Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Pip Eastop, hornplayer, teacher, horn, trumpet, jazz, sessions, London, soloist, orchestral, improvisation etc....

publications

Set The Wild Echoes Flying.

I’ve written a big piece for solo handhorn. It’s called Set The Wild Echoes Flying.

My next performance of it will be at the British Horn Society’s Gala Concert October 16th

Details of the concert can be found HERE:

 

A full printable score of  this work will be available SOON and FREE from here….

Program notes:

Set The Wild Echoes Flying began as a single movement lasting just a few minutes which I wrote in response to being asked to perform an “encore” at the end of an orchestral concert. I couldn’t think of anything suitable for performance immediately after Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (!) so I decided to write a little piece myself with the intention of providing something perhaps interesting or even amusing rather than anything of musical value. So I suppose it was partly for its comedy value that I chose to use the natural horn rather than the modern instrument.

At around the same time I was asked by Alison Balsom to perform something at her Brass For Africa charity concert so I wrote another single piece, again for natural horn. By way of an introduction to its performance and to make it seem as relevant as possible I described it as being full of African animal sounds; elephants, monkeys, birds etc. The human imagination is a marvellous thing and highly adaptable …and some members of the audience I spoke to afterwards reported hearing all kind of appropriate creatures.

During the weeks following these performances, encouraged by the reactions of both audiences, I continued working on the two pieces and both grew in length and complexity. Then something strange and unexpected happened; each one split into two separate movements. Two became four, as if all by themselves, and each of them continued expanding until I had to call a halt to it all fearing that a work for unaccompanied horn with eight movements could prove troublesome.

I’m not sure if it was a conscious thing but all four movements seemed to contain traces of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Having noticed this while the movements were still growing I encouraged it to happen more and from there came the idea of using some of the same poems chosen by Britten as spoken interludes between my four horn movements. Next I decided to borrow various lines from those poems to use as titles for each movement and for that of the whole piece.

I have enjoyed writing this work specifically for the natural horn in F. At every point in the process – composing being a very new one for me – it has seemed “just right” to be doing so. By way of  justification, if any is needed, I like to think that the natural horn deserves to be considered, even in our modern times, as a perfectly good and valid instrument in its own right and not merely as a historical artefact. Despite the simplicity of the natural horn and its apparent lack of a full chromatic stock of notes it is a surprisingly capable instrument. Most things seem to be playable on it – albeit sometimes with a struggle – and it came as a surprise to me that at no point during the writing of my four movements did I find the instrument unable to do something I wanted.

By the time the classical period was coming to a close the natural horn had reached a state of perfection in its design and build. Sadly, at this point it was displaced, to the point of extinction, by the arrival of the new “modern” horn with its valves and enhanced capabilities. The brilliant concept of having seven (and, later, twelve with the “double” horn) differently pitched natural horns conveniently combined together into one mega-instrument was so exciting for composers that they ceased writing for the natural horn altogether and the whole world completely forgot about it. For a couple of hundred years the natural horn effectively disappeared from our musical culture and could be found only in encyclopedias, museums and dusty attics. The wipeout was so complete that even music which had been composed specifically for the classical, natural horn came to be played exclusively on valved instruments. I imagine that future generations will look back on this particular fact with curiosity, whereas my generation and several before ours never gave it a thought as we performed musical treasures by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven using instruments which those composers could never have imagined.

From the seventies onwards the early music movement began putting the natural horn back on our musical map. This rekindling of knowledge and interest in earlier instruments has had the result that natural horns are now back in production in many workshops around the world and are commonly used in orchestras and ensembles for performing music from the classical period. Horn makers of today are still making slight adjustments to their conical tapers searching for tiny improvements of intonation and resonance, but basically the thing is perfect and has been so for hundreds of years. Perhaps now is the right time to be bringing the natural horn out of musical museums and giving it some new music of its own.

 

The four movements:

 

The first movement is called A Monstrous Elephant (the words clipped from Charles Cotton’s poem, “The Evening Quatrains”, which was used by Britten in “Pastoral”), a name which quite nicely links it to the original version I played at the Brass For Africa concert. I found that by rhythmically repeating glissandi and using a variety of careful hand-stopping techniques I create an illusion of chordal harmonies. There are also some quite strong hints at Britten’s “Prologue” here and a couple of little cadenzas featuring whole tone scales. I suppose the idea is to show how much harmonic freedom there is available despite the limitations of having only one single harmonic series.

I know I am not the only horn player who believes that the finest movement in “our” Britten’s Serenade is the one which doesn’t feature the horn at all. During that movement, entitled “Sonnet”, the horn soloist is heading backstage to get ready for the final “Epilogue”. I wrote Turn The Key Deftly with the deliberate intention of reclaiming “Sonnet” for horn players. The melodic line wasn’t too difficult to transcribe and I have tried my hardest to hint at some of the powerful harmonic contortions invented by Britten for his string accompaniment by using a sung part to generate a chordal accompaniment to the horn line. I could only be partially successful in this but I did what I could …and in doing so I am hoisted by my own petard because I find it extremely challenging to simultaneously play and sing accurately what I have written.

Blow Bugle Blow started as a playful and somewhat childish “jazzing up” of the melody from the Serenade’s “Hymn” – Britten’s answer to Mozart’s horn concerto rondos. But then I got myself rather caught up in it and slowly it became a highly chromatic and quite serious blues.

The encore piece I began with eventually became the final movement of Set The Wild Echoes Flying and I called it The Horns of Elfland. This movement has the added dimension of a backdrop, or drone, of sound which can be provided by any combination of instruments capable of sustaining a concert C very quietly for about three minutes. So far I have performed it with: 1) a string orchestra, 2) two ‘cellos and two violins, 3) four tubas, 4) 12 horns and 5) 30 horns. Out of these combinations I’m not sure which I liked best as they all seemed to work really well.

 

Acknowledgements:

Alison Balsom and the London Chamber Orchestra: for getting me started on the writing of it.

Martin Childs: for retrospectively “commissioning” the work and organising its transcription,  various performances and a recording (at some point in the future).

Anthony Halstead: to whom the work is dedicated, for being a friend, a colleague, an inspiration, a guide, a teacher …and the greatest handorn player in the world.

Guy Llewellyn and Ann Barnard: for their extreme levels of patience and expertise in turning my scribbles into printable pages.

The lovely audience of mostly octogenarians for the Sudbury performance in May 2016: for liking Set The Wild Echoes Flying


Performance note from Hyperion CD booklet.

It has been more than two centuries since Mozart composed the music performed on this recording and during that time the horn, an instrument he loved and knew well, has evolved substantially. During the nineteenth century it grew valves and extra loops of tubing; it ceased to be a ‘hand horn’, or a ‘natural horn’, and emerged from experimentation and confusion as a fully chromatic instrument. The response by later composers to these changes was to write music that increasingly exploited the horn’s new ability to play not only any note with a full and sonorous resonance but also any note with a closed, ‘stopped’ sound. The evolution of the horn continued with a widening of its bore and an increase in dynamic range to suit the music of Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and many others. Today, the horn’s modern character can best be experienced by hearing the way it is used in orchestral film scores to depict the archetypal ‘hero’, conveying such attributes as strength, courage, seriousness, stability and control. Before the horn ‘grew up’ its character was altogether rougher, wilder, more unpredictable, playful and idiosyncratic—perhaps more Robin Hood than James Bond.

It is in getting from one note to the next that the mechanics of the instrument and the technique of its playing are so different between the old and the new. This difference is much larger than with instruments that did not have such a marked metamorphosis in their historical development—that is, the addition of valves. Stringed instruments are still essentially the same as they were in Mozart’s day. Woodwind instruments have gained more projection and refinement but are essentially still pipes with vent holes. The piano, Mozart’s favourite instrument of all, has been developed and refined in countless ways but still involves the mechanism of fingers pushing keys to make hammers hit strings. Changes to other instruments have been in timbre and power. But from hand horn to modern horn the change has been more profound.

Without doubt Mozart would have loved the modern valved horn with its fully chromatic ability, and if his friend, the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, had possessed one then Mozart would have written entirely different music for him. Mozart’s horn concertos sound wonderful played on the modern horn, of course, but inevitably, along with the broader, warmer voice and gains in both smoothness and uniformity of timbre across the entire range, some of the colour and drama that Mozart would have expected is lost.

To play the hand horn is to wrestle with nature. While the modern valved horn will cruise comfortably through most things in the classical repertoire the hand horn simply doesn’t want to cooperate with at least half of the notes Mozart threw at it. Its natural array of pitches, the harmonic series, does not align with any kind of equal or non-equal temperament or any sort of scale, whether major, minor, chromatic or whatever. Melodies have to be physically wrenched into shape from both ends of the instrument; at the narrow end by strenuous techniques of breath and lip, and at the other end, within the throat of the bell flare, by rapid manipulations of the right hand for correcting and continuously adjusting the intonation of every one of the instrument’s naturally occurring tones. This right-hand technique unavoidably alters both loudness and timbre from one note to the next, often quite drastically, and it is this phenomenon that accounts for most of the differences in musical effect between the classical hand horn and the modern horn.

After the development of valves, the ancestral hand horn did not disappear. It remained, as it was in the eighteenth century, arguably one of the most perfect of all instruments in its simple emulation of natural forms such as cow horns or large sea shells. It is nothing more than a long, narrow, conical brass tube with a small hole in which to blow at one end and a bigger hole where the sound emerges at the other end. It starts at a diameter of about 8mm (about one third of an inch) and continuously widens along its length until it ends with a dramatic widening into a flared bell of about one foot in diameter. For convenience and comfort hand horns are coiled into loops and are traditionally played with the bell held to the right, pointing backwards and to the side at about waist level. These days we call it the ‘natural horn’ or ‘hand horn’, to differentiate it from its modern descendant, the ‘French horn’—a poorly named grandchild since there is nothing particularly French about it.

Despite the visual complexity of its convoluted plumbing, the modern valved horn can be understood simply as a combination of twelve differently lengthed hand horns into one super-instrument (perhaps ‘Dodecahorn’ would be a better name for it). The modern horn player switches instantly from one length to another by means of finger-operated valves. It is actually possible to play an entire Mozart horn concerto on just one of the twelve component instruments of a modern horn using hand-horn techniques rather than by employing the valve mechanisms. However, this is not generally done because the merging of twelve instruments invariably causes a compromise in quality to each one. Also, it has to be said that there is something very pure and satisfying about playing great works by Mozart on such a wonderfully simple instrument.

The complexity of the modern horn conceals any resemblance to its ancient, naturally occuring ancestors whereas the simplicity of the hand horn makes such a visual connection obvious. Although a spirally curved cone is a complex shape and difficult to make it is an easy structure to understand, being essentially a tube which gradually widens. Molluscs and cows grow their curved cones naturally and unconsciously, but humans have needed many centuries to learn first how to copy and then to extend the concept, fabricating delicate coils of accurately tapered metal tubing far greater in length than animal horns. Historically, advances in musical instrument metal-working technology have been driven by this need to make horns longer than those provided by nature. The extra length is desired because short, naturally occurring horns allow only the lowest note of the harmonic series to be played (the so-called ‘fundamental’), all the other ones being too high to play comfortably. Many ancient cultures understood this. Trumpets of bronze, silver and gold were discovered in Tutenkhamun’s tomb and the Romans used brass and copper horns and trumpets for military purposes. In the bronze age the Celts had their ‘carnyx’, the Scandinavians had their ‘lur’ and in Ireland they made fabulous bronze horns shaped like those of the now extinct giant bison.

During Mozart’s time hand horns were available in a range of fifteen different lengths, from the shortest in the key of C (alto) at eight feet four inches (2.54 meters), to the longest in B flat (basso) at an impressive nineteen feet (5.79 meters). The length, or key, favoured by Mozart was somewhere in the middle, the E flat horn, at about fourteen feet long. The instrument used in this recording is a modern copy of an 1830 Ignaz Lorenz of Linz, made in Bavaria by Engelbert Schmid.

The standard classical pitch used these days for (so-called) ‘historically informed performance’ is somewhat lower than modern pitch, where A is set to vibrate at 440 cycles per second. Orchestras such as The Hanover Band usually tune A to 430Hz for music of the classical period, and this is the pitch used in this recording for the four concertos. For the quintet recording, due to the absence of woodwind instruments which are specifically built to be played at 430 and have far less flexibility to adjust pitch than stringed or brass instruments, it was possible to take the pitch down approximately one third of a semitone further, to 421 cycles per second. This is exactly the frequency of the tuning fork that belonged to Mozart.

At several points during the horn concertos Mozart indicates that the soloist should play a short unaccompanied passage, a ‘cadenza’, of his or her own invention. This is a difficult task for the modern horn player: adding anything of value to historical works of great musical genius is challenging, to say the least. Because of the instrument’s natural simplicity the task of cadenza-writing for the hand horn in Mozart is somewhat easier than it is for the modern instrument. When playing the fully chromatic modern horn it is hard to be constantly mindful of avoiding anything which would have been technically unfeasible during the classical period. The use of valves, however carefully and tastefully applied, creates an effect impossible for the hand horn, so by playing on the type of horn Mozart knew one avoids such anachronisms. Removing that complication allows one to focus more on questions of musical material and style. In preparing the cadenzas for these performances I investigated those that Mozart took the trouble to write down (although he never composed any for horn). Searching through his published keyboard cadenzas I found that here, more than anywhere else, he explored chromatic harmonies with the greatest intensity and passion. In his later works the urge to delve deeper into chromaticism becomes increasingly obvious and this shows clearly in his horn-writing, where he pushes hard against the instrument’s inherent limitations.

In attempting to escape from the instrument’s constant pull towards E flat major, I have tried to stretch its scant chromatic capabilities as far as practically possible (in particular by using diminished harmonies) while attempting to keep within the spirit of Mozart’s horn-writing and what is known of his cadenza style. I can only apologize to the ghost of Mozart for any musical crimes I may have committed. In my defence (and in that of horn players everywhere), if a cadenza is indicated by Mozart we are obliged to do at least something.

