Monday, 13 December 2010

Different kinds of tone

One aspect of horn playing which I feel is inadequately stressed is control over tone colour and how this can contribute to the effect of the music you are playing.

Generally, as you play louder, your tone will get more of a buzz, more "brassiness". Sometimes this is desirable, but sometimes not. If you are playing a solo in a Brahms or Bruckner symphony, what you want is a projected sound, one which will carry over the orchestra but not be brassy.

So the fundamental of tone control is to be able to vary the volume and vary the amount of  brassiness independently of each other.

Once you have acquired that kind of control, then you have to make a decision as to how much brassiness and volume to use in any particular context. Choosing the context involves considering the ensemble you are playing in, the period of the music and the composer, and the intent of the composer at any specific moment in the piece.

Let's consider the effect of ensemble on tone first.

Wind quintet and other small wind or wind/string chamber groups
This is the grouping where you need to go easy. A light airy tone is required here. Very rarely will you need to produce a volume higher than a solid orchestral mf, even where the part is marked ff. You are working with only a small number of other instruments, and the horn tone is already distinctive. Your basic tone/volume combination for a wind quintet should have a minimum of brassiness and be several notches quieter than you would use in orchestral playing.

From that foundation, you can project (more volume but no more brassiness) when you have a solo line, or occasionally punch out with more brassiness for special effects. But this should all be relative to the basic tone for the group.

Brass quintet or other brass ensemble
A brighter brassier tone is required here. The problem for the horn in a brass quintet is to match the clarity and brightness of the forward-facing bells of the trumpets and trombone. So you need a bigger tone with more buzz to it, and the notes need to be tongued more sharply to match up to the other instruments. But don't overdo it - you still want to sound characteristically like a horn and not an inferior sort of muffled trombone.

Orchestra - classical composers
I'm thinking Mozart and Haydn here, maybe earlier Beethoven as well, where you have a classical-sized orchestra of strings, double woodwind, 2 horns, 2 trumpets and timpani. No heavy brass. Generally, you need your wind quintet tone here, but with a bit more volume and oomph behind it to match up to the larger number of players involved. But remember that in these sorts of pieces, the horns are usually providing inner harmonies and only occasionally solo lines. So you are blending in and need to keep the volume down accordingly. Only occasionally for fanfare-style interjections to you add in a bit of brassiness for a special effect.

Orchestra - Romantic composers
Brahms, Bruckner and the rest. There is now a full section of heavy brass in the orchestra - trumpets, trombones, and sometimes a tuba as well. They will usually provide the fanfare stuff when needed - so you match up to them brass quintet style when required. But when playing solo or blending with the wind and strings, you go for the smoother tone of the non-brassy sounds, but with the volume increased if appropriate to match up to the larger string section you may be with. So your basic sound is smooth but with more weight behind it.

A note about Bruckner - the correct tone for Bruckner a rich and round and mellow with no brassiness at all - even in loud passages with the rest of the brass. Bruckner's loud bits should generally be thought of in terms of a chorale. Think of the sumptuous sound that a really good massed choir can produce. That's what you should aim for in Bruckner. The number of cases where you should allow more brassiness in his symphonies are vanishingly rare.

Orchestra - Modern composers
20th century music tends to have more astringent harmonies to it, and the tone colours required change correspondingly. You have to judge this according to the nature of the piece and the composer. For Elgar you would would have a tone not much different from Brahms. For Shostakovich you will spend a lot of time playing with a deliberately brassy tone as far removed from Bruckner as it is possible to get.

Wind Band/Military Band
Generally more volume. Massed ranks of clarinets will generally produce more sound than massed ranks of strings. Hopefully the conductor will have enough about him to be able to demand a proper piano from the band where necessary. Without strings, a wind band's range of tone colours is more limited, and so dynamic contrasts become more important. Don't worry of you feel that you can't be heard most of the time. You probably can't, and this is intentional. But you are still contributing to the overall effect. Remember that the horns are still mostly doing their usual thing of blending into the middle of the harmonies. It is just that horns inside a predominantly wind sound will be less obvious than horns with strings. Don't succumb to the temptation to blow louder so your unique contribution can be heard (even though it is only afterbeats).

Experience will gradually tell you what sort of tone is required in any individual situation. And if you aren't sure, then you work on the basis that you do what the principal horn is doing and blend with him/her. If you are the principal, then you ought to be able to think about this and make a decision. The decision you make will probably be different to some degree from what I would do in the same circumstance. That's fine, that is part of you finding your own voice and interpretation. But actually make a decision to vary your tone according to circumstances, in order to broaden your expressive range.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

About "bumping"

In the UK, the assistant 1st horn is colloquially called the "bumper". The origin of this usage is a mystery to me, but that is what we call it.

I was asked to bump for Brent Symphony Orchestra's concert last night: Dvorak's "The Noon Witch", Elgar's Enigma Variations, and Brahms 1st Symphony. I was returning a favour to the first horn there, who had come along to play at the Hillingdon Philharmonic's Russian concert last month. It gives me an occasion to talk about bumping and using a bumper.

First about bumping itself. You are there to make life easy for the first horn. That is your sole purpose. So you play whatever is required of you. If you regularly bump for the same player, then you will gradually develop an understanding of each other, and as bumper you will learn almost without verbal communication to know when you need to play. If working with a player you don't know, it's a good idea for the principal to mark in the part when he or she wants you to play. It will take 10 minutes or so before the rehearsal. If you are being brought in for just the last rehearsal, arrive early so that there is time to do this.

If you have been called in to bump, it is probably because it is a heavy programme for the principal. Therefore he may need to pace himself duriuing the rehearsal. That means you might be asked to play more in the rehearsal than in the concert itself. I understand this isn't unusual in a professional situation, but it's a bit hard on the bumper in an amateur setting. It's not unheard of but it is less common.

As bumper, you will find yourself playing tutti accompanying blending passages, so the principal saves his lip for the solos and more prominent parts. So you will find yourself mostly playing when some or all the other horns in the section are also playing. So for that time, you are leading the section. You are setting the tone and the style, and they should be matching you as they would if the principal were playing. That's what good ensemble playing is about.

But you have to remember also that the passages you have been given as bumper are almost all going to be where the horns aren't prominent, where they are accompanying and blending in. So you must do that as well.

And also, you have to adjust your playing to the style of the principal. listen out for his tone, for his style of doing dynamics and articulation, and you match that as far as possible. The idea is that unless he is actually looking in your direction, the conductor shouldn't be able to tell whether it is you or the principal playing.

I've both bumped and played principal when I'm making use of a bumper, and making use of a bumper has given me an insight into what I ought to do when bumping for somebody else.

When you are principal and have the luxury of a bumper, make effective use of him. In an amateur setting, you want the bumper to be willing to come and play for you again, so it is wise to be fairly generous with the number of notes you assign to the bumper. And that helps you save your lip for the solos, which is what your own performance will be judged on. You may have to adjust things a bit according to how experienced your bumper is and how much endurance he has. But as a general rule the idea is to err on the side of giving the bumper more ratther than less to do.

Broadly there are three main ways in which you can use a bumper.

