect, but my anxiety was the root of the problem. Once my condition began to improve, my air support and control came back. I still need to exercise and lose weight, but my anxiety had to be conquered first.

The funny thing is that even though my embouchure was back to normal, and I was beginning to regain some confidence, I still suffered from issues with my air when performing in front of others. My anxiety was so advanced that even though I knew that I was improving, I was still scared to play for others. Nonetheless, I still put myself out there and subsequently gained more confidence through these experiences. I’ve noticed that as I become more confident, my anxiety is more controllable, and I don’t have to think so much while I’m playing. This means that I’ve also been able to utilize my air more efficiently, which solidifies the fact that my air support not only depends upon an efficient embouchure, but also relies heavily upon my confidence level.

I have always suffered from anxiety, so it comes as no surprise that I would need to face my nemesis once again to regain control of my life. This whole ordeal affected pretty much every aspect of my life in a negative way, so I’m glad that it’s over, but I can honestly say that it has made me stronger. I think it has also forced me to re-evaluate my teaching, and I do feel that I have become a better teacher throughout this process as well.

Some more thoughts about air. I wish that I could give everyone some magical tip that will fix all of your problems, but I can’t. However, I will say that most, if not all, problems can be solved through hard work and determination, which is what it took for me to overcome my issues. One thing that I have noticed is the fact that as I have become more efficient with my air, I am thinking less and less about the process and more about the result. I’m not thinking about how to create the sound. I have a clear concept of the sound that I want, and then I just do it, no extraneous thoughts involved. When I’m teaching younger students, I do give them specific instructions, “Use more air,” “Faster air,” “Energize the air,” etc., but I also explain that I’m trying to teach them how to intuitively use their air in order to become more efficient. I constantly point things out in the music, especially whenever slurred leaps are involved. I try to remind them that every time they see a leap, they should begin to “energize” or “churn” the air more quickly on the bottom note to prepare and support the shift to the upper note. If you take worrying about air out of the equation, then you can just focus on the note, which ultimately gives you a better chance to be accurate.

It all really boils down to efficiency and confidence. If you’re efficient, you’ll be more confident, and with confidence, you can achieve a great deal. Efficiency is the key factor, but for someone that suffers from sever anxiety, confidence plays a major role in how I perform and how I sound. Even if I’m playing efficiently, I will not sound good unless I am confident in my abilities. Confidence takes to time to develop, but I promise that it is worth it. I’ve felt the difference twice (lack of confidence vs highly confident), and it is really a life altering experience. Remember that everyone will progress at a different rate. For me, it took longer due to my anxiety, and I also had to surround myself with the right people. Just don’t give up, because like I mentioned earlier, if you put in the work, it will happen.

R. Morley-Pegge

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During graduate school, I used this book quite a lot. It served as a “go to” reference when required to write a research type paper on things horn related. It’s a little dated, having been published back in 1960, but it is still a great read and worth having in your personal library if you intend to teach horn at any level. Currently, it is not being published, although there is definitely a movement to bring it back. I have always wanted to own it, but whenever I saw it on eBay or any other site, it sold for well over $100. This past week, I was perusing the horn listings on eBay, and by luck, I saw this book posted for $35. I won the listing (I was the only bidder), and this wonderful book is now a part of my growing library. I have bought so many music books over the past few years that it will take me a long time to read through everything, especially since I’m always busy. I think this one will be inserted to the top of my summer reading list, and I’ll probably update this post after I read it again. It’s been so long since the last I read this book, so I need to refresh my memory. I’ll let you guys know if it still lives up to the hype!

Don’t Take Your Teachers for Granted

Since last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, I felt that it would be appropriate to talk about a few of my former horn teachers. It is normally inevitable that we will one day out live our teachers, but I think that some of us, if not most of us, take their presence in our lives for granted. In a span of four years, I lost three teachers (my horn instructors) that not only meant a lot to me personally, but they were also very influential towards my development as a horn player, musician, and teacher.

