Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Posts tagged “technique

Teaching a beginner

This blog entry is quite a large one. It’s taken from a much earlier version of my website (8 years ago) and I’m re-publishing it here because lots of people have requested to read it again since it disappeared a year or two ago in the re-write and re-design of my website.

Teaching my first beginner

I’ve often thought that, for a change, I’d like to teach a complete beginner rather than taking over, as I always have done in my horn teaching, from where the previous teacher has left off. I’ve relished the possibility of having a big influence over the setting up of a brand new embouchure, a new playing posture, new habits of breathing, sounding, listening, thinking – the whole player. Even recently I’ve been wishing for it without realising that already I have that very thing sitting so closely under my nose that I hadn’t noticed it. It, or he, is in the form of my youngest child, Zachary, now aged four [now aged 12!],  who is learning to play the Eb tenor horn.
First, a bit of background: when Zak’s older brother, Mordecai, was about one year old I constructed a playable toy horn for him using a length of garden hosepipe, a plastic kitchen funnel, an old crook from a military band piston horn and an old horn mouthpiece.

Zak playing the homemade hosepipe horn

Zak playing the homemade hosepipe horn

It’s was more or less the right length for a horn in F but, due the acoustic properties of hosepipes, did not have an in-tune harmonic series. Suffice to say that it has roughly the same number of playable harmonics as a horn in F. This kind of instrument is robust enough to be kicked around the floor and left in a toy box rather than needing a case. Another advantage is that it’s not loud enough ever to become irritating. Well, maybe sometimes…

Zak playing the horn

Zak playing the horn

Mo enjoyed playing it, made a reasonable sound and soon had a range of almost an octave. However, it was Zak, his younger brother, who a couple of years later really took to it and seemed to spend a lot of time carrying it around the house with him, blowing it, really enjoying the sounds and sensations. By the time he was three years old he had stopped puffing his cheeks out (nagging parents) and had refined his technique to the extent of being able to articulate notes by tonguing. The most amazing thing, though, was that by the time he was 4 years old he could play recognisable tunes, the first of which was “Jingle Bells”.

When he was four years old we began thinking that Zak needed something a bit more like a real musical instrument to play. What would be good, we thought, was some kind of three-valved brass instrument which would be light in weight, easy to hold, relatively easy to play and would not require a very strong embouchure (i.e. not a trumpet). It should also have a well cushioned mouthpiece to spread the load of any pressure applied so as not to distort a child’s growing teeth. There seemed to be only one choice – it had to be the Eb tenor horn.

I phoned Gale Lawson (the man I get to do all my instrument repairs – and the managing director of the PipStick factory) and asked him to look out for a cheap old wrecked tenor horn which could be patched up and made to play reasonably well and would be suitable for hurling into a toy box at the end of each day. A couple of weeks later we heard back from Gale that he found the very thing. Fifty quid and it was Zak’s – a very fine Christmas present indeed!

Zak Xmas horn

Zak Xmas horn

Since then he has played it quite a lot, encouraged somewhat by the fact of his big brother having weekly violin lessons and practising a bit each day. However, Zak would often forget about it for a week or two and so there was little chance of much progressive development of embouchure strength or of building up technique from one day to the next. Don’t get me wrong – we were really not pushy, ambitious parents – it’s just that we felt Zak would enjoy it even more if he could notice himself getting better at it and that could only happen if we could get him to practise a bit every day.

So, how do you motivate a four year old to practise on a tenor horn every day? A very persuasive “sticker chart” combined with carefully set cash incentives is what’s behind Zak’s current burst of progress (I still don’t think we were pushy parents!). At the time of writing Zak’s chart (identical to his brother’s) was set up 28 days ago and now has a sticker, awarded for having done an acceptable amount of good practise, in every square representing each day since then. There are lots of ways to set up a sticker chart but the way we chose to do it goes like this:

A week is represented by a row of 8 squares – that’s one square for everyday of the week plus a bonus square for putting in an 8th sticker if all seven of the day squares get filled. Each Sunday, we add up all the stickers for the week and hand over cash to the value of 5 pence for each one of them. The presence of a bonus sticker doubles the sum, so o a full week of stickers gets Zak (and his brother Mordecai, violin) a massive 70 pence. It has to be good practise, not just going through the motions, and so far neither of them have missed a day.

I’ve already said that we got him to tongue quite early on but it would be fairer to say that he worked this out for himself. Zak was an early whistler, learning to do it rather well while he was only 3 and very quickly worked out how to whistle tunes, including “Happy Birthday” with even some slurs in. One day his mother noticed that he was using some tonguing in his whistling and she had the presence of mind to ask him if he could do the same trick while playing the tenor horn. He certainly could – and that was that – he didn’t really need teaching how to do it.