First is for him to play less exposed passages so you can relax and prepare for later solos. A classic example of this is in the first movement of Shostakovich 5th Symphony. There's a major horn and flute duet about halfway through the first movement, where the horn part goes quite high, up to a high B, played piano. Not long before, there is a very loud tutti unison passage for just about the whole orchestra. The principal can easily drop out and leave that to the bumper.

The second way is for both the bumper and principal to play in a loud tutti passage, particularly if there is an accent at the start, or something else where the impact of an additional horn will heighten the effect.

The third way is where there is a long loud high tutti passage, and it's essentially impossible to get through without taking a break. Tchaikovsky and Siibelius symphonies are particularly notorious for this sort of thing. The approach here is to arrange to take alternate sections of 2 or 4 bars. Mark up the part accordingly. When you have a passage like this, it is good practice to play the two bars, plus just the first note of the other person's two bars. The aim here is to ensure that there is no gap between one person finishing and the other starting. A doubled note every 2 bars or so will not be noticed, whereas a gap will be noticed.

Bumping isn't so much fun as playing your own part, but if you are a young player starting out on your career, take every opportunity to bump that you are offered. It is great experience. You get to see (and play part of) principal horn parts. You get to see at close quarters how a more experienced player approaches the major solos in the repertoire. Watch and listen and learn from it, against the day when you will be required to play the same solos yourself.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

An all Russian concert

In October, I played the first concert of the season with Hillingdon Philharmonic. Obviously a brass player has got at the committee, because we had a very brass-heavy programme of Russian music: Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (the Ravel orchestration), and Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony.

It got complicated some time before the concert. The other regular horn player in the orchestra dropped out as he had an RAF Association Band concert the same evening, so I had to draft in extras from neighbouring orchestras. Even that didn't go smoothly, one of the players I booked had to drop out because she had sliced open and seriously injured a finger in her left hand. But even so, we had a good strong section.

I've known Pictures for a long time, I first played it at about the age of 15 in the Norfolk County Youth Orchestra, so I knew that it requires some odd instruments. Fortunately my daughter Katie plays the alto saxophone, needed for "Il vecchio castello", so she was booked for the concert, and played her solo very well! (I'm biased of course, I would say that, but it happens also to be true.)

I also knew that the tuba solo in the "Bydlo" movement goes impossibly high by tuba standards - it reaches a G# above middle C, which is ridiculous writing for a tuba.  Tuba players normally bring along a tenor tuba or euphonium to play that movement. I remember a time many years ago playing the piece with the Norwich Philharmonic, and the tuba player booked for the concert didn't know about the solo, and simply couldn't play that high and hadn't brought a tenor tuba along. So I mentioned this to the relevant committee member and suggested that they check whether our regular tuba player had a euphonium he could play for that movement. He didn't, so we booked a euphonium player from a local brass band specifically for that movement, and I wrote out the tuba part for the movement transposed into Bb basso in treble clef, which is the normal brass band notation for a Bb euphonium. Written out that way, the top note of the part is a written Bb above the treble stave. That's pretty high even for a euphonium.

As for the horns, I decided as soon as the programme was announced that this would absolutely need five horns, that I would need an assistant. Sometimes you can manage without, but not for a programme with this much sustained heavy work for the brass. Apart from me, all the horns were extras brought in for the day, so I was free to arrange the horns as I thought fit. I played 1st for everything, but I arranged for everybody else to swap round between the two halves of the concert, mainly so that nobody would have to "bump" (be the assistant 1st horn) for the whole concert, and also so that nobody would have to cope with playing the high 3rd horn part for the whole evening. In amateur orchestras, I find that a bit of swapping round of parts helps maintain the interest for everybody.

For this concert, especially as we had an afternoon rehearsal on the same day, I knew I would have to pace myself. The big solo in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky was in the second half of the concert, and there were big brass chorale finales to both the Shostakovich and Mussorgsky - the Great Gate of Kiev at the end of Pictures is a real lip-shredder. So I decided to make as much use of the bumper as possible. More or less anything loud and tutti I simply handed over to the assistant to play. For instance, I left almost the whole of "The Great Gate of Kiev" to the assistant, just playing an occasional 4 bars to give her lip a chance to recover.

Even with this pacing, including leaving significant chunks of the Tchaikovsky first movement to the assistant, I found that my lip was more tired than I would have liked when I got to the big solo in the Tchaikovsky. No individual bit of the solo is technically unduly difficult, but put together it is very challenging for two reasons. The first is that it does go on for quite a long time, and so your technique and endurance have to be up to the job of making the end sound as impressive as the start. The second and more important challenge is that you have to fill a wide expressive range. The solo has to sound beautiful - romantic, relaxed at times, more urgent at others. It has to sound continuous even though you have to take breaths from time to time. And it has to sound effortless, as if the encumbrance of actually having to extract sound from the instrument is a mere triviality.

An important aspect of the solo is that Tchaikovsky has been quite detailed in his markings, for dynamics, articulation, phrasing and changes of tempo. For instance, there is one ascending scale passage where for the first five notes are marked mezzo staccato with dots and slurs, but the last three notes have dashes instead. It's a deliberate change and you have to reflect it with much fuller note lengths and more legato tonguing. And if you do that, the effect is romantic and magical!

Also there are stringendos, rubatos and a tempo marks, so the speed gets pulled around quite a bit. For all practical purposes this is a horn concerto for a few minutes, so the conductor will follow you whatever you do. So you have to decide how much you are going to change speed and precisely when. Remember that although you are solo and the conductor has to follow you, you can make it easier by making your tempo changes smooth and gradual so he can conduct in a way so that the speed changes don't flummox the rest of the orchestra. But most important is that you have to decide on the shape of the solos - where exactly are the climaxes, how will I reach them, how much do I do in terms of speed and dynamic variation? Where will I breathe so you can achieve all this? What am I trying to say here?

This requires practice at home. You don't want to be improvising this at the orchestra rehearsal. The rehearsal should merely involve making minor tweaks that occur to you as a result of hearing it with live orchestral accompaniment. Every note of the solo is deserving of thought as to how it will be played, and if you are going to wring the maximum expressiveness out of it, some at least of the notes will be a bit risky. Such is life as a horn player.

My daughter Katie doesn't often play saxophone in an orchestra, most of her orchestral playing has been on the cello. So she isn't all that used to having a situation where the conductor cues you, and if you don't play, nothing happens because nobody else is doubling you! She told me afterwards that she finds that a bit unnerving. Welcome to my world! Orchestral wind players just have to learn to deal with it.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Summer concerts completed

Well, the summer concerts have gone pretty well. I was a bit under-practiced for the St Barnabas Last Night of the Proms. I'd had a dreadful cold for the previous week and so had had far less energy to practice than I wanted. Some of the accuracy went as a result and I cracked more notes than is customary for me. But the audience still seemed to like it, and I was pleased with my solo "Spanish Ladies" in the Sea Songs.

The organisers are interested in having St Clements Wind Ensemble play a concert there next season, so that's something to work out.

Then in August St Clements Wind Ensemble did their annual trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. We played two concerts, the same programme both days. And very unusually for me, I had never performed any of the works before.

