Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player



A thank you letter to Tony Halstead (extract)

Hi Tony,

I got the Geyer back from Gale Lawson a couple of weeks ago. He had taken it completely to pieces, removed all the little dents and ripples, overhauled the valves, stripped off nearly all of the old patchy lacquer and then soldered it all back together again. He had also made a very nice new PipStick for it to float on and reshaped the pinky-hook and thumb lever to fit my left hand. So, it being perfectly playable, I took it along to the Festival Hall for its first outing: The complete and original film score of “Singin’ In The Rain”, brilliantly reconstructed and conducted by John Wilson, with the Philharmonia.

The film is from 1952, so my 1961 horn, made in Chicago, wasn’t far off the mark – only 9 years! It felt very good to have a period instrument for this concert (I think some of the violinists were overdoing it by a few hundred years…). The horn parts are extremely wonderful – perfect horn writing – effective without being too difficult. There are only three horn parts, but my old friend Jim Handy was bumping so that made four of us. Kira O’Doherty and Carsen Williams were the 2nd and 3rd, making a very comfortable, friendly and mutually supportive little group.

The Geyer felt very good and everyone liked the sound of it!

Encouraged by this I used the Geyer again last week when I was guesting with the LPO. We played Bruckner 9 in the Festival Hall and at the Dome in Brighton. That’s a piece I had never played before but always wanted to. Gunther Herbig conducted – a very experienced German gentleman who knew exactly how he wanted his Bruckner and seemed pretty efficient at getting us to do it his way. I thought it was very clever of him to bring a complete set of parts absolutely covered with pencil markings. It meant there was little room for manouver but I’m sure this cuts down a lot of tedious rehearsal time. I think he was pretty shocked, at first, with the lighthearted and casual manner of the LPO. The first rehearsal must have seemed to him like a chimp’s tea-party (after a lifetime of working with German orchestras) but his shock turned to delight when the concert started – at least he looked really delighted. The Wagner tubas and the horns got stood up at the end of both concerts. I felt like waving my new Geyer in the air!

So, I’m very happy with it. It’s not a perfect horn, by any means, there being a couple of dangerous notes on it – but nothing that can’t be worked around. I really like the sound and the feel of it for orchestral playing. Also, I’m definitely using it for my next Konzertstuck, if another one comes along, as it has the best top D and top E of any double horn I’ve ever known. I wish it had a stopping valve, and I wish it had a detachable bell, and water keys – but I’m not going to make any drastic changes like that. I want to preserve it as it is, to which end I’m going to have it lacquered – with a gold coloured lacquer. It’s going to look fabulous! Photographs to follow, as soon as the work is done…

So, Tony, thank you so much for letting me buy this horn from you! I know you had a queue of keen buyers – all willing to pay up without even trying it – so I’m grateful that you let me have the first crack at it.

I hope you are keeping well and keeping warm,

All the best,

John Wilson and Josh Prince – Singin’ in the Rain

Well, as I mentioned before this was simply one of the best gigs of all time!

It was the first EVER concert performance of the original film score of Singin’ in the Rain. The score was reconstructed by the brilliant John Wilson and conducted by the brilliant John Wilson. In one part it was also conducted by the brilliant Josh Prince, shown here in these three photos.

Congratulations to John Wilson for bringing this amazing music back to life! But how could it have got lost in the first place? Did people not realise at the time what absolutely fantastic music they had created? The score is clearly a work of absolute genius. I urge you to listen to it if you don’t already know it. Currently you can get a DVD of the film on Amazon for peanuts. It’s a great, great classic, believe me.

It wasn’t just the amazing music which made it such a great gig for me. I just love working for John Wilson as he makes everything fun, and he never takes himself too seriously. Somehow he makes everything sound superlatively good. He just KNOWS how to do it. He gets just the right syrupy sound from the violins, and he brings along his own rhythm section and lead trumpet player wherever he goes. Most notably the addition of Matt Skelton, drums, and Mike Lovatt, lead trumpet, to an orchestra instantly galvanises players used to Brahms and Mahler into a compelling, swinging ensemble. It’s quite fantastic. I feel so fortunate to have been involved in this unforgettable performance.

There’s a nice review in the Independent, by Edward Seckerson here:

To cap it all, this was the first time I played my new old horn, the Carl Geyer double horn made in Chicago in the summer of 1961. Having picked it up just the day before from the workshop of Gale Lawson, who had rejuvenated it, it felt so good to play that I decided to use it straight away. I took it with me to the Festival Hall to try it out there in the morning rehearsal and it convinced me I should use it for the show.

Having been taken completely apart and put back together again, it feels like a brand new horn and perhaps will benefit from a long period of “blowing-in”, but I love it. It’s very straightforward – no water keys, no detachable bell, no stopping valve. Just a basic, classic, uncomplicated double-horn. Lovely!

Some technical stuff about the photos:

I used a little Canon S90 and shot the photos in RAW, i.e. uncompressed. ISO was 640 and the shutter speeds were 1/100th second. Handheld, no problem – not too much coffee so no obvious camera shake.
I underexposed these by approximately 1.5 stops to avoid the stage lights burning out the highlights and to get a nice black i the background. Light balance was set to auto, which is excellent on Canon cameras.
Post-processing was done in Adobe Lightroom where I cropped a little, adjusted some of the luminance and saturation, particularly of the blues and was able to reduce the noise by a huge amount – one of the great features of Lightroom 3.
I added a little sharpening and took some bits of detail out of the black background (I even removed a music stand from one photo!).
Finally, I made the little row of house lights at the back of the hall glow and stand out a bit more.
I like the results – and I think the original sized versions (not the much reduced versions shown here) would make nice large, sharp prints…

Singin’ In The Rain

It is my extreme good fortune to find myself playing principal horn with the Philharmonia Orchestra for what must be one of the best gigs of all time.

John Wilson (in the photo he’s the conductor on the left – the one on the right is a singer, not a conductor) has reconstructed the entire score of “Singin’ In The Rain”, a film which has been one of my favourites for a very long time.  I never dreamed I would one day play all the wonderful music from it. The horn parts are a joy to play – just perfect writing – and the whole orchestra sounds incredible. Not only that, but John Wilson is a delight to work with. How many conductors can one say that about?

The biggest highlight, however, has got to be Mike Lovatt’s sensational trumpet playing.

The performance is on Sunday 7th November at 3:00pm in the Royal Festival Hall. I can’t wait!

Goodbye Maurice

I’m very sad to hear that Maurice Murphy has died today.

He was a lovely man, a wonderful musician and a phenomenal superstar of a trumpet player.

Five weeks with the Liverpool Phil.

During the last five weeks it has been my great pleasure and privilege to work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The highlight of this patch of work was a trip to China where we played concerts in Shanghai and Beijing.

The photo above shows us, the horn section, making use of a suitable backdrop which we found somewhere in central in Shanghai. A handy man in a van handsigned that he would be happy to take a photo for us so I handed him my camera (which he used without getting out of his van) and then posed with the group, wondering if our photographer was about to drive off with my camera.

In the photo, from left to right: Myself, Chris Morley, Simon Griffiths, Andrew Maher, Tim Nicholson.

I’d like to say a huge thanks to all at RLPO for a very enjoyable patch of work  – and in particular to my hornplaying colleagues for being so welcoming and accommodating and supportive and encouraging – and for playing fantastically well at all times. Thank you so much, guys!

