Updating the Blog: Reshaped by the Pandemic

It’s been way too long since my last blog post. I thought that I would do more writing, especially during the quarantine portion of the pandemic, but my priorities seemed to push me towards other activities. For an introvert musician, the first year of the pandemic was actually pretty great. I love practicing and playing alone, and I really don’t crave that much social interaction. I’m definitely a homebody, and not having any commitments reduced my stress and made an instant positive impact on my mental health. Also, with the musical world being put on hold, I didn’t have to compare myself to anyone, and I didn’t have to be disappointed by being overlooked for gigs and not being included in the music community. Yes, my exile from the music community was self-inflicted, but it still hurts.

For a little more context, I live in the Southeastern U.S., so most people have operated as if things were normal since August of 2020. Somehow, I didn’t catch COVID until July 2022, so I guess I did pretty well in terms of protecting myself. I’m glad that we are entering the endemic stage, because the world needs to move on and figure out how to live with this virus, just like we did with the flu. Personally, I didn’t enjoy wearing a mask, but it was a necessary evil. I wear glasses and have a beard, so wearing a mask was a nuisance; however, I did enjoy the anonymity that the mask provided. It was almost like a security blanket. Plus, those 5-6 months of quarantine at the beginning were amazing for me. I know that a lot of people suffered, and I really do sympathize, but my small family unit thrived during quarantine. Yes, being teachers while also having to teach our own young boys was difficult, but it was also refreshing to be at home and have the time to enjoy life and do things together. I hate that so many people have died and been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but my mental health during the first year of the pandemic was great.

The pandemic just prolonged the inevitable for me. Before the world shut down, I was already struggling with several things: hating my job as a public school teacher, being passed over for numerous jobs (not just college positions), doubting the validity of my career as a musician, and wondering if I should just give up on music and move on. Quarantine was like a really long paid vacation. I felt good after that period, and the COVID restrictions that were in place for the following school year actually improved things. The 20/21 school year was the best year in my short teaching career in public education. Unfortunately, as things began to go back to normal, those issues and doubts came back.

The moment that put all of these negative issues back in motion actually started with a job opportunity, just not the one that I wanted. I won’t go into details, but I lost out on a college position that I really wanted, so I fell back into depression. From there, I accepted a different public school teaching position, because I felt that a change of scenery might be helpful. This new position also seemed like a good opportunity and a step in the right direction for my career; however, it ended up being one of the worst experiences of my life. It was a combination of things: very long commute, bad students, bad parents, and the administration was even worse. My depression worsened due to these factors and more, and I wasn’t sleeping or enjoying life at all, so I knew that something needed to change. I also stopped playing horn, which I think attributed a lot to my negative state of mind as well. Long story short, I made a change and resigned from my public school job.

To say that the past few months have been interesting is an understatement. I’ve been fighting for as much adjunct college work as I can get, trying to recruit more private students, and just figuring out how to make things work. It hasn’t been easy, but I have to stay positive and keep fighting, which is why I’m back here working on my blog. Very recently, I received my first full-time college teaching offer, which I was unable to accept. Even though this was what I have been working towards my whole life, I had to make the best decision for my family, so I declined the offer. My hope is that this positive experience will help me to continue to move forward.

In the past my blog has been dedicated mostly to discussing my playing injury and personal struggles with mental health. While I am going to continue to write about those things and continue to be an advocate for change, I know that I need to focus on broadening the scope of my writing. My goal is to write more from an academic perspective, especially concerning horn pedagogy and my other musical interests. I also want to write more, because this is something that I need. It is fulfilling, and it keeps me active and engaged. When I’m away from the blog, it becomes too easy for me to slip back into old habits, and especially at this point in my career, I need to keep moving forward and stay in it or else good things will never happen. So, I look forward to writing more, and hopefully I can keep myself on track and actually finish a bunch of projects that I started a while back.

Here’s to making The Cor Report a safe place where people can come to learn more about the horn.


