Thursday, 17 December 2009

John Williams and Star Wars

Been busy with the day job and haven't had much time to play anything lately. I've decided that while I'm slaving over a hot keyboard, I'm going to listen my way though the whole of my music collection. It'll take quite some while!

The most recent stuff I've been listening to has been Star Wars soundtracks.

I know a lot of people get very sniffy about film music, they think it's not real music, that it is merely derivative. Well maybe it is derivative at times, but the best of it (and John Williams does write some of the best) is extremely good.

For the most part the instruments used are straightforward romantic symphony orchestra stuff, an orchestral line-up which would have peen perfectly familiar to Mahler or Stravinsky or Richard Strauss. He doesn't often go in for electronic instruments or other effects.

Williams clearly knows his classical music repertoire and composition techniques. In listening through the soundtracks, I have heard Wagnerian leitmotifs, Mahlerian orchestration techniques using harp and celeste for a "magical" effect, marches obviously inspired by Elgar, passages which are definitely a homage to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, bits which could easily have been a Tchaikovsky finale, battle scenes that sound reminiscent of Shostakovich, references to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, a couple of choral passages that remind me of Rachmaninov's Vespers, references to Neptune from Holst's The Planets, even a passage or two which sound as if they could have been taken from Ligeti. (You may not think you know any Ligeti. But if you have ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, then you have heard passages from at least 2 of his pieces which were used in that film.)

And of course Williams writes some stonking good horn tunes - romantic tunes for solo horn, and heroic ones that sound as if they are being played in unison by a section of 8 or 12 horns. And he is also clearly familiar with the technique of creating composite tone colours by combining several different instruments in different octaves on to a tune.

Marvellous stuff. It is possible to hear all these references but still recognise the whole as being authentically original Williams. It has brought a smile to my face from hearing all those good tunes, and especially each time I recognise another classical reference. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he has deliberately slipped in an occasional direct quote from another piece as a sort of musical joke just to see if anybody will notice.

People have asked me whether it spoils my enjoyment of music that I find myself analysing it while listening to it. The answer is not at all. The fact that I know something about music doesn't any any way impair my enjoyment of a good tune. I wince at a bad or unmusical performance, but in that respect the only difference between me and somebody who doesn't have musical training is that I'm in a position to put into words why I'm wincing. I'm able to appreciate the performance even more because I understand something of the effort and artistry that has gone into it - both from the composer and the performers. And recognising references and quotations in pieces adds to the enjoyment of music - it is like unexpectedly meeting an old friend!

EDIT: Doh! After this post was up for a month, I realised that I had said "Lutoslawski" when I meant "Ligeti". It is 2 of Ligeti's pieces which are in 2001. I've gone back and changed it.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Accompanying in concertos

Hounslow Symphony Orchestra had their autumn concert last weekend. One of the pieces we played was the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, with Hilmar Hauer as the soloist. The Hummel is a very spectacular piece for the soloist, especially with all the cascades of notes produced in the last movement!

During the final rehearsal in the afternoon, our conductor John Andrews made a very good point in respect of how the orchestra should play when accompanying the soloist. He said that we shouldn't follow the soloist, because if we follow him, inevitably we will be behind him.

Instead, we have to accompany him, i.e. remain alongside. That involves anticipating to some extent what will happen next in order to make sure that we play at the same time. It is a very good point, and in fact can be extended more generally. When playing in a group, you don't just follow the conductor (if there is one). Instead, if you don't have the tune, you accompany whoever does, just as if they are a concerto soloist. You have to listen and anticipate.

It takes concentration, but if instead you rely solely on following the conductor, you are also hoping that everyone is following the conductor the same distance behind. That's not a safe bet. Conductor or no, you have to listen, and anticipate, and accompany.

Only when you have a solo can you stop accompanying, you take the lead and express yourself by deciding how to shape the phrase, in terms of speed, articulation, dynamics and style. And everybody else then has to accompany you! You want the other players to do that right, so they deserve the same courtesy from you when they have the tune.

And be aware that even when you have the tune, you are not necessarily solo. Another of the pieces we played was Haydn's 104th "London" Symphony. The horns have the tune in a few places, but only for 2 bars in the slow movement are they actually solo. In all other places in the piece, the horns are doubled by other instruments. If you have the tune but are not solo, then you still have to be thinking in a semi-accompanying sort of way to make sure that you are matching with the rest of the players sharing the tune.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Christopher Irvin on composing his horn concerto

Christopher Irvin has just finished the first draft of the concerto, the third movement is in the post to me. Now all I have to do is get is transcribed on to the computer, and eliminate all the inevitable typing errors!

Here is his description of the process.


From the moment Jonathan tentatively requested a horn concerto at the rehearsal for SEA BREEZE in Edinburgh this summer my mind was immediately activated!

The first stage was to rough-draft the entire three-movement piece. This is worked out at the piano in an improvised format directly on to manuscript. Some of the ideas are from previous efforts - this acts as a springboard. Once a theme is chosen, the journey begins. New ideas, or variations on these themes, follow on quickly. Often a new theme appears from nowhere. On a good day there is real joy when a memorable melody materialises.

From these doodlings it is then necessary to create a three-line short score (instrument + piano). First-idea jottings (usually the best and often quickly forgotten) are then preserved. Selecting the better ideas is creative, and requires me to listen to the piece imagining myself as a member of the concert audience. The short score is orchestrated and chord symbols added.

Using landscape format manuscript paper, the score is then framed : horn placed above the strings and below the percussion. I work in 2B pencil which is ideal for subsequent photocopying. I know much erasing is par for the course.

The thirty-two pages (movement one) of score are laid out with a melodic through-line divided between the instruments. The solo horn is written as played. Previously, I'd written horns in concert pitch. However, I'm now learning about the best register for the horn and transposing as I go. I try thinking like a horn.

Key progression is another important consideration. I create a short-score only to find the orchestra is in an uncomfortable six flats. I do this section again but it's still in five flats. However, the tempo at this stage is slow and there should be no problems for the players.

The first page is orchestrated - a whole morning's work. Experience has taught me that on a normal day (with other things going on : e-mails/business/telephone calls) at best three pages of full score are manageable. A concerto requires less orchestral writing, of course, but progress still is on a similar pattern. The mornings are best, or the small hours, when total quiet is possible. The acoustic piano is nearby, and a keyboard with headphones. The scoring and harmonisation are a fused process.

I'm not able to work on the score (beyond my obligatory one page) every day in depth, so progress seems slow. However, a weekend of four days does the trick and I can live and breathe the piece. There is a musical blockage, when a change of key just doesn't work, but by coming back to it after a few hours the impasse is resolved.

The draft score is 'completed'. Bar numbering is added. A thorough read-through is now essential before photocopying - phrasing/dynamics/missed bars and so on. Hopefully nothing too awful! Movement one done. Two
more to go!

The response to the first movement has been very positive ('tuneful' and 'playable'). Enhancing the part by re-aligning the horn to its 'singing' register requires a few adjustments. Articulation issues are also discussed. The end doesn't work, so a new one is composed and sent by post (alas the postal strike still lingers on).

Start gathering my thoughts 30 Oct. for second movement, and framing the entire piece the next day. On this occasion I have a complete piano short-score to follow. First four bars take ages! Slowly build up the movement a page or so a day (if I'm lucky!). Adjustments to refine the harmonic structure is very time-consuming. Dynamics checked as I proceed.

Other musical projects crowding in : I started a choir at the Little Theatre in Hebden in October and we're working hard towards our annual Christmas Concert. A four-horn version of a new orchestral piece to be performed in June needs to be proof-read, and other pieces are in preparation requiring attention!

Draft score completed 11 Nov. and despatched the next day. I describe this movement as a 'wistful lullaby'.

No time to pause : straight on with movement three! This is to be a 6/8 rondo-type, with a core 4/4 slavonic-like 'heroic' tune followed by a cantabile theme. I've upped the horn part, being more confident of the required register.

I map out the form of the movement in my head whilst waiting for a train at unlovely Littleborough station (near Rochdale). The next day (Sunday 15th Nov.) the entire third movement is drafted - simple melody line, chords and orchestral jottings. The draft is then transposed for suitability for the horn. I'm working in keys that, for me, are unusual e.g. A-flat minor (which is very sonorous).

Start framing movement - but deciding on the keys causes a delay. Modulating from one theme to another requires much trial and error! A sense of classical key relationships helps. From Nov. 20th framing is complete, and the slow orchestration of pp50-79 starts. I try hard to make the opening page matter! Have to break off to arrange Sullivan's 'Yule Log March' for oboe, clarinet, violon and piano (for a rehearsal and concert I'm organising on Jan. 10th). After days of work I've completed just 45 seconds! I need to press on. The central section requires very careful treatment, so the (hopefully moving) rather melancholy theme can speak simply with just light accompaniment.

I have a day school (I play oboe) on Beethoven's 5th with the Leeds Summer Orchestra (!) so no work possible for a little while...

On the Sunday I get bogged down, and only complete seven bars.

However, despite a sudden head-cold, I'm on a roll and the concerto is completed over the weekend of Dec.5th/6th. I check the horn part carefully, making sure that tacit sections are kept to a minimum. I'm at the stage of photocopying and despatch.

After the actual despatch I have a holiday feeling!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

A new horn concerto!

I'm all excited!

Following the success of Sea Breeze, Christopher Irvin has agreed to write a horn concerto. For me! Hopefully I can get one of my local orchestras to put it on, I've been making some enquiries.

The first draft of the first movement arrived in the post earlier this week, and I've transcribed the solo horn part on to the computer, and I had a practice of it today. It is quite something to have a first chance to play a tune or a piece that nobody has ever played before.

