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 “mouthpiece

How not to clean your horn….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Emergency Mouthpiece Airbag

Here you can see Martin Hobbs (of the London Philharmonic Orchestra horn section) testing the prototype of my new Emergency Mouthpiece Airbag

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This latest invention of mine is to protect the lips against bruising if too much mouthpiece pressure is used. 

Tiny sensors built into the rim of the mouthpiece pick up any variations in pressure exerted onto the lips. When this pressure exceeds a preset level the airbag is instantaneously deployed. 

Some further callibration adjustment to the device is still necessary before it can go into production. Martin will be writing about his experiences with the Emergency Mouthpiece Airbag when he gets out of hospital. He has whiplash injuries to his neck and is in need of some dental reconstruction to his middle front teeth.


The Bent Mouthpiece

(This page was first published in my old website, several years ago, so the photo is rather old. I’m much better looking these days.) 

If I suggested that by bending your mouthpiece you would suddenly have an infinite range of new playing positions, would you believe me?

No, of course you wouldn’t. However, it’s true.

Having played on a bent mouthpiece for many years now and having enjoyed the advantages it brings it now seems to me, with the benefit of hindsight, such an obvious thing to want to do that I wonder why it has not been tried before. Tracing back through the path which led me to the idea I can see why bending the mouthpiece seemed logical to me then, but also why, had I gone down a different path, I might not have thought of it.

It all started with the PipStick which worked very well for me right from the start, except for one minor problem: with my back straight and my head balanced in its ideal position and the horn floating weightlessly in mid-air, my left hand was approximately level with my jaw – directly in my sightline to the music stand and blocking it from my view. Raising the music stand so I could see it was one clever solution – and this had the added advantage that it completely blocked my view of the conductor, even really tall ones.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered that absolutely the most important thing in a concert – and even in a rehearsal – is the uniform height of all the music stands. Orchestral managers, quite rightly, insist upon this.

So the bend in the mouthpiece was originally a way of angling the instrument down a bit in front of me without bending my nice newly straightened back.

Playing around with it, I soon discovered that rotating the bent mouthpiece a little one way or the other has the effect of positioning the horn slightly differently in relation to the body. For example, turning the mouthpiece so that it points a little towards my left ear means that to get it comfortably seated on my mouth I have to swing the entire horn around to my left – which gets the bell a little away from the right side of the body and allows the right arm a more comfortable position etc.

The conceptual trick here is to realise that the infinite circle of rotational mouthpiece positions corresponds to an infinite circle of horn positions. 

I find it best, when standing to play, to swivel the mouthpiece around to where it points a little downward and to my left. For me, this gives a very comfortable holding position for the horn as I allows me have it slightly lower, allowing for a lower music stand, and goes some way to equalising the position of my arms and thus taking the worst of the twist out of my shoulders. But you can put it where it suits you – I recommend experimenting to get it just where it’s comfortable. I know one player (a UK based player who “went bent” years ago – I won’t tell you the name of this marvellous hornplayer but it anagrams to”Teeth, Lips ‘n’ Grins”) who has his bent mouthpiece pointing upward, which gets the horn high up in the air so he can wave it about easily. It’s a very lightweight Alexander single Bb, so I think he can see the music stand through the pipework, there being not very much of it.

Disadvantages: People who notice the bend (although most don’t) usually ask if it changes the response of the mouthpiece. The answer to this is that undoubtedly it does make a difference – although to me it is undetectably small (and I am normally quite fussy about such things). Given that the horn itself it one great knot of bends I don’t see that one more slight extra bit of curvature is going to cause any harm.

How to make the bend? I put mine in the padded jaws of a vice and hit it lots of times with a rubber mallet. I’ve never had such fun! You can be brave and try this yourself or you might prefer get an expert to do it. Be warned, though; putting a mouthpiece in a vice and hitting it could be an extremely expensive operation!

As a general guide, 8 degrees is plenty but it doesn’t have to be exactly 8. 4 would hardly be worth bothering with whereas 12 might be too much.

Let me know how you get on.


“PhatterBoy” Eb Tenor Flugelhorn

Here’s a picture of my amazing new toy.

I’m not quite sure what I think it sounds like. But doesn’t it look absolutely amazing?