Thoughts on Straight Mutes

*Just a quick note that all of the mutes discussed in this post are Rittich-style mutes. Per Horn Matters, Eugene Rittich of Toronto, Canada, who was Co-Principal Horn of the Toronto Symphony for many years, is responsible for designing this most popular style of mute, used by professionals and advanced students alike. It is a simple cone shape, with a movable inner tube for tuning purposes.*

We as musicians, especially horn players, are truly blessed, because we have so many wonderful equipment and accessory options from which to choose. When I bought my first real straight mute, back in 2004, I didn’t have a lot of options. At the time, I had been using a Stone-Lined mute for years, and it was time to upgrade. I considered getting a Trumcor, but my teacher recommended a straight mute from Ion Balu, so that’s what I ordered. It was a Walnut Balu mute that cost $110, which I still have and use to this day. I had to replace the corks on it recently, but it has held up very well over the years. The market for wooden straight mutes has severely inflated over the past decade, so many of the top brands will cost anywhere from $130 to $250.

Today, a Balu mute will run you approximately $200 (US Dollars), so I’d say that the price has increased a little over the years. It has a great reputation, and it is still one of the best all-around mutes that you can buy. The Balu mute is heavy and solid, but due to its robust construction, it produces a warm and full-bodied sound that other wooden mutes tend to lack. When comparing to other brands, I am always very impressed with the quality of construction concerning the Balu mutes. I don’t feel like I’m going to break it when I hold it or put it in the bell of my horn.

Ion Balu Mutes
Balu Straight Mutes

A great “middle of the road” option, which is reasonably priced and well-made, is the Trumcor straight mute. There are a number of models available by Trumcor, but the most recommended wooden straight mute is the 45T model. The 45T is tuneable, which is what the “T” stands for, and only costs approximately $130 (it’s listed for $105 on the Trumcor site). It is also available from multiple sources, such as Woodwind Brasswind, Musician’s Friend, and even some local music stores. I know many professionals that use this model mute, and I do recommend this particular one for many of my college and high school students. It’s rare that a young student will be able or even willing to pay $200+ for an accessory that they may not use that often, so I’ve found that this Trumcor mute is a great compromise. It produces a nice sound, not stuffy or too bright, and it also feels very durable. It should be noted that Trumcor mutes are not completely made from wood, but are also made using “a specially formulated resonant fiber material.”

Trumcor Model 45T (Tuneable)
Trumcor 45T

Staying in the “affordable” range, is another wooden, Rittich-style mute produced by the Denis Wick company (sorry, no relation to John Wick). The Wick company is located in England, and it is well-known throughout the brass world for producing top-quality mutes, mouthpieces, and accessories. Like the Trumcor mutes, the Wick wooden straight mute is also lined with a special fiber that helps to dampen the sound. The sidewalls are constructed of birchwood, and the bottom panel utilizes marine plywood, which is a type of wood that is able to withstand lots of moisture accumulation. The best price for this particular mute may be found at Hickey’s Music, $108.50. Personally, I was only aware of the metal Wick mutes until recently, so I don’t have much experience with the wooden mute. I did try it once, and it seems like it would be a fine option for a younger player. It would at least be better than using the metal “silver bullets” by Wick or Jo-Ral. I would still recommend the Trumcor mute over this one, but this seems to be one of the cheaper options on the market.

Denis Wick

Another “affordable” option is the Moosic Mute, which I believe is only available through Pope Repair or Hickey’s Music. I thought that these mutes were made by Jacek Muzyk, the Principal Horn of the Buffalo Philharmonic, but I can’t find any information to support this claim. Either way, it has one of the most unique designs, and I have always wanted to try one. It is handmade, and the “design uses two layers of spiral-cut walnut and poplar veneer to create a responsive and resonant sound. It has no plastic or fiberboard and gives a very natural all wood feeling, (Pope Repair).”

