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 “PipStick

A thank you letter to Tony Halstead (extract)

Hi Tony,

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you are keeping well and keeping warm,

All the best,
Pip


Phatterboy on monopod

PhatterBoy on monopod

This horn is quite heavy, and it’s going to take some time to get used to it – by which I mean many hours of practise. And this means stiff neck, shoulders, back-ache …PAIN. 

I’m not all that keen on pain. I believe in “No pain = GAIN”. So I asked Andrew Taylor, of Taylor Trumpets, the maker of this marvellous horn, if he would make an adaptor for me so that it would sit on a camera monopod. This he has done and you can see it in the photo. The adaptor is basically a highly elongated bottom-end valve cap with a screw-threaded hole at the bottom which is the same size as those found on the underside of cameras. 

So now, whether I sit or stand, I can have the “Phatterboy” floating weightlessly in front of me. I’m not sure if I’ll use it for actual gigs any time, but it makes practising very comfortable.


The PipStick

The PipstickAs can be seen from the photo the PipStick is a attachment which fits securely on the underside of the horn and provides a support so that the entire weight of the instrument is taken by the right leg.The foot of the PipStick, where all the weight of the instrument is transmitted to the player’s leg, stands on the upper side of the right thigh about halfway between knee and hip. The height of it is adjustable and, to a certain extent, so is the angle at which it projects from the horn.

The Pipstick in use

Tom Allard, student at RCM, modelling a Pipstick

The development of this device began in 1981 when I began my training in the Alexander Technique. I soon realised that to enable me to take full advantage of the intensive 3 year course I had undertaken I would have to make some changes to the way I held my instrument. It seemed that to reap the full benefits of the Alexander Technique I would need to find a way of playing the horn such that my back could support itself and my shoulders and head freely, without the additional tensions demanded by a heavy static load held up by the arms for long periods.

Experiments with a variety of support mechanisms, sometimes with the help of various Alexander teachers monitoring any postural effects on me, confirmed that I would find great long-term benefit in having the horn suspended, rendered effectively weightless in the playing position. At this point I did not know if it would be possible to play the horn in this way but I felt encouraged by the fact that bassoonists, cellists, bass players (to say nothing of pianists, or even organists) have successfully found ways of playing their instruments without having to lift them while doing so.

Developing the design:
The initial stages were spent in discovering that it would not do simply to rest the horn’s bell on my leg and then raise the instrument to the correct height by means of a block of some sort under my left heel. I believe the reason this does not work is because the raising of the leg in this way pulls the hamstrings muscles (those along the back of the thigh), which in turn pull forwards on the lower part of the pelvis tipping it back and inevitably (in my case) leading to the lower back collapsing outward, or slumping (a fundamental crime for anyone involved with Alexander Technique).

To get around this problem I experimented with various ways of supporting the edge of the bell not directly on my leg but above it on a height-adjustable support. The first thing I remember using was a thick book – which was fine, up to a point, but there was a tendency for it to fall off my leg, noisily, so it was a risky thing in concerts.

brilliant dad
What I needed, I figured, was an extendable thingy attached securely to the bell. For help with this I turned to my Dad, a repairer of musical instruments by trade, and an inventive genius.

He made a very ingenious gadget for me which consisted of two shaped plates which clamped together on either side of the bell, locked firmly by wing nuts. Attached to these plates were two parallel rods, each curved to follow the shape of the bell, which were fixed to a bar shaped to be comfortable when pressing down on my leg with the full weight of the horn. The whole assembly could be quickly unclamped and packed away so I could still get my horn into its case.

The Pipstick in useThe Pipstick in use

After perhaps six years of life with this strange looking thing clamped to my bell I felt it was time for a rethink. In use there had always been a tendency for the horn to tip towards the left because its foot was directly under the edge of the bell rather than being directly under its centre of gravity. I had to continuously resist this leftward tipping with an equal and opposite twist of my back, which began to irritate me after a while as it was a constant reminder of a flaw in the design.