Horn mutilation dream

I don’t remember my dreams very often and when I do they don’t often seem very real. Early this morning, however, I had a very convincing one and the moment I realised it had been just a dream was one of extreme relief.

I had been rehearsing somewhere with an orchestra and had returned to the rehearsal room the following morning for more rehearsals and, I think, a concert. Believing the place to be secure I had left my horn on my chair overnight. When I picked my horn up to play it I discovered that the entire valve section was missing, along with the valve tuning slides and levers. Someone had cut the heart right out of my horn with some kind of small hacksaw, leaving the jagged ends of tubing like severed veins and arteries. I was absolutely dumbfounded.

Any Jungians out there? What was that all about?

How not to clean your horn….

I have a big cleanup operation ongoing at the moment which is bacteriacide for all those nasties living in my various instruments who have been taking their holidays in my lungs from time to time. I explain all about this in my previous post, HERE.

So, yesterday, it was the turn of my big monster triple horn. I hunted down my horn-cleaning brush – a long flexible rod with a small nylon brush on one end. Hey, why only one end? Usually there’s a brush on both ends…   thinks, scratching head …I wonder why there’s a brush only on one end…  um…?

I filled up the bath with warm water and found an almost finished Listerine bottle to put the diluted Dettol in – half a litre of a mixure of five parts Dettol, one part Listerine and four parts water. It went cloudy, just like Pernod but with an aroma remeniscent of swimming pools and school lavatories rather than Parisian Cafes.

As I sank the horn (minus its bell and mouthpiece) into the warm water I remembered the particular problem with this tremendously complex triple horn with its eight valves and four water keys (none of which work) and fourteen tuning slides (fifteen, if you include the little mouthpiece shank): the lead-pipe is only about a foot long and goes directly into a valve, rather than a removable slide. This makes it very difficult to clean because the last thing you want to do is push all of accumulated lead-pipe sludge into the delicate machinery of a valve. I poured a little of my Dettol cocktail into the mouthpiece receiver and then carefully inserted the brush, I pushed it slowly, approximately two thirds of the way around to the valve, with the intention of dislodging all the muck, and then started to pull it back. It came most of the way back before the brush jammed and snapped off inside my horn.

What a fool I felt! Luckily there was nobody around to see that my horn rodder now had BOTH of its brushes missing. Next, I spent twenty frustrating minutes with a pair tweezers pulling out one by one the nylon fibers of the brush which, luckily, I could just about reach. Eventually the brush was so thinned out I was able to pull the remains of it out and dispose of it.

The next problem was in finding a way to run some of my cocktail backwards through the lead-pipe to flush out the loosened muck. To this end I removed the main Bb tuning slide and poured in some of my mixture. Then, with my face pressed uncomfortably against the back of the horn, I held down the Bb/F thumb lever and blew gently into the slide receiver. There was en encouraging bubbling sound and some of the mixture blew out of the mouthpiece receiver. Excellent – and not too much went in my hair! Encouraged by this, I poured in some more and blew again. It is a habit of most brass players to wiggle the valves when blowing only soundless air through their instruments. I think this is to make sure they are still working (the valves: one learns never to really trust them) and to disperse any condensed water within. I poured in some more mixture and this time blew rather harder. Out of habit I wiggled the valves, including the Bb/F thumb lever, so that the disinfectant was momentarily re-routed away from the lead-pipe and back into the F section tubing. As I had previously taken the F tuning slide out the mixture had only a short way to go before it shot at high speed out of the horn …and smacked me hard in my right eye. Even though I was wearing glasses the pipe was aimed perfectly right into the centre of my eye from below so they provided no protection. My poor wide-open eye received a high pressure jet of Dettol and Listerine. Schmid valves are excellent – I didn’t even have time to blink.

I jumped to my feet, dropped the horn and my specs into the bath and stood up, clutching my eye and howling like a shot pig. The pain was extreme and terrifying. I leaned over the basin and splashed handfulls of cold water into my eye, still yelping but aware that I was also laughing despite the fact that I didn’t know I’d ever be able to see again. My other eye, the left one, is virtually useless – I only keep it there for sake of symmetry – and I’d happily pour bleach into that one any day. Now my only good eye was either going to get a terrible chest infection or dissolve away leaving an empty smouldering socket.

After a few minutes more of whimpering, embarrassed sniggering and frantic eye-bathing I stopped and looked around, possibly for the last time, at the blurrily melting world of my bathroom.

Today, I’m pleased to say that my eye is working. It’s a little sore and my vision goes all smeary from time to time …but I managed to write all this, didn’t I?

Infection and sickness, the horn, its drains, sanitation and bacteria

From rude health downwards

I’m on tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra as guest Principal horn. This is a wonderful thing to be doing but, unfortunately, I have been struck down by illness. The tour started in London with rehearsals at the Royal Festival Hall for Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde, and for three other concert programs. We then travelled to Lucerne and gave three concerts there.

In the four days we spent in that beautiful Swiss city I made good use of my plentiful spare hours, practicing my horn in the wonderful backstage facilities of the KKL concert hall and jogging around the beautiful lake and up and down verdant hills. I was a smug but short-lived picture of rude alpine health and vitality.

Next, we all took a train ride to Milan, during which time I noticed the sudden appearance of a sore throat which seemed already to be moving downwards towards my chest. This struck me as curious because usually it takes much longer for bugs to get themselves installed down there, if that’s where they’re heading. The next day I woke up feeling pretty ill, hints of a high temperature, partial deafness, generally weakness and uncontrollable coughing. By the evening concert I needed Paracetemol and decongestant to get me through Night On a Bare Mountain, The Miraculous Mandarin and Symphonie Fantastique.

From alveoli to ravioli

The following day I was woken up by extremely painful coughing and a severe headache with fever, weakness and partial deafness – so by now it was a full blown chest infection. We left the hotel by coach, heading for Turin and I asked the Philharmonia’s management if they could arrange for me to see a doctor when we arrived. Eventually, we checked into the hotel in Turin and a doctor duly appeared in my room. He stuck a stick down my throat, took my pulse, listened to my chest with his stethoscope and tapped my ribs here and there. He also made me say “trenta-tre” seven times while he listened to the lack of resonance in my chest using the palm of one hand …or maybe this was a way of simultaneously calculating his fee and demanding payment. He concluded by somberly pronouncing that I was in a very bad way and that my lungs were “chiuso!” – closed. Yes, that summed up exactly how it felt. My lungs were trying to shut down under the stress of being eaten alive by aliens. Great – who needs lungs, or even ears, to play the horn?

And how remarkable and mysterious to go from no symptoms to a multi-media chest infection in less than two days!

Le Sacre du Cortisone

The doctor started me on antibiotics and dosed me with a hit of cortisone – apparently a steroid. This drug had the amazing effect of switching off the illness (although it did not unmute my ears) for just long enough to get me through Le Sacre du Printemps that evening.

I have to say that however dangerous and harmful cortisone must be (for it to work THAT well) it was jolly well worth the risk. That Rite of Spring, the only time it got played on the tour, was incandescently fabulous. Esa-Pekka Salonen could not have done a better job and the orchestra were just miraculously great. It drove our Italian audience into a wild frenzy of unstoppable applause and roaring.