We started with an arrangement by Michael Round for wind ensemble (double wind quintet) of Mozart's Sonata in D Major for 2 pianos. Michael made enough of an effort at matching how Mozart might have arranged it that he wrote the horn parts out in D and in G, and used only notes that could have been reached by hand horns. He commented to me in a break in rehearsals that when he started writing the parts out in F they "just looked wrong". It worked very well. I'm looking forward to hearing the concert recording, and I don't doubt that we will play it again, especially as it has the great advantage of requiring two flutes, unlike any of the Mozart Serenades for wind. (The leader of our group is a flautist, and understandably likes to programme pieces that she can take part in herself!)

Next up was the Spohr Grand Nonet, for violin, viola, cello, bass and wind quintet. It was clearly intended to be a work following in the tradition of mixed wind and string chamber pieces such as the Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet. I'd had a run through the piece earlier this year with another group, but had never performed it befoe. It's not the absolutely greatest of pieces of music, but well worth an outing from time to time. The largest problem is balance. With only 4 strings and 5 wind in a very resonant acoustic, there was always a need to keep the wind from overpowering the strings.

After the interval was Lyle Sanford's Timepiece for wind quintet. This was the only piece we played without conductor, and we also chose to perform it standing, partly so we could turn to face each other more easily and coordinate the beat, partly to make us more visible to the audience. All three movements together are only about 10 minutes, and even the heavier instruments such as horn and bassoon can be held standing for that length of time. Lyle had been tremendously helpful prior to the concert in terms of providing information about his intentions and in his willingness to let us shape the interpretation the way he felt it should go.

I have to say it was a delight to play. It's not unreasonably difficult, though the the irregular time signatures in the first and third movements do take a bit of getting used to. The time signatures are 7/4 (approx moderato) for the first movement, an Andante 3/4 for the second, and a 10/8 (3+3+4) allegretto for the third movement. For all that the harmonies and structures are determinedly conventional. The first movement starts with a kind of "ground bass" apreggio rhythm in crotchets on the bassoon, with a slower tune played on the upper woodwind. Sometimes the tune is solo, sometimes as a chorale of two or three instruments, sometimes there is a chorale with a faster countermelody. It's necessary to be alert to when you have the tune and when you have to blend into the background. Towards the end, variations of the faster countermelody are taken as a solo for each instrument in turn before a final determined restatement or the initial ground bass rhythm on all instruments.

The second movement is a peaceful, perhaps slighly mournful slow dance in 3/4, remining me very much of a sadder version of one of Satie's Gymnopedies. It had that steady stately sort of pace about it. it starts with the rhythm being established on horn and bassoon, and a slow tune above. Sometimes the rhythm disappears and you have lines based on the tune weaving in and out of each other, and sometimes the underlying rhythm returns.

The third movement has a Rondo feel to it. I don't know if you're allowed to have a Rondo in 10/8, but this certainly feels like one! The sadness of the previous movement is banished, the feel is light and airy and wholly happy. The structure is similar to the first movement, the rhythm is established as an arpeggio passage in quavers (initially on the flute) and a slower tune based on dotted crotchets and crotchets is passed around from instrument to instrument every couple of bars or so. There are a couple of tricky passages in the middle where the flute, oboe and clarinet each take a quaver of the tune for three bars, a technique called a "hocket" (I had to look up that word in a musical dictionary when Lyle used it in an email - I had never come across it before!)

To my mind, this piece is a real find. The five of us who played it all enjoyed working on it, and we got lots of positive comments from the other members of the group, both about the piece and the performance, and similarly from those members of the audience I spoke to afterwards.

Thank you Lyle! I very much hope to play this piece again sometime.

The last piece was the Brahms Serenade No. 2 in A. This requires the oddest combination of players. Two flutes, piccolo (last movement only), 2 each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons, and a string section consisting of violas, cellos and basses. No violins! So it's sort of for half an orchestra. And for all that it a sumptuous glorious music, it is vary rarely performed. It doesn't have the fame of his symphonies, it's not quite a chamber work, it falls through the cracks. But it is absolutely authentic Brahms with soaring tunes and lush harmonies. Serenade is exactly the right title for it, it definitely has that evening singing feel to it.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Summer concerts

Summer brings a change of pace from the usual round of orchestra concerts. I find myself taking part in more chamber music. This summer is no exception.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to join players from Ealing Symphony Orchestra in their end-of-season chamber concert in St. Mary's Perivale. It happened to be on the night of the World Cup Final, so the audience was a bit thin, but never mind. I took part in a performance of the Strauss Suite for Winds. As the church is very small (seats about 100 max) and the Strauss uses 13 performers (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 horns, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon) the loud passages really raised the roof! It's a thoroughly happy and optimistic piece, with some lovely delicate touches, especially in the Gavotte. And to think that Strauss was less than 20 years old when he composed it!

On Friday August 6th I'm taking part in the St Barnabas Last Night of the Proms. I'm playing in an arrangement of the Fantasia on Sea Songs. it promises to be a very jolly occasion. Sometimes classical musicians take themselves far too seriously, and I think these kinds of concert are a wonderful corrective to that.

But the main summer event for me, as it has been for the last few years, is St Clement's Wind Ensemble's concerts on the Edinburgh Fringe "Airy Delights". We are playing in Canongate Kirk on 19th and 20th August at 5pm.

This year the big piece we are doing is Brahms' Serenade No. 2. The instrumentation is a bit between that of a chamber ensemble and an orchestra. It requires 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, plus violas, cellos and double bass. But curiously , no violins. As far as I'm aware, there isn't anything else scored for quite the same group of instruments. This means that it doesn't get performed all that often, which I think is a great pity because it has some lovely music in it. I've listened to recordings but never played it before, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Taking advantage of the fact that we will have some strings with us this year, we are also playing Spohr's Grand Nonet. Again, an unjustly neglected work. I've had a run through this with friends, but never before performed it. This is one of the joys of playing chamber music if the majority of your playing is in an orchestra - there are all sorts of little gems to be found that you don't come across in the normal run of playing.

Michael Round has made an arrangement for double wind quintet of a Mozart Sonata for 2 pianos, which should be a thoroughly enjoyable and tuneful addition SCWE's repertoire of larger wind chamber works. Some people get a bit sniffy about arranging chamber works for groups other than those which the composer used. This of course is nonsense, composers themselves have re-arranged their pieces for all sorts of groups. Beethoven and Brahms both made arrangements of their symphonies for piano 4 hands, movements from Mozart's great Gran Partita serenade pop up again in one of his flute quartets, and abbreviated versions of the Beethoven Septet also exist as arrangements by the composer himself as a piano trio and as a string quintet. There's no reason to think that the composers would disapprove of others making arrangements for different ensembles, provided it is tastefully done. In pre-recording days it was a way of providing additional opportunities for their music to be heard.

And we are doing a couple of wind quintets, one by
Ketil Hvoslef, written in 1964, and also Lyle Sanford's Timepiece. I'm particularly looking forward to doing Timepiece, partly because I enjoy doing first performances and first UK performances, bringing a new piece to an audience, partly because it is an enjoyable piece and a worthwhile addition to the wind quintet repertoire, but mainly because of Lyle Sanford's obvious delight in seeing that the piece will be performed and his willingness to trust us on performance details. I hope that when he hears the concert recording he will still be as happy!