Pip Eastop © 2015


“Sea Bells” for solo horn and Loopstation.

This is a recording of the first performance of my “Sea Bells”, given at the British Horn Festival in 2011, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.
The work is for Horn and Loopstation (the Boss RC-50 Loopstation).

It has four movements but the third one is rather short and is like a little epilogue or coda….

Please have a listen – it’s about 16 minutes long.


Jim Rattigan – double record review

This is a review of two new CD albums by the British hornplayer, Jim Rattigan (that’s “French horn”; not trumpet, sax or trombone). Being a British hornplayer myself I’m very conscious of the possible confusion of instruments here, particularly in the context of jazz music where “horn” means almost anything that you blow. So, to be clear, when I use the word “horn” I am referring to that curly, backwards-aiming flared spiral with four or more valves which is most commonly used in baroque, classical, romantic, commercial, pop and film music …but almost NEVER as a frontline solo jazz instrument.

Why is this? In my opinion there are several reasons: jazz is by nature cool, laid-back, spontaneous and easy. The horn is none of those things. Its traditional use is to convey a reassuring degree of control, finesse, and romantic heroism. In film music it’s horns you’ll hear whenever something heroic is going on. The horn is terrifyingly difficult to learn and virtually impossible to control. For rhythmic bounce, speed, clarity and ease of use the instruments of choice for jazz are always going to be trumpet, sax, piano, guitar, clarinet, voice; almost NEVER something so fiendishly difficult as the horn.

Like Jim, I too have had the urge to play jazz but I decided not to pursue it on the horn, it being far too difficult. Instead, I went with the trumpet – a much more practical choice. At this point I have to admit to my prejudice and own up that my underlying feelings around the concept of using a horn to play jazz are those of scepticism, disapproval and even plain dislike.  So, what business it is of mine to be reviewing jazz horn records when I am hard-wired to dislike them? It’s a good question; one which I hope I might answer for myself by writing this.

I have noticed, in me and in other hornplayers, a difficulty accepting the freedoms of jazz music. In jazz one can improvise (meaning one can play what one wants) to some extent whereas hornplayers are traditionally taught to play exactly what has been written by composers, down to the tiniest details of dynamics and nuance. Furthermore, to keep the traditional hornplayer to the composers’ written commands, a conductor is usually employed whose job it is to keep a check on the accuracy of the reading and to punish minor transgressions with, for example, public humiliation and/or sacking. It is generally believed that conductors do much more than just this but after more than 35 years of puzzlement I have yet to understand what they are really for.  Why do they like waving their arms around while musicians play music? Why do they commonly get paid more than an entire symphony orchestra? In a nutshell, playing symphonic horn parts is all about being controlled by someone with a baton, a huge income and the power to have one sacked whereas jazz is all about freedom. Alternatively put, orchestral musicians are soldiers following orders whereas jazz musicians are hunters in charge of their own destinies.

There is a great divide across which traditional hornplayers gaze at their distant cousins, the jazz musicians, with wonderment. The jazzers look back at their classically trained counterparts with admiration and respect but also incredulity and incomprehension at the strangely archaic power structure in a typical orchestra which subjugates individual musicians.

As an example of the distance between the cultures of jazz and so-called “classical” musicians, it is often the case that classically trained hornplayers have great difficulty listening to recordings of Miles Davis, the greatest giant of all jazz giants, without wincing. In our highly refined and thus limited way all we tend to hear is that he cracks notes, makes a flaky, unfocussed sound and seems to be rather short on what we call “technique”. By default we tend to judge what we hear from players like him by the criteria we employ to continuously refine and perfect our own playing for the purposes of performing Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. But give Miles Davis the first trumpet part of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and he would be laughed off the stage. I’m absolutely serious – he would not be able to play it, or any classical repertoire, with sufficient finesse and polish to be invited back.

So, the whole thing is quite difficult for me and, I’m sure, for many other hornplayers but Jim Rattigan has somehow overcome all of that and left such problems way behind. Jim is our UK jazz horn champion. Around the world there are a few other jazz hornplayers here and there but it is a very rare breed indeed and, frankly, none are as good as our Jim. Uniquely for a jazz musician his credentials as a straight hornplayer are beyond reproach. He was a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for six years and played with all the major London orchestras and chamber ensembles as well as being a busy session player. He is one of those extremely rare types who really can traverse more than one musical culture.

In discussing differences between the jazz and the “straight” world of classical music there’s one other thing I should mention about both of these new CDs; something which will make hornplayers and anyone else of an orchestral persuasion gasp and wonder: it is that there was no rehearsal for any of it. No rehearsal! How is such a thing possible? From talking to Jim I have understood the following: that the musicians arrived at the studio and arranged their seats around a sensible setup of microphones; a quick balance test was carried out while they blew a few notes to get warmed up and briefly discussed how the music should go. The “music”, in this case, was a printed melody and some hieroglyphic chord symbols. Then, the red light came on and off they went, playing together for the first time and recording it! Such is the miracle of jazz. I gather, from talking to Jim, that there were more or less two takes of each of the tracks and the editing was simply a matter of choosing the best of the two. So, this is live music – living music – the artists performing to each other, to the microphones and to the recording engineer. It’s very straightforward, very spontaneous, very special and beautifully pure.

The two albums are “Shuzzed” and “Strong Tea”. Both were recorded in 2010 at Fishmarket Studios, London.

SHUZZED

“Shuzzed” is a quartet album in which Jim is joined by Phil Robson (guitar), Phil Donkin (bass) and Gene Calderazzo (drums).  Three of the tracks (Timbuckthree, Shuzzed and Mung Beans) are Jim’s own compositions while the remaining six are jazz standards. Jim wanted the personal challenge of  making a “Bebop” jazz horn CD and here it is, true to Wikipedia’s definition: “Bebop is a style of jazz characterised by fast tempo, instrumental, virtuosity and improvisation based on the combination of harmonic structure and melody.”

Jim’s compositions are quirky, colourful and intriguing. “Shuzzed” (meaning, according to Jim, embarrassed or humbled in the context of playing the music of the legendary Charlie Parker) is the title track and it struts along majestically on a walking bass with a curious interplay between the guitar and the horn – sometimes in octaves, sometimes in parallel tritones. “Mung Beans” is a very catching angular blues in the manner of Charlie Parker. It starts off moving briskly over Caldarezzo’s brushes. Jim’s sure-footed and highly chromatic horn improvisation is handed over to Robson’s guitar for some in-depth exploration of the blues changes. When the catchy melody returns there is no mistaking it, which is a sure sign of a good tune. Of his three compositions, “Timbuckthree” is my personal favourite being enjoyably brisk, virtuosic and well structured. The head (that’s the tune at the beginning for those of us with no jazz jargon) is derived from three oddly sourced fragments knitted together into a very attractive tune. Two of these are from the horn concerti of Richard Strauss, and the third quote is from Ravel’s piano concerto in G. The funny title apparently comes from a spat Jim once had with his eight year old son which resulted in Jim turning and walking away in anger. When the boy asked where he was going, Jim shouted back, “Timbuktu. Where are YOU going?”. The response, shouted back at Jim, was a triumphant, “Timbuckthree!”

The other six tracks are Giant Steps (John Coltrane), Sweet Rain (Mike Gibbs), Cherokee (Ray Noble), Donna Lee and Yardbird Suite (both by Charlie Parker) and Come Sunday (Duke Ellington). These are all brilliantly executed and thoroughly explore the many combinations of guitar and horn sounds. It’s a curious thing that these two timbres are uncannily similar in places, while the attacks, the note-shapes and articulations could not be more different. It’s a fascinating mixture of sounds.

Jim chose his three companions wisely – and they are all brilliant. Again, the lack of any rehearsal for this recording is something which will always amaze me. To prepare for the album, Jim says he spent a whole month practising “Giant Steps” for eight hours every day.  “This is a really tough one”, he says. “It’s extremely hard to learn and basically it only has three chords so it shouldn’t really be that difficult, but it is!”

“Sweet Rain”, is a tune made famous by Stan Getz and written by Jim’s colleague and friend, Mike Gibbs (bandleader and composer). Robson uses a very cool guitar sound and drapes some beautiful crystalline chords under the complex twists and turns of the melody.

“Cherokee” begins with an authentic Cherokee chant in a slow, clear pentatonic statement after which it launches directly into its improvisations and there’s no sign of the well known head until right at the end of the track. Phil Donkin nails the eighths with amazing energy throughout. Apparently there was no retake of this as Gene Calderazzo didn’t want to play it through again because his arms were “falling off”.

“Donna Lee” (Charlie Parker) begins with the tune broken up into segments with the guitar and horn in unison – a unique and lovely sound. Jim, uncompromisingly, keeps this version to the original key which forces him to jump octaves now and again to keep it in the most effective range of the horn’s voice. For a definition of “swing” just listen to Phil Donkin’s incredible bass solo.

“Come Sunday” (Duke Ellington): Jim says that he played this one with an American big band in the Rowan Jazz Festival 2009 and loved the tune. It is all about longing and persecution.  It is the only “traditional” ballad in the album and features acoustic guitar unlike all the other tracks.

“Mung Beans” (Rattigan): Jim says that this title has no meaning at all (“…apart from being some kind of a lentil”) but that he just liked the sounds of the words. It’s an excellent melody followed by improvisations which push the blues structure to its harmonic extreme, stretching it almost to breaking point.

Jim included the Charlie Parker tune, “Yardbird Suite”, because it lends itself to being played on the horn by virtue of its ideal register. He says that tunes written for alto sax are usually uncomfortably high or impractically low for a horn but that this one fits right in the centre of the horn range and is lovely and comfortable to play.

STRONG TEA

“Strong Tea”, is a big-band album with Jim playing horn along with his eleven hand-picked top-notch London-based jazz musicians: one each of alto, tenor and baritone saxes, three trumpets (one doubling on flugle horn in “Dulwich Park”), tenor trombone, bass trombone, piano, bass and drums. There are five tracks, each of which is a new and original composition by Jim Rattigan.

The first half of  “Parkwood Fair” is completely improvised. Jim wanted to feature the bass in this track and it starts with a dark and mysterious improvised bass solo with dramatic streaks of colour added by drums and cymbals. It then falls easily into a hypnotic groove over which Jim begins the soloing interspersed with decorative piano splashes. Jim uses handstopping technique to introduce echo elements in his lines. It’s a technical tour to force, using lip trills, pitch-bending and other impressive extended horn techniques. More structure is added until the whole piece becomes melodic and richly harmonic in its development. This track has a natural and satisfying shape to it and due to the rising energy of the brass and wind lines towards the end gives the impression of deeply layered musical form.

“Dulwich Park”, track two, opens in a wonderful chin-jutting strut. Jim says it is supposed to give the impression of a walk in the park, and that Dulwich Park is one of the nicest places on earth, being full of lovely, busy, happy folk running, cycling and walking their dogs. The whole track has a wonderful fresh and free feel to it. Each solo is divided by a short burst of ensemble writing to introduce the next soloist. After a truly amazing tenor solo from Andy Panayi there is an equally stunning flugle horn solo from Percy Pursglove.

Jim says that the band were very fired up for the third piece, “Strong Tea”, and urged that a “burning” track – meaning an up-tempo, high energy one – would work better at a much faster tempo than he had originally intended. It transformed the piece into something even more spontaneous and exciting. There is a lot of detail here in Jim’s arranging and there is much to reward the careful listener. The improvised sections are based on the so-called “Rhythm Changes”. The angular melody has an intriguing middle-eight based on falling triads over an E pedal. Brilliant solos by trumpet player Steve Fishwick, altoist Martin Speak, Jim and finally Hans Koller on piano, seamlessly lead us back into the head. The piece ends with three muted trumpets blending with the handstopped horn – a fantastic and highly original sound.

The horn part of “Won over the Eight” is completely improvised with no actual written notation. Its heavy limbed nine-bar phrases reek of smoke, alcohol and ruin. The gutsy, raw, sleazy sound brings to mind famous recordings of the Mingus Big Band of the late fifties and sixties.

The title of the final track is simply a date, “24/7”, which is Jim’s birthday. The significance here is that the creation of this album was Jim’s 50th birthday present to himself. Instead of a party he decided to get together a lot of the great players he’d worked with over the years and do something both creative and serious. The parts are all tailored to his friends’ own particular styles and idiosyncrasies. It’s a very busy track, full of surging brass chords and the sounds of energetically clicking sticks in a twelve-eight feel.

For both these amazing albums Jim has surrounded himself with the very finest musicians. His writing is absolutely first rate and the recorded sound is as satisfying as any I’ve ever heard. It’s dynamic and colourful, and if it wasn’t for the absence of any audience sounds it would have the feel of a live recording.  Jim’s playing throughout both CDs treads a fascinating path between refinement and spontaneity, successfully revealing and integrating two very different sides of the French Horn. Jim Rattigan is teaching us something new and brilliant here. Listen and celebrate.

Jim’s CDs can be purchased online at www.jimrattigan.com

portrait of Jim Rattigan

Portrait of Jim Rattigan - photo by The Imaginal Eye


Epiloggy

Epiloggy 
(by Blewhis Barrel)
  Jabberwocky  
(by Lewis Carrol)
No more egg curries!  
‘Twas Britten, and the slidy specs 
Did gyre and gimble down the nose;
 
All flimsy were the borrowed kecks,
 
And the tone rows outphrose.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
 
All mimsy were the borogroves,
 
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Epilogue, my son! 
The slurs that split, the trills that catch!

Beware the “bub-bub” slurred, and tongue 
The curious transposed patch!”
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! 
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
 
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
 
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal horn in hand: 
Long time his manxome place he sought-
 
So counted he on the Rostrum tree.
 