Then the sticker chart started and I found myself doing his daily practise with him, just as my Dad did with me from when I was 9 years old. There were definitely echoes of that happy scene – my dad sitting by my side exploring and mapping with me the rugged terrain of horn technique. The way my Dad taught me to play the horn (and the recorder for a couple of years before that) was pure genius and I still think of him as the best horn teacher I ever had, even though he was not a horn player (he was an oboist and marching bass-drummer in a military band). Clearly, it was a more difficult task for him teaching me than it is now for me to teach Zak and yet the things he taught me about learning to play the horn were so pithy and essential that I still work on my playing in the same way he taught me all those years ago. His and my only guide at the time was that excellent and inspiring book, “The Art of Playing French Horn”, by Philip Farkas. My clever Dad was able to extract from that book many essential nuggets of expertise and pass them on to me in an exciting and meaningful way.

Something that may surprise some readers of this journal is that I am not planning to link Zak’s learning of his instrument to teaching to read music – at least not yet. Shock horror! Why not? Read on:

When I was seven I started learning to play the recorder and the first thing I was shown in my school recorder class, along with about eight other kids, was that I had to cover certain finger-holes and blow in order to get certain notes. I walked home from school that day working at those notes and kept on playing them while doing just about everything else that seven-year-olds do …for years.

The next lesson was the one which taught me that the notes I was playing were actually not just musical sounds but were in fact black dots on a printed page. This is confusing at first but young kids soon get the hang of it – just as certain words you say are the same as printed written words on paper. A problem arises in reading music, though, when this idea is turned around and fixed so that the dots on the page become the notes – they literally become the notes.

It happens like this: typically, a teacher will point to a black dot on a page and say “Now, this is a B. Left hand index finger and thumb – play it”. The learner stares at the black dot and executes the note while still staring at it. The black dot becomes the sound, the note.

The drive to learn to read music in this way – simultaneoulsy with learning to play – has become so entrenched in our culture of playing pre-composed music that, for most musicians, the “permission” to play a particular note seems to come only from printed commands rather than directly from musical the imagination of the player.

I was lucky. I escaped from school with my brand new recorder and played it all the way home and all the way back again for the next lesson before anyone had time to tell me I couldn’t play anything unless I was reading it in the form of black dots from a music book. Many were not so lucky. I know this because in all my career as a dot-reading horn player (one who subversively always made music up when nobody was listening [insert link to improvisation page] I have been amazed at how most of my colleagues seemed chained to the printed pages. Like slaves to someone else’s music these exclusively dot-reading musicians seem happy to play only what is written down for them.

Maybe you, the person reading this, are a dot-reading-only musician. Do you refer to a sheet of dot-covered printed paper as “The Music”? Could you play something you never heard or played before to an audience, without reading it from a page of dots and symbols? You might like to think seriously about this.

I don’t want my son to be musically imprisoned so that he can only play written notes. Similarly, his mother and I haven’t taught him to speak only when there are written words to read – he can say anything that comes into his mind, and usually does! In fact, he is quite a vocal improviser, as are most people.

When you think about it, it’s quite a bad state of affairs. Most so-called “Classical” (or Western European Art Music) music is created by non-performing people – Composers – with pens and sheets of paper or computers. Other non-playing people called Conductors keep control of the herds of dot-readers and even coach them through rehearsals to check that they are reading the dots correctly and – worse – make them play the the dots the way THEY want them played. Not really much room here for any creative input from the dot-readers – that is all controlled by the Composers and Conductors. And guess who gets most of the money? Ho-ho! Yep, it’s those silent folk, the Conductors and Composers. Hey, the bastards have stolen our music!

Thankfully there’s still jazz and other forms of improvisation.

Zak can learn to read music when he can play without it first. Just like he could speak before we started teaching him to read.

This rant is now over. Phew!

27th July 2002
Zak and I have been working on his tonguing. In particular getting clean, accurate starts to every note by trying to get six good ones in a row and turning this into a game to make it fun. He’s 4 years old so everything has to be fun. I have also been trying to prevent Zak from ending notes with his tongue by getting him always to diminuendo quickly away to nothing. A diminuendo requires skillful control of the air pressure and both the size and muscle-tone of the aperture so we do quite a lot of work on long notes, starting quiet, getting louder then getting quiter again.