It isn't finished yet, not by a long chalk. Chris still has to write the last two movements, and the first movement will need some tweaks. Chris is an oboeist and hasn't written for solo horn before, and so there are inevitably going to be teething problems as he gets used to what does and doesn't work on the horn. Thankfully, Chris seems very happy to get feedback from me about this - it will make for a much better performance if awkward bits which are harder than their effectiveness justifies can be smoothed out and made more characteristic of the horn.

I've sent him 3 emails so far with comments and suggestions. For instance there are some passages that need to go up an octave so they will sing out better, some adjustments to articulation I'd like to make here and there, one or two awkward corners that can be cleaned up to make them more effective.

But overall, the solo horn part definitely works as a piece and I'm really looking forward to seeing the rest of it and getting a chance to perform it! It starts with a jaunty theme in 6/8, a change of mood with a legato tune in 4/4, then a Slow Valse followed by a rousing recapitulation of the opening theme.

Now to get the orchestration transcribed on to the computer, so I can hear the harmonies and accompaniment.

I'm going to blog on a regular basis as the piece gradually takes shape. At the earliest, I would expect to be able to get a first performance for it sometime in the 2010/2011 season. Such is the time it takes to get a piece of new music composed and performed.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Sea Breeze - getting a new work to its first performance

Be nice to composers! Composing music is hard work, and I have the greatest of respect for those who do it. It is a kind of creativity I just don't have the talent for and have never developed the techniques for, but without composers, performers (both professional an amateur) would have nothing to play. We need composers and we need new composers to create new music.

A painter can create an entire artwork unassisted, and present it to the world only when he is satisfied it is entirely complete. A composer is dependent on others to show off his work, and does not know how the performers will make sense of the work, and whether they will be able to communicate that sense to the audience. It is tremendously hard work getting a new piece of music ready for its first performance!

For the St Clements Wind Ensemble concerts this summer I persuaded Christopher Irvin to compose a wind ensemble piece for us. I first came across Christopher when playing in the Boots Orchestra in Nottingham. In November 2008, the Boots Orchestra gave the first performance of his suite "Love Child". I very much enjoyed it, it is very much in the tradition of British light music as exemplified by composers such as Eric Coates. So on the basis of "nothing ventured nothing gained", I asked him if he would be interested in producing something for wind ensemble. I said I was pretty sure I would be able to get it performed, and described a bit about St Clements Wind Ensemble.

And Christopher did express interest. I sent him a recording of the arrangement I had made the previous year of the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D, which I had arranged for 13 wind instruments (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 horns, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon). We exchanged a few emails about what sort of instrumentation would be appropriate, and we settled on a double wind quintet - 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons. I suggested that he could if he wished use any of the conventional doublings - e.g. flute doubling piccolo, oboe doubling cor anglais, or clarinet doubling bass clarinet. In the end he chose to use just one of those - and had the 2nd flute play piccolo for some of the time.

To my astonishment a package arrived in the post only a few weeks later, containing a full manuscript score of "Sea Breeze". I'll let Christopher Irvin take up the narrative in his own words.

SEA BREEZE was conceived as an orchestral concert piece. I wrote it during June and July 2008 - not much in August, and completed it in September (first draft dated 6 September 2008).

From roots in Hebden Bridge, I helped form a theatre company with Freda Kelsall (TV writer, playwright and theatre director) originally to produce locally. Very soon we were touring, and accepting commissions to write and produce for nearby areas. A new piece MR PUNCH AND THE PIRATES was a commissioned family entertainment presented at the Venn Street Arts Centre, Huddersfield for Kirklees Council for Christmas 1989. It contained all that a Local Authority might think suitable for a Christmas entertainment. Only ours was to be a little different- set on the end of a pier where the arcade characters come alive and save their workplace through a series of madcap adventures. It provided excellent possibilities musically. A revised version was produced as part of our summer repertory season at Sheringham, Norfolk in 1991. We expected to stay a year or so, but ended up doing twelve seasons.

After such a long period, the tunes I could still remember vividly from this show were the ones deserving development. A printed vocal score produced at the time also helped. This was one of the first of my efforts in composition to find its way into print. To have what is essentially a short-score to hand was a great boon. Starting from absolute scratch can take forever.

On a manuscript block I created a one-line medley, with chord symbols and some immediate orchestration ideas. These primary ideas are often the best.

The whole piece was then framed on landscape-sized manuscript paper in 2B pencil . A ruler and eraser are always to hand. A one-line allocation of parts is then made. Once this has been achieved there is a moment when the task at last seems a distinct possibility.

And then the real graft begins! A page at a time is orchestrated- usually no more than two, or possibly three a day. With a vocal score as a guide, harmonisation is less arduous, except that I can't resist tinkering with my original. It might seem that more pages a day could be possible - but a some point the mind cuts off. On a normal day there are the usual e-mails/ business calls and the like to field. Occasionally I have the house to myself for a day or two and progress is more sustained.

I take the photocopied manuscript with me to Southwell in November, just before a rehearsal of my new Concert Overture LOVE CHILD to be premiered by the Boots Orchestra, Nottingham. I sing it through to the conductor, John Sheppard, who suggests I work up the jaunty hornpipe (which opened the second act of the musical play).

At the rehearsal later that evening, I'm asked by the first horn, Jonathan West, if I have something suitable for his London-based wind ensemble.

I find myself later that week with my brother and his wife in Warwickshire. They're out at work all day, so I sit at the piano thinking how to proceed. And, as if by magic, a NEW little tune materialises, with chromatic shifts, that fits in perfectly. The piece is now ready for re-scoring. I beaver away and present John with the manuscript of DECK DANCE after the premiere. John subsequently gives me the go-ahead to have the piece set. This complex task (score and parts) is done in the new year by my publisher and editor Robin Gordon-Powell.

With the expanded hornpipe it is now necessary to re-format the original SEA BREEZE manuscript. Quite a task.

Jonathan gives me some pointers as to the format required for his group. Thinking the full orchestral version of SEA BREEZE will otherwise atrophy, I decide to arrange it for the St. Clement's Wind Ensemble as a double-wind quintet (or decet). This is a relatively straightforward task, although allocating string parts to wind is a challenge. I find the bassoons are playing far too much. And as an oboist I have to resist giving the oboes all the best melodies! I sign the piece off on 9th December 2008.

The manuscript is photocopied and comb-bound, and sent to Jonathan West who acknowledges safe arrival on the 13th.

This was far faster than I had anticipated, but even so, it posed something of a problem. Christopher works using pencil and paper, but if we were going to be able to produce parts from the score, it really needed to go onto the computer. So I set to the task of transcribing the score (all 64 pages of it) onto computer using the Finale music editing program. I had limited time available - I have a day job and other musical activities, so this took me a few months. But eventually it was finished in June of this year, and I sent him back a PDF of the score and a MIDI file so that he could have a listen. I warned him that there may well be several misprints in the computer version, either from my own mistakes, or from the fact that the staves he was writing on were rather small and sometimes I couldn't quite tell whether a note was intended to be on a line or in a space.

On listening to the MIDI file myself, I was sure the piece would work - it had an end-of-the-pier feel to it, a sound that reminded me of the organs that are frequently on fairground merry-go-rounds. I was looking forward to having a chance of playing it. It would instantly bring back childhood memories of seaside holidays for just about any British audience that heard it.

Time was now getting short. If we were going to put it on in Edinburgh in August we would have to get a move on with editing. I got a list of necessary changes from Christopher and then sent the score on to our conductor Michael Round. At this point, we made the decision that we would definitely perform the piece in Edinburgh in August. The decision could not be delayed as programmes and publicity material had to be prepared for the concerts - you don't do a world premiere of a new work and not bother to put it on the publicity material!

Michael is a very experienced professional pianist, musician and teacher, and has done several arrangements for SCWE in the past. He identified a number of playability issues and also further misprints which Christopher and I had missed. But August was approaching, so I was very busy entering all the corrections onto the computer. But at some point we had to call a halt so that I could make a set of parts from the score and send them out to the players.

In principle, creating a set of parts is simple, you just tell the computer to split the score up, and it is done. But in practice it is not as easy as that. For wind players, you have to consider page turns. Wind players all need to have both hands on the instrument when playing, and so page turns have to be made to coincide with at least a couple of bars rest. I managed to do that for most instruments, but there was one point at which it turned out that the bassoons were playing without a rest for about a page and a half, or about 150 bars, and there was no remotely convenient place to turn. In the end I set the page turn at a pause, and told Michael that in the performance he might have to make the pause a bit longer!

This is always a potential problem when arranging a piece for a smaller group than it was originally written for, and I had had similar issues when arranging the Brahms Serenade - the bassoons end up playing the viola and cello parts and have no rest at all.

Michael continued to make edits to his copy of the score, and we finally all assembled in Edinburgh on August 11th for the first rehearsal of the piece together. The first part of the rehearsal was spent making pencil markings in the parts of further changes that Michael had made, correcting further misprints and giving individual players a few bars tacet here & there to make it easier to turn pages and to catch breath and recover their lip. Although Michael is a pianist, in the time he has spent conducting SCWE he has grown wise in the ways of wind players!

We had 2 days of rehearsal, on the 10th and 11th, to prepare 4 concerts, on the 12th, 13th and 14th of August, plus rehearsals on the day of the concerts themselves. We spent about half a day on the 11th on Sea Breeze, and some time in the afternoon of 13th at St Marks Unitarian Church prior to the performance.