And stood a’lost and fraught.
He took his vorpal sword in hand: 
Long time the manxome foe he sought-
 
So rested he by the Tumtum tree.
 
And stood awhile in thought.
Attacking huffish notes he stood; 
The Epilogue, with cries of pain,
 
Came whiffling from the offstage wood,
 
And burbled as it came!
And as in uffish thought he stood, 
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
 
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
 
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! Oh phew, we’re through! 
The vorpal horn went splitter-splatt!
 
He left it dead, and with that fled.
 
He had to take it back.
One, two! One, two! And through and through 
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
 
He left it dead, and with its head
 
He went galumphing back.
“Ah, thou hast slain the Epilogue! 
Come drink a pint of Beamish, boy!
 
O frabjous day! (the critics say)”,
 
He fnortled in his joy.
“And hast though slain the Jabberwock? 
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
 
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
 
He chortled in his joy.
‘Twas Britten, and the slidy specs 
Did gyre and gimble down the nose;
 
All flimsy were the borrowed kecks,
 
And the tone rows outphrose.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
 
All mimsy were the borogroves,
 
And the mome raths outgrabe.

©1997 Pip Eastop

   
Click to go back

 


Article in Classical Music Magazine:

Here’s something I wrote about playing the horn for the September 2008 issue of Classical Music Magazine:

(You can simply read the text here, below, or click here to download the .pdf file of the article as it appeared in the magazine.)

“Playing the horn (of the type often called the French Horn, for no
sensible reason) is stupendously and staggeringly difficult. You’ve
probably heard this claim before and I’m telling you that it’s TRUE.
I’ve been struggling with it, full on, for more than 40 years and I’ve
still got a long way to go. I’ve got some aspects of it under control,
I suppose, but I can tell you that my chosen companion for life is an
obstinate, unreliable and unpredictable coiled monster.

I comfort myself by the thought that I’m not alone in the endless
endeavor of learning to play the horn. In London alone there are 465
professional hornplayers and another 2856 non-professional ones.
Hundreds of thousands more live in other parts of the world, and our
vast numbers also stretch back through time. New horn players learn
from old ones, who learned from other even older ones who learned from
our horncestors long dead. The chain of tradition certainly goes back
hundreds of years but I prefer to think it goes back much further even
that that – for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, all the way to
the first humanoids who entertained their cavemates with stunningly
beautiful tones from conch shells, or perhaps stunned their enemies by
blowing primitive riffs on the amputated horns of large mammals. Yes,
I do believe that hornplaying is as old as humanity – perhaps not as
old as singing, but certainly much older than reading, or tap-dancing.

I believe those proto-hornists soon (geologically speaking) found that
a range of just one note doesn’t really create much of an impression
in a lengthy recital and so they would have been looking for ways to
find more. Actually, this would have been an obvious discovery and is
rather easy to do once you get the hang of it. With both the conch and
the mammalhorn you can simply cup your hand over the big end, covering
the emerging sound to varying degrees. The conch even advertises this
with a huge pink mouthy-looking orifice which simply begs of its
player, “come on – slide your hand in here!”. Doing this with my own
conch gives me not only the semitone below its one and only note, but
another below that, and if I push most of my hand in, curling my
fingers around its internal spiraled cavity, I can go seven steps down
a chromatic scale. Quarter tones? – no problem. Advanced stuff, you
may think. Not at all – it’s totally prehistoric. I can’t prove any of
this, of course, but I’d be willing to slip into a loin cloth and play
a few choruses of “Flight of the Bumble Tyrannosaurus” to show it’s at
least a plausible hypothesis.

After some thousands of years humans moved on from organic horns –
those left by mother nature on the beach or next to the barbecue – and
thanks to the invention of metal tubing it was but a short few
technological steps to the type of horns that Bach and Mozart knew and
for which wrote tortuously difficult music. With tubes bent and
hammered into all kinds of baroque and classical horns, trumpets and
trombones, it was inevitable that sooner or later a clever instrument
designer would invent The Valve. While this was a tremendous leap
forward for central heating technology it was a terrible blow to
hornplayers. We must have thought it would make life easier for us,
but how wrong we were!

The range of a horn’s notes before valves was quite gappy, in fact
there were only about sixteen and they weren’t evenly spaced. Most of
them were quite high notes of the sort which are hard to reach, hurt
your mouth and ultimately give you hemorrhoids. About five were in
the middle register and only about three were low notes that sounded
any good.

So, with the appearance of valves, suddenly we had instruments which
could play every note across a range of more than three octaves. What
did composers do then? They persecuted hornplayers by writing
valve-horn parts just slightly more difficult than would ever be
humanly possible to play. We’ve been suffering this ever since. I
believe it explains why almost no major breakthroughs in horn design
have been made since valve horns became established. Composers are to
hornplayers what aerospace designers are to test-pilots – sadists, who
would simply crank up the difficulty to yet higher, faster and more
complex pinnacles of impossibility. Consequently, any promising
inventions to make horns better over the last 170 years may well have
been suppressed by the fabled League of Underground Hornists. How
frustrated composers must be by all the recent improvements in horn
cases and valve oil!

Why is the horn so difficult to play? In contrast to, for example, the
piano where production of its individual notes is taken care of by the
keyboard and hammer mechanism, the horn demands that each note must be
formed using the lips and the breath in a way which does not come
naturally at all. In fact, the instrument itself is of little help to
the player. Anyone who can coax music from a horn can generally get a
similar result from a few meters of garden hosepipe or even a teapot.
The horn, being topologically equivalent to a length of drainpipe,
acts only as specialised resonator. The same is true for all of the
brass family of wind instruments.

Essentially, playing a brass instrument is like singing but using the
lips instead of the vocal chords. Lips aren’t naturally good at this
and it takes many years of painstaking practice to train them. The
lips of a hornplayer are framed by the ring of the mouthpiece in a
crude approximation of the way a singer’s vocal chords are framed by
the larynx. Pushing air between the lips, or vocal chords, is what
gets the air vibrating. Once the air inside the instrument is
vibrating it spreads to the air outside and anyone nearby will
perceive this as sound.

Whereas a singer’s mouth will resonate and thus amplify any frequency
at which the vocal cords vibrate, a horn will only do this for the
lips at a few precise frequencies, which are known as harmonics. It is
only possible to make the horn ring out beautifully if the pitch at
which the lips choose to “sing” exactly matches that of one of the
harmonics the horn allows. If there is even the slightest mismatch you
get farm noises. If you get it right, it’s simply the best sound there
is. Getting it right is next to impossible because it requires a very
high level of accuracy. Because of this there are always going to be
random errors in hornplaying – something which annoys record
producers, provokes angry glares from conductors and pity from players
of other instruments. The addictive quest for a reliably good horn
sound drives thousands of the world’s hornplayers to the brink of
obsessive madness on a daily basis.

The level of skill needed to produce good sounding notes, loudly or
quietly, over a range of more than three octaves, and move between
them to make acceptable phrases leaves brain surgery and
figure-skating way behind. It takes a life-time and even then you’ll
never get it exactly right – it’s just too difficult.  However,
mastering these essential skills is just the beginning. Despite the
extreme technical demands, players of all brass instruments must
always try to remember that the purpose of playing their instrument is
to make music, not merely to demonstrate technical skills. This is why
it is an art form rather than a sport.

Ideally, the beautiful and arresting sound that floats from a horn and
fills our halls should give away nothing of the monumental difficulty
of its production. It should speak the language of music,
communicating directly and mysteriously with the unfathomable musical
human heart.”

(Reproduced here with kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing )


Creative Hornist of the Year – “Corno Pazzo”

The winner of the Corno Pazzo Award (now an award and not a contest) for the Most Creative Hornist of the Year goes to English hornist Pip Eastop….

Read the article (in .pdf format) from the “Horn Call”, October 2003.


Teaching self-teaching

Reproduced here by kind permission of the Open University (go there) is my chapter from the book “Knowledge, Power and Learning”. Edited by Paechter, C. Preedy, M. Scott, D + Soler, J. (2001) ISBN 0 7619 6936 3

The book is associated with an Open University second-level course: E211 – Learning matters: challenges of the information age (visit the course website)


Click on the this to go to the publisher’s website

Teaching self-teaching

In this chapter I will discuss my approach to the teaching of horn students within the context of music conservatoires which prepare students for the musical profession. After describing the conservatoire learning context I will explain some of the specific training needs of performing musicians and outline aspects of my approach to teaching them.

Music conservatoires differ from other establishments of higher education in that they exist as places of practical, rather than academic, learning for performing musicians. Although their courses have some academic elements, which form compulsory parts of the students’ degrees, the main emphasis is on the students developing their performance skills to the highest possible professional level. For this reason, in the conservatoire context, instrumental teaching is done on a one-to-one basis by established performing musicians of the highest calibre.

Entrance to the music conservatoires is by audition and the standard is extremely high. Only a very small number of school leavers who play musical instruments are proficient enough to consider auditioning for a conservatoire place and, out of those who make the attempt, only very few actually gain entrance. Once accepted, their training focuses on improving their technical and musical performance abilities to such a standard that they are professionally employable when they leave. The reality is, however, that in proportion to the numbers of hopeful college leavers there are relatively few vacant jobs for performing musicians so, again, a filtering takes place and only the best of them make it into the profession.

I teach undergraduate level horn (1) students at two of London’s music conservatoires. Their courses last four years and towards the end of each academic year they have examinations in which they are expected to demonstrate their performing achievements. At the end of their course they have to perform a “final recital”, to a high degree of technical and musical excellence as a major part of their B.Mus degree qualification.

On leaving college the newly graduated professional must have the resources to continue improving their playing because due to fierce competition the acceptable standard is not only high but keeps on rising, a fact which poses a continual challenge to all musicians, even established ones, who wish to have long careers.

Typically, after the conservatoire years, a horn player will want to make a living in the employment of an orchestra. Unfortunately, although the standard of playing reached by this stage is often very high it is quite rare for newly graduated horn players to find such work immediately upon leaving. Some, in anticipation of the difficulties ahead, opt for a postgraduate year or two to develop their playing expertise while still under the shelter of the college. Some realise that they will not make the grade and switch to alternative careers. Most, however, will try to set themselves up as freelance players and begin developing networks of employment contacts in the hope of gradually building up their work to the extent that they can earn a living by their playing. Many fall by the wayside by failing to keep up a high enough standard.

During the years of a horn player’s career many aspects of their working materials and environment can change. In particular the teeth can move leading to a need for subtle changes in lip technique. Also, the instrument and mouthpiece may be altered, or perhaps the kind of repertoire played, the place of practice, the amount of practice time available and its regularity. Thus, what works today might not be so effective in several years time. Indeed it is often the case that horn players who have played beautifully for decades begin to feel their ability to play coming slowly unravelled. This can be a dangerous time for a horn player, particularly if they have no investigative resources and are thus unable to overhaul and rebuild their technique.

Although the study of a musical instrument is never complete, when a student leaves the conservatoire, ideally, they should not need the help of a teacher again. Thus, an essential element in a student’s preparation for a professional working life is their acquisition of flexible, self-analytical tools for problem-finding, problem-solving and sustaining continuous personal development of their own technique and musicianship. The skills needed for this “self-teaching” are among the most valuable a performing musician can have but also the most difficult to acquire. It is because of this difficulty that I believe “self-teaching”, as a discipline in itself, should be instilled in the student as deeply as possible during their conservatoire training.

Horn playing is very technique-intensive, by which I mean that a lot of technical work must be done before its output will be recognised as musical sound rather than grotesque noise. Once painstakingly acquired, the collection of discrete skills which in combination make up a full working technique must all be maintained in as stable and reliable a way as possible to minimise future breakdowns in ability, disasters in performance and to keep the playing generally on top form. In contrast to, for example, the piano where production of its individual notes is taken care of by the keyboard and hammer mechanism, the horn demands that each note must be formed using the lips and the breath in a way which does not come naturally at all to most people. In fact, the instrument itself is of little help to the player. Anyone who can coax music from a horn can generally get a similar result from a few metres of garden hosepipe or even a teapot. The horn, being topologically equivalent to a length of drainpipe, acts only as resonator with the potential to assist the player in making exceedingly beautiful tones. The same is true for all of the brass “family” of wind instruments.

It has become a traditionally held belief that the horn is one of the most difficult instruments to play. Indeed, there is some truth in this as it usually takes years before the beginner can play even one note proficiently, let alone sequence them into an effective musical phrase. The horn player’s lips must be trained to vibrate like the vocal cords of a singer, which is problematic enough but there is yet a further difficulty: whereas a singer’s mouth will resonate and thus amplify any frequency at which the vocal cords vibrate, the horn will only do the same for the lips at a few precise frequencies, which are known as harmonics. It is only possible to make the horn ring out beautifully if the pitch at which the lips choose to “sing” exactly matches that of one of the harmonics the horn allows. The particular array of these harmonics is entirely dependent on the length of the instrument, from its mouthpiece to the its final bell flare, which can be varied in the modern horn by the use of its four valves. These are simple devices, operated by the left hand, which in various combinations enable the length of the instrument to be changed instantly. The tension of the lips, and several other physical variables of breath and mouth which are too complex to describe here, must be set exactly right to blow any particular harmonic or there will be a disagreement between the intention of the player and what the horn “wants” to do. The player must know exactly where, in “pitch space”, the required harmonics lie in order to have any chance of finding them quickly. The dreadful sound resulting from inaccuracy in this respect is commonly known as a “split note” and a player who does this regularly will not last long in any of the better orchestras. Pitching horn notes accurately, then, is somewhat analogous to archery – any single good note being the equivalent of a hitting bulls-eye from several fields away in thick fog and high winds. The livelihood of the modern horn player depends on a very high degree of accuracy.