Sometimes we turn this into a competition, which Zak likes. We start playing the same mid-register note together – me playing my horn, him playing his tenor horn – and we see who can hold it the longest. Of course he always wins, so he wants to do it over and over again. His record is 20 seconds. That is very long! Try it yourself and imagine you are the size of a 4 year old. If you don’t play a brass instrument try singing a 20 second note.

I suppose 4 years old is a bit young for an embouchure change and I’m pretty amazed by what Zak has managed to achieve. His natural tendency is to get down into the lower half of his range by tipping his lower tip forward a bit into the mouthpiece. I think it’s the way many beginners first try to descend in pitch – by instinctively opening the aperture and forming it with a softer and slower-vibrating part of the lip. Having found moderate success with it many then stick with that until either they decide to change it or learn to live with the fact that they are never going to have a really good low register. I’m sticking my neck out a bit here, I know, but it’s what I have observed and I believe it to be the case.

Seeing that Zak was indeed doing this I decided to try to get him to do it in a different and, I hope, better way. I showed him how to put his top lip a little in front of his lower lip, rather than the other way around, and hold the centre of the bottom lip back and a little puckered. I combined this with the idea of blowing the airstream “down your chin” a little. Once it looked and sounded better, which it did almost immediately, I got him to think of a name for the new setting and he immediately came up with “Nitwit Lips!”

A later tweak, to tone up the corners of his mouth a little and ensure that no bits of his lip were protruding, became known as “Whistling Nitwit Lips”.
The new setting is certainly more difficult for him so he quite often reverts to his original embouchure. However, whenever he forgets, just by saying “Whistling Nitwit Lips” I can conveniently and quickly get him to switch back to the new improved setup. I just have to keep an eye on how it looks when we are doing his practise but as you can see in the follwing photos it’s quite easy to see the difference.

The first of these two embouchures gives Zak much greater control of diminuendo and crescendo, a wider range and a much warmer and fuller sound.

Here’s a close-up of what I reckon is an almost perfect embouchure.
The overlap is perhaps just a little too exaggerated.

Here’s Zak doing a bit of practice.
The tenor horn is a very comfortable instrument for a small person.

1st August 2002
I’m not bragging or anything but Zak played a very high note today. He was trying to get a concert G (E on the tenor horn) when he overshot and out popped a high Bb, clear as a bell, and a bit flat, it being a 7th harmonic. (Db on the piano, more than one octave above middle C). He used a very nice embouchure and quite a lot of effort but he is only four so I think this proves what I’ve believed for a long time – that success in the high register is a more to do with getting the chops set up right rather than having very powerful muscles.

We found this for Zak in a car boot sale near Nottingham – for twenty quid!

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak Xmas Horn

It’s qite a nice instrument, a Weltklang, in much better condition than his first one and makes a slightly more refined sound. Now that we have the two instruments it’s much easier for me to illustrate things for him as we go along

26th August 2002
I think what’s needed now is a glossary of teaching terms (funny words) which Zak and I have come up with to help us.

