Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

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Posts tagged “air

My hornplaying sucks

What are your thoughts about breathing and breath control for hornplayers? Try summarising them to an imaginary class of gullible horn students. What do you hear yourself saying?

Now, let me ask you how your thoughts about breathing and breath control might change if (in an imaginary world) you found it was possible to play the horn not just by blowing it but also by sucking? Would it change your ideas about breath support and the use of the diaphragm or any other bits?

A few years ago I became interested in the similarity between what happens at the the lips of a hornplayer and what happens when a violin bow moves across a string. Also, what happens when a flute player blows gently across the blowhole, or whatever it’s called…

One day I’d been doing some very quiet practise and found it interesting that a note could fade away to nothingness and then fade back in again. All that was needed to bring it back was a little air flowing through the horn making a faint wind noise, and for the lip aperture to be exactly right. For the ghost of a tone to emerge from nothing, out of a breathy wind sound, a bit of turbulence builds up inside the mouthpiece, or between the lips, and quickly falls into a stable pattern of vibration. It settles on a frequency – or a pitch – allowed by the mass of air inside the horn. It wobbles like a jelly in there – a very fast jelly. Any note produced will be from the harmonic series controlled by the length of the horn.

From this bit of experimentation I am convinced that you don’t have to “buzz your lips” to get a note going. It’s not the case that notes are produced by forcing air through your lips like “blowing a raspberry”. It seems to me that all you need is a flow of air and the right sort aperture, i.e. the right shape and the right muscle tone in the lips.

So, just as in playing a flute (not that I can) – the flow of air makes the air vibrate; and with a violin – the flow of the horsehairs across the catgut (or metal, or polyester or whatever) makes the air vibrate.

So, isn’t it perhaps a little strange that a violin bow can work in both directions – up and down – but the flowing air between a hornplayer’s lips can only do out – but not in. If the bow is the breath and the lip is the string, then why can we only make a sound by blowing, whereas a violin bow can work in both directions?

After a bit of personal research I discovered something amazing – that I can play the horn by sucking! Not only that – it’s almost exactly the same sound. How cool is that?

Tonguing during the suck is a bit tricky, as you might imagine, and the horn gets colder as I play it, which is weird – and my lungs slowly fill up with musty air from the depths of the horn, which is probably unhealthy, but apart from that it’s the same as blowing. Try it yourself.

Persevere until you can do it. Then go back to the first paragraph here and see what you now think about breathing and breath support for the hornplayer!

Okay. So you don’t believe me? Listen to this: 

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By the way, there’s much more about breathing and breath support to come in later posts.


Tounguing difference between horn and trumpet

I’m trying to get a bit of practice in every day.

More books and playalongs have arrived, so there’s no shortage of stuff to work on. The trumpet and the flugel are hanging up next to the piano, and the cornet (and mute) are upstairs next to the bed. Most of the playalongs and tons of other jazz recordings are on minidisc so I’ve always got stuff to listen to or play-along with. Also, my Revo has an ever increasing selection of “Grigson” grids to study.

It’s going quite well, although I detect a certain reluctance to get stuck into any standards. I’m not sure quite why this is but I’m hoping that Kenny might help me work this out when I go to see him this afternoon. He’s reluctantly agreed to see me for some kind of “lesson” although it’s clear he really doesn’t want to be a “teacher”.

I think what I should do is ask him to help me work on Stella – I think I have a bit of a foothold in that one.
What I really need is a tame pianist to help me work on some tunes. I’m going to phone Julian Jacobson (a very good pianist, who dabbles in jazz) in a few weeks, when he’s back from some cruise or other, and I’m hoping we can work up some tunes together.

The “LoadsOfModes” is working well. I think I’ll know them all in a couple of weeks and then I’ll just have to start speeding them up.

I’ve noticed something important. There is a tonguing difference between the horn and the trumpet. It’s a larger mass of air inside the horn so starting it and stopping it takes a bit more clout and steadier air pressure. This is the dreaded “support” but I hate the term it means totally different things to different people. I don’t think the trumpet needs any less of it than the horn but the tongue has to be used in quite a different way. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to switch tonguing styles as I switch instruments – rather like people who play both violin and viola have to learn to switch gears as move from one to the other.


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.