Travel day from hell

That concert in Turin finished at 23:15, which is late even by Italian standards. In keeping with Philharmonia tradition, rather than waste any time sleeping we left the hotel by bus at 05:30 for a two hour drive to Milan Airport. From there we flew to Dormund and then had another coach journey before arriving at our hotel. It was during this final stretch when the bus broke down that I did more or less the same myself. My resolve to fight the illness and continue playing each night shattered and I found myself asking the management if they could manage without me for that evening’s concert. Thankfully, they were extremely kind and accommodating and I was granted leave to go to bed and froth and cough myself half to death in privacy.


There is an explanation for most things and I enjoyed a small “eureka” moment when I realized what had been the cause of my meteoric decline. A colony of lung-eating monsters had taken up residence inside my horn! What is worse is that this was my own fault. I had put the little villains there myself and, six months later, I had invited them back into my chest for a return holiday visit of feasting and multiplying.

The clue here was in the exact match of symptoms to those of my previous chest infection last spring. There was no mistaking the specific awfulness of the sound of my hornplaying! Whatever those little devils did to my ears made ME sound AWFUL to ME. It made me hear my hornplaying sound at best muted (with no mute in) and at worst like a wasp playing a kazoo. Also, I found it impossible to gauge how loudly or quietly I was playing.

The hoards of tiny monsters had been reluctant to leave me six months ago and so I’d resorted to antibiotics as prescribed by my doctor. The first course had almost worked but it all came back again as soon as I finished so I had to have another, different course. This time the monsters were all killed, BUT only those in my chest. The ones I’d blown into my horn were still in there, alive and kicking …and waiting. This fabulously clever theory explains perfectly how the infection had come upon me so fast. The mob of hungry bugs already knew what to do when they got in there, and I had given them all free passes, cutlery and plates.

Dowsing for spit

Now, I have some explaining to do about how I brought the naughty bacteria back into my lungs for their return visit.

I have two horns which I use for most of my modern hornplaying work. They were both made by Engelbert Schmid and are both very fine horns indeed. I have only ever had one complaint about both of these horns – it is that the drains don’t work.

Horns fill up with water. It’s the same as a warm kitchen on a cold day. The warm moist air inside forms condensation on the cold inner surface of the windows which runs down to the sill below where it starts to rot the woodwork. In horns the condensation runs down the inside of the tubing and pools in the lowest parts of the hoops and loops, and when there’s enough of it you get a bubbling, crackling sound when you play anything. It’s most unmusical and very annoying. As in kitchens, it’s worse in cold weather and it makes the horn not an ideal choice for playing outside.

There’s something about the design of both of these horns which makes it very difficult to get the water out. One of them (a full triple horn in F, Bb and Eb) even has four water keys. Yes, FOUR, and I still can’t empty it! I swear some of it has been in there for years. During concerts when I get the dreaded crackling sound and start frantically tipping my horn this way and that to remove the water – which is pretty much all the time – it drives me utterly nuts. I can usually get about half of it out but never more than that. I seem to spend my entire hornplaying life frantically searching for water. Unlike the Mars Observer, though, I KNOW it’s in there.

One of these days I’m going to lose my temper with one of my Schmids and hurl it at a wall or a conductor. I never had any such problems when I played an Alex 103.

I totally suck

Sometimes, in desperation, or when I think I know the water is in a particular place and needs to be moved backwards a little to get it around a corner and nearer to a water key, I suck. Yes, I will admit to the fact that I align the horn so it’s mostly horizontal and give a good hard suck. So, that’s a disgusting foul wind, laden with bacteria and rotting carrion, being injected deep into my lungs. Now that I think about it, it’s really disgusting.

There’s something else, too: sometimes I like to play notes by inhaling through the horn instead of blowing. These sound almost exactly the same as normal notes. I do it sometimes as a kind of party trick and at other times to confuse my students EVEN MORE about breathing techniques. But this is a much slower flow of air than in my water-shunting maneuver so is probably not quite as dangerous ….but it’s still disgusting.

Either way, I’m now faced with the possibility that this could even be my third visitation by the same lucky troupe of carnivorous gremlins. I had a previous chest infection about 18 months ago which I picked up in India…


Before I think about sucking air backwards through my horn again I’m going to make sure there’s not one critter left alive in left there. I’m going to have my horns irradiated by British Nuclear Fuels. Then I’m going to pour gallons of bacteriacide through them both. Then, to make absolutely sure nothing could possibly still be alive in there, I’m going to play a load of music by Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

Essentials for the touring musician

Please allow me to share with you my years and years of experience.
When going on tour you need only remember four (three) things:

  1. Passport
  2. Credit card
  3. Toothbrush *
  4. Instrument

* The toothbrush is optional as it’s perfectly acceptable to clean your teeth with a credit card.

Where is your diaphragm?

I know where mine is – and it’s nowhere near my belly. It goes above my stomach and my liver (they both tuck up under it, where it looks dark in the 2nd drawing) and my heart sits right on top of it, almost in the middle (the dotted line is the heart’s outline).


I’m going to be giving some tips here soon about some good ways to use the diaphragm – to actually get a hold of it and do something precise with it, specifically for playing brass instruments.

I hope you like my drawings!

My wonderful Dad – instrument technician

In response to my previous post here, about Gale Lawson, my Mum sent me a photo of my Dad doing similar things in his similar workshop.

So, here he is – my wonderful Dad, Peter Eastop – back in 1998, healing a bassoon in his workshop. Soon after this his Parkinson’s got so bad that he couldn’t work any more and he had to shut down the workshop. Tragic.

Peter in workshop_s90.jpg

The evolution of the bicycle

The evolution of the bicycle

Gale Lawson – instrument technician

Here is Gale Lawson, a wizard with horns (and also a halo, if you look carefully). The valves of my Phatterboy Eb Flugelhorn had been sticking and no amount of cleaning or drowning in valve oil seemed to free them up. Also, the main tuning slide and the first valve slide were too free-moving. The combination of valves that didn’t come back up again and tuning slides which kept falling out was driving me ABSOLUTELY NUTS so I took the thing to Gale to be healed.


Gale was very keen to show me his new machine for deep-frying instruments:


It’s not really a deep-fryer. It’s an ultra-sonic cleaning machine. It contains 90 gallons of a liquid with magical properties. You submerge anything from a trumpet to a whopping great tuba into it, making sure that the instrument is completely filled with the liquid, and then press the ON button for a minute or two. The machine hums, the magical molecules in the wizard’s liquid jiggle at an ultrasonic frequency and clouds of colourful dirt emerge …even from a relatively new instrument like my Phatterboy. Gale is very proud of his new machine, particularly of the fact that nobody else in the UK has one.

My Dad used to do what Gale does. He had a lovely workshop full of wonderful specialised tools and machines. When I was growing up I spent many happy hours watching my Dad working on all manner of wind instruments. He was considered a bassoon specialist but was equally at home with brass instruments. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t inherit any of my Dad’s patience, dexterity or methodical nature. Some people are destined to make or repair instruments, others to damage and destroy them – I fall into the latter category. Until his Parkinson’s Disease stopped him from working my Dad used to do all the repairs to my instruments, including a lot of customisation. He was a genius. He once made a complete set of detatchable levers for my Alexander so that I could play it the other way around – with the bell over to my left.

Gale Lawson is also a genius, and I very much like watching him work. His workshop looks and smells like my Dad’s used to, so I think when I am there I get somehow transported back to some very happy times.