I’ve got three mouthpieces which work with it and they all sound very different to each other – they all work, though, so maybe I should keep them all going for the time being.

One is a straightforward Besson 15 – a pretty normal sort of tenor horn mouthpiece which gives it a mellow and fruity voice with not much edge to the sound.

Another is the mouthpiece which Andy Taylor made for it (shown in the picture) which looks the best, has the rim dimensions of my (French) horn mouthpiece and the internal shape of some kind of Yamaha tenor horn mouthpiece. This is a harder, higher temperature sound which seems to have a more interesting colour in the high register.

The third is a Stork Vacchiano 1.5B trumpet mouthpiece – the biggest I’ve ever seen and might be quite good with the PhatterBoy. It makes it scream when loud – quite a hot and raucous sound. A bit like a flugelhorn with masses of electric guitar distortion pedal.

I blew the PhatterBoy into my portable digital recorder (a Zoom H2) and recorded direct to mp3. I wanted to hear what it sounded like in an acoustic space so I added some reverb.  I used it with the mouthpiece shown in the photo. I think it sounds very promising. Not too much like a flugelhorn – not too much like anything, really – perhaps a bit like an alto-flute.

Click to listen to a clip of my new PhatterBoy!


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.


More help from Valentin

Valentin Garvie came around this evening. He had phoned up to say he was in London for four days between a tour around Sweden and a pile of work with Ensemble Moderm in Germany, so I invited him around straight away. We played through a few blues pieces and one or two standards, all with the Aebersold playalongs.

To summarise what came out of the evening:

1. I’ve improved a bit since the last time we tried this together, which is encouraging in itself, but in addition Valentin was particularly encouraging. He’s very good at delivering praise and encouragement wrapped up neatly with some constructive criticism.

2. My polycarbonate mouthpiece is really not bad – we did a sound test and the differences were not quite so obvious as they had seemed last time we compared it with his Bach 1.5C

3. Valentin is a really good jazzer! I don’t know why he hasn’t been doing more of it. As we got warmed up he got much better, very rapidly, indicating that he has been very good at jazz improvisation in the past but has let it get a bit rusty. After half an hour or so he was producing some amazingly impressive stuff and by comparison I felt I was sounding worse and worse. The most noticable thing for me was that I don’t seem to have any sort of style, rather I play in what might be called the “Blandissimo” style. Some gin didn’t help. For a moment or two I felt like giving up but then Valentin managed to find yet more encouragement, somehow.

4. He agreed wholeheartedly with “Really, the best way to learn is to take tunes off records..”. (see previous post, here).

5. He thinks that rather than trying to learn all the turnarounds, all the two-five-ones, all the blues progressions in every key etc. (not that I have been, entirely…) I should I should stick to the simpler more common keys only and concentrate my efforts more on learning a big repertoire of patterns, licks, riffs, whatever they are called, extracted from recorded solos. I must find a ways of chaining chunks of this sort of remembered material together in my improvisation. Hopefully, this should to prevent me meandering around aimlessly, which is what I tend to do when I’m reading chord symbols.

Now, that’s a lot of learning in one evening – and all it cost me was the preparation of a bowl of stif-fried vegetables with rice and a gin&tonic!

(6. I must persuade Valentin to come over more often.)


Valentin Garvie

Valentin Garvie came to visit today for a jam. He’s recently landed a great job – principal trumpet with Ensemble Modern, based in Frankfurt. He’s a wonderful trumpet player – from Argentina – and a really simpatico bloke.
The first thing I did was to get him to listen to me playing on a Vincent Bach “ordinary” mouthpiece and then switch to the transparent polycarbonate one for comparison. Amazingly he knew straight away that one of them was a plastic one – and knew which one it was!
However, he did concede that it is indeed a very good mouthpiece.

Valentin Garvie, May 2002


See-through mouthpiece

I went to The Valve (a great brass instrument shop in London) today, to look at cases and buy a harmon mute. Also, I ordered a “triple” case which will hold both a trumpet and a flugelhorn. 

I found myself looking at mouthpieces and bought a very intriguing one made of transparent polycarbonate. It’s unbreakable, won’t get stuck in the leadpipe and always feels warm to the lips. Here’s a picture of it.

A virtually weightless mouthpiece.  Nice for the arms.


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.


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


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