Moosic Mute

The RGC mutes, which are available through Houghton Horns and produced in Spain, are a very affordable option offered in six different choices. There are three different conical versions: Ash (offers more clarity of sound and articulation), Black Ash (darker sound than the regular ash, but with same sense of clarity), and Solid Cherry (focused and projects very well, lighter than the previous two woods). All three are available for $119, and play well considering the price. Recently, after being able to try these three models at a workshop, I have begun to recommend these more often. The other three options utilize a 12-sided design, which raises the price a little, $125-$179, depending on the wood. Here are the 12-sided choices: Solid Cherry ($125, similar to the Conical version, bright sound, great projection), Cherry and Ash ($149, the Ash is meant to balance with the brightness of the Cherry), African Rosewood and Ash ($179, heavier, with a darker tone). I’m not a huge fan of the Cherry, primarily because it is a little too bright for my taste, but the African Rosewood and Ash is one of my favorite mutes. While being absolutely beautiful to look at, it also produces a very nice sound. I don’t personally own one, but after trying it numerous times at different workshops, it’s on my shortlist. My only complaint with the RGC mutes, and many of the mutes on this list, is that they are very light in comparison to my Balu mute. I’ve been using a Balu mute for so long that when I pick up other mutes, I’m always taken aback by the difference in weight. I know that all of the mutes on this list are well-made, but many of them feel flimsy when compared to my trusty Balu.

RGC Mutes Button

The last mute before we start looking at the more expensive options is the long straight mute by Don Maslet. It is currently available through Osmun Music and Elemental Brass at approximately $135. Unlike the other mutes in this list that are primarily comprised of some sort of hardwood, the sidewalls are constructed of carbon fiber, with the bottom plate being made of wood. Due to the materials, this mute produces a very bright and brilliant sound, while also being super lightweight and extremely durable. I haven’t tested this theory out myself, but I can only assume that this mute would work well for solo work or any type of muted passage that needs to cut through a big ensemble. It could also potentially work well in a brass quintet type setting. I didn’t find the brightness of this mute to be as offensive as that of the Cherry RGC mutes, but this could be due to the difference in material, carbon fiber vs wood.

Maslet Straight Mute

Now, we’re starting to creep closer to that $200 threshold; however, we still have two makers that offer very nice mutes. The first is Marcus Bonna. We all know and love the cases, but the company also produces some very nice mutes. MB evidently has a carbon fiber option, but I’m only familiar with the regular wooden Rittich-style mutes. The latter can be found for approximately $175 from many of the major horn retail shops, and it is constructed of fiberboard and wood. MB does offer mutes with different designs on the sidewalls, but these options are also a little more expensive. Since Marcus Bonna utilizes fiberboard, their mutes are a little bit lighter than the Balu mutes, but otherwise are pretty similar in playing characteristics. If I’m already going to spend close to $200 on a mute, I would probably opt for a Balu mute over the MB mute, but at this point, it’s really up to personal preference. I prefer the solid, heavier feel and sound of the Balu mute, and I’m sure that other players might prefer the opposite.

Marcus Bonna Straight Mute for French Horn
Marcus Bonna

Horn-Crafts is a mute-making company based in the Netherlands. These mutes are sold by many of the big music retail companies throughout Europe. In the U.S., they are distributed by Dillon music, Osmun Music, Patterson Hornworks, and Pope Repair. Horn-Crafts currently offers three different models: Sylva (Beechwood), Betula (Beechwood), and Khaya (Mahogany). The Sylva and Betula models are the heavier options, 130 and 140 grams respectively. These two are also the cheaper options that are normally available for approximately $180. These models are very nice mutes, but the Khaya model, which is made of African Mahogany and weighs 125 grams, is my favorite. I normally don’t enjoy the lighter mutes, but this mute just feels and sounds better to me. It also costs about $250, which is the primary reason why I don’t own one of these models. The Khaya is a fantastic mute, but unless you have an abundance of money to spend, I would stick with the other two models. The Sylva and Betula models are very comparable in sound and feel to the Balu and MB mutes.