Friday, 23 July 2010

Brent Symphony Orchestra

Next season sees the centenary of the Brent Symphony Orchestra. In past times it used to be called the Willesden Symphony Orchestra, and before that I believe it was the Harlesden Symphony Orchestra. Because it used to be set up as an evening class nominally run by the local authority, it had to keep changing its name with each local government reorganisation.

In a way, I owe my existence to that orchestra. My parents met as a result of my father being asked by the orchestra's conductor Harry Legge to give my mother a lift to and from rehearsals, when she came down to London to study for a postgraduate music teaching diploma at the Royal College of Music. I also played in the orchestra under Harry Legge when I moved to London to study at university.

Members of the orchestra are compiling a history of the orchestra with the aim of making it available for sale during the centenary season. If you have ever played in the orchestra, or any members of your family have ever played in the orchestra, and you have anecdotes of events there, particularly from more distant times, please drop me a line at, and I'll put you in touch with those compiling the history.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


I've just seen the obituary for the former BBC commentator Robert Hudson.

I have no memory of hearing him on the radio - he retired over 20 years ago. But some of the things in the obituary have struck me as having parallels with music making.

He made copious notes on every player that enabled him to fill the gaps in play easily. But, as he wrote in his 1993 book, Inside Outside Broadcasts: "Names are all very well and instant recognition is essential, but give a cricketer a mop of red hair and a cap slightly askew, and he begins to come to life."

It begins to come to life! If you make that happen, you can make an occasion memorable. As musicians we have to prepare, but we also have to find ways of bringing the music to life, to bring out emotions in the audience.

The other point concerns his meticulous preparation.

Hudson ... was well known for his radio coverage of state occasions – royal weddings, Remembrance Day services, investitures, funerals and five royal tours in 32 different countries. He commentated on 21 Trooping the Colours and would prepare for two weeks beforehand by interviewing every key figure. He would then make notes to himself on postcards, all written out in different coloured pencil. He would include everything from individuals' names to the times when he should not speak, such as when music was due to begin or the brigade majors would bark out their orders.

Two weeks of preparation, for one live broadcast (albeit a long one). It doesn't normally occur to us that commentators have to prepare as assiduously for a match as the sportsmen participating in it. So spare a thought for audiences who have no idea how much preparation goes into a concert. It is supposed to sound effortless, so you can hardly blame the audience for thinking that no effort was involved!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Growing up musical - 2

My parents moved to Norfolk when I was 12, and within a couple of years they started the Brundall Music Club.

This was quite an ambitious undertaking, and it just happened to be the right place and time for it. The idea was to put on nine concerts a year, one a month except in the summer. The concerts were given by amateurs (mainly members and their friends) for members. The concerts were held in the main hall of the village primary school. Nobody was ever paid to perform, though the club would pay for music hire for larger pieces on occasion.

It helped that my parents had rapidly acquired lots of good contacts. They were both playing in the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra, and so had a ready supply of orchestral musicians who were interested in playing chamber music. The village already had an excellent church choir, who would also put on concerts as the Brundall Singers.

By that time I was playing the horn in the Norwich Students Orchestra, and so we also had a supply of good young musicians.

And John Barnett, the head of music at Thorpe St Andrew School, the nearest high school to the village, on the east side of Norwich, also turned out to be very keen on the idea.

Of vital importance to the success of the club was the fact that my mother was an outstanding accompanist and sight-reader. She probably played in over 3/4 of all the concerts - but very rarely as a soloist. It meant that if anybody had some pieces they wanted to put on as part of a programme, but needed an accompanist, she was available for the purpose - two short rehearsals was usually all that was needed to bring the piece to concert readiness.

So for about the next 10 years, through high school, university, and postgraduate studies at the RCM, I had a friendly audience of 100 or so happy to listen to anything I happened to be working on, and an accompanist capable of tackling the piano part of anything I might try!

For the first or second concert of the club, I got together a wind quintet from the Students Orchestra. We played Malcolm Arnold's Three Shanties, and a Haydn Divertimento (the one that includes the St Anthony Chorale, which Brahms famously did a load of variations on).

And we also put on all sorts of wind and strings or wind and piano chamber music. On different occasions we played the Beethoven Septet, both the Mozart and Beethoven quintents for piano and wind, the Schubert Octet and various other chamber works. I played brass quintets at the club with some local brass players.

But it was the chamber music in groups that included one or both of my parents that I remember most. It is from them that I learned most about the art of playing in chamber groups. The need for eye contact to co-ordinate changes of tempo. Working out who has the tune at any moment and has to be followed by all the others. Learning how by gesture to start everybody off in a way that they all know what speed is being chosen. Knowing how to gesture to end the final chord of a piece. Learning about how to maintain a steady tempo even through difficult passages - because the rest of the group can't stop and wait for you! (Learning how to cheat in those difficult passages and miss out a note or two so that you can keep up.) Learning whan you are accompanying and should play a notch or two quieter than the written dynamic.

And most importantly, the sheer fun of playing in a small group where you can all make a contribution to the interpretation. Where the other players are genuinely happy to congratulate you on a solo passage played well.

Quite often, when I was visiting home from university, I would be met at Norwich station by one of my parents with the words "Oh good, you have your horn with you. There's a Music Club concert this weekend, and somebody has dropped out. Do you have some music with you we can put on?" So, I would rehearse with Mum whatever I had been working on in lessons, and we would perform it on the Saturday evening. Because she was such a good accompanist, and I had had lots of training in chamber music through performing things at the club, whatever piece we had to hand wouldn't take much rehearsal to put together.

I have in my head vivid memories of perhaps a dozen concerts out of the hundreds I've played over the years. Two of those vivid memories are from the Brundall Music Club. One was that initial wind quintet. All the players were very good (at least two went on to become professional musicians) and a music teacher in the audience afterwards commented to my mother "that was good enough to be broadcast". It all just seemed to fit.

The other occasion was a time when, as sometimes happened, we got ambitious and tried to put on a larger work. The head of English at Thorpe St. Andrew School was a fine tenor, so with John Barnett conducting, the head of English singing the solo tenor part, me on the solo horn part, and strings made up of members of the club supplemented by friends and members of the Norwich Phil, we put on the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. I worked on the piece for a good long time with my horn teacher Douglas Moore prior to the concert. He put into my part all sorts of markings (I have them still). As he wrote them in, he would say "this is how Britten asked me to play it". The horn part is exceedingly difficult. At one point there is a pianissimo crescendo entry on a top C. And I nailed it in the performance! There is no recording of the Music Club performance. Probably just as well - it might turn out not to be as accomplished as my memory fondly has it. But that day and for some weeks afterwards, I was walking on air.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Growing up musical

I've mentioned in a previous blog the inspiring conductors who have been an important part of my musical upbringing. But I haven't mentioned the most important two people who formed my musical outlook - my parents.

They met as a result of both attending the very first Rehearsal Orchestra course in Edinburgh in 1957. The following autumn, my mother came down to London to study at the RCM for a postgraduate music teaching diploma and they both played in the Harlesdon Symphony Orchestra (now called the Brent Symphony Orchestra) under Harry Legge - one of my inspiring conductors.