Apart from being notoriously difficult, horn technique is also a very hidden discipline. It is impossible to see what is going on from the outside. The mouthpiece (2) completely obscures that part of the mouth which a horn teacher would like to observe in order to “see” evidence of poor technique. There are a variety of subtle ways in which the lips can be doing things badly but, generally speaking, these can only be spotted if the teacher has had some past experience of working through the same, or similar, problem and thus can somehow sense from a range of clues, intuition and guesswork what is going wrong. Once such a problem has been discovered it is often quite easy to find a fix for it, the diagnosis being the most difficult part.

When investigating such subtle problems I try to involve the student as much as possible in the processes of analysis and subsequent experimentation to find solutions. My first step is to get them to see, hear and feel the problem – a process which can be surprisingly difficult. Fixed habits of seeing, hearing and feeling can be very strong; often to the point of self delusion. Who has not been surprised, or appalled, at the sound of their own recorded voice? What we self-observe as we actually carry out a complex task such as walking, speaking or playing an instrument is usually very different to what we see if we observe the same thing retrospectively (3). An obvious solution, then, would seem to lie in the students using recordings or videos of themselves playing. However, while this can be helpful occasionally, it is not something that ought often to be relied upon because not only does it slow down valuable practise time but, more significantly, it discourages development of one of the most important skills in horn playing, namely, accurate self-observation in real time. It is of course much better to learn to hear the truth precisely, as it is happening, with one’s own finely tuned perception. Acquisition of this skill can be a painful process because the truth sometimes hurts.

In order for the student to gain an accurate impression of how they are playing they need to have as much accurate feedback as possible, both aural and visual. The visual aspect here is quite important because, as is the case with musical performers of all descriptions, poor habits of posture if left unnoticed can exert a deleterious influence on the final musical result. To this end I may, for example, set up a mirror so that the student can see, at least superficially, what some of their visible playing musculature is doing, or indeed how some of what ought to be their non-playing musculature may be interfering. I might then give them a very simple exercise to work on, perhaps in the form of one single note, so they can hear without too much complication, and encourage them to listen with an intense focus of awareness.

If this kind of feedback is not developed a horn player’s imagination tends to fill in any obvious gaps in understanding by creating mental pictures of what they think they do when they play. Such fantasies can be quite inaccurate and when used as a basis for further exercise, or even in the teaching of others, can be quite disastrous. An example of this is the commonly held belief among many brass players that the action of the tongue in contact with the roof of the mouth for the purpose of making notes start firmly is comparable to the action of a hammer striking a percussion instrument, whereas, in actual fact, the tongue in this context functions more like a valve which opens to let the breath flow or closes to stop it. It is easy to see that designing exercises to develop tongue co-ordination based on such misunderstandings of underlying physical functions will not be the most efficient way to train. Given better feedback, it is possible to avoid this and other forms of self-deception.

Deceptions of fantasy and imagination are not confined only to the realm of how a player perceives the mechanical “doing” of their technique, but extend also to how they perceive the results of their playing – how they listen. There seem to be two forms of this – the first concerning the musical building blocks, individual notes, while the second concerns musical phrases. These compare well to the pronunciation of individual words and the meaning of sentences in spoken languages. The quality of individual notes, as heard in the practice room, should be, but is often not, studied through a cultivated awareness of comparisons between the carefully monitored input to the instrument and the exact resulting sound output. Having good acoustics in the practice room is very helpful here, but the specific requirement is quite the reverse of the rich resonant reverberation so desirable in a concert hall. I deliberately make my teaching room acoustically “dry” because in such a room it is possible to hear details of sound analytically. This is the kind of acoustic most horn players would describe as “unflattering”, because a dry acoustic reveals even the tiniest of imperfections whereas a reverberant one tends to hide them. The abundant sound reflections found in reverberant rooms, although very satisfying for the player because of the complexity and richness they add to the sound, divert the ear from a true picture of what is emerging from the instrument. Without clear aural feedback it is very difficult to develop the production of really fine individual notes.

With musical phrases, there is a tendency to hear one’s musical intention rather than the actuality. This is not surprising; if a beginner were able only to hear an objective version of their music, un-enhanced by their imagination, they would probably give up before long (this might have something to do with why it is that instruments seem easier to learn when young – while one’s imagination is still believable!) To break free from dependence on teachers, in this respect, the student must work on refining their objectivity of listening.

Instrumental teachers preparing those at school level for entrance to a conservatoire are often excellent in many respects. They may inspire a love of music and enthusiasm for the instrument while nurturing the growth of good basic playing abilities. However, not generally being performers of an exceptionally high playing ability, they will most likely not have passed on an understanding of the intense level of self-awareness which is needed to refine horn technique up to a modern professional standard. Later, when the horn student begins study at the conservatoire the deepening of introspective self-awareness needed to take horn technique up to a higher level can come as something of a surprise.

While it is obviously the case that horn players need skilled tuition to accomplish the basic technical and musical skills which comprise horn playing at beginner or intermediate levels, there comes a time when in order to progress the horn player must go it alone to a large extent. One of the reasons it is so important for a conservatoire-level horn student to develop self-teaching, particularly of refined technical details at a high level, is because of the near-impossibility of such refinements being taught to them by anyone else. Indeed, many of the established horn players with whom I have discussed this issue feel themselves to have been largely self-taught, particularly at the higher level, despite having spent many years studying at a conservatoire. No teacher, apart from oneself, has the sensory feedback available to make really clear and accurate judgements about precisely what is happening during the process of playing the instrument. Thus, any teaching of the finer points of breath and lip control, apart from self-teaching, can be based on little more than intuitive guesswork.

Interestingly, most of the subtle skills of listening needed for effective horn teaching are exactly the same as those learned directly from the experience of monitoring oneself in learning to play. Indeed, I would argue that a teacher without the experience of successful self-teaching would find it virtually impossible to pass on anything of real technical value to high level students.

I have talked mainly about technique in this chapter and have said that horn playing is very technique intensive. While this is true, I must now redress the balance by saying that from the point of view of the listening audience, whose primary requirement is for a musical experience, the intricacies of horn technique are of no interest whatever. Naturally, there is a need for excellent technique in performance, but one of the dangers in emphasising the importance of technique is the possibility of ignoring the development of a “feel” for music, so-called “musicality”, or of neglecting aspects of style and phrasing. Music is a language which, like any other, can only be learned by immersing oneself in it and by nurturing a love of it.

It should be borne in mind by those who study technically demanding instruments that the musical notations we are trained to read and to translate into delightfully complex vibrations of the air are merely bare sketches – the bone structures of composed music. Composers have always written for musicians knowing that they will flesh out this basic notated structure and add musical meaning to it, add life to it, interpret it, in the same way a reciter of poetry will not simply say the words in a dull, mechanical monotone but animate and phrase them into a meaningfully expressive vocal line. Sadly, it is not as uncommon among horn players as one might expect to hear performances devoid of any communicative musical qualities. It can seem as though the performer is too busy “doing” the playing to take much notice of the results, leaving the audience with nothing more to listen to than the technique of the player. This is a very bad situation because if the technique is perfect, and thus invisible, there will be nothing of interest to listen to, whereas if the technique is gritty with imperfections the attention of the audience will fall hungrily upon it and tear it apart.

For students of music, then, instrumental technique, however awesomely difficult, is only the beginning. Technique should never be an end in itself but a means to an end, the ultimate “end” being a communicative performance of music charged with magic to move the listener.

___________________________________________

Footnotes:

1) The “horn” in this essay is the modern French Horn. It is simply a long tube, looped several times, with a narrow end through which it is blown and a flared end from which a variety of sounds emerge. It commonly has four valves which are used to vary its length so that it is capable of playing every note within a range of at least four octaves.

2) This is a little metal funnel which is placed over the central part of the lips and channels the outflowing breath into the narrow entrance of the instrument. Where the mouthpiece covers the lips it obscures a circle approximately one inch in diameter. A glass mouthpiece would seem a sensible solution to this problem were it not for the distorting refraction of the glass in addition to a tendency for it to steam up whenever blown rendering the lip aperture once again invisible.

3) Along with many other musicians, I am indebted here to the work of F. M. Alexander, a pioneer, and teacher of, this form of self observation. He became famous for developing his sophisticated “Alexander Technique” , a method which teaches the recognition, and subsequent re-training of , habitually inaccurate self observation, neural motivation and physical execution of complex physical actions.


Horn Tennis

Written by Thomas Allard (horn student at Royal College of Music)

(Year 3 Teaching Skills Assignment)

Horn Tennis”

“It is impossible to teach the horn. It is only possible to teach the students how to teach themselves.”

This is Pip Eastop’s main philosophy, and over the last three years I have gradually come to agree with it. The main reason for this is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give a totally accurate description of the physical processes involved in tone production. Furthermore, even if the professor can describe accurately what he does, it does not mean that students can do the same thing, simply due to the fact that the physical make-up of the inside of the mouth differs from person to person.

To tackle this problem, my professor has devised a practise method to help students address all aspects of technique and discover for themselves the way to attain an ideal sound and technique. Hopefully this eventually allows them to express themselves musically without succumbing to the technical limitations of the instrument. He calls this method the “workout”. It is a period of intense practise incorporating self-styled exercises for breath control and tonguing at different dynamic levels throughout the horn’s range, slurring over different widths of interval, double and triple tonguing, lip trills and attacks on high notes.

Emphasis is on having a heightened level of awareness of what you play, and on only playing to a level at which you can play everything perfectly. Trying to push past this level too quickly does not help you to improve. However, by playing only what you can play perfectly day in, day out, it becomes apparent that the level at which you can do this is always increasing. Once students have an understanding of how the “workout” works, they can tailor existing exercises and invent new ones to meet their specific needs at any given time.

There can come times, however, when the student has trouble advancing with a certain area of their technique, possibly due to the fact that the exercise they have been using does not quite address the problem or perhaps because they are not quite sure what outcome they are aiming at (e.g. tone, type of attack etc.). In an attempt to overcome this problem my professor has invented a teaching method based less on verbal description and more on the aural perception of both the professor and student.

It is called “horn tennis” and involves the professor and student sitting in such a way that their bells face each other so that they can hear each other as clearly as possible. Then, taking into account the student’s description of their particular problem the professor will play something short, usually from a “workout” exercise, which the student then has to imitate exactly. If the student is unable to do this, the professor will play something easier so that the student can imitate it perfectly. Then he will see how far his student can improve by gradually increasing the difficulty of what he plays (without, of course, allowing them to play anything that isn’t perfect) as they continually bounce these small snippets of exercises off each other.

I have seen many of the benefits of this teaching method. Firstly, when there have been faults in the way I have been practising exercises I have been able to spot them straight away. Often I realise that I have not had enough patience in slowly building up what I am able to do. Other times it has been a case of me not quite having had high enough a level of awareness and thus having allowed mistakes to creep in.

Furthermore, there have been times when suggestions of a new approach to a problem by either my professor or myself have led to the discovery of new exercises which have ended up benefiting both parties.

When I have felt stuck because of being unsure of my aims I have benefited from “horn tennis” simply because I have been able to listen to how my professor thinks something should sound and slowly infiltrate this into my way of playing.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “horn tennis” has given me a valuable insight into the way in which my professor practises. This alone can often put my playing back on track. After all, if it can make him as good a player as he is, it can hopefully do the same for me!

—————————–

Tom - thanks for allowing me to reproduce this on my website!
Cheers, 
Pip 

Breathing (book excerpt)

The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments

Edited by Trevor Herbert

The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997

John Wallace

(ISBN-13: 9780521565226 | ISBN-10: 0521565227)

Reproduced here with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

 

Breathing (page 201)

Although the acquisition of good breathing technique is essential to brass playing, and bad habits which are acquired early are difficult and time-consuming to overcome later, very few teachers speak about it in an exact way and many teach it and describe it using only blurred imagery. One of the reasons for the persistence of what might be called folk-theories about breathing is that in practice they often work, simply in terms of learning to play something better, or at least differently. However, because these theories are mostly based on incorrect physiology, they are not often not useful outside the specific context for which they were contrived and can cause difficulties and confusion when applied elsewhere. In any discussion of breathing, the word diaphragm will occur, and along with embouchure is one of the most common words used by brass players.

The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments


Embouchure (book excerpt)

The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments

Edited by Trevor Herbert

The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997

John Wallace

(ISBN-13: 9780521565226 | ISBN-10: 0521565227)

Reproduced here with the permission of Cambridge University Press.
 

Embouchure (pages 199-201)

The word embouchure is important to brass players. It is used to describe the precise arrangement, in the playing position, of an individual player’s mouth in relation to the mouthpiece. Because of the demands placed upon the modern orchestral brass player, there has evolved, for each instrument, and ideal embouchure model, which the beginner would do well to emulate. There is a form of natural selection among embouchures, where only the fittest can survive the demands of the repertory expected of the present-day player. The difficulty of achieving such an ideal embouchure (and thinking on this is still in the process of evolution) can be judged by the variation of embouchures seen among beginners and amateurs. In more advanced players, for example full-time students, it can be seen that the range of variation in embouchure structure has narrowed; and this range is further reduced among professionals to the point where, with a few rare exceptions, most use a similar model.

Ideally, a good embouchure should be able to produce any note at any dynamic. It should then be able to change to any other note without compromising its structure. And ideal embouchure has minimal visible movement. On instruments with larger mouthpieces, trombone and tuba especially, producing deeper notes requires the jaw to be lowered to vibrate at lower frequencies. This action also helps the lower register by increasing the resonating space inside the mouth. Jaw position and more obviously visible adjustments between registers are more evident on the larger brass. In general, however, the embouchure should allow the player to roam from high to low without pausing to re-seat in an embouchure “break”.