Horn-Crafts Horn Mute – Houghton Horns

The Tom Snyder mutes, which are primarily sold through Pope Repair, are produced in Canada and available in the following options (wood): Koa, Walnut, Cherry, and Ebony. They are priced at $230, but I paid $200 for my Ebony mute back in 2016. I loved the look of the Ebony mute, and I loved the sound of it at the time. I tried all of the mutes that I could find at the 2016 International Horn Symposium in Ithaca, NY, and the Ebony won. It fit pretty well with the horn that I played at the time, which was a Wunderlich Schmidt. After I switched to an EB (Elemental Brass) Custom Yamaha 87, I did everything to make it work, but no matter how hard I tried to fix the issue, I couldn’t play in tune with it. I recently sold it, which is a shame, but if I couldn’t play it within a section, then the mute wasn’t worth keeping. It not only projected well, but technical passages were extremely clean on that mute. This just goes to show that a mute won’t work with every instrument, so be sure to try one before you buy it. Even though it didn’t work out in the long run, these are still great mutes, and I highly recommend them.

Snyder Mutes
Tom Snyder Mutes

This next one isn’t necessarily a new mute, because it is made by Ion Balu, but it is new to the market. It was designed by Dan Vidican, the maker of the wonderful Lukas Horns, and this mute is evidently the “Beast Mode” version of the regular Balu mutes. The Lukas mute seems to only be available through Pope Repair and is priced at $255. The site mentions that the process for making this mute is much more labor intensive, and the following characteristics are listed: “quick response, evenness across the range, and a brighter, crisp sound full of stage presence and projection in the hall.” I have not personally tried this mute, but due to my preference for Balu mutes, I can only assume that I would enjoy the Lukas mute. Would I buy one? If I performed regularly in a professional orchestra, I would maybe consider it, but as I stated previously, it’s difficult for me to justify spending more than $200 on a mute.

Lukas Mutes
The Lukas Mute, made by Ion Balu, designed by Dan Vidican

The Cadillac/Rolls Royce of the horn mute world, the Woodstop mute, which is available in Maple ($225), Cherry ($245), and Walnut ($255). These mutes are sold through The Horn Guys, Elemental Brass, and other places, but it’s actually cheaper to order the mutes directly from the Woodstop website. The Maple has a “very lively sound with a bit of edginess” and plays with great response. The Cherry is a free-blowing mute with immediate response that “gives the traditional sound with a bit more warmth.” The Walnut “gives a very warm sound with no edginess.” It is responsive and the playability is supposedly very “similar to that of your open horn.” These mutes are played and endorsed by numerous professional musicians throughout the United States. I have never tried one, mainly because it is above my pay grade, but the straight mutes and stop mutes are both world-renowned, so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.

walnut stright compressed.jpeg
Woodstop Walnut Straight Mute

Well folks, we made it! I know that there are other mute brands out there, but the ones listed in this post are the most “well-known” horn straight mutes available today. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for some profound wisdom concerning the “perfect” straight mute, then you are out of luck. There will always be debate over which one is the “best,” just like how we constantly fight over which horn is the best. It all depends on personal preference, which is why you should always try it before you buy it, or you might just get stuck with a $200 mute that you never use.

Composer’s Corner: Caccia for Solo Horn

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and since I’ve been gifted some extra time due to the quarantine, now is the moment to start sharing more information about some of my compositions. This particular piece, Caccia for Solo Horn, was somewhat inspired by the 2019 Southeast Horn Workshop in Cullowhee, NC. I had made a few previous attempts to compose a work for unaccompanied horn, but I abandoned those projects with little to show from it. For some reason, I just didn’t have the right concept or melodic ideas to make it work. I was trying to write a piece that sounded like Interstellar Call or Laudatio instead of creating my own work.