I went to The University of Tennessee for my masters, because they offered me the most money. It was the last grad school where I auditioned, and it was the school that I knew the least about. I think I only applied there, because some of my professors from undergrad went there and advised it. Well, I showed up, played one of the best auditions of my life, and I was offered an assistantship not long afterwards. It was a blessing in disguise, because I really enjoyed my time at UT. I also really enjoyed working with the horn professor, Calvin Smith. He was funny, possessed a wealth of knowledge, played flawlessly, and cared a great deal about his students.

Unfortunately, he was also the first teacher that I lost. I remember the day as if it happened yesterday. It was my second year into my DMA, and I think the Fall semester had just ended. I woke up late and saw that I had missed a call from one of my friends back in Knoxville. Even before I heard the news, I had this weird feeling that something bad had happened. My friend left a voicemail, but before I could even check it, the trombone professor from UT called to give me the bad news. A heart attack, nothing anyone could do about it.

I think it’s a normal reaction to wish that you had made more of an attempt to reach out to someone after they pass away. As we get older, our lives become busier, especially if you have a family of your own, and you don’t always have time to call family members or friends. It’s easy to put things off. We think, “Oh, we’ll see that person at the next holiday, or the next time we’re in town.” I did send a couple of emails to Calvin while I was working on my DMA, but I instantly regretted not doing more. I had actually wanted to interview him about his time in L.A. and try to have it published in The Horn Call, but I wasted too much time. It also would have been nice to spend more time with Calvin, because he was such a great human being.

The next former teacher to pass away was Bob Pruzin, who I studied with for a year before going to grad school. His death was not as emotional, because he and I never really had much of a personal relationship. Still, I will be forever grateful to him, because he definitely helped me become a better horn player, and he is definitely the reason why I got into graduate school for performance. Pruzin also gave me my first professional orchestra gig. He passed away almost immediately after I moved back to Georgia, which is very sad, because I had hoped to re-establish a connection with him. His passing happened very suddenly as well, because he was afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS, and his deterioration was extremely rapid. After the diagnosis was announced, it only took maybe a couple of months for him to pass.

With Pruzin, I primarily felt guilty after his passing. As I mentioned, he was my teacher when I was preparing for grad school, and I applied and was accepted into the University of South Carolina, where he taught. I was actually verbally committed to attending SC, but I received the assistantship offer from UT right before the deadline. It was a tough decision, but I made the choice to go to UT, which I don’t regret at all. I informed Pruzin of my decision via voicemail, and I always felt guilty about not telling him in person. He wasn’t the greatest at taking bad news (Pruzin was infamous for having a bad temper in his younger days), so I was a little afraid to tell him in the first place. I would have liked to apologize for that decision, but I never got the chance. I tried to reach out to him when I moved back, but he wasn’t performing anymore at the time, and I think he was in the early stages of his diagnosis, so he wasn’t teaching as much, only his students at SC. Other people wouldn’t be bothered by this, but it bugs me. It’s a decision that I regret, and I can’t makeup for it, so I guess it will always bother me.

The final teacher that I lost during this span of time was the most difficult. Dr. Virginia Thompson was the reason why I went to WVU. Granted, WVU has a great music program, but I don’t think I would have considered it if not for her. Two of my previous teachers talked about her a lot and held her in high regard, so I had always heard wonderful things about her. I also had a friend that went to WVU and would talk about how great she was. When I finally met Dr. T, I knew that I didn’t want to study with anyone else. I auditioned and then we spent a couple of hours talking about a myriad of things. She even tried to convince me to go somewhere else, because she felt that WVU wouldn’t be able to offer me the experience that I wanted…it didn’t work. She and I clicked. Sometimes, I would just go into her office intending to ask a simple question, and three hours later, we’d finally be finished with our conversation.

As with the other two, her passing was sudden and unexpected as well. She found out that she had cancer that had metastasized at an alarming rate, and only few weeks after receiving the news, she passed. It was very difficult, and for a while, I didn’t believe that it happened. This might be a little weird, but I have had dreams, even recently, where she’s still alive. These dreams are way too real and cause me to feel a lot different emotions upon waking. I even had a dream recently, where she had somehow miraculously survived the cancer, and her and the current horn teacher at WVU were both teaching there…very odd.

