SOME RANDOM IDEAS AND REMINDERS FOR IMPROVING ACCURACY
by Nicholas Smith
(1) Remember that each note has its own particular feel or "taste" to it. It is vital to learn the differences in air pressure, mouthpiece pressure, jaw placement, etc. needed to produce each different note. Learn to let the body's subconscious memory help you find the notes. This is why repetition is so important in practice. It's not good enough to just hear the note in your ear before you play it, you must also feel it.
(2) Practice everything you are going to perform using the same valve combinations. Even though it may help one's strength and stamina to do warm-up exercises on the F horn in the middle and upper registers, it is better, for accuracy's sake, to use the valve combinations you would normally use in a performance situation. If you need work on stamina, simply repeat the exercise more times.
(3) If after a long rest, you must play a delicate or touchy entrance, put the mouthpiece up to your lips several bars before the entrance and try to approximate the amount of air and mouthpiece pressure you will need without actually playing the note. Give yourself just enough rest to feel fresh for the entrance, and then "set up" for the note as you normally would. By experimenting with this little "trick," better first note attacks should be achieved. Also, during a long rest, put the mouthpiece up to the lips several times and approximate the needed pressure for that entrance in the distance. Keep blowing warm air into the horn. Don't allow your horn to get cold and your concentration to lapse. Don't let down!
(4) Although most publishers are supplying transposed parts for works which originally had natural horn parts, it is wise to use the original parts. With the original parts, the player can see what part of the chord they are playing which is always an aid to accuracy. This is especially true in the works of Classical composers like Haydn and Mozart which often have parts where, "if you do your job correctly (play accurately and soft dynamics notated) no one notices, but, if you don't (missed notes or dynamics are too loud) everyone notices."
(5) Be especially careful of the note after the highest one in a tough passage or solo. We always seem to let down mentally after the high point. A typical example of this kind of solo is the famous solo in the last movement of the Dvorak "New World" Symphony, where the high concert e will be played securely and the concert c sharp will be lost.
Example: Solo from movement 4 of the Symphony No. 9 by Antonin Dvorak
(6) Another Comment on Conductors: In orchestral or large ensemble situations, I have found from experience that conductors will forgive you more for playing an entrance or even a whole passage a little loud, as opposed to trying to play it softer and missing. They will never forgive you for that. As paranoid as it may sound, many conductors almost take it personally if you miss and they can give the player the feeling that missed notes made them (the conductor) look bad. Take the so called ?left hand? cue with a "grain of salt."
(7) Although most listeners will excuse a certain number of mistakes in technical passages, the same percentage of accuracy in a slow, lyric passage will probably be considered unacceptable. That is why such solos as the Tchaikowsky 5th, Mendelssohn "Nocturne," and Oberon and many others have such a mystique for horn players. I can never forget the comment of one of America's veteran orchestral players, "I have much more admiration for the hornist who can successfully and musically play the solo from the Tchaikowsky 5th as opposed to the whole Mahler 5th Symphony." He felt it took more skill, musicianship and nerves to play that much shorter solo.
(8) A REMINDER - When under the stress of a concert performance, it is easy to forget that notes at the top of the staff are, depending on the horn, sometimes flat and we should remember to keep the right hand more open. However, when moving above the staff, particularly the high b and c (concert c and f), closing the right hand slightly seems to produce better response particularly for some of the large belled horns.
(9) First Aid, Part 1. Playing during the cold, winter months presents extra challenges. Despite the introduction of humidifiers into public heating systems, the air is always drier than during the fall, spring and summer months. This results in the horn feeling as though it needs to be emptied of condensation more often. Nothing can destroy a lyrical solo more than a "burble" of water. Condensation can also adversely affect accuracy so more frequent emptyings are in order. Also, care of the lips is more important during the winter. It is easy enough to get "chapped" lips during the cold weather, so players who use a "wet" embouchure have extra problems. The constant re-moistening of the lips can produce a "raw feeling" which can be eliminated or improved with the frequent application of some kind of protective lip balm. There are many commercial and "home grown" products available, some of which are just for protection and some of which also promote healing. Finding the right product is a matter of personal choice, but most players find they need to use some form of "lip balm" products during the winter.
Related to the moisture of the lips is the adequate intake of water as an aid to avoiding the dreaded "cotton mouth." In more northerly climes, where winter may last from November to April and even May, the "dry mouth" may be more pronounced with each passing month and may even require a small container of water next to the player's chair.
As a final note, players who use a moist embouchure should remember that because the lips are drier during the winter, it may take a little more time to "set-up" the embouchure and allow the mouthpiece to find the natural "groove."
(10) First Aid, Part 2. Playing a heavy concert with much loud playing (Strauss tone poem, Mahler/Bruckner Symphonies, etc.) can cause not only fatigue but also a traumatizing of the muscles in the lips. Swollen lips can greatly affect accuracy and note response. When this situation occurs, the player should try to lessen the selling by first using cold compress therapy for ten minutes as soon as possible after a strenuous rehearsal or performance. Repeat the ten minute cold compress therapy once every hour thereafter. Taking aspirin or any other type of swelling/fever reducer (ibuprofen ? Nuprin and Advil; naproxen sodium ? Aleve, etc.) is also strongly encouraged. The writer's personal preference is Alka-Seltzer. While Alka-Seltzer also contains sodium bicarbonate for stomach/digestive problems, each tablet also contains 325 mg of aspirin, which is already dissolved in water when it hits your body and therefore gets into the bloodstream faster than tablet delivered types. The key is to try and cut the swelling as soon as you can after playing. Gentle massage of the lip muscles after cold therapy encourages blood flow and faster recovery of the tissues. The above therapy recipe has been used by athletes for many years.
