About that worm…

I think today perhaps I am not the early bird, but the worm.

I made good progress on my arranging assignment yesterday, but not as much as I would have liked, so I’m still working on it. I got up early enough and worked on it. I left the house, came here, and I’m working on it.

This irks me because I really like to get some solid practising in between 8am and 10am, and today I will be unable to do that. I’ve booked a room for 11.00-13.00 but how much of that I’m able to use really depends on how much I finish first.

After that, I’m zipping up to Finchley to teach, and then I’m off to Sweden until Saturday night. Trinity is closed on Easter Monday so I’m looking at four days away from my instrument. Ugh. However, all is not lost: I have a nifty little practise horn, made for me by Peter at Starborne Works. I might try to take some pictures of if this weekend. He’s only just starting out at this business, but he does good work, so if you want something made, large or small, then it’s definitely worth talking to him.

Time to go keep working on my assignment, before the birdy eats me. I really had planned to get this one done a week early…

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Today I woke up, inexplicably, at 5am. Ugh. I got up, washed henna out of my hair, pottered around a bit and got in to practise at my usual time.

Practising went much better this morning than yesterday.

I’ve had a look at what I need to do for my end-of-year exam. It’s a matter of lots of orchestral extracts, lots of scales, and one piece. The choice of pieces is actually rather narrow, which is good in a way: it means I’m unlikely to shoot myself in the foot and play something which I’d rather have saved for my final recital next year.

My arranging assignment continues to go smoothly but take ages; even with advanced tools it takes a long time to do data entry of music notation, because there’s just a lot of data. I’m finding myself disliking the layout aspects of Sibelius; nothing new there, and I’ve been meaning to fix this by learning Lilypond for a few years now… perhaps over the summer I’ll have the time to work on some of my transcription projects. In the meantime, the arranging assignment must be handed in as a Sibelius file, and some of the composition tools are useful.

In about a half hour I have the first rehearsal of the Reinecke trio Op. 188 for horn, oboe and piano. I’m looking forward to it; it’s a good piece, without too many technical challenges for the horn, and while I’ve not yet met the pianist in person I know I have enjoyed playing with the oboist in other ensembles.

This evening:
J.S. Bach – St John Passion
Trinity College of Music Chamber Orchestra and Chorus perform under the baton of Richard Egarr.
7.30pm, Old Royal Naval College Chapel, SE10

I’m not sure whether I’ll go, it depends how tired I am, but it would be a shame to miss. I had been planning on doing some flat-hunting tonight but have decided to leave it until next week, when my arranging assignment and the long weekend will both be far behind me.

Practising was unpleasant this morning. I’ve had three days in a row of not playing, and things never sound or feel quite right after that. It went reasonably well, though, so I think I’ll be on track again by tomorrow.

The reason for my non-practising yesterday is that I was attending a seminar presented by Open Rights Group, Creative Business in the Digital Era. The curriculum and various other useful information is all available under Creative Commons licence from the CBDE wiki, and participation is encouraged, so please do add your tuppence worth.

Last night I wrote up some of my impressions of the seminar in a fairly loose and unstructured manner, but I won’t be posting that today as I’ve left the laptop at home.

Classes are officially over until 14th April! Most of this week my focus is on getting my last Arranging assignment finished, and some chamber music rehearsals. I’m also looking at moving house again, sadly. Various things have not been going well, and I need to either move now while I don’t have classes or wait until after exams.

Long time no update…

Life has been busy.

Sorting out housing has moved along several steps but it still isn’t finished. Highlights include the old agent being verbally abusive and threatening, a small electrical fire in the bathroom (nobody hurt thank goodness), and a distinct lack of internet access. I’m not impressed. I really do like the area I live in now, but I do not think I will stay in that flat after my tenancy agreement expires in June. I dread the thought of moving again but I’d rather do it in the summer when I have more control and more time than halfway through next year!

Other than that things are going well.

I’ve managed to get a group together to play the Brahms Horn Trio. We’ve had two rehearsals so far, and I’m really enjoying it. Working with the score available through The Mutopia Project is interesting in and of itself; it’s pretty good, but there are one or two bum notes and the page-turns are rather silly in the horn part. I’ll be making a list of errata and either e-mailing the original transcriber or correcting the lilypond files and submitting them myself.

Tentatively I also have an oboist and pianist to play the Reinecke trio, op. 188. We won’t get a chance to rehearse until 14th March, though.