An embouchure break occurs when, for example, the beginner who has established a foothold in the middle register establishes another in the upper register, with a different embouchure seating, and perhaps yet another in the lower. And experienced teaching will guard against this, encouraging the gradual development of range by incremental degrees – perhaps a semitone at a time – to slowly build up strength and to ensure that the entire range is integrated under one well-formed embouchure. Most methods follow this incremental approach, building strength in the facial muscles through a cycle of play-rest-play-rest. Patient repetitive practice of basic embouchure foundation and maintenance exercises has to be built into a disciplined routine for any achieving brass player. A regime of self-training invariably includes ong tones; adding crescendo and diminuendo to these to learn and maintain dynamic control; slurring between notes on the same harmonic series at first slowly, then gradually quicker. These last, commonly and somewhat misleadingly called “lip flexibility” exercises, stimulate the development of the many embouchure muscles as does exaggerating the vibration of the lip to form a buzz. This last has been a central tenet of much twentieth-century brass teaching, on lips alone, or with the mouthpiece, away from the instrument. Although there is some controversy about its ultimate usefulness, it would seem to be a useful tool in embouchure forming, and in habitualising minimal frontal pressure of the mouthpiece on the lips.

The tuba amplifies many of the problems which beset brass players, not the least of which is control of the air supply. A large amount is needed, especially to play loudly in the low register. The tuba player has to become a more efficient breathing machine than other brass players, among whom there exists a tremendous amount of argument an confusion about breathing and blowing. Arnold Jacobs, former tuba player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was one of the first to point out that brass players were not helping their playing by jumping to false conclusions about breathing. Nevertheless, some players perform very well without a thought about breathing, whilst others excel despite adhering to bizarre theories.

 

The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments


Sound production (book excerpt)

The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments”

Edited by Trevor Herbert

The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997

John Wallace

(ISBN-13: 9780521565226 | ISBN-10: 0521565227)

Reproduced here with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

Sound production (page 199)

On all brass instrument, the lips, held under tension within the circle of the mouthpiece rim, begin to vibrate when turbulence occurs in the air passing steadily between them. If the muscle tone of the lips and the rate of airflow are kept constant, then the excitation of the edges of the lips cause by their contact with the moving air sets up standing-wave oscillations within the instrument. This vibration of the air sets the lips vibrating in sympathy, and in turn affects the exact way the air vibrates as it passes between them. This interplay between vibrating lips and air controls the complex shape of the sound wave-form, and helps give each player his/her unique sound.

 

The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments


The Diaphragm (book excerpt)

The following text is extracted from “The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments”

Edited by Trevor Herbert

The Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997

John Wallace

(ISBN-13: 9780521565226 | ISBN-10: 0521565227)

Reproduced here with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

The diaphragm (pages 201-203)

 
The diaphragm is the principal muscle of inspiration – of the drawing in of air, or inhalation. As with all muscles, contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm are controlled by nerves “wired” into it. When stimulated into a contraction, the diaphragm shrinks powerfully in its first phase of action, pulling its centre downwards, stretching the lungs down with it. Besides causing the lungs to expand, this displaces the contents of the abdomen below both downwards and forwards.

It is impossible to feel the diaphragm, but ballooning out the belly (without arching the lower back) is a good way of indirectly demonstrating its working, as there is no other muscle apart from the diaphragm which can cause this to happen. The size of the lungs, and thus the volume of air the contain, directly follows the expansion and contraction of the ribcage. In addition to the effects of the diaphragm acting on the ribcage, there are other muscles – the scalenes and the internal and external intercostal – which contribute to its expansion or contraction. None of these, however, are capable of expanding the lungs downwards; only the diaphragm can do this.

However, when it comes to expelling air, the most powerful and important group of muscles are the abdominal muscles. Unlike the diaphragm it is easy to feel the state of tension of the abdominal muscles with the fingers. Relaxing the belly, gently pushing the fingertips into it and giving a cough (pushing out the breath against the resistance of the glottis, and suddenly opening it) will demonstrate unquestionably that it is the contraction of abdominal muscle which propels the air out of the body.

There are some outwardly visible signs of good breathing technique. When the player takes a deep breath to play, the belly swells out to the front and sides (a little widening of the ribcage here is inevitable and should not be resisted). As the belly nears its maximum size the ribcage then becomes more involved, expanding outwards and upwards. During this, the sternum moves forwards and upwards, while the width of the ribcage, from one armpit to the other, increases. The shoulders lift slightly, pushed up from underneath by the ribcage, not pulled up by the should muscles above. Care must be taken not to raise them any more than the ribcage needs as this causes chronic shoulder tension.

The instinctive way of producing a perfectly co-ordinated, full and deep inspiration, which accomplished everything to do with the in-breath covered in this section and is immune to any interference by our conscious thoughts, is yawning.

It should be held in mind by all brass players, that developing good habits of breathing, or good habits in any aspect of instrumental technique, is a means to an end and not and end in itself.

The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments


The Tongue Cut Off!

The Tongue Cut Off!

( This article was published in “The Horn Magazine”, Vol. 5 No. 2, Summer 1997)

Those readers whose quality of repetitive tonguing stays consistently tidy and clear from the quiet and slow through to the loud and fast, will probably find little of use in this article. Please jump directly to the very interesting section on historic brass-rubbings, later in this journal.

For the rest, perhaps you have wondered why it is that, below a certain speed, you can articulate a string of repeated notes with good clean attacks, whereas, at a faster tempo, each tends to begin roughly and muddies your overall clarity of playing. For years this puzzled me, but I think I Have now found an explanation and, even better, a solution. Better still, it’s free.

First, to clarify the problem, let me start with an illustration which everyone knows the first whole bar in the rondo from W A.M.’s fourth horn concerto(see below). Whether it is played on the Bb valve-horn, the F valve horn or the Eb hand horn, the problem is there: you might find that when you play it up to speed, forte, you get six rather rough attacks so you try it slowly and the articulation comes out nice and clean. You do the obvious thing and practise it slowly, a lot, maybe for days, but when you play it up to speed again it has hardly improved it still sounds rough and ragged. Help! What is going on here?

I aim to show that if your symptoms match those I have just described, then a potential solution lies just around the corner. But first we need to home in on the problem and highlight it, so lease follow these instructions carefully:

At a metronome speed of dotted crotchet = 126, take the first whole bar of the rondo; put repeat brackets around it and keep on cycling through the bar at about mezzoforte. Make sure you are playing sufficiently staccato so that there is a detectable silence between each note.

This next bit is difficult, so be very careful and persevere until you can do it and get someone else to listen to you if you are not sure you are doing it right. Begin to lengthen the silences so that the notes get pushed apart and the tempo becomes increasingly retarded until it is down to about dotted crotchet =45. Make sure the notes themselves do not become elongated as they move further apart.Meanwhile, keep an eye on every thing else you are doing, particularly with your abdominal muscles and your throat, to make sure that the only thing that changes from note to note is the speed of events not the way you do them.<

Next, maintaining the silences at the duration you have just reached, start to deliberately lengthen the notes. Again, take care not to change anything but the note lengths. Keep slowing until you arrive at around quaver= 76.

Now, by this point you should find yourself playing a string of very ugly, loud, square-sounding notes, each of which starts with the tongue and is cut off by the tongue to make silences roughly equal in length to the notes you are playing. If not, please try again and persevere until you can do it. Remember; some find this very difficult for reasons I hope will become apparent.

What I hope I have proved to you by putting this little excerpt under what is, in effect, an aural microscope, is that during fast staccato tonguing you stop each note with your tongue, Actually, there is no other way, at high speed, to get the little silences between the notes which produce the staccato effect, so rest assured you are doing the right thing by tonguing off at high speed. Incase you had not noticed this before, you have been breaking one of the fundamental laws of modern horn technique, “NEVER END A NOTE WITH THE TONGUE!”. Good for you, I say it was a pretty daft rule anyway. If, by this point, you are still with me and haven’t skipped in disgust to the brass-rubbings, there are, in the light of this revelation, several things to do. The first is to work out why such a rule exists and is so pervasive in horn playing. Then, having admitted to yourself that you really do, at least sometimes, end notes with the tongue, work out what can be gained from such a discovery .

So, why does this rule exist? Primarily to get novice horn players out of the habit of ending each and every note abruptly, which is the easy thing to do, and to encourage them instead to”tail-off” musically the ends of notes or phrases which is very difficult.

It may be interesting to consider the possible origins of this “classical” shaping of the ends (and to some extent the attacks) of notes and phrases. Tradition has it that a typically horn sounding single note should start more or less abruptly, reach its fullest sonority almost immediately and then taper away to silence. There are probably many reasons why this particular teardrop, or pear shaped “envelope”has become, in our musical culture, the one we default to when none other is specified, but the most compelling one I can think of is that when contrived on; brass instrument it imitates the envelope of a note played in a church-like acoustic. Inside a large resonant building even a staccato hand clap is transformed by reverberation, the proliferation of contained sound reflections, into a longer sound which will be perceived as having the teardrop envelope, i.e. it has a smooth tail off added to it.

Contriving such envelopes in non-resonant environments comes easily to the human voice but is much more difficult for the lips and breath of a horn player. It requires the kind of complex technical facility which is central to horn technique but very difficult to develop to a high degree. Inexperienced players who have not yet acquired the rounded attack and the taper to silence will tend to reveal their lack of both by playing square sounding heads and tails of notes which at least helps to avoid the embarrassment of accidentally slipping up or down a harmonic or two. So the rule: “Never End A Note With A Tongue Stop” can be thought of as a preventative teaching aid, at least in its origin. But time moves on and sometimes rules need breaking, or at least bending, to keep them flexible and to allow advanced players a little more freedom.

Now, to explore what can be gained from having found the bath-plug tongue-stop, alive and well, hiding between the notes of your fast staccato articulation: As I have suggested, cleaning up articulation by practising things slowly may not necessarily work. You play the thing up to speed again and nothing has changed, however wonderful it may have sounded at a slow tempo. My hypothesis, then, is that when we slow something down with the intention of working on the articulation we might inadvertently change not just the tempo but also the method of our articulation. We slow it down and then, without realising it, waste time practising some thing quite different, i.e. because we now have time to fit them in we give each note a nice tail off.

Traditionally, the requirement in horn playing to end all notes and phrases with a taper to silence has been so universal that the abrupt tongue-stop way of ending a note has become redundant, and is widely frowned upon. In contemporary music, however, the effect is often specifically required. 1 must say that I really enjoy playing these backward sounding notes. I like the way they end with a thump similar to the effect of letting the bath plug slam back in the plughole as the water is runningú out. In fact, broadly speaking, the bath plug analogy is not a bad one for explaining the simple mechanics of tonguing in horn playing: you pull out the plug and the water/air starts moving again (this is of course a simplification of what really happens) .

Go back to the WAM example. Does it sound even more ragged played on longer lengths of tube? Try it on the Bb horn, then on the F horn. If you are like the rest of us you will probably find it worse on the longer tubing, which is an interesting clue if we continue comparing the tongue to a bath plug.

When playing our example on the Bb horn a relatively small volume of air is flowing along a relatively short length of tube. This mass of moving air is abruptly halted at the precise moment the tongue plugs the passage of air through the mouth. When doing the same thing on the F horn there is a considerably larger, and therefore heavier, volume of air (travelling at the same speed) which has to be stopped dead. The result is a much heavier yank on the tongue caused by the inertia of all that suddenly arrested air flow which then immediately needs the powerful kick of a tongue-release to get it moving again for the next note. Simply put, this means that a stronger tongue is needed to stop and then release the flow of air in longer tube lengths or, alternatively, the shorter the length of tube, the less ragged and burbly the tonguing will sound. Please note my use of the words “stop and release”. I have chosen these carefully to avoid supporting the common misunderstanding that the tongue in some way catapults air out between the lips and down the instrument as if it were some kind of powerful piston. A similar common misconception is that the tongue accts in a way similar to a piano hammer miraculously striking the roof of the mouth to produce sound. The truth is that the tongue stops the flow of air by blocking its path, or allows it to flow by simply getting out of the way.

Having proposed that a strong tongue might be better than a weaker one at producing clean sounding staccato tonguing, it would be a sensible idea to test this out for yourself by setting up  an exercise to strengthen it in the right sort of way. This is simple if you follow the instructions I gave earlier and spend some time working at the slow, rather ugly, square sounding abrupt starts and stops. If you do this exactly as I have explained you will probably find, after some time that the roots of your tongue will be aching with the unaccustomed work load which is a good sign that the tongue, which is nearly all muscle, is responding and will naturally become stronger with the exercise. You should feel this ache approximately half way between the tip or your chin and your Adam’s apple, up in the soft tissue between the bones of your jaw.

In my opinion there are very good reasons why tonguing, rather than merely blowing to start a sound, is a good idea. There are some players who advocate starting notes without involving the tongue at all. Presumably, this is to defend potential listeners from the imagined unpleasantness of abrupt attacks. To my mind this is taking the idea of smoothing and rounding everything off a bit too far. It is somewhat analogous to speaking without consonants (try saying this sentence with only the vowel sounds, omitting all vocal tonguing i.e. all the consonants).Playing just about anything without the added colour brought by at least some tongued articulation will probably sound dull and laboured.

Also there is a danger, when non-tonguing, of sounding late to the beat, particularly within a horn section. Generally speaking, it is almost always necessary to synchronise starts of notes with stimuli coming outside ourselves the flick of a baton, the nod of another player, the click of a metronome or click track. With untongued notes this is precarious as there will inevitably be an element of waiting for your note to get going when it is ready, rather than being in precise control as you are when tonguing.<

However, while I definitely advocate the use of the tongue to begin notes and phrases I must make it clear that it is not my intention to encourage the use of the tongue-stop in general playing this would be awful. I only hope to illuminate its specific usefulness as a technical practice aid. As such I have found it to be very useful in my own playing as have many of my students in theirs.

©1997 Pip Eastop


Note: When first published this article was met with a deafening silence from readers of the Horn Magazine and nearly all of my professional colleagues. So far I only know one professional horn player or teacher who has enthusiastically endorsed it – Anthony Halstead.

I have a suspicion that there may be many closet tongue stoppers out there. What do you think? Please email me with any confessions.


Life, the Horn and Everything.

