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....

Posts tagged “article

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.

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