Personal practise has been going well. I am still behind on my orchestral excerpts, but I’ve been in to Trinity to practise every weekday for the past two weeks, usually first thing in the morning. In truth I have not actually practised this much since June 2005. I’m not exactly sure what has shifted in my brain or my schedule to enable this but I’m very glad of it and intend to continue the habit. (And no, it isn’t the lack of internet access; the practising came first.) Right now I’m working on chamber repertoire and also Bach ‘cello suite in Eflat major. I’ve borrowed a 20GB mp3 player from a friend so that I can listen to orchestral excerpts on my commute; I still need to organise myself better and make sure I have recordings of all of them. I also really need to get my planning done for this year’s exam and next year’s final concert.

I’m taking some jazz lessons with Mark Bassey. So far this has been lots of fun. Whee! I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with it but I’ll figure that out later; for now it’s something that stretches me, mentally and physically, and this is a good thing.

I successfully applied to attend an Open Rights Group seminar, Creative Business in the Digital Era. Now I have lots of reading to do so that I will go there and be useful and learn things. I’ve printed out some of that lot to read on the train.

General Update

First of all, I have to say I’m quite pleased with the grade I received on my last Arrangement assignment: 80%! Yay!

I’ve got another one due on Thursday. In a few minutes I’ll be off to the keyboard lab to work on it and have it checked over for obvious glaring errors.

Congratulations are due to my three piano students who took exams in December. All of them worked very hard, and all of them passed confidently.

I’ve had a somewhat shaky start to this year. I returned from holiday to find that the landlord’s agent for the flat I’m renting a room in was in a car accident, and that they wanted us all to move out by the end of January. This was quite stressful for me, but thanks to friends I was able to find out that legally my position is quite strong and I can stay put until at least the first of June. It’s all been very much up in the air but I met the actual landlord today, and I think things are going to be alright. Hopefully I’ll be able to get on track now and get on with my academic tasks for this term!

I’m waiting to hear from Paxman regarding a quote for horn repairs. I suspect I’ll have to drop by with my horn tomorrow, as they’ve not answered my e-mail which was sent on Wednesday. Perhaps it got stuck in a spamtrap.

Oren Marshall breathing workshop

On Wednesday, Oren Marshall came to do a breathing workshop with the horns at Trinity.

I got a lot of good out of this session, from reminders of breathing exercises long-forgotten to a few new ones I hadn’t done before. There was very little playing but what playing we did was methodical and vastly improved by some of the breathing techniques and mouthpiece-alone playing that we did.

The best thing, though, was leaving the session feeling envigorated and energetic after all that breathing; I’d been feeling quite lethargic and unenthusiastic earlier in the day. I will definitely be adding some of the exercises to my daily (*ahem*) practise routine, but I might also try to fit in a one or two hour breathing workout at some point each week.

Some of the exercises we did:

  • Various stretches while breathing
  • Running on the spot, with intervals of sprinting
  • Breathing to a count while walking. This included holding the breath when the lungs are full and when they are empty.
  • Breathing in for a count of one and out for a count of three, with the counts getting faster and faster. Most people would hyperventilate quite quickly after doing this but as horn players we managed reasonably well.
  • Breathing in all the way, ‘topping up’ a few times, then letting all the air out, expelling a bit more a few times, then breathing normally for a few breaths before repeating
  • Breathing through the mouthpiece, with the stem end in the mouth
  • Breathing through the mouthpiece with an embouchure formed but no tone production
  • Breathing through the horn without tone production, starting on the shortest length of tubing and increasing by a semitone each measure to increase the resistance.
  • Standard ‘practise it on the mouthpiece first’ playing.

The past few weeks have been a well-deserved rest from just about everything. I’ve been visiting family in Canada, and I’ve made the most of the opportunity to really have a good rest. It’s been wonderful in many ways. I did some playing in church on Christmas Eve but haven’t really picked up my horn since, which is maybe not so good.

The few weeks before that were extremely busy and stressful, with moving house and lots of rehearsals happening at the same time. I do still need to deal with some of the aftermath of that when I return home. Among other things, I got a new horn stick support, which is working better for me than the old one was.

I’ve made good progress on my Arrangement assignment, I think I’m about a third of the way done now. Two or three more good, solid afternoons of work before classes start should see it in pretty good shape.