Knotted Horn, by Emily

KNOTTED HORN, BY EMILY

Life, the Horn and Everything.

(First published in The Horn Magazine, Vol.3 No.1 Winter 1995.)

Who says rehearsals are boring? I discovered a wonderful thing the other day, during some bars rest. If I cover my right nostril with one finger, put the mouthpiece of my horn to my left nostril and inhale vigorously a note sounds, as if by magic, from the bell – and my musician colleagues tell me it sounds better than when I play in the more traditional manner. I am a freelance horn player, which essentially means that I haven’t got a job or, if you prefer, that I am self-employed. I play with many different orchestras, chamber orchestras, brass groups, wind quintets, contemporary music ensembles, in concerts, shows, and recording sessions. It’s a very mixed diet, and I love it.

The lifestyle which such a varied work schedule entails is essentially chaotic and probably not to every horn player’s taste but I have been doing it for some sixteen years now and have no intention of changing to an easier job such as brain surgeon or astrophysicist.

Lately, as a dep. I have been performing some contemporary music with those specialists, the London Sinfonietta, an orchestra once described by a critic as the musical equivalent of the S.A.S. In a couple of works – one by Schnittke, another by Rostakov – there were parts for two horns and I had, paradoxically, by my side, the esteemed Raul Diaz – a very fine and versatile horn-player of Venezuelan origin. I say “paradoxically” and “versatile” because he is best known as a dazzling exponent of the hand-horn, and must be one of the few hornists in the world brave enough to attempt playing the lead part of Schumann’s Concertstuck on a genuine piston fox-frightener in F; yet there he was with me, still sane, in a warehouse somewhere near Waterloo Station navigating those horn-parts-from-hell with consummate skill, and apparently having no trouble pushing the new-fangled levers up and down in time with the music.

I am humbled by the obvious fact that his modern horn is much shinier, and more modern, than mine, and it doesn’t rattle when you shake it. It is one of those nice Holton/Tuckwell machines on which you get a choice of lead-pipes which can be swapped over in seconds by means of some exciting little hand-operated screws (I would suggest Velcro for an even quicker release). I had a go on it, tried out both the lead-pipes and was flabbergasted at the difference between them – not having expected to be able to detect any. I couldn’t actually see any difference, but in feel they were poles apart: one was great, the other was crap. Not for me, I’m afraid; choices like that scare me.

Most of the regular players in the London Sinfonietta are basically freelancers, who are lucky in that they have the assurance that they will get first call from the Sinfonietta’s fixer for any work requiring their particular instrument; they also qualify for the title of “principal ondes-martenot” or whatever it is they play – although “principal” is a somewhat redundant term in a band having basically only one of each instrument (apart from having two fiddles)- although it does effectively give the regulars a sense of belonging. Naturally, this almost-guarantee of regular work adds an element of security to what can be a precarious life for the freelancer. I know about this because I was the principal horn in the Sinfonietta from 1977 until 1986. I left and gave up playing altogether, suffering from “chronic squeaky gate syndrome”, a technical term for the dissipation and personality-disorder associated with a surfeit of contemporary music (which, to save ink, I shall from now on refer to as “schnitzel” – a word made up from the names Schnittke and Birtwistle, both famous living composers).

After I left, in a state of physical and moral corruption, the Sinfonietta upgraded its horn section to the solid and unwavering Michael Thompson, whom I predict will be there for a good while yet as he has a much healthier attitude to his schnitzel than I ever did, taking plenty of time off to pursue less damaging forms of self-expression. Like Raul’s horn, his also seems much shinier than mine.

When you play a lot of schnitzel you get called upon to make some pretty freaky noises. For example, there was one bit, in the Rostakov, where Raul and I each had to double-stop, that is simultaneously to play and sing, in low fifths, though not the same fifths and not quite at the same time; good fun to attempt, we found, but quite difficult to judge for ourselves the effectiveness of our efforts because of severe in-head vibration and in-throat turbulence. This turbulence is caused by interference patterns between the sung and the played notes and immediately turns one’s brain to slush. However, judging by the peals of laughter from our colleagues, the effect does convey some emotional nuance, which is, after all, what music is all about, even schnitzel. I have two concerns about this:
1. I wonder what the M.U. think about the two horn-player’s fees saved by this economical composing device.
2. that it is politically incorrect for composers to write horn-parts which cannot be played/sung by female horn players due to the lowness of the written vocal range.

As I was saying, I turned my back on schnitzel, gave up the horn, and the Sinfonietta, and decided to complete my training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, with the intention of teaching it for a living. This I did and thereby managed not to play the horn for one whole liberating year. Then one day something in me cracked and I found myself under the bed, hurriedly dragging out the dust-covered horn-case. With trembling hands I undid the catches, took out my corroding old appliance, kissed it and blew a few notes. Whether it was due to a momentary madness or a combination of distorted sensory appreciation then and false-memory syndrome now, or some other trick the mind can play upon itself, I do not know, but those few notes were the sweetest I ever heard me play – a sweetness lasting approximately one and a half minutes. Then, as we say, my chops went. After that memorable day, when my spirits soared then crashed, it took six months of hard work to get my sound, stamina and confidence back. I can recommend it to anyone. From now I was playing the horn because I had decided to; in effect I had taken over total possession of my career. This claim requires some explanation: from the age of nine, when I started playing the horn, my parents, to whom I am infinitely grateful, had given me every possible encouragement; from sitting with me year after year helping me practice to living a life of frugality and self-denial in order to afford expensive instruments for me – first a Calison compensator, then a Hans Hoyer double, then my treasured Alexander 103 in gold-brass which I have used exclusively for twenty years. I would not wish to change anything about these early years but it did mean that to some extent I played the horn to please Mum and Dad, even later on as a professional. It was not until I gave up playing that I realised what a large emotional investment they must have had in my continuing career as a horn-player, and what a terrible wrench it must have been for them when, in essence, I threw the whole thing back in their faces, like a belated adolescent rebellion. They didn’t criticise me at the time, for which I am retrospectively grateful, but they can only have been very upset and hurt by what must have seemed to them examples of perfect stupidity and ingratitude in the throwing away of something of great value.

Of course to me, it didn’t and still doesn’t look like that. I had had enough of the horn, I was free to stop it if I wanted – so I did. And when I say that it enabled me to take over total possession of my horn-playing, and that I would recommend it to anyone, I mean that from when I started up again it was all mine and I really felt that quite deeply. It was a fresh start, a clean slate, without which I would not now, seven years on, be feeling so enthusiastic, delighted and smug about being a horn player. The reason I write here about the minutiae of this distant part of my life is not simply to encourage professional suicide among my colleagues, but also to open up some debate on the subject of what, apart from money, motivates us in our struggle with the instrument, what encourages us, the various effects of parental involvement, emotional or financial.

©1997 Pip Eastop

 


Some Ins and Outs of Breathing

Opening up the can of worms.

Many wind players do very well with no thoughts at all about breathing, and there are plenty of others who do rather well despite adhering to completely absurd theories. There is much argument and confusion about the best way of using our internal bellows equipment for the purpose of powering the vibration of air within a resonant tube in musically effective ways. With this article I aim to add yet more confusion with the perhaps unusual idea of explaining some facts, rather than handed-down opinions, about how our breathing apparatus actually works.

This article can be approached in two ways, either just out of interest, or in order to work on breathing in a serious analytical way, in which latter case it should be said that one’s habitually used breathing pattern is extremely difficult to change and perhaps should not be undertaken lightly. What is written here may provoke a careful rethinking of breathing method and care must be taken that whatever changes made must bring about a genuine improvement or be abandoned.

I should stress that this article is mainly intended for those who are knowingly confused about breathing. Anyone not so confused, or who believes that it might be somehow interfering, dangerous and damaging to think too much about the bodily mechanics of something so “natural” might be better off not reading it. After all, why mess about with something which has not yet started causing problems? On the other hand, an exploratory foray into new ways of looking at breathing cannot do too much harm and may even unlock some extra potential, as it has done in my case.

Challenging the Standard Model.

In my experience, nearly all wind players and teachers say something like, “blowing from the diaphragm”, whenever they talk about breath control. Given the fact that the diaphragm can only draw air into the body this makes about as much sense as, for example “singing from the ears”. To add to the confusion, while saying it, they will happily pat their bellies revealing a mistaken belief that this is the area of the body in which the diaphragm can be found. This is quite wrong. As you will see, the diaphragm is much higher up than we easily missled wind-players have been happy to believe.

There are some established anatomical and physiological facts which we could make use of if we were not so entrenched in traditional, imprecise ideas about breathing method. Those of us with incorrect or unhelpful ideas were usually handed them by our teachers, who got their ideas from their teachers in the previous generation, and so on back into history. One of the reasons why these, what might be called folk-theories, persist so strongly is that in practice they often work, simply in terms of getting oneself or a student to play something a bit better. However, because they are mostly based on incorrect physiology (the study of how the body works), they are often not useful outside the specific context for which they were thought up and can cause difficulties and confusion when applied to other things. The “if it works, use it” theory is fine up to a point, but the problem with sticking to what works rather than seeking an understanding of why and how it works, is that on occasions when it doesn’t work, one has no deeper understanding to turn to for solving problems. One is then left with the, “if it doesn’t work use it anyway” approach, with which most of us are probably familiar.

My interest in all this was sparked by my surprise on discovering, during my three years of Alexander Technique teacher-training, that the muscle known as the diaphragm is not the one that we use to blow air into a wind instrument. Now, if you remember just one thing from reading this article, please make it the following: THE DIAPHRAGM IS A MUSCLE OF INSPIRATION, i.e. of sucking air in, not blowing it out. This will come as a big surprise to many, and some perhaps will not wish to know – but it is certainly true.

There follows some simple anatomy and physiology and a few drawings to  help in building up a mental picture. Please note that the arrows are to show the direction of movement at the start of the in-breath.

What and where is the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is the principal muscle of inspiration – that is to say, of the drawing in of air, or inhalation. Broadly speaking, it is a thin sheet of domed muscle which when viewed from above (see fig.1) is kidney (or cardiod) shaped in outline and which has the ability to contract between its edges and its centre. Its centre lies horizontally across the body dividing the trunk into two compartments: the thorax (the chest) and the abdomen (the belly) (see fig. 2). The thorax contains the heart and lungs while the abdomen contains all the organs of digestion. The sides and back of the diaphragm, as it curves down to attach to the lower rim of the rib cage, become very steep, almost vertical (see fig. 3), so that the liver and the stomach are more or less contained within the dome and are thus given some protection by protruding some way up inside the bony rib cage.

The heart sits behind the sternum high up on top of the centre of the diaphragm (see dotted outline in figs. 2 and 3) and is surrounded on either side and above by the lungs. Together the heart and lungs fill most of the space within the rib cage.

At the front, the outer edge of the diaphragm is attached to the inside of the sternum in the centre of the chest. From here, all the way around the sides to the spine the lower, outer edge of the diaphragm is attaabched to the inside of the lower rim of the rib cage. At the back some of the muscle fibres of the diaphragm gather into several powerfully contractile bundles, called crura , which reach down and attach onto the front of the chunky vertebral bones in the lower back (see fig.1). This gives the rearmost part of the diaphragm a firm anchorage from which it can pull itself down with great strength.

As with all muscles, contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm is controlled by nerves “wired¨ into it. When enervated into a contraction the diaphragm shrinks powerfully along the direction of its muscle fibres with the effect that, in the first phase of its action, it pulls the centre of itself downwards, stretching the heart and lungs down with it. Besides causing an expansion of the lungs, this makes the contents of the abdomen below move downwards and forwards, a displacement which is accommodated by the yielding abdominal-wall muscles as they relax and bulge out to the front and sides, giving more internal volume.

It is impossible to feel one’s diaphragm but ballooning out the belly (without arching the lower back) is a good way of indirectly showing its effects, as there is no other muscle apart from the diaphragm which can cause this to happen.

The lungs inside the ribcage.

As mentioned, high within the rib cage lie the lungs. It is very important to understand that during inhalation air is drawn into the lungs and only the lungs; i.e. it goes high in the chest and definitely does not pass below the level of the diaphragm.

The lungs are like elastic sponges covered with a thin outer membrane. Between this membrane and the inner surface of the chest cavity (which includes the upper surface of the diaphragm) is a thin film of fluid which ensures an airtight seal, and therefore adhesion, between the two surfaces. The effect of this adhesion is that the size of the lungs directly follows the expansion and contraction of the rib cage. The lungs must be expanded to draw air in, and squeezed smaller to blow it back out again. To achieve this they are made to change their size in two ways: 1. by being stretched downwards with the lowering of the diaphragm and 2. by being drawn outwards and upwards by the expansion of the rib cage. As I will show, the diaphragm alone can do all of this.

The rib cage is a sprung flexible basket-like structure made up of pairs of ribs which, at the back, are attached by articulated joints to each side of the spine and, at the front, to the sternum. Each individual rib (apart from the four lowest “floating” ribs) is exquisitely shaped and curved along its length so that when hinged up or down it contributes to an overall enlargement, in all three dimensions, of the rib cage as a whole which thus expands from front to back, from side to side and from top to bottom. Because of the diaphragm’s ability to lift the ribcage it increases the volume of the lungs not only by stretching them downwards but by expanding them outwards and upwards as well.

In addition to the effects of the diaphragm acting on the rib cage, there are other muscles which contribute to its expansion or contraction. None of these, however, are capable of expanding the lungs downwards; only the diaphragm can do this.

Those muscles whose contractions act to raise the rib cage, thus expanding the lungs, assist in inspiration. Apart from the diaphragm they include the scalenes (six strap-like muscles which from high in the neck pull up on the highest pairs of ribs) and the external intercostals (upward-pulling muscles woven in between the ribs). In forced breathing yet more muscles join in, even some back muscles – any which can exert some upward pull on the ribs. Muscles which act to lower the rib cage, thus contracting the lungs, assist in expiration. They include the internal intercostals (downward-pulling muscles between the ribs) and the several layers of abdominal wall muscle.