My father started learning the clarinet at the age of about 15. At the time (during the war) his school had been evacuated away from Coventry (which was bombed heavily, destroying the cathedral) to Lincoln. One evening he heard on the radio a performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, and was completely blown away by the Allegretto, starting with a simple rhythm all on one note, and then developing all kinds of variations around it. He instantly decided that he wanted to be able to play that kind of music. It being wartime, no new musical instruments were being made, but his parents managed to find a second-hand clarinet for him to learn, and arranged lessons for him with a local teacher.

My mother learned the piano from an early age, and carried off all the prizes for years in the piano classes in music competitions in and around her home town of Fleetwood in Lancashire. She was very tall, the tallest in her class at school, and the head of music at the school asked if she would like to learn the viola. Mistakenly thinking it was a double-bass she would be learning, she accepted with alacrity, to be somewhat disappointed by the outsize violin she was given!

So, my father was a keen amateur clarinettist and my mother was a music teacher, teaching violin and piano and playing viola and piano. All four of the children learned musical instruments: my brother Matthew learned the violin, my elder sister Barbara the cello, and my younger sister Joanna also the violin. (She has gone on to become a professional musician in London.)

I started on the piano at the age of 5, under a wonderful teacher by the name of Mrs Lyndon. Then when I was about 8, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me also to learn an orchestral instrument. At the time, I used to have eczema on my hands, the skin was very dry and would crack and bleed. So playing a stringed instrument was out of the question for me, as it would have hurt to press the strings down with my fingers.

So one weekend my parents got together a wind quintet from players in their local orchestra, and invited them round to have a play through some music. When they stopped for a coffee break, I was invited to have a go on each of the instruments and see if I could make a sound on them.

Afterwards, I was asked which instrument I liked best. I said "the horn", and on being asked why, I apparently answered "it's nice and curly". On such small things are lives changed! In due course a horn appeared and lessons were started with a local teacher.

In those days, both sets of grandparents would visit us over Christmas every year, and the Christmas day routine would always be much the same. A special Christmas breakfast including half a grapefruit with a glace cherry on top. Then church, followed by Christmas lunch (turkey and all the trimmings), opening of presents, and then the family would put on a Christmas concert for the grandparents. We would play Christmas carols arranged by my father for the available instruments, and we would play whatever solo pieces we had been learning.

The photo above was taken during one of those Christmas family concerts when I was about 8 and had been learning the horn a few months. Back row left to right are my father, my mother and my brother Matthew. Front row is me, and my two sisters Joanna and Barbara.

Note my unconventional posture, resting the horn on my crossed legs. It was a heavy Chinese single F instrument, and it was too heavy for an 8-year-old to lift and play for any length of time. It was some time before my teacher insisted that I learn to play with the instrument held up properly.

My younger sister was about 2 1/2 in that photo, and had not long started learning the violin. As a toddler she liked to sit in on Mum's violin lessons, and was found upstairs one day playing a pair of knitting needles as if they were a violin, and holding the "bow" with the correct grip. A 1/8 size violin was soon found for her, which she is playing with great concentration in the picture!

So playing music and especially performing music has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I don't get performance nerves because I started performing when I was far too young to realise that people did get nervous about it. My parents never made a big deal of performing, it was just something you did. And of course, I loved people telling me how well I had played!

I joined my first youth orchestra at the age of 9. I think I was the youngest there by a couple of years, certainly the youngest horn player by a much larger margin. I remember the first piece I ever performed with the orchestra - the March from "Caractacus" by Elgar. Sitting down, my head only came up the the shoulders of the other horn players.

On going to high school at the age of 10, I was immediately drafted into the school 2nd orchestra and the school brass band. I remember my confusion on my first brass band rehearsal. We were playing Liberty Bell, and the horn part was written for an Eb tenor horn, and so was in in Eb. I had never come across this before. (For those of you unfamiliar with British brass bands and their instruments, the Eb tenor horn looks like a young tuba, it is pitched in Eb, has a tube length just over half that of the F side of a French horn, and is played using trumpet fingerings).

I brought the part home, and asked what I could do about this. Dad told me "Just this once, I'll write the part out for you in F. But after this, you will have to learn to transpose!" And that is exactly what I had to do.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Playing in groups - chamber music

When you play chamber music, you have to take much more responsibility than when you are in an orchestra or band. There are fewer players and no conductor.

So, you have to work out together how you are going to play the piece, you have to decide collectively how you will interpret it. You don't have a conductor deciding on the style of playing and the structure that he wants to convey to the audience.

It is easier to do this as a group if you spend some time getting used to playing as a group. It may be that a leader naturally emerges, but it is rare for the leader to become as dominant as the conductor is by definition. So everybody has a right and even a duty to make their contribution.

The first and most obvious point is that since you don't have a conductor giving you a beat to look at, you have to look at each other to coordinate the beat. In orchestra, you should always have the conductor visible in the corner of your eye, but in a chamber group, you have to have all the other players within your field of view, so you can look at whoever is leading at any moment.

Even if an overall leader of the group emerges, individual players have the task of leading at different moments. This can be because they have the tune, or because they are in a position to control a rallentando, or to lead off after a pause. In small groups, everybody is a leader for some of the time.

If you are not the leader at a particular moment, you have to know who is and make sure you are looking at them and following. If you are the leader, you must make it entirely clear what you are doing, by gesture, by eye contact, and if necessary be describing your intention in rehearsal before running the passage.

Go to any concert involving a small group of professional musicians. It doesn't matter whether it is classical, jazz, folk, or anything else. Watch carefully and see how much they depend on eye contact with each other. See the interactions, see who is leading and when. See how quickly they move from one leader to the next. And see how much time they spend looking at each other rather than at the music.

That deals with coordination, but without a conductor, you also need to work out interpretation. What style are you going to adopt, what phrasing will you use? In preparing for a piece, you have to decide and agree on articulation and phrasing. You have to agree on balance, on style. You have to decide which line is prominent and who is accompanying. And you have to push your ego down and dedicate yourself to the music, to making sure that your collective performance is as good as you can achieve.

Even in chamber music, as a horn player you spend most of your time doing what you do in an orchestra. You fill in the middle of the harmonies and you blend. You have prominent solos more often than in an orchestra, but even so, you are solo far less often than the upper woodwinds. You'll get asked back to a group based on how well you blend with them, not on how prominent you can be.

Playing chamber music is hard work. It is physically hard. In orchestra you can expect to be resting for 2/3 of the time, but in chamber music you will be playing for at least 2/3 of the time. That means that in a chamber concert your lip will have to last for twice as many notes as in an orchestra concert.

Playing chamber music is mentally hard. If you have twice as many notes to play, that is twice as many notes to learn. And you have a far higher proportion of solos and exposed entries. So the proportion of the music that needs dedicated practice is far higher, because you should spend most of your practice time on the exposed bits, and especially the exposed difficult bits.