Eventually, I hit upon the idea of fixing a support to the centre of the horn, rather than to the edge of the bell. Again, it was my Dad who actually built the thing and it turned out to be a significant improvement on the bell-attached version. Now, the horn is perfectly balanced over its supporting telescopic leg and, naturally, there is no longer a pull to the left to resist. In fact it is now so well balanced in the playing position that I can usually take both hands away from the instrument without it falling over.

The main advantage is in making the horn a far less tiring instrument to play. The back muscles, instead of being set in a constant immobile tension, are left with only the upper body and head to support. The arms have only to balance and steady the instrument rather than carry its full weight.

It came as a surprise to me to discover that the main disincentive to extended periods of practice had been tiredness in my back and shoulders. With the PipStick fitted I found myself doing more practise and also getting far more out of the time I spent because I didn’t have to keep putting the horn down to relieve any aches and pains. I believe this fact alone made my practise somewhere in the region of 20% more time-efficient than it was before (or, to put it another way, it has enabled me to do 30 minutes practice in only 25 minutes – which may not sound like much time saved but it certainly adds up over the years). Of course, simply saving time is not the most important advantage. The real benefit is that with the horn effortlessly floating in the playing position and no compulsion to put it down for short periods my embouchure naturally became both stronger and more efficient without me specifically having worked on that aspect.

If required I can play all day long without tiring. The PipStick is very good for my back – and much cheaper than an osteopath or chiropractor.

beforeafter

Two highly embarrassing photos from 1983

I have got to the point now where I am so accustomed to using the PipStick, and so comfortable with it that I would not ever want to play without it.

Playing in a standing position is now something I find rather hard work and I try to avoid it if I can. I suppose I could design and have built an extended version of the PipStick – one which reaches right down to the ground. It could even have a tripod base like a music stand so it could be freestanding….

Well, in fact I did try it – look at the photos – but I think I lost my nerve. I certainly lost that haircut.

I have had hundreds of enquiries from horn players worldwide wanting to know where they can get a PipStick. Until recently I have not been able recommend a maker but now, as of July 2000, I’m very pleased to say that Gale Lawson has agreed to make them. His work is excellent.

Contact me by email if you are interested in trying or purchasing a PipStick. Current cost (including a setting up session with me) is somewhere in the region of £300.

The PipstickThe Pipstick

This is a very nice stick. Made by Gale Lawson for Tom Allard (playing in the photo). It renders Tom’s extremely heavy Alexander horn completely weightless.

As you can see it is a very strong construction – and it needs to be. It is not a good idea to fix a stick directly to any part of the tubing (as other stick makers do). The stick must be a strong and rigid construction in which you can have complete confidence. It should feel part of your instrument.

Please email me if you want to know more


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.


Horn on a stick

This is Zak, my son. He’s actually a trumpet player and unfamiliar with the horn. I just needed a model for the photographs. 

I’ve been experimenting with variants on the PipStick, and come up with this – it’s mounted on a very sturdy photographic monopod (made by Manfrotto).

Zak is 11 years old. Look at the way he’s holding, or rather balancing, the horn. Look at his head position and the straightness of his neck. I didn’t ask him to stand like that. I just gave him the horn-on-a-stick and asked him to blow a few notes through it.

Zak doesn’t normally ever play the horn. He’s unfamiliar with the the feel of it and doesn’t know how to hold it properly. But look – he has extremely good posture in the photographs. It’s even better than his normal posture. Not only does the stick prevent bad posture, but it provokes good posture and better general use of the back, neck, head, shoulders and arms etc. 

In this second photo you can see how effortless it is to hold the horn. It’s completely weightless – all that is needed is balance – which is very easy. 

I like the feel of this very much – the horn seems to float even better than with the normal PipStick. There is one obvious disadvantage, however – I can’t easily rotate the horn to get the water out. And I can’t get it out with just the water keys (even though I have four of them!).  Doh!


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.