From here on I will refer to this layered group simply as the abdominal muscles.

During forced exhalation, i.e. long sustained fortissimo passages, even the latissimus dorsi, muscles of the arms and back, are brought in to help with the squeeze.

Postural considerations.

To permit the rib cage its maximum range of expansion and contraction and so to give those muscles that elevate the ribs an optimum chance of doing their job, there are two postural considerations. First, the spine must be reasonably straight and erect. Second, the head must be high up on top of the spine balanced on a relaxed and free neck. With these two conditions satisfied the ribs are well spaced and the muscles which move them, particularly the previously mentioned scalenes, have a chance, which otherwise they would not, of helping to lift and thus expand the rib cage.

Muscles in opposition – antagonism.

The vast majority of muscles or groups of muscles in the body, are arranged antagonistically, in balanced opposing pairs. To illustrate the principle, a good example is found around the jaw, where one muscle group has the job of pulling the mouth open and another has the job of pulling it shut. Normally, one group will relax to let the other group do its work unhindered, but there are circumstances when both muscle groups will deliberately oppose each other to stabilise or regulate each other’s action. In the case of the jaw, for example, this happens when something fragile, perhaps a small egg, is held lightly but securely between the teeth.

Opposing and balancing the action of the diaphragm in just this way, is the abdominal wall. Like the diaphragm, it is in the form of a sheet although the abdominal wall is in several layers. Understanding the way the abdominal muscles work in relation to the diaphragm is a key to a clearer picture of the way breathing works for wind players. But please remember: put in the simplest language, the diaphragm sucks and the abdominal muscle blows!

The abdominal muscles.

The very powerful abdominal muscles form the belly by enwrapping the abdomen between the underside of the rib cage and the pelvis. At the front they extend all the way from the sternum down to the pubic bone, and at the sides from the lower extremity of the rib cage to the top edges of the hip bones (upper parts of the pelvis). They extend around to the back as far as each side of the lumbar spine.

Unlike the diaphragm it is easy to feel the state of tension of the abdominal muscles with one’s fingers. Relax your belly, gently push a few fingertips into it and give a little cough. If you try to cough, i.e. to push out the breath against the resistance of the glottis which suddenly opens, you will discover that it is most unquestionably the contraction of abdominal muscle which propel the air out of you.

The interplay between the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.

The activity of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles, as an opposed pair, varies reciprocally. Thus, during inhalation the muscle tension of diaphragm increases while that of the abdominal muscles decreases; and vice-versa during exhalation.

During inhalation, by the time the diaphragm has pushed the contents of the abdomen a good way down and out, into the accommodating, bulging but relaxed abdominal muscles, to the point where resistance occurs, the abdominal contents have become firmly enough compressed to make a firm base upon which the diaphragm can begin its second phase of action: it continues to contract and by bracing down against the compressed viscera (held in check by abdominal muscles) begins to elevate and expand the entire rib cage by lifting it upwards.

With one palm spread lightly over your sternum and the other over your belly it should be possible to detect these two distinct, though overlapping, phases – first the expansion of the belly, then the expansion of the chest. It is worth persevering with this kind of self exploration to learn recognition and control of the expansion/contraction of the chest and belly – both independently and separately. When doing this remember the importance of a good, upright, relaxed posture and notice how difficult it is to get a substantial chest expansion without the head balanced high on top of the spine.

Full compression, or distention of the abdominal contents, or the moment during inspiration at which the abdominal muscle begins to resist the diaphragm’s downward pull, marks the point at which the effect of the contracting diaphragm changes from that of further pushing out the belly, thus lengthening the lungs downwards, to that of raising the ribcage and thus expanding the lungs outwards in all other directions.

While drawing air in, in preparation to play, it is best not to oppose the descent of the diaphragm by any contraction of the abdominal wall because if the abdominal muscle does not balloon out enough during inhalation it is likely that it will “power-up”, at the beginning of a note or a phrase, in what may be described as a pre-contracted state. It is actually quite common for the abdominal muscles of individuals confused about breathing to be already half way through their range of movement, and thus a largely spent force, before even starting to supply the power needed to play something. In such a case much unnecessary tension will build up during playing – felt most intensely in the solar plexus area – and a “tremor” in the sound is a likely result.

It is well worth experimenting with this to get the feel of what is happening. Take a full breath, expanding mainly around the chest, without much belly expansion, then play a long loud note, keeping the chest high and relatively expanded throughout. This keeps the lungs in a high position. Towards the end of the note an increase in belly tension will probably be felt as it tries with difficulty to assist in the evacuation of air from the lungs, and a fast irregular tremor might be heard. If this is a familiar feeling then some remedial work is needed.

The elasticity of the rib cage.

The resting size of the chest is roughly half way between its most expanded and its most contracted states. From hereon I will refer to this as the midpoint.

When the chest is stretched open to capacity, with the lungs (which are also elastic) full of air, it will tend to recoil, causing a sigh, back to its midpoint if the diaphragm, along with the other muscles of deep inspiration, suddenly relaxes. Similarly, when the chest is contracted as far as possible, i.e. the lungs emptied, it will tend to spring back to its midpoint, causing a gentle inhalation, or an anti-sigh, when the muscles of expiration finish doing their work and relax. As it is, this elastic recoil is not a great deal of use to the wind player as the air flow it produces is quite weak and rapidly diminishes in power, like a rubber band unwinding, as it goes through its range of movement.

Discovering the synergistic interplay between the diaphragm and the abdominal muscle.

Breathe in deeply, then suddenly release the muscles of inhalation to let, but not push, all the air out very quickly – as in a big sigh – until the chest, powered only by its elasticity, returns to the midpoint. You can also try the opposite of this: from the midpoint begin to exhale deeply until the lungs are empty and no more air can be squeezed out. Then suddenly relax the contractions and let a natural rapid elastic inhalation occur, taking you back to the midpoint.

Next, inhale deeply as before, then start to let it out very slowly. What happens now is that you will naturally “brake” your exhaling using the diaphragm to hold back the chest from contracting too rapidly, as it did in the elastic release/sigh of the previous paragraph. (Please note: to make sure that it is your diaphragm, and not the glottis doing the braking, keep the outflow of air from the mouth absolutely silent. If you use the glottis as your “brake” you will produce the sound of a whispered “ah”).

All wind-players must use the diaphragm as a brake in this way while playing any stable continuous tone. The abdominal muscles need the support and steadying opposition of the diaphragm in order to maintain an unchanging controlled outflow of air.

The outwardly visible signs of good breathing technique.

When taking a deep breath to play, the main thing that should happen at first is that the belly should swell out to the front and sides (a little widening of the rib cage here is inevitable and should not be resisted). As the belly nears its maximum ballooning the rib cage should then become more involved by expanding outwards and upwards. During this the sternum should move forwards and up while the width of the rib cage, from one armpit to the other, increases. The shoulders will lift slightly, pushed up from underneath by the rib cage, not pulled up by the shoulder muscles above. Care must be taken not to raise them any more than the rib cage needs as this will cause chronic shoulder tension.

At the start of playing, for example, a long phrase at a medium volume the belly should be remain ballooned out to the front and sides while the chest comes down, losing its expansion. The lowering of the chest should gradually hand over to a tightening and contracting of the belly until the end of the breath. This trick is to keep the belly ballooned for as long as is comfortable by means of some diaphragm opposition.

Even simpler directions for breathing.

Having worked through all of this in detail we now need a nice simple way of checking if we are doing it right. Luckily there is a reference against which all of us can check and compare our breathing. It is an instinctive way of producing a perfectly co-ordinated, full and deep inspiration, which accomplishes everything to do with the in-breath covered in this writing and is immune to any interference by our conscious thoughts. It is yawning – our own private, marvellous, teacher.

To learn from the yawn it is useful be very sleepy and to stand naked, at least down to the waist, in front of a full-length mirror. Observe the order of events and all the following things that happen during a delicious yawn:

  • Feel the belly balloon forward as the diaphragm heaves itself downwards.
  • Notice how the back is pulled up into a straighter position (mostly by the crura of the diaphragm – refer to part 1 for illustration) and how the head is moved up onto the top of the spine into the ideal position described earlier.
  • Notice how this then allows the chest to be filled and massively expanded – with the sternum coming forwards and upwards (just like we were all taught not to).
  • Notice how good it feels!

This is all very well but…

Having spent all this time wittering on about the mechanics of respiration, I feel strongly moved now to put things clearly into perspective by reminding myself and readers that we are, or should be, in the business of making music; something which is on an altogether different plane from the simple mechanics I have been outlining here. Thus it should be held in mind, by all wind players, that developing good habits of breathing, or good habits in any aspect of instrumental technique, is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

©1997 Pip Eastop


My Small Organ

My Small Organ.

(first published in The Horn Magazine – Vol 3, No. 2 Summer 1995)

 

The way I play the horn has been greatly influenced a by a small organ in my lower back – my right kidney. It first started causing me grief and pain when I was fourteen, on a residential course with the National Youth Orchestra. I woke up at half past three one morning with an awful incapacitating pain in my lower back. I had been sleeping in a draughty dormitory on a canvas camp bed so at first I imagined that the pain was somehow brought on by that. By mid-morning, pale and enfeebled with pain, I was sent to be examined by Sister Body, the medically trained member of staff, who made an immediate diagnosis of Scrofula and gave me three oranges and three small bottles of concentrated orange juice, all for immediate consumption. Despite my scepticism this citrus-deluge-therapy seemed to do the trick and I was back in the horn section within a few hours, jumping through Lutoslavski’s flaming hoops.

Unfortunately, the problem didn’t stop there and a month or two later I suffered another attack of the same pain, which this time lasted for a few days. My G.P., noting that the pain was in the area of my right kidney, took a urine sample and later felt able to tell my parents that nothing was wrong with my kidneys and that I should pull my socks up and get some exercise. >From then on the problem got worse with attacks on average about ten times each year, each lasting typically five or six days. The pain of this backache was intense, to say the least; I could not eat, I could hardly face drinking anything and I could not ignore the pain even enough to watch TV. These intermittent attacks went on for fifteen years, during which time I was confident, because the doctor had said so, that the pain coming from the area of my right kidney was not actually indicating anything wrong with that particular organ.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly, I admit, to generate sympathy for my years of dreadful suffering, but also because it was this pain which led me, indirectly, to some fairly important work on the way I play the horn.

A pain free future.

To continue: eventually, someone had the common-sense to take me to a hospital casualty department where I was given a wonderful shot of Pethedine which sent the pain off down a long corridor to bother someone else. I was examined with an ultrasound scanner and it became apparent that I had a blocked and bulging right kidney. They told me it was a recognised congenital condition and that it could be fixed up by some fairly routine surgery. After having been through fifteen years of perplexity in trying to fathom the cause of all this pain, the relief at being told, and even shown on a screen, exactly what was causing it all was enormous and I felt a surge of joy and excitement at the prospect of a pain-free future. This confused the scanner operator who was used to patients being very upset when told of massive internal malfunctions.

Seven years in a Tibetan Monastery.

In seeking an end to my suffering, during the fifteen years leading up to the Great Kidney Discovery, I did the rounds of all the available alternative therapies: I put myself through years of self denial on a stone-age Japanese ‘Macrobiotic’ diet; I sought initiation into the ascetic secrets of yoga and Tai Chi; I visited several different homeopaths, a chiropractor, at least six different osteopaths (including a cranial one), a Chinese herbalist, several yoga teachers, a couple of acupuncturists, numerous masseurs, a reflexologist, an iridologist, several spiritual healers, a herbalist (and some would have it that I spent seven years in a Tibetan monastery, although I cannot confirm this). This army of willing helpers had three things in common:

1) They all thought they knew what the problem was and gave me several sessions of their appropriate treatment.

2) They all took plenty of money from me.

3) None of their treatments cured, or even made the slightest difference, to my backache. Understandably, such total failure has left me with an extremely low, verging on bitter, opinion of all the so-called holistic, alternative, complimentary health mumbo-jumbo techniques. In future I’ll take my chances with a bottle of brandy and a hacksaw.

At one point somebody suggested I try the Alexander Technique, so I read a couple of books on the subject and proceeded to take some lessons. It is usually taught individually in a one-to-one situation, but I was lucky enough get a place on an introductory residential course taken by Don Burton, a pioneer in group teaching of the Alexander Technique. It seemed as though at last I had found something which had a beneficial effect. Don’s inspired work and its profound effect on my breathing, the way I moved, my posture and inevitably my horn playing, led me to the decision to train as an Alexander teacher myself, this seeming to be the best way to explore the Technique as deeply as possible. Many books are now available on the subject and, for anyone interested, these will provide the best introduction to an understanding of the Alexander Technique. However, a brief outline here may be useful:

The Alexander Technique – a brief outline.

Nearly everyone has muscles or groups of muscles in their body which are habitually clenched or at least held under more tension than is really necessary. There are various causes of this, the most obvious being the mimicking of role models with poor habits of posture and movement parents, pop stars, Rambo, Norman Fowler etc.) and chronic muscle-knotting through fear. Over a long period of time this misuse of one’s muscles leads to a distorted posture, to idiosyncratic styles of walking, and to inefficient breathing. These conditions usually become more entrenched with age and eventually lead towards physical deterioration. Broadly speaking, the Alexander Technique provides a sensible way out of these harmful tensions, and thereby prevents the associated long term ills. A particularly favoured area of focus for the various mental visualisations (known as ‘directions’ in Alexander Technique jargon), is the neck, which is of great importance, posturally, because of its crucial job in carrying the head.

Having triumphed over his own detrimental habits of posture and movement (known by the noun, ‘use’, in Alexander Technique jargon), saving his career in recitation in the process, Alexander developed a gentle but persuasive way of using his hands to teach better use and found that he could bring about long term improvements in the posture and movement of those who sought his help. His revolutionary style of body work gradually became known as the Alexander Technique.