Once I’m back in London I’m going to challenge myself to update this blog every day until the first of March. The idea is that as it’s a music blog I’m not going to want to update it if I haven’t practised or made some progress on musical projects, so by forcing myself to update every day I’ll also encourage myself to stay focused on the things I need to do to improve my musicianship and succeed in my studies.

I think the most difficult day to deal with will be Sundays; I usually teach piano all day on Sunday and don’t practise horn at all. I think I probably need to do more mouthpiece work on Sundays and make sure I take some written work with me to look over on the train. Another option would be to spend some time on Sundays getting my website up and running.

Horn Class with Pip Eastop

I’ve been busy again–but at least I’ve found somewhere to live, now.

On Wednesday afternoon, Pip Eastop came to do a horn class with us.

It was a bit of an unenthusiastic start, there was some orchestral music that had been set aside for working on but he didn’t really want to do that and neither did any of us, so we worked on specific issues instead.


I’ve always had great difficulty with this because I cannot make the ‘purr like a cat’ noise with my tongue. I’ve been trying to make this noise since I was 4 (long before I started playing horn), to no avail. I can get about 2 or 3 flips of a rolled ‘r’ in but am unable to sustain this. As some people are congenitally unable to do this I have generally claimed it is impossible for me, despite occasionally spending a few weeks attempting to do it.

Pip thinks that being able to get 2 or 3 flips of the rolled ‘r’ in means that I can do this, I’ll just have to practise it a lot more than most people would.

I’m not sure I’m convinced but I would very much like to crack this because then I can purr like a cat, so I’ll give it a try (again). The method suggested is to keep doing those rolled ‘r’ sounds until I can sustain them longer and longer, and then work on doing them with the horn.

Lip trills:

These are difficult on the horn and the only real way around them is to practise some every day, but using the tongue to switch notes instead of trying to use the embouchure is a method I’d forgotten about, and will be focusing on again for a while. My lip trills are much better than last time I tried this method.

Low-range playing:

Farkas-style point-the-air-at-the-bottom-of-the-mouthpiece stuff. Useful, in that it worked for everyone, but everyone sounded a bit crap when they didn’t _quite_ get it. My work is rather cut out for me in this department, though again my low range is much better than it once was; I think I’m most of the way there with this and will just have to do a lot of low playing for a month or two in order to make some small embouchure changes.


I can already do this except for very low notes, so I didn’t get a whole lot out of this part of the lesson, but others present did. We went into the “actually it’s not raised a semitone, it’s lowered to about a semitone from the previous harmonic, also when you get high enough it’s just the same note” thing, and also into the thing about where if you get high enough you run out of proper harmonics and can just gliss around like on just a mouthpiece because you’re playing too high for the horn (only on the mouthpiece it’s because you’re too low) but you get an extra third or so of clear notes if you stick your hand in the bell which is one of the reasons we stick our hands in the bell. Interestingly, with the hand out of the bell you run out of notes at about the same pitch on the F side and Bflat side despite the fact that if it were relative it should be a fourth higher on the Bflat side. He couldn’t answer my question as to why this is; I suspect it has something to do with physics and the bore of the tube rather than the length of it. I also suspect it’s the sort of thing most horn players aren’t really that interested in. I should probably just learn more physics as it’s unrealistic to expect most people to be able to answer that question.
In general Pip was very encouraging, if a bit daunting, and he made it clear that the best methods to use are the ones that produce the best sound, and other indicators of what is the ‘right way’ aren’t really as valuable. This ‘whatever works’ attitude was quite refreshing.

There were also some comments about playing on mouthpiece alone and on mid-range playing that I don’t entirely agree with. Pip figures there isn’t money in making quacking noises on the mouthpiece so don’t practise it, but this contradicts his previous urging us to do whatever works – personally I find that if I play something mouthpiece-only a few times through it will be far more secure when I get it back to the horn.

He also thinks that if the very high range and very low range are good and solid, the middle range will work itself out, and it doesn’t matter so much because things are easier there anyway, so we should practise low stuff and high stuff a lot without really necessarily trying to work our way up to them. I’m not so sure about that. I can see the point he was trying to make – the middle ranges ARE easier – but I don’t think it’s a good idea to just focus on the high notes and low notes and work down from high and up from low to get the middle playable. All of my major improvements in tone in my high and low range have come from expanding it outward gradually, rather than from working really hard to get good tone in high or low range as an isolated exercise. I think that working on high and low range without doing this could work for some but it could also lead to weird embouchure habits developing due to trying to play things before the muscles have developed to deal with them.

