by Matthew Haislip
Imagine this: You are a junior music education major at a small university in Oklahoma with aspirations of one day enjoying a career as a teacher and performer. Your day is filled with strenuous wind band rehearsals, general and music education classes, painfully loud marching band rehearsals, and a quick bite to eat before heading to your part-time job waiting tables at the local Applebee's. Finding the time to recover from rehearsals and actually practice your horn seems impossible. You are becoming more and more frustrated with your obligations and you wonder how you will make it through your senior year with a student teaching internship, final degree recital, and graduate school auditions. Does this sound familiar?
Or imagine this: You are a freshman horn performance major at one of the top conservatories in the United States and you too have hopes for a performing career. You are playing in the brass choir, horn choir, wind ensemble, and a brass quintet as well and you are feeling somewhat discouraged by your placement in the ensemble auditions. Your chops feel tired all the time and you can't practice as much as you would like to without spinning your wheels and adding to your fatigue. You wonder how you will possibly have the strength to practice your etudes, excerpts, and solo literature through this endless cycle. Does this sound familiar?
If any of this feels like something you’ve experienced or are experiencing, then take heart! You are not alone! These feelings are very common for collegiate horn players. The stress can become overwhelming. “How will I survive…let alone be good enough for a career in music?!” If I could sum up my thoughts for you in one sentence, I would tell you to simply keep it all in perspective. Look at the big picture. Don’t try to live your entire life today. Music school is a process. It doesn’t end when they hand you a diploma. Find out what really is most important, work hard, and don’t allow the stress to defeat you.
“Okay, so that sounds all nice and motivational and all, but I have to analyze one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas by tomorrow morning, and I haven’t yet had a chance to finish practicing for my ear training exam, let alone practice my horn tonight at all! What exactly do you mean by ‘keep it all in perspective’?”
First, take a moment to step back, relax, take a big breath, and recall why you are where you are. You LOVE music. This is what you want to do for the rest of your life. You want to make and teach music at the highest level possible. With this in mind, understand that there are very tangible reasons that you are required to take every class that is a part of your music degree. The music history courses can provide you with a valuable appreciation for the world events and circumstances that created each musical development for mankind. The study of music history attempts to answer the great “Why?” questions for us as we seek to comprehend the reasons composers wrote the great music of the past.
Similar “How?” questions can be answered in one’s counterpoint, orchestration, and theory classes. The theory and ear training skills you are learning now are going to be useful every single day of your musical life past your education – the coursework for a music degree is very practical. It provides you with an understanding of the relationships between notes, and it gives you a set of ears that can hear far better than you ever knew was possible. The best musicians alive are constantly working on their ears – there is no graduating from ear training. Whether unconsciously thinking through harmonic analysis on a Phil Collins tune heard at the grocery store, singing a challenging passage of a new work for brass quintet in a practice room until the pattern makes sense, or adjusting pitch to the first horn at an orchestra gig, training one’s ears is a never ending process. Embrace this now and your music classes will become less frustrating and much more relevant to you. After all, by now you must have heard that horn players must have good ears. With these ears, my next advice for you will be to listen. Yes, listen to as much music as you possibly can. Put aside the pop music for a few years. *You can pull it out again on an occasional weekend.*
Like everyone else your age, you’ve probably got a lot of music to catch up to. Luckily for you, there are more resources at your disposal than have existed for any generation of young musicians before you. You’ve got YouTube, Spotify, Naxos, and iTunes, not to mention the entire music library on campus or at your local public library. At the outset, listen to the symphonies of Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Shostakovich. Listen to music from composers you’ve never heard of. Listen to Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. Listen to Debussy’s piano preludes. Listen to John Adam’s operas. Listen to Puccini’s operas as well. Stretch your ears. Make sure you are aware of and have listened to the pieces with the “Top 40” horn excerpts. (A wonderful organized list of the “Top 40 »can be found in Doug Hill’s invaluable book, Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity and Horn Performance.) Listen to every single horn recording that you can possibly put your hands on. Get a feel for which horn sounds inspire you. Gain an understanding and appreciation of the broad stylistic spectrum that exists in the dozens of recordings of Mozart’s horn concerti from soloists across the globe. Listen to how the greatest horn players use articulation. Record your practice sessions and also record yourself every now and then in a large concert hall or church. Maybe you will learn that you are playing too short and are losing the musical line when you compare your own recordings to those that you have heard from the best. I know you are busy, but you can listen throughout many points in your day.