Cycling to work

I’m always delighted to find yet another studio in London that I didn’t previously know about. There seem to be hundreds, tucked away in all sorts of hidden corners and I’m lucky enough to live within cycling distance of a good many of them. I went to Sphere Studio for the first time yesterday.  It’s near the huge and beautiful Battersea Park and it took me under half an hour to get there – cycling some of the way through the park. It was a perfect day for cycling; warm, dry and not windy, so I arrived feeling refreshed and in a pretty good mood. To find the place, I simply put the postcode in my phone’s satnav, set it to walking mode, and followed the curt voice instructions emanating from my shirt pocket. She gets pretty cross when I deliberately take a different route but she does a pretty good job of disguising the anger in her voice as she re-routes me.

When cycling to and from work, unlike all the other cycling hornplayers I know, I don’t carry my horn on my back. To me that’s both uncomfortable and dangerous. I have quite a strong rear carrier rack on my bicycle and I attach the case to the to side of it using small elastic hooks which absorb shocks from potholes and bumps. Should I ever fall off, or get knocked off my bicycle I don’t think I want to land on my back across a horn case as this would probably damage both me and the instrument. Also the horn has far less distance to fall from the side of a rear carrier than it does from up on my back. Once it’s strapped on the the rear of the bicycle I don’t notice it’s there.

Having arrived at Sphere Studio, I found a small orchestra split up into three isolated rooms; a big one for the strings and two tiny rooms for the brass and the woodwinds. I was in a tiny room the other hornplayer Laurence Davies, trumpet players Simon Gardner and Derek Watkins, trombonists Mark Nightingale and Gordon Campbell. It’s always a delight to be playing with such brilliant musicians – even in a sweaty cramped space.

We recorded a few tracks for a new album by Mel C. It was interesting stuff – songs by Joni Mitchell, Stephen Sondheim and others – a new direction for this particular singer, I think. It all sounded great and I’m looking forward to hearing the album.

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Iván Fischer

This photo was taken after our final rehearsal in New York when Iván Fischer arranged for his two orchestras to meet each other. Members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra who had been attending our rehearsal came up onto the stage to mingle, shake hands and pose with us for photographs taken from the back of the hall.


And here’s one of those photographs taken from the back of the hall. The OAE players all have instruments out, and all the others are members of the B.F.O.

Royal Albert Hall

I love the Royal Albert Hall. It’s beautiful to look at whether you’re inside it or outside.

Here’s an unusual view of it:

“After hearing the OAE’s brass, I never want to go back to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.”

The quote is from another review of the first OAE concert in New York.

……If it requires period instruments to render Beethoven like this, then by all means let’s all buy some 18th century flutes. But I don’t think it does. The attention to detail and precision came out of an ensemble which has re-evaluated all of the de-facto practices of the “modern” (aka post-Romantic) orchestra and taken what works, leaving behind what doesn’t. It may have not been the original goal of the HIP movement (back when it was all about Authenticity), but I’m glad this is the direction it took. After hearing the OAE’s brass, I never want to go back to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The blaring horns and trumpets in both symphonies seemed effective and appropriate (and, dare I say it, badass), where loud brass would be vulgar in any Beethoven performance by a CSO-size orchestra. Critics often accuse Fischer of idiosyncratic performances, but I’ll take idiosyncrasy over the alternative any day.

Read the whole review, by Billy Robin at SEATED OVATION, here.

Horn section all named in New York Times review

“And the ensemble’s three hornists — Phillip Eastop, Martin Lawrence and Gavin Edwards — played with an impressive unity and spot-on intonation.”

Read the whole review here:

Fleet and frothy in New York

It’s so nice to get a good review, particularly when it’s somewhere culturally significant – New York, for example:

“One of the highlights for me tonight was the truly magnificent work by the horns, who played both with incredible accuracy and wonderful fullness of tone. In the hunting episodes of the “Eroica’s” scherzo they were fleet and frothy; in the climaxes of the tragic second movement, and especially in the big moments of the finale, they rang out gloriously. The audience applauded loudly for them at the end when Fischer singled them out for a bow.”

This particular concert was Beethoven’s 2nd and 3rd symphonies with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center, New York City. The conductor was Ivan Fischer. Now, I’m not usually one to heap praise onto conductors but this man has something rather special. His method seems to be quite unusual in that it seems to be based on listening to the musicians he’s working with. Right from the start of the rehearsals I noticed this unusual behaviour. He worked with us, listening, reacting, taking what was there, finding interesting sounds and structures and drawing everyone’s attention to it. There was a strong improvisational element here which I enjoyed very much – and, clearly, so did he. It was dangerous, however. We never knew what was going to happen next. He was clearly enjoying himself and he launched into each of the four concerts we played with him like demented hyena. He was at all times entertaining and inspiring and risk-taking.

I’d like to thank Martin Lawrence and Gavin Edwards for their PERFECT horn playing. We were using primitive horns with no moving parts. Just tubes with holes at each end.

The OAE is a great little orchestra! Congratulations to everyone involved in those four marvellous Beethoven concerts.

Here’s a link to the complete review:

Sir Charles Mackerras and The Philharmonia Orchestra

I was recently (December 2009) very fortunate to spend a week working with the Philharmonia Orchestra as their guest principal horn. The conductor was Sir Charles Mackerras and we played two concerts the Royal Festival Hall.

Concert 1:

Wagner night:
Overture & Venusberg Music
Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Götterdämmerung (excerpts).

Concert 2:

Beethoven’s 6th Symphony
E. Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel (extracts).

Despite his illness and his advanced years, Sir Charles was a joy to work with. He was crystal clear at all times and worked through everything with efficiency and humour. He took obvious delight in all the music and the incredibly positive reaction he got from everyone in The Philharmonia, all of whom clearly loved working with him.

At the end of the final rehearsal, when we’d finished work on Hansel and Gretel and the Pastoral Symphony, he said to everyone:

“I’d like to thank you all for the last week of work we’ve done together. The Wagner concert was really exceptional, in fact it’s one of the best concerts I’ve ever been involved in”.

…at which point, the orchestra let out a strange and wonderful sound – a combination of sighs and oooohs and aaaahs and the catchings of breath. I’ve never heard such a thing before. It was most touching.

Laurence Rogers was the other guest principal horn for the Wagner concert – we did half each. Laurence was awesome in Tannhäuser and Tristan, and I had the immense pleasure of leading the huge section of 10 in Götterdämmerung.

I’ll die a happy man knowing that I led that tremendous horn section in that music, with that orchestra and with that conductor. I even like the hall, too!

Unfortunately, I’m afraid I completely failed to get a photograph….

Teaching a beginner

This blog entry is quite a large one. It’s taken from a much earlier version of my website (8 years ago) and I’m re-publishing it here because lots of people have requested to read it again since it disappeared a year or two ago in the re-write and re-design of my website.

Teaching my first beginner

I’ve often thought that, for a change, I’d like to teach a complete beginner rather than taking over, as I always have done in my horn teaching, from where the previous teacher has left off. I’ve relished the possibility of having a big influence over the setting up of a brand new embouchure, a new playing posture, new habits of breathing, sounding, listening, thinking – the whole player. Even recently I’ve been wishing for it without realising that already I have that very thing sitting so closely under my nose that I hadn’t noticed it. It, or he, is in the form of my youngest child, Zachary, now aged four [now aged 12!],  who is learning to play the Eb tenor horn.
First, a bit of background: when Zak’s older brother, Mordecai, was about one year old I constructed a playable toy horn for him using a length of garden hosepipe, a plastic kitchen funnel, an old crook from a military band piston horn and an old horn mouthpiece.