Anyway, enough about my weird mind. I don’t really regret many things pertaining to Dr. T. We had an amazing relationship while I was a student and that relationship continued after I graduated. We talked a lot, and I would often send her an email to pick her brain about random things. There are, however, a few small things that I regret. One, I never took a picture with her, not even after any of my recitals. I don’t really enjoy taking pictures, but I wish that I had put this aversion aside for at least one moment. I also regret not attending my graduation ceremony. I didn’t go because of a gig with the symphony that I was playing with at the time. My rationale was that I didn’t want to give up a performance opportunity or the extra money, but in hindsight that concert didn’t mean that much. I should have skipped it and walked across the stage. I think that Dr. T was even disappointed that I wasn’t going to attend graduation, but she would have never admitted it.

All of this to say that you never know when you are going to lose someone, so take advantage of the time you have. As music students, we form a special bond with our teachers, spending two to four years, sometimes longer, working one-on-one with a single person. Now that I’m on the other side, I realize how much work and effort goes into teaching. These students become our kids, and we experience and feel with them, both triumphs and failures. Even when they leave us, we still care about them and want them to succeed. It also makes you feel better when a former student comes to see you. This simple act let’s a teacher know that all of the work they did and the time they sacrificed made a difference.

I know that all of my former music teachers made a difference in my life, so students, don’t take your teachers for granted. Let them know how much they mean/meant to you while you still have the chance.

 

Am I a Composer?

Last Summer, I spent a lot of time fixing and preparing several arrangements that I had completed for horn ensemble. This project was a very rewarding experience, especially considering that all of these arrangements were published by Cimarron Music last September.

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Even if I never have another work published, this is an achievement that was on my “career” bucket list. I’ve always wanted to write music and have it published, so I was really excited when this happened. I was especially excited, because my arrangement of Danny Boy contained a bunch of original material. Even though I did study arranging and composition with a professor at West Virginia University, you could say that this piece, Irish Tune for horn sextet, was my first serious attempt at composing music. I composed an introduction section, wrote all of the counter melodies and harmonic material, and a really cool bit of transitional material near the end. I had a lot of fun with it, and I enjoyed the process so much that I wanted to try writing more music.

I’ve written the first couple of sections of a piece for horn and piano, I’m working on another piece for horn ensemble, as well as a long list of other projects that I have planned. Oddly enough, the first completely original piece that I finished back in January was a work for brass octet. It doesn’t really have a great name yet, Fanfares for Brass, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. I’ve found that I focus a great deal on rhythmic interplay in my writing, and the brass piece is no exception. Each section kind of features its own rhythmic ostinato. Being that I’m a horn player, the horn parts are well-written, but I also try to spread the wealth. I attempt to make a conscious effort to give each instrument group the melody, or at least some exciting stuff to play. I intended to have the brass choir at Augusta University perform it, but that didn’t work out. However, there will be an opportunity to have it performed at a concert in September of this year, so I’m really going to push for that.

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep writing. I’m not great at it yet, but I have a lot of ideas, and I don’t think my music is that horrible. Besides, I really feel like I’ve found another passion, because I really enjoy writing music, and I get really excited even just thinking about it.

As a side note, I had the opportunity to take my horn choir to the Southeast Horn Workshop at UGA this past February, and we were able to perform my piece, Irish Tune. We performed on the balcony of the big hall next to the music building, so the recording isn’t great, but it’s something. The video is below in case anyone is interested in listening. Sorry that it’s lopsided…this was my first time editing something in iMovies.

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.

Tuning, is it important?

I know that we’ve heard this so many times: “You should tune or play with a tuner, because it will make you a better player/musician.” Yes, this statement is true, but it’s such a bland blanket statement that most students will probably just “tune” it out and continue to do what they do, which may not be the most effective or efficient process. Students seem to respond better when you can either give them tangible evidence, or list specific benefits that will entice the student to at least give it a try. Sometimes, you have to force the student to tune or perform a certain exercise at every lesson, so that they can feel the difference over a period of time. I have all of my private students do a specific tuning sequence every time that I see them, and this process has not only improved the overall pitch quality of my students, but it has given them tangible evidence to show that tuning does make a difference, especially when you do a lot of ensemble playing.