And finally playing chamber music is emotionally hard. If a chamber group is going to last, then you have to have a good deal of musical and personal respect for your fellow players. You have to allow them to take the lead at times. You have to accept them when they have an off day or an attack of the grumps. And you have to be appropriately grateful when they accept your off days as well. You have to come to common ideas on tuning, phrasing, balance and style. And most of all, you have to be able to communicate on an emotional level with your fellow players if you are going to bring out the full depth of the music you make together. All of this requires a degree of emotional maturity needed in few other professions.

Vikram Seth once wrote An Equal Music, a substantial novel about the musical and romantic travails of the second violin of a professional string quartet in London. Seth is very good at communicating the love of music that occasionally tips into obsession. But his string quartet are such prickly individual characters that they would never last a year together in real life, even though two of the four are brother and sister.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Playing in groups - interpreting dynamic markings

When you are playing a solo with piano, you do the written dynamics, scaled to whatever size of room or hall you are playing in. Fitting in isn't much of an issue.

But when you play in a band or orchestra, the temptation is always to play out a bit in order to be heard over everybody else. So everybody plays a good solid mf even in the soft passages, and when they notice even that doesn't get through, they play a bit louder still! As a result, all dynamic range for the group disappears, leaving no audible distinction between passages which are nominally soft and those which are supposed to be loud.

There are some general rules that you have to follow when playing in orchestra or band.
  • If you are playing accompaniment, play two notches quieter than the written dynamic. So for instance if there is an instruction in the part to play mf, you play p.
  • If you have a long held note as part of the accompaniment, start it 2 notches quieter than the written dynamic and then immediately drop one further notch. Long notes are boring. They are part of the texture, but absolutely must be lower in dynamic than the moving parts.
  • If you are sharing the tune, play the written dynamic.
  • Hairpin instructions for brief crescendos and diminuendos should be exaggerated. They are there for a reason, and so they have to be discernible to the audience. But an exaggerated crescendo has to be matched with an equally exaggerated diminuendo to return you to your original dynamic.
  • If you aren't principal horn, make sure you aren't playing louder than the principal - match whatever he or she is doing if you are playing similar stuff in harmony together.
  • If you are solo on the tune, play one or two notches louder than written, probably with a "projected" tone.
This is the basic balance for a large group. If everybody in the group gets into the habit of doing this, the sound texture suddenly acquires a beautiful clarity. Details become audible that couldn't be heard before. The conductor can then make individual adjustments - he can choose to ask individuals to bring out items of interest, e.g. countermelodies or rhythmic flourishes.

This is especially important in band rather than orchestra. With an orchestra, there is quite a bit of variation in tone colour available between the strings, the woodwind and the brass. With band, the string tone is unavailable and you just have wind sounds (plus percussion and perhaps string basses). So the range of tone colour variation is significantly reduced. All the more important to give the audience more variation in dynamic level, otherwise the performance becomes very boring and one-dimensional.

But this requires a degree of trust. There's no point playing accompaniment quietly unless everybody else is willing to do the same. So you are dependent for the effect on everybody agreeing and remembering to play the accompaniment softly. Until a group is used to doing this, it may mean that the conductor has to keep reminding you.

In both band and orchestra, the horn players spend most of their time blending into the middle of the harmony. That's the nature of being a tenor instrument. At one point you'll be joining with the woodwind, at another you'll be adding warmth to a cello tune, and at another you'll be with the brass for a chorale. But in many pieces, in the principal horn may be lucky to have 8 bars of solo. I've played plenty of pieces where the horns have less than that.

Blending is what horns mostly do. They form a tonal cement that glues together harmonies and provides an element in a wide variety of composite tone colours. It might not sound all that glamorous, but at least you have a separate part each. Have a thought for the second violins just in front of you in orchestra. 12 or 16 of them all playing the same notes, even less opportunity for individual expression. They rarely play the tune but are stuck in the middle of the harmony. And they have more notes they have to practice.

Playing in orchestra or band is about teamwork - and just as in a sports team each player has his or her own defined role, so it is in an orchestra. You can choose to be good at the role or not. If you want to become a professional, you have to understand and accept the role. If you are an amateur, you may surprise yourself how much pride you can gain from doing your bit as well as you know how.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Playing in groups - obvious starting points

I'll start with some obvious points - ones which ought to be self-evident, but often aren't.

Practice your part
You'll play better in a group if you've practiced your part at home. Practicing an orchestral part at home doesn't mean ploughing doggedly through all the notes. It means identifying the difficult bits and practicing those so that they don't cause you to panic in rehearsal or performance. For instance:
  • Difficult entries
  • Solos
  • Awkward slurs
  • Passages with breathing issues
  • Complex rhythms
Ideally, have a listen to a recording before the first rehearsal, with a copy of your part in front of you. The purpose of that is to identify any exposed bits that will need practice, and to get an idea of the speed the conductor is likely to take it.

If you can't do that before the first rehearsal, then go over the part as soon as possible after it.

Take the example of Brahms 2, which I played with Hillingdon Philharmonic last month. You can take a look at the first horn part here. Things to practice here are as follows:
  • The opening solo
  • The forte passage before B, and the quavers after
  • Getting the rhythm right and steady for the repeated syncopated notes between E and F
  • The solo just after the 2nd time bar
  • The high notes in the passage after K
  • The exposed passage of the first 2 bars of L
  • This big solo after M
  • In the 2nd movement, the solo at A
  • The solos at C, after D and after E
  • In the third movement, the opening solo
  • The entry before C
  • In the fourth movement, the entry after I
  • The passage at M
  • The entries at O
  • The last 17 bars
Depending on your level of achievement, there might be other passages you feel you need to practice as well. What I've mentioned above is all the exposed bits that absolutely must be right, plus any other awkward moments.

The proportion of a piece that needs detailed practise depends also on what it contains - how difficult the piece is overall, and what proportion of your part is exposed.

It is very useful to be able to efficiently prioritise your practice like this - you improve the most important things in the least possible time. If you're a professional (or want to become one) then this saves you a lot of time, given that you will get through a tremendous amount of music in your lifetime, and if you are an amateur, then you probably have a busy life to lead apart from your music and your practice time may be limited. Use it as efficiently as possible.

Be ready at rehearsal
Make sure you arrive before the rehearsal is due to start (ideally about 15 minutes before), and that you have your instrument, a pencil, and eraser, your music, your mouthpiece, a music stand, and a bottle of water if you need it. Also make sure that you have oils and (if your valves are string-coupled) spare strings available, just in case you find that have you to do some maintenance or running repairs.

If you are professional or a student, you should have warmed up at home beforehand. That's not always possible for amateurs who go straight from work to an evening rehearsal. If you are in that situation, develop an abbreviated 2-minute warmup that you can do in a corner before the rehearsal starts. My short warmup consists of a few long notes, followed by slurred arpeggios using all key combinations, just to get the lips moving. You will work out from experience what works for you as an effective short warmup.

Make sure you can see the conductor
In order to watch the conductor, you have to be able to see him. Make sure your seat position is such that your view of the conductor isn't blocked by the head of a tall person sitting in front of you. You need to have an uninterrupted view of the conductor's face and of his beat. Both are equally important.

Position your music stand and adjust the height of it so that with your normal playing position you can see the music comfortably and see the conductor over the top of the music with minimal movement of your eyes and without having to move your body. Ideally, you should be able to look at the notes and be able to see the beat with peripheral vision at the same time.