Zak playing the homemade hosepipe horn

Zak playing the homemade hosepipe horn

It’s was more or less the right length for a horn in F but, due the acoustic properties of hosepipes, did not have an in-tune harmonic series. Suffice to say that it has roughly the same number of playable harmonics as a horn in F. This kind of instrument is robust enough to be kicked around the floor and left in a toy box rather than needing a case. Another advantage is that it’s not loud enough ever to become irritating. Well, maybe sometimes…

Zak playing the horn

Zak playing the horn

Mo enjoyed playing it, made a reasonable sound and soon had a range of almost an octave. However, it was Zak, his younger brother, who a couple of years later really took to it and seemed to spend a lot of time carrying it around the house with him, blowing it, really enjoying the sounds and sensations. By the time he was three years old he had stopped puffing his cheeks out (nagging parents) and had refined his technique to the extent of being able to articulate notes by tonguing. The most amazing thing, though, was that by the time he was 4 years old he could play recognisable tunes, the first of which was “Jingle Bells”.

When he was four years old we began thinking that Zak needed something a bit more like a real musical instrument to play. What would be good, we thought, was some kind of three-valved brass instrument which would be light in weight, easy to hold, relatively easy to play and would not require a very strong embouchure (i.e. not a trumpet). It should also have a well cushioned mouthpiece to spread the load of any pressure applied so as not to distort a child’s growing teeth. There seemed to be only one choice – it had to be the Eb tenor horn.

I phoned Gale Lawson (the man I get to do all my instrument repairs – and the managing director of the PipStick factory) and asked him to look out for a cheap old wrecked tenor horn which could be patched up and made to play reasonably well and would be suitable for hurling into a toy box at the end of each day. A couple of weeks later we heard back from Gale that he found the very thing. Fifty quid and it was Zak’s – a very fine Christmas present indeed!

Zak Xmas horn

Zak Xmas horn

Since then he has played it quite a lot, encouraged somewhat by the fact of his big brother having weekly violin lessons and practising a bit each day. However, Zak would often forget about it for a week or two and so there was little chance of much progressive development of embouchure strength or of building up technique from one day to the next. Don’t get me wrong – we were really not pushy, ambitious parents – it’s just that we felt Zak would enjoy it even more if he could notice himself getting better at it and that could only happen if we could get him to practise a bit every day.

So, how do you motivate a four year old to practise on a tenor horn every day? A very persuasive “sticker chart” combined with carefully set cash incentives is what’s behind Zak’s current burst of progress (I still don’t think we were pushy parents!). At the time of writing Zak’s chart (identical to his brother’s) was set up 28 days ago and now has a sticker, awarded for having done an acceptable amount of good practise, in every square representing each day since then. There are lots of ways to set up a sticker chart but the way we chose to do it goes like this:

A week is represented by a row of 8 squares – that’s one square for everyday of the week plus a bonus square for putting in an 8th sticker if all seven of the day squares get filled. Each Sunday, we add up all the stickers for the week and hand over cash to the value of 5 pence for each one of them. The presence of a bonus sticker doubles the sum, so o a full week of stickers gets Zak (and his brother Mordecai, violin) a massive 70 pence. It has to be good practise, not just going through the motions, and so far neither of them have missed a day.

I’ve already said that we got him to tongue quite early on but it would be fairer to say that he worked this out for himself. Zak was an early whistler, learning to do it rather well while he was only 3 and very quickly worked out how to whistle tunes, including “Happy Birthday” with even some slurs in. One day his mother noticed that he was using some tonguing in his whistling and she had the presence of mind to ask him if he could do the same trick while playing the tenor horn. He certainly could – and that was that – he didn’t really need teaching how to do it.

Then the sticker chart started and I found myself doing his daily practise with him, just as my Dad did with me from when I was 9 years old. There were definitely echoes of that happy scene – my dad sitting by my side exploring and mapping with me the rugged terrain of horn technique. The way my Dad taught me to play the horn (and the recorder for a couple of years before that) was pure genius and I still think of him as the best horn teacher I ever had, even though he was not a horn player (he was an oboist and marching bass-drummer in a military band). Clearly, it was a more difficult task for him teaching me than it is now for me to teach Zak and yet the things he taught me about learning to play the horn were so pithy and essential that I still work on my playing in the same way he taught me all those years ago. His and my only guide at the time was that excellent and inspiring book, “The Art of Playing French Horn”, by Philip Farkas. My clever Dad was able to extract from that book many essential nuggets of expertise and pass them on to me in an exciting and meaningful way.

Something that may surprise some readers of this journal is that I am not planning to link Zak’s learning of his instrument to teaching to read music – at least not yet. Shock horror! Why not? Read on:

When I was seven I started learning to play the recorder and the first thing I was shown in my school recorder class, along with about eight other kids, was that I had to cover certain finger-holes and blow in order to get certain notes. I walked home from school that day working at those notes and kept on playing them while doing just about everything else that seven-year-olds do …for years.

The next lesson was the one which taught me that the notes I was playing were actually not just musical sounds but were in fact black dots on a printed page. This is confusing at first but young kids soon get the hang of it – just as certain words you say are the same as printed written words on paper. A problem arises in reading music, though, when this idea is turned around and fixed so that the dots on the page become the notes – they literally become the notes.

It happens like this: typically, a teacher will point to a black dot on a page and say “Now, this is a B. Left hand index finger and thumb – play it”. The learner stares at the black dot and executes the note while still staring at it. The black dot becomes the sound, the note.

The drive to learn to read music in this way – simultaneoulsy with learning to play – has become so entrenched in our culture of playing pre-composed music that, for most musicians, the “permission” to play a particular note seems to come only from printed commands rather than directly from musical the imagination of the player.

I was lucky. I escaped from school with my brand new recorder and played it all the way home and all the way back again for the next lesson before anyone had time to tell me I couldn’t play anything unless I was reading it in the form of black dots from a music book. Many were not so lucky. I know this because in all my career as a dot-reading horn player (one who subversively always made music up when nobody was listening [insert link to improvisation page] I have been amazed at how most of my colleagues seemed chained to the printed pages. Like slaves to someone else’s music these exclusively dot-reading musicians seem happy to play only what is written down for them.

Maybe you, the person reading this, are a dot-reading-only musician. Do you refer to a sheet of dot-covered printed paper as “The Music”? Could you play something you never heard or played before to an audience, without reading it from a page of dots and symbols? You might like to think seriously about this.

I don’t want my son to be musically imprisoned so that he can only play written notes. Similarly, his mother and I haven’t taught him to speak only when there are written words to read – he can say anything that comes into his mind, and usually does! In fact, he is quite a vocal improviser, as are most people.

When you think about it, it’s quite a bad state of affairs. Most so-called “Classical” (or Western European Art Music) music is created by non-performing people – Composers – with pens and sheets of paper or computers. Other non-playing people called Conductors keep control of the herds of dot-readers and even coach them through rehearsals to check that they are reading the dots correctly and – worse – make them play the the dots the way THEY want them played. Not really much room here for any creative input from the dot-readers – that is all controlled by the Composers and Conductors. And guess who gets most of the money? Ho-ho! Yep, it’s those silent folk, the Conductors and Composers. Hey, the bastards have stolen our music!

Thankfully there’s still jazz and other forms of improvisation.

Zak can learn to read music when he can play without it first. Just like he could speak before we started teaching him to read.

This rant is now over. Phew!