  • Whistling Nitwits:
    As described earlier on this page: this is a short code word for a slightly puckered embouchure with the lower lip held slightly behind the upper so it feels as if the airstream is aimed slightly downwards. It is used to correct that very strong urge to roll the lower lip forwards – which is a very common fault among beginners particularly in trying to get down into the low register. The aim here is to get Zak set up with a fully integrated (no breaks across the enitre range) embouchure right from the start so he’ll never have to go through any major embouchure overhauls.
  • DiddyEdds:
    This word means “Get the fingers of your right hands on top of those valve buttons so they are ready for action”. Zak got into the habit of swooping his right hand away from the instrument in an extravagant flourish whenever none of the valves were needed, for example moving to a C or a G. It looked quite cool but meant that he was always late with the valves when they were next needed. The DiddyEds seems to be correcting this, although his third finger is quite lazy and often curls up next to the valve casing.
  • Chimes:
    A chime is a note lasting a couple of seconds which starts with a bell-like accent and then fades evenly to silence. It’s very good for developing a lot of things: Clean, accurate tonguing, control of pitch during a diminuendo and adjustment of the aperture to cope with extremes of dynamic range, from ff down past ppp to nothing. It’s an attractive sounding note and Zak seems to like doing it. Most days we do a few of these. They soon developed into…
  • Double chimes:
    This is like a miniature fanfare and is the same as a single chime apart from having a very short fast note just before it, slightly quieter than the main note – like an upbeat 16th, or semiquaver. This gets his tongue working and it’s fun.
  • Ghosts:
    Ghosts is our name for a twilight sounding note whch you can produce if you fade into our out of a note without using the tongue. It’s a sort of sonic glow. We use it to warm up on sometimes. Very often Zak can get a ghost to appear out of a gentle breath-flow sound and then control this perfectly as it grows into a real solid note. He can often do it in reverse too, fading to nothing so that it’s not possible to hear precisely when the note stops. I’m amazed a four year old can do this as I’ve only been able to do it myself comparatively recently.
  • A hill chopped in half:
    This is a long note which starts quietly then crescendos towards its middle where it is suddenly cut and then immediately restarted with a loud accent. This is then followed by a long diminuendo to nothing. This exercise is totally brilliant as it exercises all of the following:
    Control over pitch steadiness through changing volume.
    Control over the timing of the breath delivery through changing volume.
    Control over timbre variation through changing volume.
    Starting and ending very quietly
    Getting a clean, polished loud end to the first part of the note (the “chop”) and a clean, polished loud attack just after it.
    The chop itself is particularly important as the air pressure must be kept up to challenge 1) the tongue in resisting air pressure prior to loudly tonging the second part of the note and, 2) the glottis (vocal cords) in suddenly blocking the flow of air in order to stop the first part of the note without an audible “tongue-off”.
    (Sorry if that sounded a bit technical!)
  • Horn Tennis:
    Horn Tennis* is a game I’be played a lot with my college students. It is pure non-verbal form of teaching by example. The server (usually me but not always) plays something fairly simple and short (the ball) which has to be returned as accurately as possible. If the return is perfect a slightly more complex ball can be served etc. This is a great game because it’s fun and develops so many skills in both participants. The server has to pitch the ball with care not just to play it perfectly but so that it is finely judged for the other player to be able to copy it but not find it too easy. Zak loves this game, so I’m using it to get him to learn how to play simple rhythmic patterns with uncomplicated note changes. As soon as he can copy something easily I make things a little more difficult.
    Whether with Zak or with any of my students I’m always amazed by the steepnes of their learning gradient during this game.

*One of my students wrote about his experiences with Horn Tennis. Please click here [insert link to Tom Allard’s article]  to read it.

28th August 2002
We tried some jazz today. I put on one of the tracks from the Aebersold series of playalongs. The particular one I chose was of a swing accompaniment which stays on the chord of Eb – it’s a few minutes long. It worked a treat. Zak was able to play any of the notes of his C major (except the F, which is an “avoid” note, F# sounds better, making it a Lydian mode).

30th August
Zak was very reluctant to do his practise this morning, saying very gloomily, “I hate horn practise!” Still, I managed to cajole him into it by offering that we skip it today and leave a gap in his sticker chart. No! he didn’t want to do that and lose his bonus.
I must admit now, after my recent rant, to have buckled under pressure from his mother to start showing him how to read music. I feel slightly unhappy about this but she has a point because in a couple of weeks I’m going to be away for nine days and she wants to do Zak’s practise with him during that time. She doesn’t feel she can keep it going without having some musical dots to point at. Fair enough, I suppose.
So, I gave him a nice big book, the Arban Cornet Tutor. Never do things by halves. And I wrote his name on the front and opened it where the endless ghastly egg-notes exercises start. Before doing this I had drawn for him a stave (staff?) with a few notes on he knew to show him how easy it is to figure out which ones they are. He seemed quite excited by it.

1st September
Today, Zak completed nine weeks of practicing without missing a single day! I find this quite incredible – he’s still only four years old. He’ll be five in October.
Everything has improved. He now has a lovely full and rich sound which is very well controlled. He can crescendo and diminuendo without any pitch change over nearly all of his range. He’s pretty good all the way up to top E and has a remarkably good fruity pedal C. He can tongue any note or creep into any note from silence and then creep back away to silence. Some of these things I’ve only recently learned to do myself, after 34 years of serious study!
Parental bias aside, I am totally amazed by what he has been able to master in such a short time. However, it must be born in mind that he has had a 63 lessons in the last 63 days, with a very careful and focused teacher! Also, he started with no preconceptions or bad habits.