There wasn’t a particular performance that inspired Caccia, but being at Western Carolina University and exploring the beautiful mountain region surrounding it sparked an idea. The image that came to mind was that of the hunt, and I immediately began to think of the various rondos that I’ve performed throughout my career. In the beginning, I envisioned something similar to the Rondo in B-flat by Arnold Cooke, and it would be based on this central motivic figure:

Ex. 1 – Opening Motif

The “tonic” key of the piece is technically B-flat major, another homage to the aforementioned rondo by Cooke, but the opening passages do tend to gravitate more towards the dominant, F major. The opening section serves as an “Introduction,” exploring the main melodic material, which is a fusion of two different ideas: hunting horn calls and heroic motifs. I didn’t want to just write a bunch of hunting horn calls, but rather an infectious melody that conjures thoughts of heroism. I also wanted the music to give off a sense of constant forward motion, whether through rhythm or the melodic material itself. Horn calls can often halt the motion in some music, because these musical ideas are used more to draw attention and can “stop the action.” I didn’t want this opening to be a “call to arms.” We are joining the story in the heat of the chase, as the horses and hounds are barreling through the forest at breakneck speed.

Even though the piece is fairly short, approximately 2-3 minutes in length, there are four distinct sections, and each section is separated by a measure of rest. This measure of rest should be a brief pause, with a quick emptying of water if needed. Since the first part serves as an introduction, the second part is a quasi “Development” section that takes the opening motifs and expands upon the material. It contains stopped horn, mixed meter, and lots of technically challenging passages. Even though the technical difficulty is more demanding throughout this part, the music should sound fluid and effortless, which is reminiscent of a fox bounding through the forest, desperately looking for a place to hide. The performer should keep the tempo constant throughout, but some liberties and rubatos may be taken at the performer’s discretion. Slurs are marked in the part for ease of playing, but speed and keeping this section from sounding laborious should be the primary goals. If more slurs are needed in order to achieve this objective, then add more slurs. The performer should have fun with this section and keep driving the music forward.

Ex. 2 – Technical Passages from “Development” Section

The third section is much shorter than the previous one, and serves as a “Segue” or “Transition” before the final section. Here, the melody is slurred, contains less motion, and is softer. This softer, more subdued melody then gives way to a light and playful sequence of arpeggios. If continuing with the narrative approach to the music, think of this part as a slight lull in the action (a change of pace). Imagine that the hounds have lost the scent of the fox, and the animal can finally breathe a sigh of relief for a moment. The horses slow to a stop, and just as the hunting party is about to move on, the scent is suddenly rediscovered, and the chase is back on. During this part, the tempo should not change, only the mood and style should be altered. This section is also written in bass clef using new notation.

Ex. 3 – Melodic Material from Section 3 (*Bass Clef)

The “Segue” ushers a return of the melodic material of the “Introduction,” which is often referred to as the “Recapitulation.” Obviously, this isn’t a real “Recapitulation,” but I am reintroducing the original opening motifs. I added a stopped section, seen in Ex. 4, before the mad dash to the end.

Ex. 4 – More Stopped Horn

In the end, I hope that people will enjoy this piece and have fun playing it. Like I stated previously, it’s not a long piece, so it isn’t meant to be a stand alone work. It should be performed in the context of a recital, and I think it would be a great “change of pace” type of addition to any concert. While I wanted to include a lot of technically challenging issues, I intentionally kept this work from being taxing on the chops. It isn’t a clear “low horn” piece, but it definitely does include some low horn playing. As of the writing of this post, Caccia for Solo Horn has yet to be published, but it will be published soon by Brass Arts Unlimited. If you have any questions about this piece, or if you would like to perform it, please let me know. I was supposed to perform the premiere at this year’s Southeast Horn Workshop, but due to COVID-19, it did not happen. I’m hoping that I can perform it soon, but I will gladly share the piece with anyone else that is interested and wants to perform it, even if that individual is able to perform it before me.

I will update this post when it is published, and when it is performed.

Being Lazy is Easy

As most of the world is under a suggested “quarantine” right now, I thought it might be a good idea for me to revisit my blog. I won’t be teaching another university course in person until the Fall, and it looks like I won’t be in my Elementary music classroom until at least May, so I finally have time to do things. Time is such a precious commodity nowadays, and if you have small kids, you know how difficult it can be to carve out time to work on anything. I stay busy, but I’ve developed this habit of distracting myself from tasks that need to be completed. Sure, I’ve finished a couple of compositions within the past year, submitted some presentation proposals (even though the events were cancelled), and other stuff; however, I’ve been unable to make myself sit down and write, whether it be blog posts or articles. I have three or four articles that I just need to make myself finish, but I always find an excuse. I also know that I need to write more blog posts, but I continually find ways to procrastinate.