An example of this even came up in class – another player who uses a lot of pressure in the high range and very often ends up with sore teeth. She’s using pressure because she doesn’t have the muscular strength in her embouchure to get the notes to sound that way without using the pressure. While a certain amount of pressure is a good thing, having sore teeth after playing is bad news (and eventually her teeth will MOVE which will not be nice for her playing!). I figure the way around this is a variety of strength-building exercises employed in such a way as to gradually improve tone and range. Pip didn’t suggest anything of the sort and didn’t really answer her question about how to get around using excess pressure, just went on about how not having any pressure at all isn’t really a good thing.

Again, I can see his point – playing with absolutely no pressure at all tends not to work very well as even very small movements of the horn can completely disrupt the sound – but he did ask if we had any questions and then did not answer some of them, and this was a bit disappointing.

All in all I found this a very useful class despite some differences of opinion, and I enjoyed it thoroughly as well.

Looooong time no post!

I’ve been plodding along despite having a bad cold. I’ve been in 2 brass band concerts, a wind dectet concert, and, um, that’s it, but lots of rehearsals for the Mbawula Sing! Africa concerts this Thursday and Friday. When that’s over with I have another brass band, wind ensemble, and symphony orchestra. All the rehearsals have kept me off of the Aikido mat, which is unfortunate but unavoidable; I’ll be getting back to it next Thursday, I hope.

Class went really well yesterday. I generally enjoy my arranging class, but yesterday was particularly rewarding.

I learned about diminished (octatonic) scales, and quartive harmonies, and stuff like that, and got more certain about how to refer to the degrees of the chord; they’re interval-based, not sequence-of-scale based (this is not actually important if you aren’t in a scale with a non-standard number of notes, but I was), but using a higher number implies a chain of 3rd below it, which is why a sus-4 is different than a chord with an extension tone that’s an 11th. Also learned about Lydian Dominant mode, which I hadn’t encountered before; it’s got the raised 4th note of Lydian, and the lowered 7th note of Mixolydian, and one of the reasons this is cool is because the harmonic series has those (before it has, say, the ordinary raised 7th or P4th from tonic).

I got a question answered about the F9#11 chord that I wasn’t quite sure how to harmonize in 4-way close, as well as a typo corrected. I need to go through my draft of that assignment, chord by chord, and make sure that I’ve actually got the right notes in the right places. Proofreading in music is not as easy as proofreading English.

I like learning this stuff. It tickles my brain! It stretches! I might go get that Schoenberg book out of the library to read over my trip to Canada. Does that make me a hopeless swot? Probably. Do I mind? Not really.

I’m feeling a little less happy about the improvisation class, which I find rather on the ill-defined side, and don’t enjoy as much as I hoped I would. I’m considering whether it’s worth trying to switch to conducting. I think the only sane way to do this would be to do some of the work the conducting class has already done while I’m away over Christmas; I’ll at least talk to Student Services and find out what’s involved. In the meantime I’ll stick with the improv class for now and see whether things settle a bit.

At the moment I’m in the process of trying to move house, which is taking up a lot of time and energy that would be better spent in other things. I need to guard my academic time carefully so that I don’t fall behind in the planning and documentation aspects of the degree. After that I’m off to Canada to visit family for a while, which will be a welcome change.

UBS Verbier Orchestra

I’m considering auditioning for the UBS Verbier Orchestra in February. It’s one of the few ‘youth’ orchestras that I’m still young enough to participate in, with an upper age limit of 29. I’m actually quite unlikely to succeed at such an audition, but it would be a good experience. I have many, many orchestral excerpts to learn for the end of year exams this year, and a February audition would be a good midpoint to aim for.

I don’t really have strong career aspirations toward orchestral playing, but this is at least partly because of a lack of orchestral experience. I don’t dislike orchestral playing but the images it conjures up in my mind are of amateur orchestras fraught with politics and violinists who have not practised their parts. If I were to pass an audition, either this year or next year, for the UBS Verbier Orchestra or something of similar standard, it would give me a chance to try it out in a more intensive way and see if I end up liking it. The Verbier would be particularly good because all food, travel and accommodation are paid for, plus a small remuneration of CHF50 (that’s £20-ish) per day, which would keep my rent back in London covered.