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!

Breath Attacks

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:

Breath Attacks - Caruso Style

Breath Attacks - Caruso Style - High

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:

Breath Attacks - Pruzin Style

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:

Breath Attacks - Singer Style

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:

Breath Attacks - Singer Style - Johnson Version

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.

Breath Attacks - Low Horn Blast

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.

The Standley Routine

The unexpected passing of Gene Standley, dealt the community of Columbus, OH and the horn community in general, a huge blow. He served as Principal Horn of the Columbus Symphony for many years and was an all-around great horn player. I never met him or knew him personally, but his reputation was stellar. Thankfully, he (along with Stephen H. Hager) was able to leave us with a valuable piece of horn history, the practice routine developed by his father, Forrest Standley.

Forrest was Principal Horn of both the Dallas and Pittsburgh Symphonies, and he taught at Carnegie Mellon University for many years, teaching the likes of Dale Clevenger, Philip Myers, Howard Wall, Brice Andrus, and William Purvis. A pretty impressive resume. He developed his routine, known as the “Standley Routine,” after leaving the Pittsburgh Symphony due to “lip issues.” The Standley Routine is long, encompassing all twelve major and minor keys through different scale and lip slur exercises. If done from start to finish, it would take a player over one hour and thirty minutes to complete, per Forrest. The only other practice routine that even comes close to this one is the fabled “Heavy Routine” by Joseph Singer. Both routines require and develop an insane amount of endurance and traverse the full range of the horn.

Now, you might be wondering, “why is he talking about this practice routine on a blog dedicated to performance anxiety?” Well, I have been incorporating parts of the Standley routine into my warm-up lately, and it has helped me to regain some of the endurance that disappeared after my injury.

FS (Forrest Standley) recommends that one should start by playing only “some of the exercises every day” and gradually increase the number of exercises performed until one is able to play through the whole routine. As an alternative, he does mention that one could divide the routine into several different fifteen minute sessions done throughout the day.

The routine begins with an “attack exercise” similar to the “Tone and Control Studies” presented at the beginning of Joseph Singer’s Embouchure Building for Horn. The exercises that follow are divided into six different sections, with each consisting of two major and two minor scale patterns, two major scale arpeggios, each presented in three and four note lip slur patterns, an endurance exercise, and two major scale overtone series slurs. The only exception is that the sixth section does not contain an endurance exercise, but contains more of the overtone slurs.

In the past, I have played through this routine, front to back, in one sitting, and it is not an easy thing to do. The routine focuses on building endurance and flexibility, giving the player the confidence that he/she needs to play anything, in any range, and for as long as possible. For now, I have been incorporating a section of the Standley Routine into my normal warm-up each day. I’ll start by playing a couple of noodling patterns, do some harmonic lip slurs, several different lip trill/flexibility exercises, chromatic exercises in different octaves, play major scales two octaves, do one or two of the Basler lip slur exercises from his book, and then a section of the Standley Routine. It takes me over an hour, but I have felt an almost immediate difference in my endurance in the high register since starting this regimen.

There are plenty of wonderful warm-up routine books out there, and everyone tends to have their personal preference, but I do try to keep an open mind. I will always try something different, especially if it helps. If anyone out there is struggling with endurance issues, trying to come back from an injury like me, or hasn’t played in a long time, you might want to grab a copy of the Standley Routine. It will get you back into shape quickly, even if you’re modifying the routine a little, like me.

Disclaimer: Please be careful when first starting the Standley Routine. It is tough and doesn’t back away from the high range. It will help you get back into shape, but don’t hurt yourself trying to play too high or by trying to play through the whole thing during the first sitting. Be smart!