To put it simply, the idea is that by reminding your body over and over again to lengthen and widen, rather than to shorten and narrow, you will undo existing tensions and not simply replace them with new ones. Given time this can change ingrained habits and improve posture and styles of movement.

It is not a therapy in the sense of it being a treatment given by a therapist. It is learned from a teacher and then used, with occasional ‘top-up’ lessons, from then on to help keep your body structure in good order. The only trouble is that it can work out to be rather expensive.

Teaching the Alexander Technique for four years gave me some interesting insights into how it works better for some people than others. It depends on a particular quality of attention. For example, it was always very clear to me that instrumentalists were able to pick up and apply to themselves the principles of the Technique more effectively than could non-musicians. I think this must be because there are clear parallels between learning the Technique and learning to play an instrument so, in a sense, instrumentalists have a head-start. In playing any instrument, whether wind, string or percussion, the best sounding tone you can get is when your body has learned how to work in co-operation with the instrument, not by oppressing it or forcing it – something that instrumentalists learn naturally as they go along. So it is with the Technique, which in a sense is a series of lessons in how to play one’s body to get the best array of muscle tone – analogous to striving for the best sound tone when playing an instrument.

Other people quick to pick up the subtleties of the Technique were those motivated, as I had been, by pain. It always seemed to me that these people were the most attentive during lessons and the ones who thought about it and worked on themselves the hardest between lessons. To stretch further the parallel with learning an instrument, it should be understood that work on the Alexander Technique is something requiring an enormous amount of concentrated inward-looking physical observation over a long period of time. It has to be so to penetrate and change such deep-rooted habits of basic movements as walking, breathing, speaking etc… The challenge set us by F.M. Alexander is to bring our previously unconscious habits out onto the brightly lit stage of our conscious minds and keep them there permanently while we work on them. This can never be an easy task.

During my three years of training, when I had lessons from at least fifty different Alexander teachers, I discovered that there are as many different interpretations of the Technique and ways of teaching it, as there are teachers of it. If, after you have done some further reading on the subject (in my opinion ‘required reading’ for any instrumentalist) you are tempted to try some lessons, it is a good idea to visit several different teachers before choosing one, as a successful outcome really depends on finding a teacher with whom communication and rapport is good.

After queuing up for my (very unpleasant) kidney operation the job was done and my lower back has since felt wonderfully comfortable. Without the kidney pain, which had provided my motivation for going so deeply into the Technique, I soon began to loose the keen edge of my interest in it and found increasing difficulty in teaching it wholeheartedly. Within a year I had given it all up and found myself again directing my energies at my horn playing – which had been profoundly changed by the foray into my alternative career as a teacher of the Alexander Technique.

The Ins and Outs of Breathing.

As part of the training course, while studying anatomy and physiology, I discovered some very interesting facts about breathing which I had not seen explained in any horn or brass tutor. As I intend in the near future to devote a whole article to explaining the ins and outs of breathing I will not go far into it here; suffice for now to say that the diaphragm is not located where the vast majority of wind players think it is and does not do what they think it does. In teaching the physiology of breathing to the brass students at the Royal Academy of Music I have found universal confusion about the simple mechanics of sucking in air and then blowing it out down a tube. As I say, all will be simply explained in a later article.

I had not been on the Alexander training course for long when I began to realise that, from a physiological point of view, playing the horn in the traditional manner puts some pretty unreasonable demands on the human body. For one thing a degree of flexibility in the rib cage is needed if a large capacity breath has to be taken. Sadly, a very effective way of hampering this is to hold out a heavy weight in front of the body, for example a French horn, so that the shoulder-blades have to be firmly anchored by muscles in the back, reducing the freedom of movement of the ribs. Something which nearly all of us do, leaning against a chair back while seated, although tempting and comfortable in the short term, encourages the lower part of the spine to curve outwards (the opposite way to its natural concavity) which assists in the drooping of the upper chest and the forward drift of the head. Pernicious postural habits acquired while practising in this collapsed posture are generally retained even when playing standing.

In order to breathe well and have easy control over large amounts of air, the rib cage needs some freedom to expand and contract. It can only do this properly if the whole back is kept reasonably straight, but not rigid, with the head balanced up on top of the spine, not stuck out in front. The reason for this is that the muscles which elevate the ribs originate in the skull and cannot do the job of lifting them if they are pulling from a position in front of the chest rather than from directly above it.

Pretty whacky

As a result of my discoveries I set myself the challenge of adapting my horn so that I could play it in a way which would satisfy all of the following criteria:

a) I should not have to support any of the weight of the instrument using my arms – so that I could keep my breathing as free as possible.

b) It should encourage me to sit upright with a straight back and my head balanced on the top of my spine – like a good Alexander person.

c) It should still fit into its case despite the extra attachments.

Now, after twelve years of development from the original design, I feel I have the gadget, the PipStick, more or less perfect. It is a single telescopically extendable leg attached by a couple of small removable brass plates to the centre of the underside of the horn. At the bottom of the leg is a curved bar which transfers comfortably the entire weight of the horn onto my right thigh about four inches from my knee-joint. All my arms have to do is keep the horn balanced on its leg while I play it. The height is simply adjustable by means of a couple of wing nuts and I generally leave it set quite high so that I have to sit with a straight back in order to reach the mouthpiece. In all the time I have been using it I have not once had an aching back or aching shoulders from playing. There is also a major, and totally unexpected benefit: while I am doing my daily practice I never have to put the instrument down to rest my arms and shoulders. Consequently I reckon I can do a whole hour of practice in only half an hour! Of course there are a few minor disadvantages:

a) if I want ever to play standing up (I don’t, but sometimes I am made to) I have to go into training weeks in advance.

b) It does not allow for an embouchure which pivots up and down. Luckily mine doesn’t.

c) I can’t give very good nods and leads in chamber music or musically wing my horn around while I play.

d) It looks pretty whacky (but only to other horn players).

Nowadays, despite these disadvantages I would never want to play without my gizmo – and I just can’t imagine how anyone can, or why they would want to.

© Pip Eastop 1995.

Interviewed by Jeff Bryant for the Horn Magazine.

Pip Eastop is interviewed by Jeff Bryant 
for the Horn Magazine.

(Vol. 5 No. 1, 1994)

Bluebell Horn, by Emily

BLUEBELL HORN, by EMILY

What is your age?

36

What instrument did you first play and at what age?

Recorder. Aged seven.

When did you start playing the horn?

On the second Friday in February, 1969.

What make and model was your first horn?

A Calison compensator: it had valve linkages in solid nylon of a milky-white translucency. I’ll never forget the moment my father appeared with it, brand new, having been on a day trip to London by rail to buy it. He stepped in through the front door with it under his arm wrapped in brown paper, having been unable to afford the case to go with it. I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by the importance of this new thing in my life and fully aware of privilege for a nine-year old of having such a thing.

Who was your teacher?

My first teacher was my father who was then an oboist in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Staff Band. He read the Farkas book and taught me from that. Later, from the age of fourteen, I studied with Ifor James at the Royal Academy of Music. My Dad was a great teacher.

What make and model is your present horn?

A gold-brass Alexander 103 which I have played on since new twenty years ago, with millions of dents and several interesting features: It has a stand attached to it so that its entire weight is taken on my right leg. This is wonderful, as my arms take none of the weight whatsoever. I use a bent (fifteen degrees or so) Paxman 4B mouthpiece in it which, by rotational adjustment, gives me a large range of different head-to-horn angles and thereby enables me to get a bit more comfortable with the instrument when sitting or standing to play. This may sound weird but is actually a very useful feature, and both Steven Stirling and John Rooke have since adopted the idea and gone bent, although they both have the mouthpiece turned so it bends upwards, whereas I have mine bending downwards. The detachable bell is hanging on by a thread which, due to my negligence, is so badly worn that it won’t be long before it gives out and I will have to use gaffer tape to stick the bell on. Strangely, I am rather proud of this and deliberately never grease it, thereby hastening the day when the thread finally strips. John Ward has promised to repair this for me when finally goes.

What is your favourite horn?

The factory-fresh Schmid gold-brass double which I tried last summer in Herr Schmid’s factory at Tiefenried, near Munich. I have ordered one the same, which I am going over to collect in April.

Do you come from a musical family?

My brother is a bass trombonist and my sister is a bassoonist (so I guess the answer is no, ha-ha).

Why did you start to play the horn?

The honest truth is that I can’t remember, and my parents never found out where I got the idea from, though I probably saw one on the telly.

Who is your favourite composer?

It varies from day to day; Schubert, Brahms, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Bach etc.

What is your favourite piece of music?

This is not a constant but, for example, today it is a chunk of the last movement of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony. Tomorrow it might be Nat King Cole singing “When I Fall In Love”.

What is your least favourite piece of music?

Ligeti’s horn trio. It stinks. I loathe it. Or anything by Harrison Birtwistle…

Who is your favourite horn player of all time?

Jeff Bryant, of course.

Which horn players have had the greatest influence upon your career?

Ifor James, Jonathan Williams, Christopher Giles – until his tragic death in 1975, Dennis Brain, Georges Barbeteau, Frank Lloyd, Philip Farkas, Richard Watkins and, of course, Jeff Bryant.

Who are your favourite non horn-playing instrumentalists?

John Wallace, Maurice Murphy & Arturo Sandoval – trumpet; Richard Hosford – clarinet; Alfred Brendel, Martha Argerich and Lyle Mays – piano; Pat Metheny – guitar; Michael Brecker – sax; Jaco Pastorius – fretless bass guitar; The Vegh String Quartet, The Chamber Orchestra of Europe etc…

What was your first job and when was it?

Principal horn in the Antwerp Philharmonic, ’76 to ’77. My second job was with the London Sinfonietta from ’77 to ’86.

What is your present job and when did you start it?

Freelance since ’87.

What qualities, do you think, make a successful horn player?

Good looks, an engaging personality and the ability to stay upright in a chair for long periods. While this tends, unfortunately, to be true I would also add the following three important things:

1. Knowing the pitch of any note before you go for it hence better accuracy.

2. Producing a sound which, whether fat or thin, small or big, has the capability of floating in the air like a still dawn mist or ripping through it like a chainsaw.

3. Perfect intonation, always.

Who is your favourite conductor?

I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.

What, where and with whom was your most exciting musical experience? A “Weather Report” Concert in 1981, in the back row of the stalls at the Hammersmith Odeon, with Hilary, my then girlfriend. The Earth moved and my hair stood on end. Massive tingle factor.

What is the best aspect of being a professional musician?

Constantly meeting friends.

What is the worst aspect of being a professional musician?

In my case, bewildering chaos: being a freelancer I feel the lack of any daily routine and sometimes I yearn for it.

If you didn’t play the horn, what instrument would you like to play?

Piano, violin, cello or alto saxophone.

What would you like to do if you were not a horn player?

Spend loads of time larking about with my kids, and making new ones.

What could you do if you were not a horn player?

Virtually anything not requiring intelligence or physical exertion. Perhaps conducting?

What is your hot tip for budding horn-players?

Having given it some thought, my most useful and concise single piece of advice would be to simply ignore anyone who tells you about the diaphragm if they can’t give you any facts about its anatomy or its physiology.

Outside of your horn-playing, what are your hobbies?

Listening to all kinds of music, making things out of wood, writing letters to my brother who lives in Sweden, growing organic pumpkins, reading the New Scientist and, of course, trainspotting in my Millets anorak.

What would your eight desert island discs be, and why?

1-4. Jeff Bryant playing the four Mozart horn concertos.

5. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, because it was played at my wedding (though, unfortunately, not live).

6. Parsifal, because I have never heard it, and I bet it is fantastic.

7. Beethoven’s “Harp” string quartet – the first movement of which has a passage which never fails to make me convulse and froth at the mouth.

8. “Mirror of the Heart” a solo piano piece written and played by Lyle Mays, which could be the most profound and beautiful piece of music I have ever heard.

What book, apart from the bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, would you like to take with you to the desert island?

It just has to be the Farkas book of embouchure photos. And please could I swap the bible for Delia Smith’s cookery book “One Is Fun”

What luxury items would you like to take?

One of the following – It’s so hard to choose: a set of traffic cones, a karaoke machine, or a pantomime horse outfit.


This picture is pretty old now – taken in 1994.

Pip Eastop


“Hornwaves” (The album)

HORNWAVES – Quartets for Solo Horn

by Pip Eastop (1984)

 

Exerpt from sleeve notes:

“The music on this recording was made up on the spur of the moment and it was my deliberate plan NOT to have any musical ideas in my head before we started rolling. In this way I feel I have achieved a certain spontaneity of musical expression and have proved to myself (at least) that composing music doesn’t necessarily mean countless hours of paperwork and brain strain. It was a very liberating experience to create music in this way – cutting out the middleman, the composer, and putting musical thought straight down, no fuss or bother. I recommend it to any musician who is fed up with playing other people’s music and being told how to play it. For me it was my most exciting musical experience to date…”

The whole of this album is available, free, to download, track by track.
Choose from the list below to download or listen:

Echo-Counterpoint 2.1MB 

Fanfare 1MB

Hornwaves 3.4MB
Natural Harmonics in Morse 3.3MB
Ninths 5.3MB
Nocturne 2MB
Rather Scrappy 1.7MB
Spunky Horn 2.4MB
Sunday Afternoon 1.9MB
Sunday Morning 2.7MB
Walls of Jericho 3.7MB
Grosse Fugue 2.3MB
Mountains 2.7MB

 

Tape hiss:

This album was only ever published on cassette. The sound was never very “hi-fi” because the method used to layer the overdubs compounded what was already quite a noisy recording due to some slightly dubious home-made recording equipment involving video tapes. At the time we were very much in the pre-digital era. 

Judge for yourself if it’s worth hearing, musically speaking, and please be tolerant of the hiss.

I am very grateful to Jon Farley for compling and remastering all of these tracks.