Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Posts tagged “phrases

The problem with horn “studies” (rant)

I think I’ve got to the bottom of why horn studies annoy me so much, and why I often  discourage my horn students from playing them.

The horn is a wind instrument and its sound depends on the breath. In this way it’s comparable with singing. Songs are written with the need for breathing written into the actual shape of the music, in phrases. Horn studies are, on the other hand, usually written as if the breath was something to hide – something to pretend does not exist.

Composers who write music with horn parts understand that the horn is a wind instrument and there are almost always good places to take a breath that allow for phrasing, human-style. All of the good composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Bruckner, Wagner, Mahler, Sibelius etc. have done this perfectly well.

Now look at horn studies: Maxime Alphonse, for example. There is nowhere to breathe. Why not? What possible virtue is there in making this pseudo-music chugg on like a machine while the player heads towards cardiac arrest?

There are often no stopping points – no ends of phrases. This is an important trap for the horn student (of which I am one) Typically, during a practise session, the poor study-sufferer will put the book on a music stand, chose a page and start. After a bar or two of flying about the instrument, splitting or fluffing a note here and there, not stopping to correct anything, a breath is needed. What to do? There’s nowhere to breathe – it’s all semiquavers:

…..thought bubbles: “…I need to build endurance – no pain, no gain – I must suffer – continue playing – do not breathe – getting uncomfortable – a quick look ahead – nowhere to breathe for at least another thirty bars – must snatch one – now! – gasp! – good, but not enough – need another quickly – don’t want to draw attention to my need to breathe – must develop endurance – starting to press mouthpiece into lips – splitting and fluffing lots of notes now – must breathe, or die – snatch! – phew! – keep going for another bar or two – mouth filling up with saliva – shoulders hurting – trembling now through the need to get rid of stale air and take in some fresh – but must keep going – only twenty bars left – yesterday I didn’t get as far as this before I stopped – this sounds awful but I’ll keep going – need to develop endurance – must breathe – gasp – saliva pouring into mouthpiece now – keep going – body shaking – back hurting – belly clenched and juddering…”

Does this sound familiar? It’s quite a common situation. I’ve been there myself, and I’ve seen it a lot in conservatoire horn exams. How can such suffering be conducive to producing music? Hornplaying is not an endurance sport!

Furthermore, this way of practising actually does nothing for your “endurance”. What it does do, though, is encourage some pretty bad habits. Inaccuracy, poor intonation, poor rhythm, rough sound, bad posture – the list goes on.

What is the purpose of playing things through, anyway? “Playing through”, is what you do in a performance. It means starting at the beginning of something and playing it all the way through without stopping to make corrections.

This brings me to my main issue with horn studies:

The essence of the problem is in not stopping to make corrections. As I understand it, stopping to make corrections – to fix absolutely everything as you go along – is the quintessential horn-learning technique. Without it you don’t get better – you simply stay the same …or get slightly worse. Your chops muscles might bulk up but they will be getting stronger at playing badly.

If you really must play the M.A. horn studies then it’s best done with a pair of scissors. Cut them up into one, two or four-bar chunks and treat each chunk as a handy little study. Then look through the pile of study-ettes you have – you’ll see that there are a lot of duplicates. You can throw all of those away.

….and while I’m ranting. Something I really hate is to hear Mozart’s Concertos, or any other good bits of horn music, used as “studies”, in the sense of starting at the beginning and playing them through to the end. Again, get the scissors out and work on small bits. Mozart knew how to write for the horn, always leaving lots of spaces to breathe and recover between phrases.