27th July 2002
Zak and I have been working on his tonguing. In particular getting clean, accurate starts to every note by trying to get six good ones in a row and turning this into a game to make it fun. He’s 4 years old so everything has to be fun. I have also been trying to prevent Zak from ending notes with his tongue by getting him always to diminuendo quickly away to nothing. A diminuendo requires skillful control of the air pressure and both the size and muscle-tone of the aperture so we do quite a lot of work on long notes, starting quiet, getting louder then getting quiter again.

Sometimes we turn this into a competition, which Zak likes. We start playing the same mid-register note together – me playing my horn, him playing his tenor horn – and we see who can hold it the longest. Of course he always wins, so he wants to do it over and over again. His record is 20 seconds. That is very long! Try it yourself and imagine you are the size of a 4 year old. If you don’t play a brass instrument try singing a 20 second note.

I suppose 4 years old is a bit young for an embouchure change and I’m pretty amazed by what Zak has managed to achieve. His natural tendency is to get down into the lower half of his range by tipping his lower tip forward a bit into the mouthpiece. I think it’s the way many beginners first try to descend in pitch – by instinctively opening the aperture and forming it with a softer and slower-vibrating part of the lip. Having found moderate success with it many then stick with that until either they decide to change it or learn to live with the fact that they are never going to have a really good low register. I’m sticking my neck out a bit here, I know, but it’s what I have observed and I believe it to be the case.

Seeing that Zak was indeed doing this I decided to try to get him to do it in a different and, I hope, better way. I showed him how to put his top lip a little in front of his lower lip, rather than the other way around, and hold the centre of the bottom lip back and a little puckered. I combined this with the idea of blowing the airstream “down your chin” a little. Once it looked and sounded better, which it did almost immediately, I got him to think of a name for the new setting and he immediately came up with “Nitwit Lips!”

A later tweak, to tone up the corners of his mouth a little and ensure that no bits of his lip were protruding, became known as “Whistling Nitwit Lips”.
The new setting is certainly more difficult for him so he quite often reverts to his original embouchure. However, whenever he forgets, just by saying “Whistling Nitwit Lips” I can conveniently and quickly get him to switch back to the new improved setup. I just have to keep an eye on how it looks when we are doing his practise but as you can see in the follwing photos it’s quite easy to see the difference.

The first of these two embouchures gives Zak much greater control of diminuendo and crescendo, a wider range and a much warmer and fuller sound.

Here’s a close-up of what I reckon is an almost perfect embouchure.
The overlap is perhaps just a little too exaggerated.

Here’s Zak doing a bit of practice.
The tenor horn is a very comfortable instrument for a small person.

1st August 2002
I’m not bragging or anything but Zak played a very high note today. He was trying to get a concert G (E on the tenor horn) when he overshot and out popped a high Bb, clear as a bell, and a bit flat, it being a 7th harmonic. (Db on the piano, more than one octave above middle C). He used a very nice embouchure and quite a lot of effort but he is only four so I think this proves what I’ve believed for a long time – that success in the high register is a more to do with getting the chops set up right rather than having very powerful muscles.

We found this for Zak in a car boot sale near Nottingham – for twenty quid!

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak Xmas Horn

It’s qite a nice instrument, a Weltklang, in much better condition than his first one and makes a slightly more refined sound. Now that we have the two instruments it’s much easier for me to illustrate things for him as we go along

26th August 2002
I think what’s needed now is a glossary of teaching terms (funny words) which Zak and I have come up with to help us.

  • Whistling Nitwits:
    As described earlier on this page: this is a short code word for a slightly puckered embouchure with the lower lip held slightly behind the upper so it feels as if the airstream is aimed slightly downwards. It is used to correct that very strong urge to roll the lower lip forwards – which is a very common fault among beginners particularly in trying to get down into the low register. The aim here is to get Zak set up with a fully integrated (no breaks across the enitre range) embouchure right from the start so he’ll never have to go through any major embouchure overhauls.
  • DiddyEdds:
    This word means “Get the fingers of your right hands on top of those valve buttons so they are ready for action”. Zak got into the habit of swooping his right hand away from the instrument in an extravagant flourish whenever none of the valves were needed, for example moving to a C or a G. It looked quite cool but meant that he was always late with the valves when they were next needed. The DiddyEds seems to be correcting this, although his third finger is quite lazy and often curls up next to the valve casing.
  • Chimes:
    A chime is a note lasting a couple of seconds which starts with a bell-like accent and then fades evenly to silence. It’s very good for developing a lot of things: Clean, accurate tonguing, control of pitch during a diminuendo and adjustment of the aperture to cope with extremes of dynamic range, from ff down past ppp to nothing. It’s an attractive sounding note and Zak seems to like doing it. Most days we do a few of these. They soon developed into…
  • Double chimes:
    This is like a miniature fanfare and is the same as a single chime apart from having a very short fast note just before it, slightly quieter than the main note – like an upbeat 16th, or semiquaver. This gets his tongue working and it’s fun.
  • Ghosts:
    Ghosts is our name for a twilight sounding note whch you can produce if you fade into our out of a note without using the tongue. It’s a sort of sonic glow. We use it to warm up on sometimes. Very often Zak can get a ghost to appear out of a gentle breath-flow sound and then control this perfectly as it grows into a real solid note. He can often do it in reverse too, fading to nothing so that it’s not possible to hear precisely when the note stops. I’m amazed a four year old can do this as I’ve only been able to do it myself comparatively recently.
  • A hill chopped in half:
    This is a long note which starts quietly then crescendos towards its middle where it is suddenly cut and then immediately restarted with a loud accent. This is then followed by a long diminuendo to nothing. This exercise is totally brilliant as it exercises all of the following:
    Control over pitch steadiness through changing volume.
    Control over the timing of the breath delivery through changing volume.
    Control over timbre variation through changing volume.
    Starting and ending very quietly
    Getting a clean, polished loud end to the first part of the note (the “chop”) and a clean, polished loud attack just after it.
    The chop itself is particularly important as the air pressure must be kept up to challenge 1) the tongue in resisting air pressure prior to loudly tonging the second part of the note and, 2) the glottis (vocal cords) in suddenly blocking the flow of air in order to stop the first part of the note without an audible “tongue-off”.
    (Sorry if that sounded a bit technical!)
  • Horn Tennis:
    Horn Tennis* is a game I’be played a lot with my college students. It is pure non-verbal form of teaching by example. The server (usually me but not always) plays something fairly simple and short (the ball) which has to be returned as accurately as possible. If the return is perfect a slightly more complex ball can be served etc. This is a great game because it’s fun and develops so many skills in both participants. The server has to pitch the ball with care not just to play it perfectly but so that it is finely judged for the other player to be able to copy it but not find it too easy. Zak loves this game, so I’m using it to get him to learn how to play simple rhythmic patterns with uncomplicated note changes. As soon as he can copy something easily I make things a little more difficult.
    Whether with Zak or with any of my students I’m always amazed by the steepnes of their learning gradient during this game.

*One of my students wrote about his experiences with Horn Tennis. Please click here [insert link to Tom Allard’s article]  to read it.

28th August 2002
We tried some jazz today. I put on one of the tracks from the Aebersold series of playalongs. The particular one I chose was of a swing accompaniment which stays on the chord of Eb – it’s a few minutes long. It worked a treat. Zak was able to play any of the notes of his C major (except the F, which is an “avoid” note, F# sounds better, making it a Lydian mode).