2nd September
Started actually playing from the Arban Cornet Tutor today. Zak didn’t have much trouble with the first exercise although I think he was reading from the letters I’d pencilled in above each note. In a few days I’ll erase them and see how he gets on. We didn’t spend too much time in this, however, and got on with some slurring practice instead. Starting on C (2nd space down) I got him to play a chime start, hold it for four finger clicks (at about 100 beats per minute) and then slur down to a B. No problem, so next a slur from C to Bb. Again, no problem, so a slur from C to A, then C to G, then C to F… all the way down to C to C. The last one was a bit tricky for him but only inasmuch as he found it hard to prevent the G from sounding briefly on the way down. I got him to repeat that downward slur and then slur directly back up to the higher C. This he did amazingly well – in fact the upwards C-to-C was absolutely perfect. Great chops! We finished off with some high E chimes and then some quietly held long ones. It’s a truly beautiful sound he makes.

Here are some sound files recorded on 24th September. I just want to show what Zak can do. I recorded these direct to my PC with a normal cheapo computer microphone.

Zak’s bell note

[audio:Zaks-bell-note.mp3|titles=Zak’s bell note]

Zak’s bell note 2

[audio:Zaks-bell-note-2.mp3|titles=Zak’s bell note 2]

Zak’s bell note 3

[audio:Zaks-bell-note-3.mp3|titles=Zak’s bell note 3]

Zak’s cresc and dim

[audio:Zaks-cresc-and-dim.mp3|titles=Zak’s cresc and dim]

Zak’s Harry Potter snippet

[audio:Zaks-Harry-Potter-snippet.mp3|titles=Zak’s Harry Potter snippet]

Zak’s Harry Potter snippet 2

[audio:Zaks-Harry-Potter-snippet-2.mp3|titles=Zak’s Harry Potter snippet 2]

Zak’s little fanfare

[audio:Zaks-little-fanfare.mp3|titles=Zak’s little fanfare]

Zak’s long bell note

[audio:Zaks-long-bell-note.mp3|titles=Zak’s long bell note]

Zak’s long bell note 2

[audio:Zaks-long-bell-note-2.mp3|titles=Zak’s long bell note 2]

This last clip was recorded a few months later on Christmas day 2002. A duet of Silent Night played by Zak (5) and his fiddle-playing brother, Mordecai (7)

[audio:Silent-Night-Zak-and-Cai.mp3|titles=Silent Night Zak and Cai]

19th April 2003
Here’s Zak with his new tenor horn – very generously given by Jim Gourlay, Head of Wind and Brass at Royal Northern College of Music.

Zak with new Besson on April 1st

Zak with new Besson on April 1st

It’s a Besson “International”, from about 1975. Since receiving it from Jim we’ve had it completely renovated and silver plated, by Gale Lawson. Gale also made the telescopic leg which, as you can see, supports the horn for Zak perfectly.

This picture was taken today just after we gave the new instrument to Zak for the first time. He loves playing it and he sounds great on it. He’s still only 5.

Besson Engraving

Besson Engraving

3rd January 2004

Hmmm…. I’ve not been very good at keeping up with this teaching journal, but now here’s an update:

Zak is now 6 years old and has been practising the tenor horn every day – without missing a single day – for just over 18 months. The sticker chart with cash incentive has proved to be extremely effective. Total cost to us in weekly seventy pences has is now about £57. What’s he being doing with all that money?! In truth, he has missed about three days due to illness – and earned himself crosses on the chart instead of stickers – these, however, he has made up for by occasionally doing double practise and converted the crosses back to stickers. You can’t lose with this system. There’s always a cunning way around.

We’ve been doing a lot of work on scales. Zak likes scales more than anything else – something I am very pleased about because it proves that anything, no matter how arduous, can be made fun, if enough care is taken. So, how can you make scales fun for a 6 year old? Well, the rule seems to be that you have to make it as easy as possible and constantly to show clear proof of improvement – and also dangle rewards along the way.
To make the scales easy you need good graphics. Here is what I have been using – for many months now – with Zak. It’s in pencil, on a large piece of card and has taken quite a battering as it has travelled with us to various holiday places and moved around the house.

Zak Scale Chart

Zak Scale Chart

It’s a “circle of fourths” with one octave of the relevant major scale drawn in at each point. Zak and I are working towards the “ultimate” goal of him playing all twelve of these one-octave scales in one day, up and down at 120 notes per minute. Step by step we have worked on each scale carefully, patiently, a little each day, to get each one up to speed. A tick is earned when it’s completed perfectly (and I am the judge, and a tough one at that) and eventually all twelve have become ticked. We have been around the circle three times now and if you look you can see that each scale has been ticked three times already. My next plan is to get him to do four scales in a day over three days. He can have as many attempts as he likes – he just has to get them all done once perfectly in the same day. When he’s done this we’ll do six per day and then, eventually, and I’ve no doubt quite soon, he’ll manage to play all twelve in one day. He knows that when he achieves that he gets a BIG prize. He wants a minidisc player but we’ll see a bit nearer the time. Perhaps just a minidisc….

