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.

1 comment:

  1. I greatly appreciate your comments. I deal with endurance problems all the time in a church orchestra and in my two civic orchestras.

    I know my abilities and limitations, and for each performance I develop a plan for how to best get through without a meltdown. Tactics I use include: playing some passages down an octave, not playing for a few measures (especially when another instrument such as the trumpet has the same), asking a colleague to play a few measures of high notes for me.