In total we did 4 concerts. On 12th August, we did a concert of quintet music at St Marks. On 13th August we included the larger pieces in the programme, the first performance of Sea Breeze, the Mozart C Minor Serenade, and an arrangement for wind ensemble of the Mozart Fantasia for Mechanical Organ.

On 14th August we played two concerts in Canongate Kirk, a lunchtime concert where some members of the group played solo pieces with piano, and an afternoon concert where we repeated the programme from the previous day, including the second performance of Sea Breeze. Then, tired but happy, we all repaired to the pub for a well earned drink and then off to a restaurant for a celebratory meal.

But the work on Sea Breeze was not yet finished. To make it ready for publication, we still needed to incorporate the latest changes and corrections to the score and generate a new corrected set of parts from it. This was finally completed on 1st October.

You can listen to the concert recording of the Canongate Kirk performance. The acoustic in Canongate Kirk is very resonant, and this is reflected in the recording itself. But it is the best we can do so far!

If you like it, you can buy a copy of the score and parts from here.

I think it is a delightful piece, and I'm sure SCWE will put it on again sometime. Thank you Christopher. We all really enjoyed rehearsing and performing it!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Music teaching in the UK

Over on Horn Matters, Bruce Hembd has put up an article about transposition.

In the course of the comments, I've discovered something I didn't know before, that compared to the UK, there appears to be almost no common structure to the teaching of instrumental music in the US.

So, I thought it might be a help to describe the UK system of music education. For the time being, I'm going to ignore class music in schools. Hopefully I'll be able to come back to that in a later article. And I'm also going to leave for the moment the structure of youth orchestras in Britain. Again, I hope to deal with that in some future article. Here I'm going to talk about the graded exam sequence defined by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, or ABRSM for short. There is a very similar scheme run by Trinity College of Music. I'll ignore them for now. The Trinity exam system is the same in general principles and differs in some details from the ABRSM exams. However, I'm more familiar with the ABRSM version, so I'm going to describe that.

A bit of history first. The ABRSM was founded in 1889 as a joint venture of the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, to create an examining body ‘inspired by disinterested motives for the benefit of musical education... which would genuinely provide a stimulus and an objective for a high standard of achievement’. Over the years, the number of different grades has increased (it was originally "Junior" and "Senior") to the present structure of eight grades normally taken during high school and diplomas and degrees at college level. These days, over a quarter of a million candidates now sit ABRSM practical exams each year in over 90 countries worldwide.

There is a syllabus for a plethora of different instruments, but the overall structure of the graded practical exams is much the same on all of them, so I'll use the horn as the example. In the UK instrumental music teaching, from the very earliest level, is normally carried out in one-on-one individual lessons, usually for about 30 minutes each week. The teacher will enter the pupil for the exam when he thinks the pupil is ready. There is no set time interval between the exams, and no age at which you are required to take them - you take each one as you are ready for it. This means that anybody can take these exams, from very young children (children as young as 3 or 4 have taken Grade 1 on their instrument) to adult learners. The exams are run three times a year by qualified examiners who visit all over the country and internationally.

Each exam, at every grade on every instrument, has a common structure, consisting of the following:
  • Three pieces, each chosen from a list defined in the syllabus for that instrument and grade. The candidate (or more usually, the candidate's teacher) can choose which piece from each list to prepare. The three lists each contain pieces in of contrasting styles and periods, so that the candidate has to learn a variety of styles - baroque, classical, romantic, modern - in the course of progressing through the grades.
  • A selection of scales, of a range of keys and degree of difficulty appropriate to the instrument and grade.
  • A set of aural tests of difficulty appropriate to the grade.
  • A sight-reading test of a piece of difficulty appropriate to the instrument and grade.
Each piece is worth a maximum of 30 marks. The scales and sightreading test are each worth 21 marks, and the aural tests are worth 18, for a total of 150 marks. The pass mark is 100, you are awarded a Merit if you get 120 marks and a Distinction for 130 marks.

One thing is immediately obvious. You can't pass on the pieces alone, even if you play them perfectly. You must be able to get marks on the other items as well.

So, for Grade 1, (the complete horn Grade 1 syllabus can be found here) the candidate would be expected to be able to play each of the following scales from memory.
  • C major scale, one octave up and down, slurred and tongued.
  • A minor scale (either harmonic or melodic at the candidate's choice), one octave up and down, slurred and tongued.
  • C major and A minor arpeggio, one octave up and down, slurred and tongued.
In the exam, the examiner wouldn't actually ask for all of these, he would pick a representative selection, for instance, C major scale slurred, A minor scale tongued, and C major arpeggio tongued.

The aural test requires the pupil to be able to hear and recognise musical elements. At grade 1, the pupil has to be able:
  • to recognise whether a simple tune is in 2 or 3 beats to the bar, and to clap the pulse in time to the music,
  • to sing back (in time and at pitch) a short phrase of three notes,
  • to recognise and describe a rhythmic change between two versions of a 2-bar phrase played by the examiner,
  • to recognise and describe various elements (e.g. loud/soft, crescendo/diminuendo, legato/staccato) in a short piece played by the examiner.
The aural tests are common to all instruments, and get progressively more challenging as you go through the grades.

The grades get successively more difficult, to grade 8 where the pupil on the horn would be expected to perform three pieces such as
  • the 1st & 2nd movements of Strauss 1,
  • the last movement of the Hindemith Horn Sonata, and
  • the 5th & 6th movements of the 1st Bach Cello Suite arranged for horn.
Scales would include all major, harmonic minor, and melodic minors slurred, legato-tongued and staccato in 2 octaves up and down (some in 3 octaves), arpeggios in the same set of styles 2 octaves in all keys, chromatic scales in the same set of styles 2 octaves starting on any note, some whole tone scales, dominant seventh arpeggios and diminished seventh arpeggios. The aural tests and sight-reading tests are comparably challenging, and the sightreading test includes a requirement to play at sight a grade 6 sightreading test piece transposing into Eb.

Nobody is required to take these exams, but most instrumental music teachers use them. There are a number of advantages to using this exam structure.
  • It provides a series of graded challenges and targets for the pupils to aim for
  • In doing so, it ensures that teachers put general musicianship including scales, hearing exercises and sightreading into their teaching as well as new pieces.
  • Pupils are prepared to learn the scales and do the sightreading because they accept them as being necessary to pass the exams.
  • It provides a shorthand for knowing the level of achievement a pupil has reached. You know that if they have got to Grade 3, they will be ready for a junior orchestra at high school, Grade 5 means they are probably ready for the senior orchestra at high school and/or the local youth orchestra, Grade 7 or 8 would be required to hold a first chair position in the local youth orchestra, and a high mark (a Distinction) at grade 8 indicates that the pupil may have the ability to go on to music college as a performance major.
  • You can get some general idea of the quality of a teacher by knowing what sorts of exam results they get.
The potential disadvantage is that unimaginative teachers (encouraged by pushy parents) may tend to "teach to the exam" and not explore other aspects of technique and musicianship. My view is that unimaginative teachers will probably always be with us, and if they are going to be unimaginative, at least get them unimaginatively teaching a syllabus that includes scales, sightreading and listening, so that a reasonably rounded technique is taught to the pupils.

In addition to the practical exams on the different instruments, there are theory of music tests, also going through a series of grades. No pupil may take an instrumental exam at grade 6 or higher without having passed Grade 5 Theory.

Theory tests are written examinations. At grade 5, you need to be able to do the following
  • Know time signatures, including simple time signatures (2/4, 3/4 etc, compound time signatures (6/8, 9/8, 6/4 etc) , and irregular time signatures (5/4, 7/4 etc) and the grouping of notes and rests within bars of these time signatures
  • Know treble, bass, alto and tenor clefs and have the ability to recognise notes in all these clefs, convert a passage from one clef to another, and transpose a passage to/from the key of Bb, A or F
  • Know scales and arpeggios for all keys up to 6 sharps or flats, and all simple or compound intervals from any note
  • Know the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords of any key, in root position and any inversion, and the ability to identify these chords in progression in the various standard cadences
  • Be able to compose a short 8-bar tune either for a specific instrument given the first few notes, or to write a tune for some words. In both cases, instructions for articulation, tempo and dynamics must be included.
  • Recognise and name a variety of musical symbols and translate a range of Italian musical terms.
The complete syllabuses for both instrumental and theory exams are available here.

The ABRSM examiners work all over the world, and not just in Britain. The standard required for the grades had risen progressively - the Grade 8 pieces are now significantly harder than they were 30 years ago when I took it. In my day it would have been just the first movement of Strauss 1, the first or last movement of a Mozart concerto, and an unaccompanied piece or study noticeably easier than the Bach Cello Suite - perhaps study 96 or 100 from the Anton Horner book. The standard has risen by equivalent degrees in other instruments as well.

I've lived with this structure all my musical life. It baffles me that there is a substantial part of the world that doesn't have something broadly equivalent.

Can somebody explain the American system to me?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Why I decided not to be a professional musician

I've loved music almost as long as I can remember. I started having piano lessons when I was 5, with a delightfully kind and gentle teacher called Mrs Lyndon.

Both my parents were keen amateur musicians, my mother was a music teacher teaching violin and piano, and who played viola. My father was a keen amateur clarinettist, who took up the instrument at the age of about 14 as a result of being incredibly impressed by a radio broadcast of the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, and deciding he wanted to play music like that.

My brother and sisters all learned instruments - my brother learned violin, my older sister the cello, and my younger sister also learned the violin, She has gone on to become a professional player. My younger sister was always going to be a violinist. As a baby she would sit in when my mother was giving violin lessons, and when she was still under 2 years old, we found her upstairs one day playing a pair of knitting needles as if they were a violin, and holding the "bow" with the correct grip! A very small one-eighth size violin soon appeared for her.