Fill your busy homework, practice breaks, and walks to and from class with music. Become an expert listener. Develop well-founded, strong opinions about horn playing. Go to the local symphony concerts as often as you can. Buy a subscription to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall if you can afford it. Both will offer generous student discounts. If you go to college far from a local professional organization, remember that you have the opportunity to hear the world’s greatest orchestra live right in front of you at your computer every week! Take advantage of this amazing technology.
Listening is vital to becoming a better musician and horn player, and thus to surviving music school. Now let’s get to the points about the fatigue in your playing. You simply cannot practice every single day in the same way from start to finish. Listen to your chops. Plan ahead. Be aware of what is important today, a week from today, and three months from today. This is where making sure to have a consistent routine at the start of every day will make the most difference. A good routine establishes good playing habits from the very first note and sets you up for long-term success. Professor Martin Hackleman compares a diligent daily routine to investing into one’s financial future. Invest daily for the benefits you will experience years from now.
Without going into the specific exercises, a good routine should reinforce a full beautiful sound, clarity of articulation, ease across the range of the horn, flexibility, dynamic control, and solid intonation. Daily work on scales is a must. Learn and memorize all of the major scales as well as all of the forms of minor. Learn all of the major, minor, diminished, and seventh chord arpeggios. For an extra challenge, learn all of the whole tone and modal scales as well. An added bonus to memorizing these scales and arpeggios will be your unshakeable grasp of the fundamentals of music theory. You will understand tonality and chordal structures far better than you understand them now, and you will be able to analyze and understand music theory at a quicker pace than you can now. Your mind and ear will begin to make connections between harmonic relationships that you find in music, both aurally and visually.
Play this routine with a metronome (available free online), tuning drones (available for free on YouTube), and a tuner (available for next to nothing at numerous online stores). Use the tuner wisely to train your ears and not your eyes. An exercise I have my students practice is to have them put headphones into the tuning drones, match the tonic pitch perfectly with their eyes closed, and then open their eyes to see with the tuner if their ears were indeed telling them the truth about their awareness of pitch. If you establish such a routine at the beginning of the day and are unable to play anything else for the rest of the day because of your busy schedule, you will still become a fabulous horn player. A sufficient routine may take 45 minutes to an hour and a half, so take a few breaks and don’t allow tension to develop in your body even as you work through the most challenging exercises. Take relaxed breaths that suit the music. Not all breaths are created equal.
On days with marching band or wind ensemble rehearsals, you may not have enough endurance to practice anything else. That’s okay. On the other days, practice your etudes and excerpts efficiently. It is a waste of precious time to mindlessly bash one’s lips over the same challenging etude over and over again. Break the etude down. Make sure you can sing and buzz it before attempting to play it. Keep the musical line in focus as you play every note. In your breaks, work on your theory homework, practice your sight singing assignments, or even just take a walk. It’s okay to breathe a bit. Perhaps your fatigue may be a result of tension in your chest from an inefficient use of air. I have certainly found this to be true for me. You might be putting stress on your chest to force the air out incorrectly, and you may be applying too much force with the lips to play the loud passages when you should instead be relying on air support and a relaxed embouchure that can vibrate much more freely and therefore, much more loudly. Practicing long tones will help you establish the balance for where each note resonates most beautifully at any dynamic.
A few closing thoughts: there are so many wonderful resources available to help you learn how to be a more focused, efficient, and successful horn player and musician. Check out the helpful articles at the Bulletproof Musician (bulletproofmusician.com). Out of the numerous books related to horn playing, I must mention Fergus McWilliam’s Blow Your Own Horn. This book is a must-read for every serious brass player. Put the ideal sound in your head through your horn. Relax and enjoy the music. Surviving music school is about keeping the big picture in focus. Best wishes for your exciting career!
Matthew Haislip is currently pursuing the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is on faculty at Calvary Bible College. He holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music and Texas A&M University-Commerce.