This is where the title comes in, because it has been way too easy for me to be lazy lately. When I was in undergrad and grad school, I adhered to a rigid schedule, and I would always find time for anything that needed to be done. It’s not that I sit around and do nothing nowadays, because it’s hard for me to be idle, but I’ve found that I’m constantly distracting myself from the tasks that are most important. Yes, I’m choosing to do easier things over the more time-consuming, strenuous, but also more rewarding tasks. If I still had my old drive and determination, I would have multiple articles published and probably many more compositions in my portfolio. Unfortunately, the new me starts a task, gets halfway through it, and then finds ways to procrastinate. I still have a lot of great ideas, but this new routine means that I have so many unfinished projects that need to be completed. It’s frustrating, and I need to actually spend the next few weeks doing the hard work.

This month, March 2020, was supposed to be an important month for my professional career. I was going to perform one of my compositions, Caccia for Solo Horn, at the Southeast Horn Workshop, and I was also scheduled to do a presentation about my research pertaining to etude books written for low horn. Sure, I’m happy that I have a little more time right now, but I’m also bummed that I didn’t get a chance to share my work. This was to be my first presentation at a workshop or conference and an important building block for my resume. I’m also scheduled to do a presentation about anxiety and depression at the IHS Symposium in August, but I have no idea if that conference will happen either. I was already afraid that I wouldn’t be able to attend due to monetary concerns, but now, it looks like everything will be put on hold until at least the Fall. I’m very frustrated, but I can’t let my depression or anxiety keep the next few months from being a time for increased productivity. Even if I can’t go to these conferences, I can still take this time to finish articles and compositions that could also aid me in my quest to obtain a college teaching position in music.

These are very uncertain times, especially considering that we don’t know how long schools and other organizations will need to be closed down. Will orchestras be able to present full seasons next year? When are churches going to reopen their doors? How long will teachers, especially private instructors, have to teach remotely? So many of us depend on these organizations and vocations for our livelihoods, whether it be a primary or secondary source of income. I’m lucky that my jobs have been able to seamlessly convert to remote-based, because my family and I would be in trouble if we weren’t getting paid right now.

Unfortunately, even though these are questions and issues that are valid and important, these concerns are ultimately out of our hands. I cannot control the outcome of these obstacles, so I shouldn’t let all of this stuff overwhelm me and drive me into a deep depression, because it would definitely happen. I’ve been suffering from chronic depression (Major Depression, Dysthymic Disorder, or whatever you’d like to call it) for a while now, and any sort of “bad” news or negative occurrence can set it off at any moment. Instead, I should focus on the things that I can control: spending time with my family, blogging, finishing those articles, completing my compositions, and practicing my instrument.

During the school year, I’m normally so busy that my academic pursuits, including practicing horn, are often times put on hold. Teaching elementary music, especially when you’re at a school that doesn’t give you many breaks or much planning time, is exhausting. It’s especially exhausting for me, because constantly being around people drains my energy like nothing else. It’s the curse of being an introvert, which is why I enjoyed music school so much. I was built to be stuck alone in a practice room for hours. Now, I’m lucky to even practice at all, let alone get 2-3 hours per day like I did in grad school. I miss playing horn, so I’m definitely going to continue taking advantage of the extra bit of freedom that I’ve been given for the next month. I’m also going to make sure that I do things for fun as well, because we all need time to unwind. Sure, we can’t really go out, but being an introvert, I’m perfectly happy staying at home with my video games.

For what it’s worth, here’s my advice for everyone during our quarantine: do things with your family, do things for yourself (for fun and self-improvement), and do the things that you keep putting off until another time. Whether we like it or not, this is our time, and we can choose how we deal with it. I’m choosing to look at this as an opportunity to be more productive and to finally push myself to make that next step.