As a child, I had eczema on my hands (it cleared up when I got older) and the skin would crack and bleed. So playing a stringed instrument was out of the question for me, it would have hurt to press the string against the cracks in my skin. But my parents were keen for me to learn an orchestral instrument, so when I was about 8 or 9 they invited some friends from their local orchestra round one afternoon to play some wind quintets. When they stopped for a coffee break, I was invited to have a blow through each of the instruments and see if I could make a noise.

Afterwards, they asked me which I liked best, and I told them the horn. Apparently (I have no direct memory of this myself) when asked why, I said "It's nice and curly". A horn was bought and lessons arranged.

And so I learned, and by the time I was 15. I had passed the Grade 8 exam. In Britain, a high mark at Grade 8 is the standard needed to have a reasonable chance at getting to music college. But it never occurred to me to try. There wasn't much music at my school, and I was never the regular 1st horn of my local youth orchestra, there was a girl a year ahead of me who got the 1st horn seat - she want on to study at the Guildhall School of Music and then became a music teacher. A year behind me was Andrew Clark, who got into the National Youth Orchestra at a fairly young age (something I never managed to achieve), and I was told that he would jump ahead of me as 1st horn when the girl ahead of me left to go to college. But my National Youth Orchestra audition was very helpful to me - the woman running the orchestra told me I needed top level lessons and put me in touch with Douglas Moore, who in his day had been principal horn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I had private lessons once a month with him for several years.

So I assumed that I wouldn't be up to the necessary standard if I couldn't even get to 1st horn in my local youth orchestra. I studied maths & science for my A-level exams at school, and went to university at Kings College London to study electronic engineering.

Then a very strange thing happened. In the first week of term, I went along to the initial open rehearsal for the University of London Orchestra. There were 12 horns there. Not much chance of getting in, especially as I discovered that 3 of those present had been in the orchestra the previous year. But nothing ventured, nothing gained - I went for the auditions. I thought I might have an outside chance of being 4th horn or assistant - "bumper" as it is called here.

In the first audition everything was running late, nearly 2 hours late. But nobody seemed to know precisely how late it would be. So I kept trying to keep warmed up for 2 hours, so I would be ready to go in to the audition at any moment. And it was a disaster, my lip was pretty much gone by the time I finally went in. I played the first movement of Strauss 1, and cracked absolutely every top Bb.

Nevertheless, to my great surprise, I was called back for the second round of auditions - we were down to 7 players by then. Still a chance of being 4th or bumper, I thought. In the second audition, the conductor asked me what had happened to all the top notes the previous time, and I explained that I had been trying to keep warmed up for 2 hours, and my lips were tired by the time I had finally got to the audition. He seemed to accept that, we tried the piece again, and this time it went much better. Still in with a chance I thought. We were all asked to wait until the last of the auditions was done, and the conductor would announce who had been accepted immediately after.

He made me first horn! You could have knocked me down with a feather. It hadn't occurred to me that I was even in with a shout at it. The first concert that term was very challenging. Beethoven's Egmont overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. Gulp! From having been in the open rehearsal, I knew that there was a very prominent and high horn solo in the first movement, going up to a top B.

And the concert went pretty well - I got the top B, though I was very glad to come down from it afterwards!

In my second year at Kings, I decided that I wanted to try for music college and see how good I could really get. I had been continuing to improve, and I wanted to see what the limits were and whether I had what it took to become a professional.

This rather worried my parents initially, they thought I wanted to drop out of my engineering degree immediately. It hadn't occurred to me not to go on and finish it. In my third year, I auditioned for the postgraduate performer's programme at the Royal College of Music, and got in. Douglas Moore was the principal horn professor and he became (or rather remained) my teacher there.

I have immense gratitude to old Dougie Moore, as everyone knew him. He was a fine player and an truly excellent teacher. He had himself learned from Aubrey Brain, father and teacher of Dennis Brain. He had performed the Britten Serenade with Benjamin Britten himself conducting. When he taught me the piece, he put pencil markings in my part saying "That is how Ben told me he wanted it." I couldn't have had a musical education that was closer to the core of the British school of horn playing. It was a tremendous privilege.

But in my two years there, even though I was still learning and greatly improving and enjoying every minute of playing I could get, I gradually became disenchanted with the idea of taking it up as a profession.

First there was the simple maths of it. I counted how many professional orchestras there were in Britain, and multiplied by 5 to get the approximate number of salaried professional horn players there were in the country. I counted up the number of music colleges, and made an estimate of the number of horn players graduating from them each year. I worked out that there were enough horn players coming out of the colleges to fill every salaried horn job in the country about every three years. Assuming that a successful player would occupy one or other of those places for perhaps 30 years, it meant that I needed to be in the top 10% or so of those graduating from college. I didn't think I was in that top 10%, and there were limits on the amount of extra practice I was prepared to put in, which might (and on the other hand might not) be enough to get me into that top 10%.

Also I was beginning to find that the company and conversation of music students was a bit limited. When I had been a Kings, it was possible in the bar to strike up a conversation on almost any topic under the sun. Many were the drunken rambling philosophical arguments I had had with students of all subjects! But at the RCM, conversation was essentially limited to two topics. The first (a perennial student favourite) was gossiping about who was getting into bed with whom. The other favourite topic was discussing how badly this or that student had played in their recital last week. It got discouraging, and I concluded that I didn't really want to spend the rest of my working life with these people. It wasn't really quite as limited as this, but I did miss the wider range of conversation.

So, I decided that I would go back to the engineering. I got myself a job in the telecoms industry, and joined the ranks of amateur players.

And I have never regretted doing so. That decision was right for me - I would not have been suited to life as a professional musician, I'm interested in too many non-musical topics. But I'm still very glad I went to the RCM and spent those two years there.

First, it meant that I could make the decision to walk away, fully informed as to what it was I was walking away from. Had I not given it a try, I might have spent my life wondering at the back of my mind if I could have made it as a professional horn player. I now know without any doubt that it was not for me.

Second, it refined my horn technique to the point that there is nothing in amateur music making that frightens me. Put anything on the stand in front of me, and I will tackle it as best I can. For both those reasons, I count my time at the RCM as a great success.

My sister occasionally plays with the chamber group Harmoniemusik. A few years ago, they invited me to join them for a series of concerts they played at a little festival in Cornwall. The pieces I joined in for were the Dvorak Serenade for Wind, the Mozart Gran Partita Serenade, and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18. Most of the other players were regular London professionals taking a busman's holiday, and playing some music they wanted to have a go at. I wondered whether I would be able to keep up with them, and whether it would stir up any discontent at not having gone in for the profession.

And I found my answer to both questions. I could keep up with them - I was in no way the weakest link. And I was very glad to go back the day job afterwards and had no desire to resurrect a music career.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Going over to the dark side

Talking a bit more about conducting, at last year's York Orchestral Course, I decided to try my hand at a little bit of it myself. I had made a wind ensemble arrangement of the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D and I wanted to try it out and see if it would work.

Conducting is fun! The power!!! You change a bit the way you wave your right arm, and people play differently, they get faster or slower, louder or softer. Not just one player, but lots of them, all at once! And you don't have to worry about accidentals or wrong notes - they are all the players' fault! It is easy to see how conducting can encourage megalomaniac tendencies.

I hadn't ever conducted before, but have played under a great many conductors, including one or two from the top rank. Before I took up the stick for the session, I had a think about what I have found makes a good conductor for amateurs and/or students, the characteristics of those conductors I had most enjoyed playing for. (I wouldn't presume to know what makes a good conductor of professional musicians.) This is what I came up with and tried to apply.
  • You must have a clear beat. In particular, the downbeat has to be easily distinguishable from the other beats, and your arm must keep moving in some reasonably predictable way so that when doing accelerandos or rallentandos, the players can easily see by how much you are speeding up or slowing down.

  • People like to play. So let them. Speak as little as reasonably possible and conduct as much as possible. In many cases, fluffed notes and entries can be sorted just by running the passage again, if necessary more slowly once or twice to let people overcome panic over a difficult passage. The players usually know which notes they have got wrong, there is no need to labour the point.

  • Dynamics can often be handled on the fly either by a larger or smaller beat, by gestures with the left hand to the players concerned, or by a quick word while continuing to play. Only on relatively rare occasions do you need to stop and talk to the players about what they should play, for instance to assure players that they really are supposed to be off the beat relative to their neighbours.

  • If someone gets lost, if at all possible try to help them back into place without stopping the whole group. That can be by giving them a clear cue at their next entry, singing their part for a bar or two or calling out a rehearsal letter when it comes up. If they get repeatedly lost at the same point, briefly point out some musical landmark they can use for navigation before running the passage again.

  • When asking for changes in how people play, describe them as just that - changes. There's usually no need to say they were playing wrong, even if they were. Protect their dignity by phrasing it in terms of how you want it in order to get the best from the group as a whole. This applies particularly when asking people to play quieter. Where necessary, blame the composer for writing inappropriate dynamic markings, unless he/she is alive and present!

  • When starting a new piece or a movement for the first time, announce the speed and the number of beats before you start, and if this changes partway through the movement, say at the start what you intend doing at that point, or call it out a few bars ahead while playing.

  • As far as familiarity with the piece will allow, look as little as possible at the score and as much as possible at the players. Particularly at entries, players are incredibly reassured by a bit of eye contact when playing.