The controversial question: How should I tune? You’ll receive many different answers if you ask this question, because most teachers and musicians have strong feelings about the proper way to tune. When I was in-between my undergraduate and masters degrees, I studied with Bob Pruzin for a year, who was the horn professor at the University of South Carolina. He told me a story about how he was going to be in a wind quintet as part of his graduate school assistantship, and that he spent the summer practicing really hard to prepare for this opportunity. Despite all of his practicing, when he showed up for the first rehearsal, his tuning was so bad, or just so off from the other players that everything sounded awful. From that point on, he decided that he would always practice with a tuner on his stand, (turned on of course).

Now, this is the advice that I’m assuming the majority of people would give, and it’s great advice. I do this a lot, but you also have to realize that tuning can’t just be solved by playing every note in the green all the time. You also can’t rely on a tuner when playing in groups, so I always try to teach my students how to train their ears and adjust without having to look at a tuner all of the time.

For the longest time, I just practiced with a tuner on my stand. I had some friends that talked about using drones to tune, but I never really experimented with it until my DMA. Dr. Virginia Thompson, late horn great and former professor at West Virginia University, discovered The Tuning CD, which she required all of her students to purchase and use on a regular basis. It’s different from most drones, because the tones contain all possible harmonics, high and low, which makes it very easy to tune intervals throughout all octaves. Dr. T would always have us play through the Farkas Pre-Warm-Up Routine on p. 32 of The Art of Horn Playing. This way, we would have to learn how to adjust the different notes within a chord, which is essential to ensemble playing. We’d start on track one, which was the concert C pitch, and play through the Farkas exercise utilizing the first twelve tracks of the CD. You’d have to repeat the first two tracks for the last two lines of the routine, but it all worked out.

At first, I was a little perturbed and felt that this was a waste of my time. I knew how to play in tune, and I didn’t feel like this would be helpful; however, after a month of doing the tuning routine, I noticed that it was easier for me to adjust in ensembles, and my tuning became more consistent in general. Keep in mind that I did this routine on a daily basis, but I even noticed a difference in those horn students that only did the tuning routine once or twice a week. As a section in ensembles, the horns were by far the most in-tune. I would often use The Tuning CD at the beginning of horn choir rehearsals, and I always felt that this process helped us to play better as a unit. We were able to sound loud without having to push ourselves, because we knew how to play in-tune.

Over the years, I have continued the tuning tradition and all of my private students do Dr. T’s tuning exercise at the start of each lesson. I continue to us The Tuning CD, which is now available through Amazon Prime, but I have recently branched out and found a couple of other apps that have been very useful. I know a bunch of people, especially band directors that love the Tonal Energy app, but I’m not as big of a fan of it. My favorite new tuning app that I’ve been using for the past few months is the Drone Tuner. Unfortunately, it’s not a cheap app with it being priced at $9.99, but I still feel that it’s a steal considering the cool functions. I know that most apps only cost a couple of dollars, but you have to keep in mind that it still costs $20 or more in most cases to buy a nice tuner. The only downside is that the Drone Tuner is only available on IOS. I think that it will eventually be released on android, but it hasn’t yet.

Anyway, the Drone Tuner is cool, because it combines the aural aspect of a drone with the visual aspect of a strobe tuner. The drone isn’t nearly as good as The Tuning CD, but it works well. I do like the fact that you can adjust the sound of the drone to fit your instrument. It’s a lot easier to match a pitch when it sounds more like your instrument instead of some electronic sounding tone, so I definitely like this feature. I also think that it has helped some of my students, because they can hear and associate with the sound a little better. Once they figured out what was going on, my students also have enjoyed the strobe aspect of the tuner and how each interval tuned depicts a different image or figure. It’s also nice that I can just pull out my iphone or ipad and use the app whenever I need it, so I would definitely recommend checking out the Drone Tuner app if you haven’t already.

So, back to the question at hand: Is it important to tune? The answer should be resounding, “Yes!” I think the better question to ask is this, “How often should I tune?” Of course, you should probably already know that answer to this one, which is EVERY DAY. I can’t stress enough the importance of playing in-tune, especially if you plan on doing a lot of gigging at some point in your life. They will always bring back the people that are easy to play with and can fit in with the sound of the section.

 

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