The common mistake is to position your stand too low. This has two adverse effects. First, it means that you tend to slouch in order to see the music properly, and second it increases the angle between the music and the conductor, making it much harder to see the conductor while you're reading the music.

I'll talk more on watching the conductor another time. But the first prerequisite is that you can see him comfortably.

Are you sitting comfortably?
Especially for amateur groups, rehearsal venues are often less than ideal, and that includes the seats. If you have a regular orchestra you play for and you know the seats are a problem, bring a cushion or something which will make the seat more comfortable and make it easier for you to maintain a good playing posture. Don't moan about the seats, do something.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Playing in groups

Looking back on my musical education, it seems to me that there is a very important aspect that was not taught me by any of my teachers, but which is vitally important to good music-making, whether as a professional or as an amateur.

This aspect is the art of playing in groups: in orchestra, in bands, in chamber groups, or as a soloist with a piano accompanist.

There are skills to be learned about playing in groups that are entirely independent of your technical capabilities on your chosen instrument.

In a way, I'm lucky, both my parents were fine amateur musicians (and one was a music teacher), and they involved me in amateur music making at quite an advanced level throughout my childhood, and I remember them offering ideas about playing in a group whenever I described problems. I suspect that I obtained a larger part of my musical education by that means than I previously realised.

Group technique is not something that is much taught. Looking back on it, it was something which the teachers at music college hoped that we would sort of pick up as a result of rehearsing pieces in orchestra, but rehearsal technique and group playing was not discussed as a separate discipline. I'm coming to think that it ought to be.

So in the interest of passing on whatever might be useful of what I've learned, I'm going to do some articles over the next few weeks on orchestral and group playing.

Fast pieces and difficult rhythms

Some pieces are just plain hard to play. Too many notes! Too many awkward rhythms.

Amongst amateur players, it is (incorrectly) assumed that you have to try and play all the notes in your part in orchestra, and (equally incorrectly) that the thing which distinguishes professionals from amateurs is that the professionals can and do play all the notes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, professionals will play a higher proportion of the notes, but in this context what really distinguishes them is an absolute ruthlessness in cutting notes that are unplayable so that they can keep together.

When you play a fast passage, if it isn't a solo it often doesn't matter that you don't play all the notes. What does matter is that you keep up with everybody else, and that the notes you do play are in time.

Most important of all is that whatever is on the first beat of the bar must be strictly in time, and any entries must be strictly in time. You drop out or modify whatever you need to do in order to make sure you stay with the rhythm.

Is this cheating? If you choose to call it that. But if you do this in rehearsal, and even in performance, there is a good chance that nobody will notice. Probably not the conductor, and certainly not the audience. But they will all notice if you are struggling behind the beat because you can't play all the notes fast enough.

The score is not holy writ. It does not have to be rigidly adhered to. The performance is what matters, the performance is the work of art. The sound you produce is what the audience has paid to come and hear. Give them the best you can - which means amongst other things making sure that everything you play is in time with the rest of the group.

This concept is really strange to a surprising number of amateur musicians. I've given some thought to why this is. It seems to me that a number of factors are at play here.
  • Amateurs generally haven't had a musical education that has gone quite as far as that which professionals have undergone.
  • The art of cheating is only taught at a fairly advanced level, so as not to encourage people at too early a stage to abandon attempts at improving their technique.
  • So, the art of cheating is not really taught to people who occupy most places in amateur orchestras.
  • When professional come in and supplement the ranks of an amateur orchestra, they are usually technically so advanced that the amateurs don't even notice when a bit of cheating goes on. They are so bowled over at what the professionals can do.
So this is directed a bit to conductors of amateur groups. Where necessary, explain to your players that cheating is OK, that if there is a choice between playing all the notes late and keeping time while playing only some of them, that you really want them to choose keeping time.

It will take time to get them used to the idea that by dropping notes they are actually playing better. But the overall result will be worth it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

You have to watch and listen!

At orchestra yesterday evening, we were rehearsing 3 pieces, all of which are very tricky in terms of rhythms and changes of speed.

In Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture, there are several places where there is a huge rallentando before the speed returns to what it is before.

In Elgar's Sea Pictures, we have been told about several passages marked colla parte, where the singer will be pulling the speed about. We've been warned that we cannot possibly know until the soloist arrives what speed these passages will go. So the conductor has been trying out various speeds to get us to practice following him.

Ravel's Piano Concerto In G has a number of places where the speed changes quite suddenly, and also a great meny places where things happen off the beat to varying degrees.

I'm not going to name the guilty parties, but there was a definite tendancy among a number of players to select a tempo for themselves, and then put their heads down and plough on regardless of what the conductor was doing.

In Romeo and Juliet, there was one point where the horns are playing triplet quavers during a huge rallentando. I could see how far the conductor was slowing down, it was a loud passage, so I decided very confidently, loudly and deliberately to follow him to the point where the final quaver was about a quarter the speed of the beginning of the bar - just to show the other players what needs to be done to keep with the conductor. There were several other passages where the horns aren't involved, where the orchestra came out of the end of the rall probably a beat or more ahead of the conductor. They just weren't looking.

During the coffee break, several people came up to me and said how nice it was to have an utterly solid horn player in the orchestra. The compliments of course are very nice, but the compliment would be greater if they would copy what I'm doing and coordinate their tempo with the conductor and the rest of the orchestra.

There are two aspects to this.

First, you must watch the conductor at all times. Your music must be positioned such that you can always see the beat out of the corner of your eye, and you have to be ready to react. It is only by watching the conductor that you get advance warning of changes of speed. If you don't look at the conductor and respond to his gestures, he loses all ability to shape the interpretation.

Second, you must listen, and make sure that you don't rush quavers, or get ahead of the beat that everybody else is playing. If you have a sudden single note to play, you have to listen and make sure it happens in the right place. For that you have to be able to hear what the rest of the orchestra is up to so that you come in right.

It's part of teamwork - the performance is scrappy if we don't all play together.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Raising the tone 3 - Fitting your tone to the music

The most immaculate control over your tone quality is no use to you unless you have an idea as to what sorts of tone should be used and when. This takes us back to musicality, which I've discussed in previous posts. You can't discuss musicality much in abstract, it is best considered with particular examples in mind.

As it happens, I played Brahms 2nd Symphony last weekend with Hillingdon Philharmonic Orchestra, and it includes one of the great orchestral solos for horn, towards the end of the first movement, and a solo which happens to be perfect when considering how to use tone as part of your expression.

Here is the solo in full. (The part is for Horn in D.)

It starts off piano and dolce, growing out of a very calm mood that the music has reached at this point. The horn is accompanied only by held string chords played piano, so the horn provides the only movement here. The mood is calm bordering on serene. So the tone colour needs to match this.

So it needs the lightest of attack on the first note, barely tongued at all - the note should emerge rather than specifically start, and the tone should be as smooth as you can make it, not the slightest hint of any brassy edge. The tone doesn't need to be dark, there is no foreboding here. Everything should sound perfectly relaxed over the top of a A7 chord in the strings held for the first 2 bars.