30th August
Zak was very reluctant to do his practise this morning, saying very gloomily, “I hate horn practise!” Still, I managed to cajole him into it by offering that we skip it today and leave a gap in his sticker chart. No! he didn’t want to do that and lose his bonus.
I must admit now, after my recent rant, to have buckled under pressure from his mother to start showing him how to read music. I feel slightly unhappy about this but she has a point because in a couple of weeks I’m going to be away for nine days and she wants to do Zak’s practise with him during that time. She doesn’t feel she can keep it going without having some musical dots to point at. Fair enough, I suppose.
So, I gave him a nice big book, the Arban Cornet Tutor. Never do things by halves. And I wrote his name on the front and opened it where the endless ghastly egg-notes exercises start. Before doing this I had drawn for him a stave (staff?) with a few notes on he knew to show him how easy it is to figure out which ones they are. He seemed quite excited by it.

1st September
Today, Zak completed nine weeks of practicing without missing a single day! I find this quite incredible – he’s still only four years old. He’ll be five in October.
Everything has improved. He now has a lovely full and rich sound which is very well controlled. He can crescendo and diminuendo without any pitch change over nearly all of his range. He’s pretty good all the way up to top E and has a remarkably good fruity pedal C. He can tongue any note or creep into any note from silence and then creep back away to silence. Some of these things I’ve only recently learned to do myself, after 34 years of serious study!
Parental bias aside, I am totally amazed by what he has been able to master in such a short time. However, it must be born in mind that he has had a 63 lessons in the last 63 days, with a very careful and focused teacher! Also, he started with no preconceptions or bad habits.

2nd September
Started actually playing from the Arban Cornet Tutor today. Zak didn’t have much trouble with the first exercise although I think he was reading from the letters I’d pencilled in above each note. In a few days I’ll erase them and see how he gets on. We didn’t spend too much time in this, however, and got on with some slurring practice instead. Starting on C (2nd space down) I got him to play a chime start, hold it for four finger clicks (at about 100 beats per minute) and then slur down to a B. No problem, so next a slur from C to Bb. Again, no problem, so a slur from C to A, then C to G, then C to F… all the way down to C to C. The last one was a bit tricky for him but only inasmuch as he found it hard to prevent the G from sounding briefly on the way down. I got him to repeat that downward slur and then slur directly back up to the higher C. This he did amazingly well – in fact the upwards C-to-C was absolutely perfect. Great chops! We finished off with some high E chimes and then some quietly held long ones. It’s a truly beautiful sound he makes.

Here are some sound files recorded on 24th September. I just want to show what Zak can do. I recorded these direct to my PC with a normal cheapo computer microphone.

Zak’s bell note

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Zak’s bell note 2

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Zak’s bell note 3

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Zak’s cresc and dim

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Zak’s Harry Potter snippet

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Zak’s Harry Potter snippet 2

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Zak’s little fanfare

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Zak’s long bell note

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Zak’s long bell note 2

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This last clip was recorded a few months later on Christmas day 2002. A duet of Silent Night played by Zak (5) and his fiddle-playing brother, Mordecai (7)

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19th April 2003
Here’s Zak with his new tenor horn – very generously given by Jim Gourlay, Head of Wind and Brass at Royal Northern College of Music.

Zak with new Besson on April 1st

Zak with new Besson on April 1st

It’s a Besson “International”, from about 1975. Since receiving it from Jim we’ve had it completely renovated and silver plated, by Gale Lawson. Gale also made the telescopic leg which, as you can see, supports the horn for Zak perfectly.

This picture was taken today just after we gave the new instrument to Zak for the first time. He loves playing it and he sounds great on it. He’s still only 5.

Besson Engraving

Besson Engraving

3rd January 2004

Hmmm…. I’ve not been very good at keeping up with this teaching journal, but now here’s an update:

Zak is now 6 years old and has been practising the tenor horn every day – without missing a single day – for just over 18 months. The sticker chart with cash incentive has proved to be extremely effective. Total cost to us in weekly seventy pences has is now about £57. What’s he being doing with all that money?! In truth, he has missed about three days due to illness – and earned himself crosses on the chart instead of stickers – these, however, he has made up for by occasionally doing double practise and converted the crosses back to stickers. You can’t lose with this system. There’s always a cunning way around.

We’ve been doing a lot of work on scales. Zak likes scales more than anything else – something I am very pleased about because it proves that anything, no matter how arduous, can be made fun, if enough care is taken. So, how can you make scales fun for a 6 year old? Well, the rule seems to be that you have to make it as easy as possible and constantly to show clear proof of improvement – and also dangle rewards along the way.
To make the scales easy you need good graphics. Here is what I have been using – for many months now – with Zak. It’s in pencil, on a large piece of card and has taken quite a battering as it has travelled with us to various holiday places and moved around the house.

Zak Scale Chart

Zak Scale Chart

It’s a “circle of fourths” with one octave of the relevant major scale drawn in at each point. Zak and I are working towards the “ultimate” goal of him playing all twelve of these one-octave scales in one day, up and down at 120 notes per minute. Step by step we have worked on each scale carefully, patiently, a little each day, to get each one up to speed. A tick is earned when it’s completed perfectly (and I am the judge, and a tough one at that) and eventually all twelve have become ticked. We have been around the circle three times now and if you look you can see that each scale has been ticked three times already. My next plan is to get him to do four scales in a day over three days. He can have as many attempts as he likes – he just has to get them all done once perfectly in the same day. When he’s done this we’ll do six per day and then, eventually, and I’ve no doubt quite soon, he’ll manage to play all twelve in one day. He knows that when he achieves that he gets a BIG prize. He wants a minidisc player but we’ll see a bit nearer the time. Perhaps just a minidisc….

He’s pretty excited about starting work on the minor scales after that. I’m going to do all twelve of the Dorian modes (jazz minor scales) with him rather than the stupid “harmonic” minors that nobody knows why you have to learn at music college! The nice thing about the Dorians is that they use the same notes as the majors, but starting on the 2nd of the scale so, in effect, he already knows them. They won’t take long and after that he can get into some pretty interesting improvisation – using real chord symbols.

It hasn’t been all major scales – quite… we’ve had brief respites from them, looking at wholetone scales, chromatics and diminished arpeggios, all using the cirle of fourths. I’m not kidding – Zak finds these things fun! Is he abnormal?

I try to encourage Zak to improvise each day, as far as possible in the key of the scale we have been working on. Slowly, this is building up his ability to traverse the keys freely as he improvises. It’s a massive job but he’s onto it.

4th January 2004

If you look back at Zak’s circle of fourths again you’ll see that the scales have coloured patches at the end of each one. Zak successfully played all the blue ones today – with a metronome at 120 notes per minute. That’s Db major, A major, D major and Eb major. Progress.

5th January 2004

Oh dear! It’s all gone wrong!

Today Zachary decided he hated practise and didn’t want to do any. Furthermore, he never wants to play the tenor horn again and seems perfectly happy with the idea that it might get sent back to where it came from – AND he’s not even bothered about not getting a fabulous prize.  (he did do a bit of practise in the end but nothing to do with scales)

7th January 2004

Zak has still decided against practising scales. And it was a little difficult persuading him to get started this morning (before school – groan! It’s the best time to do it, though). So today’s dangling carrot was the “Band In A Box” program. I told him that we could make up nice pieces – which indeed he did. The program provides an instant backing for your improvisations – all you have to do is type in the chord symbols you want and which bars you want them in. I set up something quickly (all automatically transposed into Eb – tenor horn pitch) with C major, Eb major and G major over a sort of slushy Latin style backing. What did he do? He played up and down the scales and found it all fitted very nicely. He seemed pretty pleased. I didn’t say anything about how useful scales seemed to be and just pointed the relevant scales on his circle of fourths scale chart as an indicator of which notes would sound good. After that I showed him that he could use the notes of C major to improvise over D minor chords. This is a nice feature from jazz musical theory – it’s modalness – D minor uses exactly the same notes as C major – and G7 for that matter (…and a whole bunch of others, like B7-9 or F+11…)

So, he continues. I think it’s time I bought him a book of tunes. I think he’d like to be able to take his hooter to school and entertain his classmates with themes from Harry Potter or Shrek …or perhaps I should write some tunes for him.