He’s pretty excited about starting work on the minor scales after that. I’m going to do all twelve of the Dorian modes (jazz minor scales) with him rather than the stupid “harmonic” minors that nobody knows why you have to learn at music college! The nice thing about the Dorians is that they use the same notes as the majors, but starting on the 2nd of the scale so, in effect, he already knows them. They won’t take long and after that he can get into some pretty interesting improvisation – using real chord symbols.

It hasn’t been all major scales – quite… we’ve had brief respites from them, looking at wholetone scales, chromatics and diminished arpeggios, all using the cirle of fourths. I’m not kidding – Zak finds these things fun! Is he abnormal?

I try to encourage Zak to improvise each day, as far as possible in the key of the scale we have been working on. Slowly, this is building up his ability to traverse the keys freely as he improvises. It’s a massive job but he’s onto it.

4th January 2004

If you look back at Zak’s circle of fourths again you’ll see that the scales have coloured patches at the end of each one. Zak successfully played all the blue ones today – with a metronome at 120 notes per minute. That’s Db major, A major, D major and Eb major. Progress.

5th January 2004

Oh dear! It’s all gone wrong!

Today Zachary decided he hated practise and didn’t want to do any. Furthermore, he never wants to play the tenor horn again and seems perfectly happy with the idea that it might get sent back to where it came from – AND he’s not even bothered about not getting a fabulous prize.  (he did do a bit of practise in the end but nothing to do with scales)

7th January 2004

Zak has still decided against practising scales. And it was a little difficult persuading him to get started this morning (before school – groan! It’s the best time to do it, though). So today’s dangling carrot was the “Band In A Box” program. I told him that we could make up nice pieces – which indeed he did. The program provides an instant backing for your improvisations – all you have to do is type in the chord symbols you want and which bars you want them in. I set up something quickly (all automatically transposed into Eb – tenor horn pitch) with C major, Eb major and G major over a sort of slushy Latin style backing. What did he do? He played up and down the scales and found it all fitted very nicely. He seemed pretty pleased. I didn’t say anything about how useful scales seemed to be and just pointed the relevant scales on his circle of fourths scale chart as an indicator of which notes would sound good. After that I showed him that he could use the notes of C major to improvise over D minor chords. This is a nice feature from jazz musical theory – it’s modalness – D minor uses exactly the same notes as C major – and G7 for that matter (…and a whole bunch of others, like B7-9 or F+11…)

So, he continues. I think it’s time I bought him a book of tunes. I think he’d like to be able to take his hooter to school and entertain his classmates with themes from Harry Potter or Shrek …or perhaps I should write some tunes for him.

9th May 2004.

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak Xmas Horn

Zak is doing incredibly well. It’s now seven weeks short of two years that he has been practising regularly and he still hasn’t missed a single day. An incredible acheivement for a 6 year old, I think.

Last week he played all his major scales in one day, something he’d been working towards, a little each day, for the best part of a year. He did them all perfectly, one octave, up and down, at two notes per second. This won him a prize: a Sony CD Discman.

He’s lost one of his upper incisors. This could be a problem but I’m playing it down for the moment. It’s altered his sound a little and I think he’s got one or two pressure points from the remaining tooth on his inner upper lip which is uncomfortable for him. I’m keeping him out of the upper register for a while to see what happens. I’d be pretty sad if he had to stop for a while but I’m not going to make him play if it hurts or if it means he has to invent some weird temporary embouchure.

The photo looks okay, doesn’t it? And he sounds really great. A full bodied, warm and satisfying sound. I’d have been really glad to have a sound like that when I was 12. He’s 6.


Since then:
For several years after this Zak and I continued in much the same way and at some point he switched to trumpet. He learned ALL the scales and modes and we started working more on jazz improvisation. The sticker chart continued to be a great success. His sound and his chops were absolutely perfect and he could improvise freely in all sorts of ways and was making good progress with the mundane skill of reading printed musical notation (please note my resistance to calling it “music”). In 2007 I bought him a wonderful Yamaha Custom trumpet – the Wayne Bergeron model. A stunningly good instrument which is powerful but light in weight and thus suitable for a young and growing player.
By this time I had been expelled from my family home and, tragically, was not able to keep up regular work with Zak. He still works on his trumpet playing,  although without my supervision. He spends each Saturday at the excellent Junior Department of  Guildhall School of Music and Drama where his obvious musical skills are being nurtured and developed in a wonderful environment teeming with similarly motivated kids.
I’m am extremely proud that I was able to give so much to Zak, in the way that my Dad gave so much to me when I was starting off. I hope that in a few years, when he’s well into his teens, he and I will be able to continue the work we started together…

It’s now early 2015 and Zak is 17 and he is know by many to be an outstanding young trumpet player. Just yesterday he asked me for a trumpet lesson.
100% happiness 🙂

Tonguing simplified

Tonguing is really simple, but hornplayers have a lot of problems with it.