  • Be encouraging. Take the trouble to praise a particularly good bit of playing by an individual, a section or the group as a whole, or a significant improvement in a previously dodgy passage. People like to be told when they have finally started to get things right.
All the above is not about deciding what you want to get them to play, this about how you cajole them into playing it. Much of the work of the conductor is done before you ever step up on to the rostrum. The players may be sight-reading, but the conductor must know the piece already. He must know what speed he intends to take it, he must know the style he wants, must know what pauses and changes of tempo are needed, who is playing the tune at any moment, who will need to have their entries cued.

And for any substantial piece, the conductor is the person who has to decide on the interpretation, what he wants to try and communicate to the audience through the music. He has to set the vision.

I knew the Brahms pretty well - it takes a lot of effort to write music, even when you are merely arranging rather than composing something original, and I had been working at this arrangement on and off for months. So I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to achieve.

I explained to the players my absolutely limitless inexperience at conducting, and asked for their tolerance if I got myself mixed up. But it went very well, I really enjoyed it, I discovered several points where the arrangement needed to be improved.

And the players seemed to enjoy it as well. A couple of them came up to me afterwards and said that I had a nice clear beat, and they wouldn't have guessed it was my first ever attempt at conducting.

Largely the same group got together the next day to play the Mozart Gran Partita Serenade for 13 winds, and asked me to conduct again. Again, I have played it many times, so I had a good idea of what I wanted to do. At my basic level, Mozart is quite easy to conduct, in that the tune generally keeps to the same speed once it has set out, and there aren't large numbers of corners to turn in terms of tempo.

Playing for one of the greats

I thought I would balance the previous article about a bad experience with a conductor, with one of my very best experiences of working under one of the greats.

I've been a regular participant in the Rehearsal Orchestra for many years. They run several weekend courses during the year, and a week-long residential course in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh International Music Festival. The participants are a mixture of college-level music students and good amateurs, with regular London pros as the paid principals of each of the string sections. For the one- and two-day weekend courses, they intensively rehearse a really big work and then put on an informal performance of it (they call it an "open rehearsal") at the end, and friends and relations are invited to come and listen.

One weekend in December 2001 was very special because the orchestra's patron, Sir Simon Rattle, had agreed to conduct a course.

He was in London that month conducting Parsifal at the Royal Opera. It is about the most exhausting thing to do, the opera lasts about 5 hours. As a rest from that on his Sunday off, he came to coach us for a day on Bruckner's 9th symphony - not a small work by any means!

I was playing first horn, so there was plenty to do. Bruckner wrote a lot of notes for the horn, and this piece requires 8 of them - and it seems like he uses them all most of the time!

Simon Rattle was lovely. The first thing he said when he stepped onto the rostrum was how wonderful and nostalgic it was to be back. (He played percussion in the Rehearsal Orchestra when he was about 14, and says he learned a lot from it.) He did everything possible to put a large number of very nervous and overawed amateur musicians at their ease.

Even so, I spent the first 45 minutes as nervous as anything, and at that point I gave myself a good talking to, and told myself. "Jonathan, there is absolutely zero chance of Simon coming up to you in the break and saying 'Jonathan, you're just the person I need to join the horn section in the Berlin Philharmonic!', and even if he did, you would turn him down, because you long ago decided against a musical career. So nothing depends on this except your own enjoyment of it."

And with that, I decided just to go for the notes and entries, and if I split an occasional one, then at least I'm trying to make it sound good and musical. And it worked. I felt myself relax and my tone opened out.

It is fascinating to watch a real master of his art at work. He spent most of the first hour or so working mainly with the strings. Normally wind players more or less fall asleep when the conductor is working with the strings, but not this time. It was riveting seeing how he took their sound apart, and then gradually, one technique at a time, he built the tone into what he wanted specifically for this composer and this piece. Pizzicatos with the fleshiest available part of the thumb or finger. Tremolando only after nearly a full length of bow. Wider vibrato than they had ever used before. Lots of bow. Very specific instructions as to when to use the heel of the bow and when to use the tip. At one point called out "Anyone found not playing at the heel at this point will be taken out and shot!"

Immediately after the first forte entry of the heavy brass, he stopped the whole orchestra and turned to them.

"Brass, that was a wonderful noise! Absolutely perfect for Shostakovich. And I don't want ever in my life to hear it again in a Bruckner symphony. The sound has to be rich and round without the slightest hint of a cuivré to it. Let's try it again."

I turned to the other horns and whispered down the line. "Horns, that means us as well!"

It wasn't just the techniques he was asking for, but he made it clear what he wanted in terms of the overall breadth & warmth of the sound. At one point he said "In this passage, I want the biggest, fattest tone you can manage. I want a full Orson Welles of a sound. Maybe even 7/8ths of a Marlon Brando." There were references to The Simpsons. "Imagine you are Bart Simpson having to write lines on the blackboard. Write 100 times 'I will not diminuendo on the down bow in Bruckner'."

At one point, he said "The main purpose of the conductor is to make himself unnecessary. You're now going to prove that. You mustn't rely on me and the beat, you have to listen to each other. Just to show you can, I'm going to start you off here, and you carry on without me." He started us off and then folded his arms, and grinned evilly at us, managing cues simply by looking at the relevant person and raising his right eyebrow. And we listened to each other, and we stayed together. After a minute or so, he stopped us and said "You know, conducting is one of the great fake professions..."

By listening to him working with the strings, it became clear to me the sort of tone and style he wanted from the horns as well, so my listening to him working with them hopefully saved him the bother of telling me. At one point he said to the orchestra (just after I had played something not quite in time). "You have to count and listen. I am not going to do anything as mundane as beat time just to make it easier for you to put semiquavers in the right place, I've more important things to do with the music." Sure enough, we did count, and we did listen, and we did (mostly) get the semiquavers right.

And in the course of the first hour or so, he transformed the tone and sound of the orchestra from what we were in fact (a pretty good amateur group) into a sound that to my ears would not have disgraced a regional professional orchestra.

He had some nice stories as well. He said that on one occasion when he was a student, he was coming into the Festival Hall to listen to Sir Georg Solti rehearse a Bruckner symphony with a major orchestra. He was just outside the door when he heard Solti screaming something at the orchestra. He opened the door and heard Solti absolutely apoplectic with rage shouting "TRANQVILLITY!!! AT ZIS POINT VE MUST HAF TRANQVILLITY!!!"

It's hard to describe the complete feeling of confidence that working with a master can bring to you (once you overcome the terror of his reputation!) Normally, with an amateur orchestra, the conductor is expected to keep a clear beat, and make sure that he looks at you and gives you a cue if you have a solo entry. You tend to get nervous if that doesn't happen. Somehow though, with Simon Rattle, I felt perfectly confident making solo entries without a cue, without much of a beat, and while he was looking very pointedly at the double-basses, right over on the opposite side of the orchestra. I don't know how he does it, but it works!

In the third movement, there are some passages which are just the 8 horns (or rather, 4 horns and 4 Wagner tubas. Horns 5-8 change instruments for the last movement) and almost nothing else apart from quiet strings, with first horn taking the tune. It was wonderful being able to let the tune soar out over the top of all that rich sound.

Talking to the other players over a drink afterwards, everyone was walking on air. The curious thing was that, every person I spoke to seemed to be convinced that in the informal concert at the end, Simon Rattle seemed always to be looking at them personally for the entire duration!

This is what playing for a great conductor can be like. People who can instil this kind of confidence in their players can completely transform a performance through the sheer force of their personality. This is what conducting should be.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

How not to get on in an orchestra

When I was about 15, the much-loved conductor of my local youth orchestra retired. He was an inspiring character, and managed to get us unscathed through some quite complex pieces such as Delius' Paris:Song of a Great City, and Kodaly's Hary-Janos Suite.

Unfortunately his successor wasn't nearly so good. We were rehearsing Brahms 4 for our first concert under him, and making pretty heavy weather of it. The problem was that this conductor had no rehearsal technique. He talked a lot rather than letting us actually play through things, and he didn't talk very loud, so only the front two desks of strings could hear him for most of the time.

On one occasion, he endlessly repeated the strings in some passage in the slow movement. The wind had all pretty much gone to sleep. When he finally continued, without having given any warning to the wind that this time we would be going on, the horns didn't come in for their entry, which didn't please him.

By this time, I was getting really, really pissed off with him. So after the coffee break, I decided to time him. I had a stopwatch feature on my wristwatch, and so I set it running whenever he was talking, and stopped it whenever we played. In the 50 minutes of the 2nd half of the rehearsal I timed him talking for 32 minutes. The remaining 18 minutes included a complete run through of the 3rd movement (about 5 minutes) at the end.

So at the end of the rehearsal, I went up to him, in front of all the other kids, and told him that he had been wasting everyone's time, and that he had been talking for about twice as long as we had played, and that it was no wonder we weren't making much progress. I told him that I had been timing him and gave him the figures I had collected.

In retrospect, I'm mildly surprised he didn't hit me, I got him that cross. While I didn't swear at him, I'm sure I made it perfectly clear that he didn't have my confidence or respect. In turn he complained that I had wasted time in the first half of the rehearsal not being ready for my entry. I told him that I had given up all hope of us ever reaching it, since he had been endlessly repeating the strings without there being any obvious improvement, and that he had warned nobody that we were going on that time. I told him that we were all getting thoroughly bored with this piece. He asked me to write down what I wanted to play instead and to write down my complaint and bring it in to rehearsal next week.

I told my parents about it when I got home, and they advised that I simply write a list of pieces I would like to play, and not make any reference to the other part of the complaint. This I did.

He was most put out that I hadn't put in a formal written complaint. It turned out that he had complained about me to his boss, the County Music Advisor, and requested that I be thrown out of the orchestra.

