Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

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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.

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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.