I think most of these problems stem from overcomplicating the issue.

To simplify everything, let’s define tonguing:

Tonguing is (nothing more than) the movement of the tongue from one position to another. These positions are:
0.  Obstructing the airflow – by being in the way of it.
1.  Not obstructing the airflow – by being out of the way of it.

I’d like to illustrate that with a fingering exercise.

Pull out and remove one of your tuning slides. It doesn’t really matter which one. Make sure that when you blow air through the horn it vents out through one of the disconnected pipes (use a valve or two if you need to).

Now, while blowing air through the horn, put a finger over the end of the open pipe to block it. Then take the finger away to let the air out again.

If that worked okay (no air leaks) now do the same while playing a note – any note. Block and unblock the tube while you are playing. Please make sure you try to keep a steady tone going, even when the tube it blocked.

So your finger is working like a two-position switch. Let’s call these positions, “1” for when you can make a sound and,  “0” for when you can’t. In other words: 1. lets you make sound,  0. stops any sounds. A useful analogy would be water spurting out of a hosepipe and stopping when you put your thumb over the end. Alternatively, it’s like a light switch – two positions – 1 and 0 – on and off.

When you’ve got bored doing this, put the slide back in and read the next bit very carefully.

Tonguing is when your tongue does exactly what your finger has just done – the only difference is that it’s doing it on the other side of your lips.

Get a note going, then stop it by putting your tongue in the way – BUT DON’T STOP BLOWING (this is the same as NOT turning the garden tap off or NOT shutting down your local power-station). Then take your tongue away – if you kept the blowing pressure constant during the OFF then the note should start up again – exactly as it finished but sort of in reverse. We are not talking about particularly nice notes here – just tonguing.  We are talking blunt, uncultivated tonguing and tongue-stopping here.

And that’s it. Tonguing and nothing else – no frills.

Getting nice rounded starts to notes and nicely shaped notes is, of course, very important but these things are not part of the tonguing mechanism. If you want to work on your tonguing then you need to know what it is – and (at least as important) what it isn’t.

All of the subtle musical nuances in note shapes are controlled by varying the volume of the notes – something which the tongue does not control.

Keep things simple: tonguing is a simple binary switching mechanism – On or Off.

There is more about tonguing in an earlier post here.

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

I’ve come across many curious and delightful misconceptions about tonguing. I’d like to collect them and list them here. Please, if you have one – leave it here in the comments section.

Common tonguing misconceptions:

  • The tongue works like the hammer of a piano – it strikes behind the upper incisor teeth and somehow shoots notes through the instrument.
  • That the tongue must never touch the lips, or protrude between them. Believe me – EVERYONE does this. (Get any hornplayer to prepare to play a note and FREEZE just at the last fraction of a second before starting it. Then, without changing anything, take the mouthpiece away. See the tip of the tongue showing? Ha ha!)

Valves v. pistons

Having got back from holidays with the cornet I had to check my hornplaying was still working before heading off to Edinburgh with the Britten Sinfonia, to play some stuff by James Macmillan. This would be followed by a week of film sessions (Peter Pan) for Joel McNeely. To my great relief the horn playing seemed hardly changed. Perhaps a little unfocussed in the high register but elsewhere, if anything, improvements had taken place. How completely brilliant! I really didn’t know what sort of damage I might have done so I was very relieved. 

What struck me most of all was the difference of practice technique. With the cornet I had been playing scales and arpeggios and improvising bits of melody and jazz licks. With the horn, on the other hand, I found myself playing long tones with crescendi and diminuendi and bathing in the sheer loveliness of the sound. The cornet is nice but it really doesn’t have that fascinating, hypnotic timbre. I don’t think I could have spent thirty years practicing long notes on a trumpet like I have with the horn.

Another difference which became obvious was that rotary valves sound very different to pistons. I had no idea about this before learning the cornet. It’s not just a left hand versus right hand thing, it’s a different mechanism with a different sound effect. The rotary valves of a horn are capable of giving a very quick change, more like a switch than a valve, whereas the piston can be moved slower if required and the half-valve sounds are more useful and easy to use than those of the horn. I wonder now what a modern piston horn would feel like to play. I must earmark that idea for a future project.