I already knew the County Music Advisor a little, his son also played horn and was second horn to me in my school orchestra, and so I had met him at school concerts. I suspect that this was critical to the subsequent turn of events. I learned afterwards the he had dealt with the matter with exemplary efficiency. He asked the conductor whether I was right in what I had said about him spending a lot of time talking. On getting equivocation for a reply, he simply said "Well, you had better make sure he has no reason to complain about it again." And that was the end of the matter.

The conductor did improve his rehearsal technique, though he never managed to become all that good. But our performance of Brahms 4 at the end of term was pretty dire. But I don't think he ever forgave me, and he avoided rehearsing the horns at all in full rehearsals - he left it to the brass section coach to rehearse anything that needed improvement.

It took me some years before I began to like Brahms 4, because of its association with my experience of playing it in the youth orchestra. I only started to like it again when I next played it at university, and had to my astonishment been made 1st horn of the University of London Orchestra. But that's a story for another day.

The quality of the conductor really can make all the difference to how a group performs, but if you are stuck with a bad one, be a bit more circumspect about how you deal with him than I was. I was right in that he was rehearsing us extremely badly. But it was because I was right that he couldn't cope with me being there and tried to get me thrown out. If things get really bad with a conductor, you shouldn't tackle him alone. See what others think, and if you can get support, have a delegation of several of you approach him. That way, he can't pick you off one by one.

In the case of my youth orchestra conductor, I now realise that there was a much better way to handle the issue. I should have kept my lip buttoned until I got home. My parents were both experienced amateur musicians, and it would have been a simple matter to have one or other of them arrive early to pick me up the following week, come in and listen for themselves to the rehearsal for a while, and then write to the County Music Advisor describing their impressions. A letter from parents could not have been wished away as easily as a complaint from a child. But I was young and foolish, and I acted without thinking things through.

As it happens, it all turned out well, but if the County Music Advisor had not known me, or had shown a bit less backbone, I would have been out.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Endurance in orchestra and band rehearsal

Lyle Sanford has been describing problems with endurance in band rehearsals. His lip went entirely in one - he called it a meltdown, an apt turn of phrase.

His situation is in some ways particularly difficult. He's not been learning the horn all that long having taken it up as an adult, he's in a community band rather than an orchestra, and he is the only regular horn player with the band, which means that when he stops for a moment to let his lips recover, so do the afterbeats because nobody else is playing them.

I've played in bands occasionally, and wind ensembles, and it is much harder work physically than playing most orchestral repertoire. Band horn parts are notorious for not offering much rest from a relentless succession of bars of afterbeats. Most orchestral pieces have quite long periods when the strings are playing alone or with just one or two woodwind. The strings have far more notes to play than the horns. If a horn part for a symphony has 8 pages to it, we normally think of that as being a good beefy part. But that isn't much compared to the violins. For instance the first horn part of Beethoven's 9th Symphony is 12 pages, and that is regarded as a heavy blow. The first and second violin parts each have 20 pages, with far more notes to a page. So the horns don't play continuously, and almost always have some fairly lengthy rests.

The first movement of Beethoven 9 has 547 bars, in which the 1st horn has 105 bars rest. That is a pretty high proportion of playing by the standard of most orchestral pieces. The second movement has 1004 (extremely rapid) bars, in 384 of which the 1st horn rests. The 3rd movement has 153 bars of which 42 are rests for the first horn, and the 4th movement has 940 bars, including 460 bars of rest. So the principal horn is resting for between 20% and almost 50% of the time in any movement, and the rests are for the most part very conveniently distributed in chunks of between 2 and 32 bars. Short enough to keep your interest, long enough to allow your lip to recover. And yet this is regarded as a big piece where the first horn in a professional orchestra would expect to have an assistant to share the load.

Of course, there are orchestral pieces which are even more taxing. If I have to play a high horn part in a Mahler, Bruckner or Shostakovich symphony, I'll do extra endurance work ahead of the concert to make sure I can get through it without my lip going.

But the proportion of rests in the horn parts for many band pieces is far lower than is normal for orchestral horn parts. And as a result, it is common to double parts, especially the high parts. It is simply necessary if the principal horn is not going to collapse into a heap on the floor by the end of the concert. Six horns in a band is not uncommon, with the two high parts both doubled. That doesn't mean that both the players play the whole part all the time. It means that it can be divided up so that one player is playing at a time in softer passages, one player plays at a time for solos, and both can play in the loud tuttis without having to belt it out too hard.

You are no use to anybody in a rehearsal if your lip has gone. You are a definite liability if you allow your lip to go during a concert. Therefore you absolutely must find a way of lasting through the rehearsal, and if you have a final rehearsal on the day of a concert, you must leave enough in reserve at the end of the rehearsal to be able to survive the concert as well. A conductor might scream at you for leaving things out in rehearsal, but he'll be even worse if you lose your lip in the concert itself.

If you are still learning, or if you are an amateur with limited time for practice and therefore limited time in which to build up your lip strength, you have to learn how to husband your resources. You have to pace yourself. Even professionals do that, but because they have greater reserves of strength, they come up against their limits less often. Here are a few tips & tricks that players use.

  • Solos and exposed passages take absolute priority. They must be right, and you must have enough lip for them. You know which passages are important. Save yourself for them. It is by those exposed passages that your contribution to the performance will be judged and appreciated by the audience
  • Very loud tutti passages don't necessarily need to be played very loudly by you. If the whole orchestra or band is blasting away, the difference between you playing ff and mf will almost certainly not be noticed. So play mf and preserve your lips for when you have an exposed passage.
  • If you have a long series of afterbeats, for instance in a march or a Strauss waltz, you are unlikely to be the only person playing. You can leave out a bar or two here & there and nobody need be any the wiser. You can rest in a bar in which there is a big loud flourish in the tune.
  • Afterbeats aren't all that interesting, either to play or to listen to. You can play them fairly softly, no matter what dynamic marking is written. A good conductor will encourage the accompaniment to play softer to make it easier for the players with the tune to come through without having to force their sound. This is a matter of general musicianship - if you are accompanying, you should generally play one or two notches softer than the written dynamic, and if you are solo you should play one or two notches louder than written, and you should do this without needing to be told by the conductor. Since the horns don't play solo all that often, it means you get to save your lips a bit more.
  • Even if your part is not being doubled, you can arrange with your fellow players in the section to take rests at staggered intervals so that you don't all stop at once. Arrange this quietly amongst yourselves, there is no need to bother the conductor with it. What he doesn't know won't worry him.
  • If the band is short-handed until the final rehearsal on the day of the concert, then you (and the conductor) just have to accept that there may be gaps from time to time in the rehearsals until the extras arrive. Better that than for you to have to be silent for the last 20 minutes or so because your lip has been reduced to the strength & consistency of wet cotton wool.
  • In the final rehearsal on the day of the concert, leave out as much as you decently can, and avoid playing anything at all louder than mf. Then you hopefully have enough lip left to give full volume for the concert. The whole purpose of the rehearsals is to be in a position to play as well as possible in the concert. If you wreck your lip by being overenthusiastic in the final rehearsal, you defeat this objective.
Most conductors understand that wind players in general and horn players especially have limits to their endurance. So long as you try to be reasonably musical in terms of selecting the least important moments to drop out, the conductor will usually be sympathetic. Some conductors forget sometimes though, and it may be necessary to have a gentle word in the coffee break to remind him or her that there are physical limits as to what can be done on the horn.

Some conductors explicitly tell the horns and brass to play down in the final rehearsal in order to save themselves for the concert. I enjoy playing for them - they understand what it takes and are sympathetic to it!

In a future article, I'll describe some things that can be done in when practicing to extend your endurance.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Chance meeting

Coventry went fine - it was in fact more of service than a concert, so no audience applause. I don't think I had been in the building since I was about 12 years old, and I was surprised at how much of it I remembered.

The choir gradually got used to singing together - they were an assembly of church choirs from nonconformist churches up & down the land, and weren't all that used to singing regularly in a large group together (there were about 400 in the choir in total). They also weren't used to playing with orchestral accompaniment. About the first thing said by some of the sopranos in the front row of the choir was to complain that they couldn't hear a thing apart from the horns in front of them! (The conductor chose not even to reply to them.) But the choir got better during the rehearsal and in the service itself, they managed to produce a really good rousing sound in a a few pieces, particularly the Mendelssohn Hymn of Praise.

But the trip was additionally worthwhile for a conversation I had with one of the other horn players between the rehearsal and the service. I had met Anne Harrow for the first time just the previous fortnight, when we had been called in as extras to play the Dvorak Serenade with Ealing Symphony, but I hadn't had much opportunity to talk with her then. There was a longer interval after the rehearsal this time, and we got chatting about music and musicians we both knew. And it turned out that she, like me, had been to the Royal College of Music and had in fact done her Masters degree there.

She described the subject of her masters dissertation, which I found quite fascinating - it was on the techniques and strategies used by horn players to pitch their note for an entry. Apparently she had devised an experiment to try and work this out, and then had interviewed and run the experiment with about 60 horn players, including some London's top professionals as well as various students and amateurs. And it seems that the top players do approach this in a way different from mere mortals.

She's promised to see if she can dig out a copy of the dissertation and let me read it, and when I do so, I plan to write more about it. If there is a technique that works for the best professionals and it isn't getting taught to students, then that seems to be something of a pity. I'm not going to rely on my memory to describe the various techniques she described (except that I do recall that she mentioned that Tony Halstead's method was entirely unique to him!). I would rather wait until I read it and then be able to describe it all with more accuracy.

There's always something new to learn, if you keep your ears and mind open and ready to receive it.

