I follow the IHS newsletter and especially the thoughts on pedagogy here with enthusiasm. I would like to address a theme that my teacher, Prof. Josef Mayr of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, who unfortunately passed away a few days ago, always brought to my attention: the sharpening of perception.
Everyone has experienced something like this: one practices a passage with a metronome and then has the impression that the machine suddenly goes faster or slower. We perceive rhythm in a subjective manner that can be at odds with reality. It’s a similar story with intonation; it is difficult to perceive your own intonation while you yourself are playing.
I have been able to observe with many students an awareness of how they wish to shape their own playing: how sound, articulation, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, musical line etc. should be. The execution of these elements is often in contrast with the player’s intentions, something that isn’t uncommon when dealing with such a difficult instrument as the horn. The deciding factor for improvement lies in the objective perception of exactly these discrepancies.
Learn to listen to yourself accurately.
I’d like to add a personal experience here: During my first year at conservatory, I played a piece that started off with a simple rhythm on middle B natural. Quarter note, two 8ths, quarter, two 8ths, quarter, two 8ths… My teacher, the aforementioned Prof. Josef Mayr, kept complaining about my rhythm. I was 100% certain that I was playing the right rhythm, but he begged to differ. It took 15 minutes before we could leave these four bars behind us; after this lesson, I went home and recorded said measures with my cassette recorder. Only after I had listened to the recording could I tell that my rhythm was off. How could my perception betray me like this? Today I know that this is an ability one can acquire and train.
Initially, it is hard to recognize whether or not the performer is hearing the same thing as the listener. One needs help with this at the beginning: the ears of the teacher. The teacher not only trains the playing concept, but also helps to examine it. One trains one’s own perception by constantly making recordings and listening back to them. Luckily, these days, fantastic technical solutions for this exist without the need to visit a recording studio.
Which practical implements can help to sharpen perception?
For rhythm, the metronome can be a most useful tool. Often we experience the metronome as being too restricting. This is why I recommend playing with the idea that it’s the metronome that must follow us, not us following the metronome. Another possibility is to set the metronome to play off the beat.
Regarding intonation, a tuner can aid in the visualization of the pitch. Apart from tempered or pure intonation, it’s about developing our own opinion. As a result, I recommend choosing “reference tones” (for example, from the tuning machine) or in an ensemble (from duos upwards), and taking time to tune intervals and chords. Thus do we develop a sense for intonation in a totally natural way.
When working out phrasing, we must recognize the application of different weightings of individual notes. As the production of tones on the horn is relatively complicated, it is recommended initially to work only with the air stream. Here you “speak” the music only on a consonant “dfffff” – on an imaginary tone. With every articulation, we say another “dfffff.” In this manner, we can hear the shape of the air (amount, articulation, crescendo, decrescendo…) much more easily.
Regarding style, I suggest listening to as much good music as possible. We can learn a great deal from other musicians (singers, instrumentalists, orchestras, etc.)
In this vein, I wish all horn players much enjoyment with our great instrument and with the wonderful landscape of music.