As a younger horn player, I struggled with attacking first notes. I felt so much anxiety over missing the note that I would be unable to make a sound for a few seconds, then it would finally come out. Sometimes it would sputter, kind of like when you try to crank your car on a cold morning, and other times I would need to consciously relax myself and allow the air to move freely in order to produce a sound. I would blow, but my upper body was so tense that I wasn’t blowing enough air to make a sound. Unfortunately, this “hesitation” in my attacks resurfaced after my injury.
This problem seems to always prey on me when I have lost all confidence in myself and my abilities as a horn player. When the hesitations first started to occur, it was because I hadn’t built up enough confidence through positive experiences. I was also very afraid of putting myself out there (Remember that I am an introvert and that drawing attention to myself isn’t something that excites me). After the injury, I didn’t think that I would be able to play anymore, and my my embouchure setup felt foreign, which didn’t help my confidence. I didn’t know what note would come out, so I was afraid to play. I was also afraid, because I was really embarrassed of how I sounded. I knew how well I could play, and I didn’t want anyone else to know how bad things were, because I didn’t want anyone to think less of me. Again, I was linking my self worth to my current abilities as a player, which was not a healthy situation.
The way that I overcame both situations was a combination of diligent practice and the fortification/reparation of my mental state. I have already talked about how I’ve been working to change my mental fortitude, and I will continue to do so, but this particular post is meant to focus on a particular type of exercise that helped me along the way to overcome the hesitation, and anxiety, I felt before attacking a note. This particular exercise, or group of exercises, involved the use of breath attacks on a daily basis.
Breath attacks were a daily part of my routine during undergrad and grad school. I was introduced to the Caruso Method while struggling to become a horn player, and I used many of the exercises to help build my strength and endurance. I guess that I should credit these exercises for turning me into a “high” horn player, even though there isn’t such a thing any more. When I practiced the Caruso exercises regularly, I was able to comfortably play above a written c”’. I never really went through the whole book, because I just felt that the first two exercises achieved the goal, and everything else felt like overkill. Here are the Caruso exercises:
The catch is that you have to keep the mouthpiece on the face the whole time. Caruso gives you breaks to breath, but you breathe through the nose, either in or out. Don’t loosen the corners of your embouchure to let out air, because even that small change will lessen the benefits of the exercises. The first exercise should be done twice, I forgot to add the repeat sign. The second one, which obviously focuses on the high range, start at your own pace. Go as high as you can, until you either can’t play the note or have trouble with the slur. At this point, take the mouthpiece off of the face, rest a minute, and then try again. If you still falter on the second attempt, then it’s time to stop. If you’re successful, then keep going. At my best, I was able to play up to a written f”’. It wasn’t the prettiest sounding note, but it helped my confidence, and made play a written c”’ feel a lot easier to play.
Another breath attack exercise that I used to improve both accuracy and stability in the high range, is a short exercise that I received from Bob Pruzin. Pruzin was the Professor of Horn at The University of South Carolina for many years. I studied with him for a time, and he had a very specific way of doing things. Some things were great, and others were a little on the gimmicky side. This particular exercise really helped, and I’ve used it off and on ever since:
Play with a metronome and take the mouthpiece off of the face between each note, because you want each breath attack to simulate a first attack. I love doing breath attacks in the high range, because there is no room for mistakes. Your embouchure has to be set correctly for each note, which really helps one to feel the note. We can sometimes get away with not being perfect with the help of the tongue through articulations, but that’s not so with breath attacks. They help with accuracy, because, like I just mentioned, you really feel the note and get a better understanding of what needs to take place to perfectly and efficiently play each note throughout the range.
During my undergrad, when I was first afflicted by hesitation attacks, I worked on breath attacks using the Singer – Tone and Control Studies – Ex. 1. I would breath attack the first note, and then attack the following two. I would use a metronome, set anywhere from quarter = 60-72, and I would also take the mouthpiece off of the face between each attack, simulating a first attack each time. Here is a portion of the exercise:
You would follow the same chromatic pattern up to a written f” or g”. Then, do the same with the mid-low range, starting on e’ and working down chromatically to a written c. This helped a lot, but I also developed a similar exercise that challenges your ear and accuracy a little bit more:
This is only a portion of the exercise. I start it on a written g’, and then the exercise works chromatically, alternating up and down, from this note, ending on a written g and g” respectively. It’s a great way to work on accuracy, and it will hopefully rid one of hesitation attacks as well.
Another exercise that I have used recently to build and maintain consistency in the pedal range is a version of the Pruzin breath attacks. It takes the same concept, but shifts the focus to the extreme low range. The goal is to get a really good, loud blast for each pedal note. If you can play the notes really loud, then you’re doing the right thing. I never worked on breath attacks in the pedal range until working with Bill Caballero. He suggested it, and it helped, so I’ve used it myself and in my teaching.
I wish I could say that breath attacks will fix all of your problems, but they won’t. These exercises will help you through the process, but perfecting your attacks takes time. Work with a metronome, record and/or video yourself, play in front of people as much as possible, and believe in yourself. A lack of confidence is normally the prime suspect when dealing with hesitation attacks. It’s also a good idea to observe the amount of tension present when trying to start notes. Any amount of excess tension in the upper body will negatively affect one’s ability to play with ease. I know from experience. I would feel a lot of tension in my shoulders and neck, and my throat would tighten when trying to start notes. This would also affect my breathing. When starting a phrase, I would always take shallower breaths and be unable to to play through long phrases.
Stay positive and trust the process.