9th May 2004.

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak is doing incredibly well. It’s now seven weeks short of two years that he has been practising regularly and he still hasn’t missed a single day. An incredible acheivement for a 6 year old, I think.

Last week he played all his major scales in one day, something he’d been working towards, a little each day, for the best part of a year. He did them all perfectly, one octave, up and down, at two notes per second. This won him a prize: a Sony CD Discman.

He’s lost one of his upper incisors. This could be a problem but I’m playing it down for the moment. It’s altered his sound a little and I think he’s got one or two pressure points from the remaining tooth on his inner upper lip which is uncomfortable for him. I’m keeping him out of the upper register for a while to see what happens. I’d be pretty sad if he had to stop for a while but I’m not going to make him play if it hurts or if it means he has to invent some weird temporary embouchure.

The photo looks okay, doesn’t it? And he sounds really great. A full bodied, warm and satisfying sound. I’d have been really glad to have a sound like that when I was 12. He’s 6.


Since then:
For several years after this Zak and I continued in much the same way and at some point he switched to trumpet. He learned ALL the scales and modes and we started working more on jazz improvisation. The sticker chart continued to be a great success. His sound and his chops were absolutely perfect and he could improvise freely in all sorts of ways and was making good progress with the mundane skill of reading printed musical notation (please note my resistance to calling it “music”). In 2007 I bought him a wonderful Yamaha Custom trumpet – the Wayne Bergeron model. A stunningly good instrument which is powerful but light in weight and thus suitable for a young and growing player.
By this time I had been expelled from my family home and, tragically, was not able to keep up regular work with Zak. He still works on his trumpet playing,  although without my supervision. He spends each Saturday at the excellent Junior Department of  Guildhall School of Music and Drama where his obvious musical skills are being nurtured and developed in a wonderful environment teeming with similarly motivated kids.
I’m am extremely proud that I was able to give so much to Zak, in the way that my Dad gave so much to me when I was starting off. I hope that in a few years, when he’s well into his teens, he and I will be able to continue the work we started together…

It’s now early 2015 and Zak is 17 and he is know by many to be an outstanding young trumpet player. Just yesterday he asked me for a trumpet lesson.
100% happiness 🙂

The starts of notes

I’d like to try to explain why the quality of the starts of notes is so important and I’ll start off by saying something which may sound surprising, or even silly:

After you start the note, nobody is listening any more.

They are still hearing you – but they’re not hearing what you are playing right now because they are still hearing the start of the note – its very first instant. That is the way human ears work. There’s no escaping it.

Try this:
Pick a note somewhere comfortably within your singing range and sing one of these (it doesn’t matter which one), lasting a few seconds:


The interesting thing here is that although the consonant at the beginning lasts only, say, one hundredth of the duration of the sound, it pervades the whole thing. In other words, the sound at the start, and its meaning, pervades the entire length of the sound.

To test this, try the same sound again, this time without the consonant at the beginning, for example:
Compare “POOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, (sing it out loud) with “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”.

Despite the fact that the difference is absolutely minute (in that only the first fraction of a second is different) the meaning is quite different all the way through.

The same thing happens when we play the horn. If you play a note with a perfect start, the whole duration of the note sounds great. Whereas if you fluff, crack, split or even slightly wobble at the start of a note, this effect is perceived throughout its duration. In other words the entire note is permeated by whatever evil happens right at the beginning.

What this means is that the quality of the first instant of any note is crucially important. In fact, it’s the only thing people will hear. Whatever you do to the remainder of the note, you cannot fix a bad start.

In other words, you cannot hear “POOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, as, “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, or vice versa. Try it.

So if you crack a note and it’s a long one, the crack stays there all the way through the note.

So, in terms of investment of precious practice time, that first fraction of a second is where to do some serious work.

Luggage: You can’t take it with you…

The worst thing about this particular trip is the travel. Today, for example, we had to get from Krakow to Budapest. We did this by means of two flights: Krakow to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to Budapest. To put this into perspective, try to imagine flying from Manchester to London with a short stop-over in the Galapagos Islands.

At Krakow Airport, to get to the aeroplane, all of us passengers were shown through an exit from the terminal building into a big bus with no seats. We stood, freezing on this bus for fifteen minutes until, eventually, the doors closed and the bus moved off. It drove a full thirty-five feet and stopped next to our aeroplane …which was also parked right next to the terminal building. Laughing and shivering loudly, we waited for another ten minutes until eventually the doors of the bus opened and we piled out into a scrum around the steps up to the aeroplane. Anger levels were just about topped by hilarity levels.

Later, hilarity levels were swept away by a tsunami of anger as we stood waiting for our hold luggage at the carousel in Budapest airport. As other passengers took their suitcases and left, it gradually became apparent that our group were the only people left standing there. We resisted for as long as we could the acceptance that none of our suitcases had come with us, but soon there was just no denying it.

It seems that Lufthansa had accidentally dumped them somewhere over the the Andes. I hope they landed on something soft – my lovely little pocket-trumpet was in there.

Not to worry, though; Lufthansa gave us little bags each. Inside was a note saying:

Dear Passenger, we are really sorry for the inconvenience you’ve been caused. Be assured that we are doing everything we can to see to it that your belongings are located and destroyed brought to you as soon as possible. In the meantime, please accept this Overnight Kit. We hope you find the lack of any useful contents as funny as we do useful. Ha ha ha!

(This proves to me that they planned it all along.)

[Lufthansa: please note!] The following essential items were missing from my complimentary Lufthansa Overnight Kit:

  • Laptop computer.
  • Pocket trumpet.
  • Camera.
  • Kettle.
  • Slippers.
  • Earplugs
  • A large bundle of cash in Pounds, Euros, HUFs and Dollars.*
  • Pyjamas
  • Teddy Bear.
  • Alcohol.
  • Pain killers (or just some killers)

S.C.O. Scotland and Eastern Europe tour

I’m away again with Scottish Chamber Orchestra, this time for concerts in Perth (Scotland), Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bydgoszcz and Krakow (Poland), Budapest (Hungary) and Istanbul (Turkey).

The best thing about this trip is the music. All seven concerts are of the same program, which includes two of Mozart’s greatest piano concertos, in C minor and Bb Major.

The soloist, Poland’s own Piotr Anderszewski, has been playing incredibly beautifully and with no conductor we have all been enjoying the freedom to tune into each other and play just how we like. The woodwind section for these concerts is on exceptionally fine form.

Another thing I like is that Harry Johnstone and I are playing on natural horns. It’s precarious, but exciting and fun. I so much prefer it to playing classical music on modern horns.

The Polish audiences have been great. Full halls, no mobile phones going off, no beeping watches, and tremendous enthusiasm expressed through synchronised clapping, cheering and standing ovations.