I’m still working at Locrians (Ø), diminished whole-tone scales (C7+9), and Diminished (beginning with the semitone) (C7-9).

Specific finger exercises

But where has this urge to learn jazz come from? I think it’s been there, just below the surface, for a very long time. It’s come to the surface now partly because it’s now or never – I’m 43. I have a slight sense of urgency and a feeling that at last I’m doing something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time.
It’s also a fascinating learning process and to a large extent it’s uncharted territory for someone like me, already possessing a certain amount of technique from a parallel discipline but not the language itself.
Another aspect of this is that I’m finding the study extremely satisfying, musically. The way I’m practicing the cornet is completely different from any way I’ve ever practiced the horn. Yesterday, for example, I spent part of the evening going through all the modes in all keys, first saying the name (i.e. Db Mixolydian) then trying to play them by ear but also picturing the geography, as if written down, so that I’m aware of which notes I’m playing, this being the hardest part because I’m not used to holding the visual map in my mind while playing.
I’ve noticed a fingering difficulty emerging: during the modes practice it happened quite a lot that when going from 2+3 to 1 the 2nd finger would come up slightly later that the 3rd making quite a messy transition. I need to isolate this problem and work out some specific finger exercises to clear problem. I wonder why I find this compelling – exciting even.

Horn Tennis

Written by Thomas Allard (horn student at Royal College of Music)

(Year 3 Teaching Skills Assignment)

Horn Tennis”

“It is impossible to teach the horn. It is only possible to teach the students how to teach themselves.”

This is Pip Eastop’s main philosophy, and over the last three years I have gradually come to agree with it. The main reason for this is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give a totally accurate description of the physical processes involved in tone production. Furthermore, even if the professor can describe accurately what he does, it does not mean that students can do the same thing, simply due to the fact that the physical make-up of the inside of the mouth differs from person to person.

To tackle this problem, my professor has devised a practise method to help students address all aspects of technique and discover for themselves the way to attain an ideal sound and technique. Hopefully this eventually allows them to express themselves musically without succumbing to the technical limitations of the instrument. He calls this method the “workout”. It is a period of intense practise incorporating self-styled exercises for breath control and tonguing at different dynamic levels throughout the horn’s range, slurring over different widths of interval, double and triple tonguing, lip trills and attacks on high notes.

Emphasis is on having a heightened level of awareness of what you play, and on only playing to a level at which you can play everything perfectly. Trying to push past this level too quickly does not help you to improve. However, by playing only what you can play perfectly day in, day out, it becomes apparent that the level at which you can do this is always increasing. Once students have an understanding of how the “workout” works, they can tailor existing exercises and invent new ones to meet their specific needs at any given time.

There can come times, however, when the student has trouble advancing with a certain area of their technique, possibly due to the fact that the exercise they have been using does not quite address the problem or perhaps because they are not quite sure what outcome they are aiming at (e.g. tone, type of attack etc.). In an attempt to overcome this problem my professor has invented a teaching method based less on verbal description and more on the aural perception of both the professor and student.

It is called “horn tennis” and involves the professor and student sitting in such a way that their bells face each other so that they can hear each other as clearly as possible. Then, taking into account the student’s description of their particular problem the professor will play something short, usually from a “workout” exercise, which the student then has to imitate exactly. If the student is unable to do this, the professor will play something easier so that the student can imitate it perfectly. Then he will see how far his student can improve by gradually increasing the difficulty of what he plays (without, of course, allowing them to play anything that isn’t perfect) as they continually bounce these small snippets of exercises off each other.

I have seen many of the benefits of this teaching method. Firstly, when there have been faults in the way I have been practising exercises I have been able to spot them straight away. Often I realise that I have not had enough patience in slowly building up what I am able to do. Other times it has been a case of me not quite having had high enough a level of awareness and thus having allowed mistakes to creep in.

Furthermore, there have been times when suggestions of a new approach to a problem by either my professor or myself have led to the discovery of new exercises which have ended up benefiting both parties.

When I have felt stuck because of being unsure of my aims I have benefited from “horn tennis” simply because I have been able to listen to how my professor thinks something should sound and slowly infiltrate this into my way of playing.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “horn tennis” has given me a valuable insight into the way in which my professor practises. This alone can often put my playing back on track. After all, if it can make him as good a player as he is, it can hopefully do the same for me!


Tom - thanks for allowing me to reproduce this on my website!