By the way, I also spoke briefly to organist Rufus Frowde to say how much I had enjoyed his playing. He was really enjoying playing on the magnificent organ in Coventry Cathedral. He showed me the cover of the book that included one of the solo organ pieces he was playing, (something like "Modern pieces for organ, book 15"), and it turned out that the cover was a picture of the ranks of pipes of the Coventry Cathedral organ, and those precise pipes were right above our heads! All extra inspiration.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Choir and orchestra

There's something very special about playing in a big choral work. I find that I enjoy playing in an orchestra when it is accompanying a choir more than I enjoy playing in an orchestra when it is accompanying a soloist in a concerto.

The members of the choir are of course almost always amateurs - you could never afford to make up a massed choir of professional singers, the cost would be absolutely prohibitive (though sometimes I wonder what sort of a sumptuous sound could be produced by such a choir!). So all the singers are amateurs like me - they sing for the love of the music, and they take part in a large group for the joy of sharing their music with others, both fellow singers and the audience. That enthusiasm is wonderful to see and the warmth of the massed voices makes for a beautiful sound.

Then there is the fact that the choir is placed behind the orchestra. As a horn player, I'm almost always at the back of the orchestra, so I'm usually not actually surrounded by the sound when the orchestra plays alone. When I have the choir behind me and most of the orchestra in front, there is something incredibly exhilarating about being right in the middle of everything.

And choral music is usually perfect for producing wonderful horn parts - horns sing in a way very similar to the human voice, so composers who write good choral works usually are also able to produce gorgeous horn passages as well!

With concerto soloists, there is always a degree of separation - the soloist is projecting his or her sound out into the audience, and so the players behind in the orchestra often hear relatively little of the soloist. And even in some wonderful concertos, there is often a significant amount of accompaniment that consists of little more than a few occasional quiet chords here & there while the soloist dazzles the audience with his technical prowess. With a choral work, there is a much more equal partnership between choir and orchestra.

As it happens, on October 17th, I'm taking part in my second choral concert in consecutive weekends. The Hillingdon Philharmonic Orchestra are short of a horn player when they travel up to Coventry Cathedral to accompany the massed choirs of the Free Church Choir Union in their 2009 festival "Praise and Thanksgiving", and have asked me to join them for the trip.

I've not been in Coventry Cathedral for some years. My grandparents lived in Coventry and my father was brought up there. As a child visiting my grandparents on holiday I visited several times. The 14th century Gothic cathedral was burned to the ground in the German bombing raid of 14 November 1940, which devastated most of the city. The present cathedral replacing it was completed in 1962.

I've never before had the opportunity to perform there, and I'm looking forward to it. Cathedrals are really the proper places to perform big choral works, there is something about the increased reverberation of sound round the building compared to most concert halls that makes them ideal for this kind of music. Also, many choral works are based on sacred texts and it seems somehow fitting to perform them in surroundings that reflect that content.

Benjamin Britten's War Requiem was commissioned for and given its first performance at the consecration of the new cathedral. In between the standard offices of the requiem mass, Britten very powerfully includes settings of poems of the poet Wilfred Owen, including "The Parable Of The Old Man And The Young", based on the Old Testament story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his first-born son to God (Genesis 22:1-14), but with an ending reflecting the senseless slaughter that Owen witnessed in the trenches during WW1.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Coventry Cathedral has included a very strong peace and reconciliation element as part of its ministry in the years since the war, and Coventry has formed cultural links with Dresden, a city even more dreadfully bombed in 1945 in the closing months of the war. I visited Dresden a few years ago on a musical tour, and had a chance to visit Dresden's Frauenkirche. Like Coventry Cathedral, it was destroyed in the bombing. Rebuilding started after the reunification of Germany and was finally completed in 2005, and representatives of the city and cathedral of Coventry were present at the reconsecration ceremony. I visited a year or two later. It is a beautiful building and the people of Dresden have an obvious and great civic pride in it. Let us hope that the joint work of the people in both cathedrals will eventually contribute to bringing an end to all wars.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Lots of Brahms

This weekend, I'm in a scratch orchestra going down to Uckfield in Sussex to accompany a choir singing the Brahms Requiem, and also to play the Brahms "Variations on a theme by Haydn".

I haven't been given the part yet, and in fact I don't yet know which of the 4 parts I will play. With this group it apparently gets sorted out on the day.

But I can still take a look at the music. I already have a copy as a result of having bought several volumes of the Orchestra Musician's CD ROM Library. For any music student, professional player or even keen amateur, this is an absolutely invaluable resource. The CD contains scanned copies in Acrobat PDF format of the complete horn parts of just about all the major orchestral works that are out of copyright. All of Brahms orchestral works are in Volume 3, and so I can print out parts for all 4 symphonies, both piano concertos, the violin concerto and double concerto, the Requiem, all the Hungarian Dances in orchestrations by various composers, the Alto Rhapsody, both Serenades, both concert overtures, the Haydn Variations and a couple of other works. And on the same CD ROM are the major orchestral works by Chabrier, Chausson, Chopin, Franck, Lalo, Liszt, Offenbach, Sarasate, Schumann and Suppe. All for about £15 for that volume. There are 11 volumes so far published covering everything from Auber to Wagner, via Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvorak, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and many many more.

If you are likely to get called up to play unfamiliar works with unfamiliar orchestras, then at least if the piece is out of copyright you can print out the part and take a look beforehand.

I've played both these pieces before, but it never hurts to take a look and re-familiarise yourself with the part. Even though I only play for fun, as far as I'm concerned this is part of taking a professional attitude to music and performance. Even though I'm not getting paid, the audience will be paying to hear us, and they deserve the best performance I can manage.

So, a quick look at the horn parts for the Requiem reveals initially that there is the usual range of transpositions. The 1st part starts in F, then is in "tief Bb" for the 2nd movement. If you aren't sure what "tief" means in English, look it up, there are plenty of German-English dictionaries online. And in doing so, you learn that "tief" means "low". So the transposition is Bb basso, down a perfect 5th. It becomes obvious in the passage at letter I which goes up to a written top C, which would be a super-high F if the part were Bb alto. Brahms never wrote so high for the horn. The 3rd movement is in D, the 4th in Eb, the 5th in D, the 6th in C, and the 7th back in F.

Interestingly, the 3rd & 4th horns have different transpositions from the 1st & 2nd. 3 & 4 are tacet for the 1st movement but are in "tief C" (C basso) for the 2nd movement and tief Bb for the 3rd. Brahms was never all that keen on valved horns, so wrote transposing parts for hand horn as far as possible, though he wasn't above including notes in the parts that are not on the harmonic sequence! And that in fact is the major challenge of this piece - the horn parts have all sorts of odd notes and accidentals. Your transposition really has to be secure to play this confidently.

I've been transposing since I was 10 years old. In my first year of high school, I was put into the school brass band playing 4th horn, and in the first term they were playing the "Liberty Bell" march. But British brass bands don't normally use the french horn (though military bands, a completely different kind of ensemble, do). Instead, brass bands use the Eb tenor horn, which looks like an young tuba. So the part in front of me was for 4th horn in Eb. I took the part home, slightly flummoxed and showed it to my parents. My father (an accomplished amateur clarinettist) said "This one time, I'll write the part out for you in F, but after that, you're on your own and you will have to learn transposition." And that is what happened, and I have been transposing ever since when required. And it can be quite a useful skill, because it means that in any kind of group, if they are short on some instrument within my range, I can just pick up the part and transpose as needed. Bassoon, tuba, euphonium, saxophone or even trumpet parts get played from time to time.

But being good at transposing requires that you keep practicing - keeping the knowledge well-oiled. So I'll take a look over the parts and check out any awkward notes. For instance, the 1st horn part in the 3rd movement (horn in D) has Cb and Fb and Ab, which are certainly not notes you would commonly see in a transposed part. A quick fingering check of the offending passage will be needed - the last thing you want is to see such odd notes for the first time in the final rehearsal, and panic as you work out what the note transposes to!

If you don't know which part you are going to play, it is always a good idea to look through the lower parts as well as 1st. Of course, you need to be prepared if it turns out that you are on 1st chair, but you also don't want to look silly if you are on a lower part and there is a tricky passage which trips you up. And I notice that the 2nd part does have one or two such passages. For instance the 4th movement (in Eb) has a 2-octave descending arpeggio passage down to a pedal C that looks as if it might be quite exposed (Brahms does a similar trick several times in the 1st Serenade). So that will need a bit of a look.

Then there are the Haydn variations. This is the famous "St Anthony Chorale". Brahms provides a simple orchestration to the initial theme, and then goes off into a total of eight variations and a finale. With some of the variations, you do need to listen very hard to work out what relation they have to the original theme! But you don't really need to know in order to enjoy listening to the piece. More transposition - horns 1 & 2 are in tief Bb, and horns 3 & 4 are in a mixture of F and Eb.

1st horn has occasional solo fragments, and has the tune for much of variation 4 . The horns are all prominent in variation 6. Horn 3 has what looks like some prominent moments in variation 3, and variation 7. If you don't know the work already, a dead giveaway for an exposed passage, even if not marked solo (they often aren't) is the instruction espressivo, (often abbreviated to espr). And sure enough, that instruction is in variation 7 in the 3rd horn part. Horn in F at that point, so no difficulty with transposition, but it will need to be projected. I'll have a look at that as well.