(11) First Aid, Part 3. Fever blisters or cold sores (Herpes Simplex Virus 1) may not occur directly on the lip which is on or under the mouthpiece, but they will cause a great deal of discomfort and distraction for a player. Doctors have always pointed to stress as the cause of these painful afflictions and stress is a normal part of the musical performance process. While players used to simply have to bear with the pain (most remedies merely deadened the afflicted area while the virus ran its course), today we do have relief in the form of a topical cream called Denavir, which is available only as a prescription from your physician. This drug has truly been a godsend for players who have this problem. Another prescription, Zovirax (in tablet form) has also been effective in reducing the affects of cold sores. Taking lysine every day is also a good preventative.
Canker sores (Aphthous Stomatitis) are found on the inside of the mouth and they can be just as painful as "cold sores." They are actually the result of some kind of abrasion or injury inside the mouth usually caused by the teeth biting the skin surface. The resulting ulcers are due to bacterial (streptococcal) infection. An effective treatment is to melt a hydrocortisone tablet (prescription) against the sore. Other recommended prescriptions include a topical dose of tetracycline and a trial of thiamine: Oral Surg Oral Med 82: 634, 1996. One good but somewhat painful "home" remedy is to place a crystal of alum salt on the sore, which is literally "pouring salt on the wound." Also, keep the sore as clean as possible by irrigating it with an antiseptic solution like Peroxyl. If the sore is far enough away from the lips, a topical barrier like Orabase can be applied to cover the affected area. Orabase also comes with Lidocane, which is a pain deadener.
Fortunately, players will only be affected by one or the other of these annoying ailments but never both. First time sores should be checked by a physician as some forms of cancer actually look very similar to fever blisters and canker sores. Information taken from UHS Pathology 2000-01 Vol. 3.5 text by Freidlander, Lulo, Hammoudi, and Denmark P. 3 of Chapter on Oral Pathology
(12) For the principal horn concentration is especially crucial and a concert of hard repertoire is not only taxing physically, but can be even more exhausting mentally. Many of the larger orchestras have associate or co-principal positions so that one player will not have to stay in a "concentrated" state for too long. Each person can only remain "focused" for so long and, for the principal horn, knowing the limits of your ability to concentrate is very important. Taking a break from one piece during a concert can allow enough "down time" to allow the player to keep a higher concentration factor later in the concert. Get help before jeopardizing a good performance.
(13) A REMINDER - Accuracy is sometimes adversely affected by the need for breathing, especially in the middle of a long, strenuous passage. Most passages of this type have natural phrase points to take breaths. The problem is that we need to take enough time away from the note preceding the breath to allow for enough time to take the breath, reset the embouchure and cleanly articulate the following note. Players have problems when they don't give themselves enough time for the "breath and reset" process and then miss that next note. Deliberately mark in the music (in pencil, of course!) where you are going to take the breath, and practice the passage so that you don't even have to think about the breath. You just do it automatically.
(14) A REMINDER - There is such an art to "picking off" that tough first note in a high passage, particularly if it is soft. Despite the fact that we certainly need enough air to support the attack and the following sustained pitch, we sometimes concentrate too much on the breath. I personally have much more success if I take in a little less air than I would normally need, making sure that I don't overly stretch the embouchure, and making sure I am completely set with just enough air pressure to "attack" that first note. Again, repetitive practice of first note entrances is important; living with the passage over a period of time.
(15) Each key we play and transpose in can present particular problems with regard to pitch and accuracy. For example, this player has always noted that the first and second valve combinations in the key of Eb (written b's and e's at the top of the staff) are quite sharp. Pulling the second valve Bb slide helps to bring the pitch down, and, since that second valve is not used that much by itself (although first is!), no harm is done. The key of E is particularly difficult. Because we are using the furthest reaches of tubing in the horn, the second and third valve combinations will often sound flat unless they are pushed in. The second valve alone at the top of the staff has always been flat for this writer and requires being pushed in for E horn. Each key may require different needs, and every player is different. Knowing your own pitch tendencies and needs is critical especially when playing smaller, softer dynamic repertoire such as chamber works and for the Classical chamber orchestra.
(16) Correct tuning in any ensemble is critical for accuracy as well as good ensemble playing. In the orchestra, a particular phenomenon occurs. The pitch will usually creep up during the progress of a performance. This is particularly true in the case of large, longer works and can create real accuracy problems for the hornist. Be aware if you notice you are over or under shooting notes consistently. The strings always try to produce more "spin" on the sound to make it project, and playing a little on the high side helps them. Then there is the rest of the brass section which can really push the pitch up during loud passages. For us, it is a matter of survival in a "vicious circle" of rising pitch. The key it to try and survive this potential pitfall by being aware of it and adjusting pitch as necessary to avoid "chipping" or missing notes from above.
(17) When playing a work like the Bruckner 4th, Oberon, or Pavane For A Dead Princess, test that first note entrance when the audience is clapping for the conductor's entrance on stage. This will help you get the feel of the entrance on your lips in the acoustical environment just before you have to actually do it.