The main thing with Brahms though is the overall style. Brahms' music for the most part is extremely gentle. He doesn't often go in for the loud climaxes of Tchaikovsky. But he really understands the horn and how to write for it. He writes gorgeous horn parts, which demand a particular playing style, including the following characteristics.
  • Smooth projected tone in the exposed passages, usually very legato. Avoid any kind of brassy edge to the tone.
  • Clearly articulated (but not aggressive) staccatos where required.
  • Accents don't need to be too aggressive. Ping them and fall back, you don't need to exaggerate and you need to play them within the context of your smooth tone colour.
  • Careful blending into the background when the horns are not solo.
  • Forte sustained notes should generally be given a bit of an accent to start with and then drop back to mf or even mp. Sustained whole-bar notes are not the most interesting things to listen to, so you must give the tune (whoever is playing it) a chance to come through.
  • "Hairpin" markings need to be scrupulously observed and if anything a little exaggerated, but make sure that having increased in dynamic you drop down again properly during the decrescendo. Often a pair of hairpins is intended to bring out just 2 or 3 notes to the foreground before you return to being an anonymous part of the texture. Do that without the conductor having to tell you (both the crescendo and decrescendo), and you can save a good deal of rehearsal time which can be spent on trickier stuff. The conductor will be grateful.
The overall message is that you coax the sound out of the instrument, you don't force it. This is musicality for playing Brahms. Other composers have different requirements, but this is what Brahms asks for.

And how do I know this? I've played most of Brahms' orchestral works, and partly from what the conductor says, and partly from listening to the music itself, this is what I've discovered about it. As you become familiar with a composer's style, you think yourself more or less automatically into that style when you get a piece of his to play. Players of the other instruments will express in slightly different terms what is needed of them to make their own particular contribution to the overall sound. But I suspect that all will think generally in terms of the smoothness of the tone required and the blending that is needed.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Beethoven Rondino

I've been asked to play with Ealing Symphony Orchestra this weekend (their regular first horn is busy elsewhere), for a special concert to honour Spencer Perceval, who became Prime Minister 200 years ago this year, and was assassinated in office 3 years later, the only British Prime Minister to have been killed in office. He came from Ealing, and a plaque dedicated to him is being unveiled on Saturday October 3rd at 7pm in All Saints Church, Elm Grove Road, followed by a concert in his honour, during which the local MP Stephen Pound will give a short talk about him. If you are in the area, do come along - tickets are just £4.

I'm playing in 2 pieces, the Dvorak Serenade for Wind, and the Beethoven Rondino for wind octet. I've played the Dvorak many times, it's a staple of the wind ensemble repertoire, but I've never got round to playing the Beethoven before, though I've heard recordings of it. I haven't been given the part yet, so I decided to print off the score from IMSLP. (IMSLP is an absolutely wonderful resource if you need to study any out-of-copyright music. I can't recommend it highly enough.)

And it is a delightful little piece with some very prominent horn parts - a fact made very clear because Beethoven puts the horn parts on the first 2 staves of the score, followed by the oboes, clarinets and bassoons.

Keeping with my recent theme of musicality, I thought I'd write a bit about how I approach this piece when practicing. Technically the piece is not overly challenging, but it will need to be played musically if the audience is going to enjoy it.

So, first things first. The piece is Andante, obviously intended to be a steady 4 quavers to a bar. It is in Eb major, and the horn parts are written transposed in Eb. It's a nice gentle speed for a horn tune - very characteristic of the instrument. It's the sort of speed in which many great horn solos have been written. Unless the group uses a conductor, the horn will lead off and so has to set the initial speed. It mustn't go too fast, otherwise the 2nd horn will murder me when he has to play demisemiquavers later in the piece, but it mustn't be allowed to drag. A nice steady walking pace, perhaps quaver=80 or thereabouts.

The first horn has the tune for the first 8 bars. It's a nice simple tune, 2 four-bar phrases, in each phrase the first and 3rd bars are repeated and the 2nd & 4th bars have a little variation. From all the slurs everywhere, it is clear that everything has to be very legato. This is a singing solo, the sound has to be projected but smooth and with the appearance of not being overly loud. The 2nd bassoon has a countermelody in the bass, and the 2nd horn and the clarinets are providing harmonic filling.

So, there are various choices I have to make with the opening solo.

Breathing: From the fact that there are tenuto instructions on the crotchets in bars 1 & 2, it is clear that there should be no break for breath after either crotchet. That means that I must take the whole of the first 4 bars in a single breath to give continuity to the phrase. Beethoven reinforces the point by putting in a nice quaver rest at the end of bar 4. That quaver is in fact tacet for the whole group. There's no mistaking how you are expected to breathe.

Grace note: Should the grace notes at the start of bars 2 & 4 be on the beat or before? Just before the beat seems to me to sound much better, it allows the 4 semiquavers to be nice and even, and trying to co-ordinate an on-beat grace note with the staccato bassoon quaver seems unnecessarily awkward. So ahead of the beat is what I'll do, unless the conductor or the group overrule me in rehearsal. Music making is a group activity - you work out together what is best and will achieve a good performance.

Dynamic changes: There aren't any marked dynamics apart from the initial p, but should anything be done beyond a steady piano throughout? Looking at it, I'm inclined to put a bit of a crescendo into bar 5 to make the first half of the 2nd phrase a bit stronger, then then drop down a notch for bars 7 & 8 to make a bit of an echo. It just provides that bit of variation to keep the audience interested.

2nd clarinet and 1st bassoon take the tune for the next 2 bars, and 1st oboe and 2nd clarinet take it for the following 2 bars, after which there is a tutti forte recapitulation of the opening phrase. Although the 1st horn is marked forte in bars 13-16, and only piano when it has the tune in bars 1-8, you shouldn't play much louder, since you don't have the tune and are providing harmonic filling. The extra sound will come from all the other instruments taking a step up in dynamic and this being the first point at which all 8 players and playing at once.

The next 8 bars for me just contain some repeated semi-staccato semiquavers, pianissimo. 1st clarinet has the tune, everyone else is accompanying. I'll need to listen out carefully to make sure that the dynamics match (so the clarinet can come through without forcing) and also to match the length of the staccato notes - we will want all 5 instruments with those semiquavers to be doing them in the same style. Although the semi-staccato marking is only written in full for the first bar, it is clearly intended to be played the same to the end of the passage.

After the repeat, the oboe takes the tune, and 1st horn has an arpeggio passage. This isn't tune, it is a combination of supporting harmony and rhythm. I think I'll play the semiquavers a bit detached (we will be in a church, the acoustic will probably be a bit muddy) and then the quavers more legato.

The horns are mostly doing supporting stuff for a while, so all the principles I wrote about in the articles on the Eroica apply here, until we come to the double bar and the second subject.

At this point it all gets a bit darker as the piece modulates from a carefree Eb major into a much darker Bb minor. (The key signature isn't changed to reflect this, but you can work it out from the extra accidentals written in.) 1st horn has the tune again, but the accompaniment is even more pared-down than at the start - just 1st bassoon & 2nd horn playing quavers. There's no supporting rhythm, just a bit of harmony below. The tone and phrasing has to reflect this darker mood.

The first 8 bars are 2 repeated 4-bar phrases. In other circumstances I might consider echoing the 2nd set, playing it quieter for a contrast, but it doesn't seem appropriate here, the tension is intended to build through the next 8 bars which have a similar rhythm but are a tone higher. So I might do the the very slightest crescendo through the whole 16 bars to maintain this slight sense of menace, and drop back to pianissimo for the semi-staccato detached quavers in the 17th bar after the key change.

Although it's not written in to the horn part, the pianissimo is clearly intended to last only 3 notes, and the solo piano to return on the high G crotchet. The sf markings on the Ab notes are not major accents, it is just leaning into the note a bit, everyone does it the second & third times.

And with a pair of hairpins on two crotchets, we return with relief to the sunlit uplands of Eb major and a recapitulation of the original tune, with some small variation in the notes of the tune and a much busier accompaniment including 1st bassoon playing an Alberti bass below you. It's very important to make the recapitulation sound like a homecoming. The audience have been on a difficult journey, but they are back home safe now and can rest & relax.

The horns are now mostly supporting for a while, though 2nd horn has a busy demisemiquaver arpeggio passage for a few bars, which will probably be easier played all with 1st valve on the F side.

And we finally come to the coda, where the whole group shuts up and it is just the two horns with the tune and a bit of harmony. It's the same tune as at in the first 4 bars of the piece, but there is now a nasty twist - the 2nd & 4th bars of the original phrase are now repeated, marked con sordino. Definitely an echo effect intended here, but it is going to be tricky to get mutes in and out so quickly.

This is perhaps the earliest use of the con sord instruction for horns in Beethoven's work - about the only other example that comes to mind is the closing solo in the slow movement of the Pastoral Symphony.

But enough of history, there is still the need to work out how to play the con sord passages. For the 1st horn part, the answer to me is fairly straightforward. Even with the mute on a cord round my wrist, there's not time to swap between mute and hand. I don't want to play the open bars with the mute half-inserted, I don't like the effect on my tone. So I'm not going to attempt to use the mute, I'm going to play those bars handstopped. I can get a nice echo effect that way. But the second horn is also con sord, and playing in a much lower register, going down to a pedal C (actually Bb once you take into account the transposition). Handstopping doesn't work so well down there. Quite how we will address that is something we'll have to work out in rehearsal. There are various options available, and we'll have to see which works best for the player concerned. If I were playing it, I would be inclined to handstop the first con sord bar, and then handstop the first note of the next one, and just play the remaining two quavers (the low G and the pedal C) as quietly as possible, but not stopped.

So there you are. It's a small piece. It doesn't have the grandeur or drama of the Eroica symphony, but it has its musical and technical challenges, and I hope the audience will go home thinking "I hadn't heard that Beethoven piece before. It was rather beautiful, I'd like to hear it again sometime."