Then things start to get a bit darker. The accompaniment goes into an E minor chord and then progresses though a number of keys, all minor, and the horn starts a crescendo. The solo is gradually rising in pitch, in dynamic and in speed with the stringendo. There is a sense of urgency about it, even perhaps of menace or danger. The tone colour needs to reflect this. More volume gradually of course, but also a bit more of a brassy edge to it. Not too much, just enough to help contribute to the urgent mood.

The sense of danger increases through the stringendo, especially in the bars which start with a crotchet rest for the horn. The attack on the crotchet following needs to be much firmer to put a stress on the 2nd beat of each bar - each 2nd beat is starting at a new and higher pitch and so adding to the urgency, so stress it, give it a harder tone to go with the attack, and come off a bit for the slurred note following. At the same time, the accompaniment is getting louder and moving faster to add to the effect.

And then you come to the held written Ab, marked forte. This is the climax of the phrase, and it has to sing. The instant you hit the note, you are still in urgent mood, but at this point that accompaniment suddenly ceases to move. It isn't quite a happy chord it stops on - it is a diminished 7th underneath the horn, but the sense of running from some great danger suddenly passes. The horn has triumphed over its enemies! So the Ab should have a firm attack and an edge to the tone just for the instant of the attack, and then immediately the tone should turn into a big mellow sonorous sound, and everybody in the audience can go "Ahhhh!". The volume needs to be held throughout the note. The strings reduce to piano over the next 2 bars, leaving the horn in heroic possession of the battlefield.

And then we can start to relax. There is a diminuendo over the next three bars, followed by a final flourish ending on a concert D with a perfect cadence underneath in the strings. Everything is now perfectly happy and relaxed and the mood restored to the serene state it had at the start of the solo. The instruction to the whole orchestra as the solo ends is in tempo, ma piu tranquillo, "in time but calmer". You match this with your next entry (still quite prominent) after 4 bars rest. The music retains this serene mood as the movement gradually winds down to its ending a minute or so later.

The solo isn't the greatest technical challenge - it isn't particularly high or loud or fast. But it is a great musical challenge. By means of tone colour and expression you have to communicate serenity, danger, heroism, relaxation and tranquility in quick succession to the audience. Few solos call for such an expressive range in such a short time.

Let's consider a couple of other items. Here is the opening to Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto.

It is fortissimo for all four horns in unison. In the 2nd, 3rd and 4th bars, there is nothing else playing except for a brief but huge orchestral chord on the 2nd beat of each bar. This is clearly an heroic call to arms for the contest between piano and orchestra that is about to begin. (It is such a great tune that it is amazing that Tchaikovsky never bothers to repeat it in this form again.) You need a big bold brash sound with a firm decisive attack on each note, and each quaver needs to be held for its full length. Quite a bit of brassiness is perfectly appropriate here.

And now for something completely different. This is the opening of Bruckner's 4th Symphony.

The piece starts with the strings ppp holding a tremolo chord in Eb, and the horn comes in on the dominant of this chord. "Immer deutlich hervortretend" literally translated is "always clearly protruding" (The score actually has the instruction "ausdrucksvoll" or "expressively" on the entry). So, your sound has to be clearly heard, but that isn't going require a great volume over strings playing as quietly as they know how. So there's always going to be a risk with this solo. The mood is calm and serene, and your entry has to be the same. So you can't tongue it heavily, even though a light entry greatly increases the risk of a clam on the opening note. You have to minimise this by having the note visualised before you start. It's a semitone higher than the oboe's tuning A, an octave higher than the note initially held by the first violins, and the dominant of the opening chord. Whatever technique you use for obtaining a pitch reference for the entry, make sure that you concentrate really hard for it!

The tone has to be as clear as spring water and with hardly a care in the world. This entry is not easy but you must make it seem the easiest and most natural thing in the world to play on the horn. With Bruckner even the loud passages don't require a brassy edge to them, they require a big fat sonorous sound to them, but this passage is not loud. The Bb semiquaver must be deliberately and accurately placed, and the slur back to the F has to be perfectly smooth - you must practice this until you can completely eliminate any risk of hitting any intermediate harmonic on the way up.

The Gb of the second entry has a slightly darker harmony under it, but you don't need to take much notice of that. Just concentrate on giving the Gb the same tone as the opening F. Everything resolves back into Eb major when you return to the F.

The last entry is lower in pitch and lower in volume, and the strings at last start moving around and becoming more prominent, even though nominally still ppp. Let the last note fade to nothing. After that, the passage is repeated with 1st flute, 1st oboe and both clarinets sharing the tune you have just played.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Raising the tone 2 - controlling and changing tone colour

Changing the "tone colour" can greatly increase the expressive range of your playing. Here, I'm going to concentrate on the mechanics of tone control and production, rather than on the decisions about when and how you fit each technique to the musical circumstance.

Part of the problem with describing this on the horn is that none of it is very visible. For stringed instruments, there are obvious externally visible changes you can make. These include:
  • Playing at the heel of the bow or at the tip
  • The width and speed of your vibrato
  • How close to the bridge you have the bow
  • How much pressure on the string you have
  • What speed you move the bow
  • Which string you play on
  • What angle you hold the bow - affecting how much hair of the bow is touching the string.
And this is just how you can affect the tone of sustained notes. There is in addition the whole business of the attack, how you start a note, whether you start the bow motionless on the string or you have the bow already in motion when it comes into contact with the string, and how hard and at what angle you bring it down.

Similarly, there is a surprisingly wide range of tones you can get from percussion instruments such as the timpani. Here, you can change tone by means including the following
  • The type of drumstick you use - you get great variation in tone from differences in weight, material and hardness.
  • Where you strike the drum - different distances from the edge can have quite different effects
  • The manner in which you make the stroke - what speed and weight you put into it
I claim no expertise in either string or percussion technique beyond what I have picked up as an interested spectator and fellow musician, fascinated with how players of other instruments go about their business. Both string and percussion technique have their own vocabulary for their tone production techniques, and I've found that conductors are reasonably familiar with them, and know roughly what to ask for when they want a particular tone colour, especially from strings.

The point is that the techniques are visible, and have a vocabulary associated with the actions you take to achieve a tone, so it is relatively easy for both string and percussion players both to talk about tone techniques to each other, and to teach them from a relatively early age.

But it is a bit different for wind instruments. The techniques for changing tone colour do exist, but they aren't visible. They consist of changes in air support, in minute changes of muscle position and tension, and for the horn changes of the position of the hand in the bell. It is far harder to say "change such and so by this amount to change the tone in that way", because neither the teacher nor the pupil can see what is going on. Because the changes aren't visible, they are visualised instead, and often quite inaccurately.

This has bedevilled the teaching of wind instruments for ever. And as a result, the common vocabulary has tended to grow up not so much about techniques, but rather about effects. Wind players have a range of words they use to describe subtle differences in tone colour, in much the same way as the Inuit have many different words describe different varieties of snow.

But there are some things you can say. On the horn for instance, having the right hand closing the aperture of the bell a little more produces a darker, more velvety tone, whereas opening the right hand produces a brighter sound. Tightening the lips and reducing the aperture, and increasing the air pressure to compensate trends to produce a more "brassy" edge to the sound, whereas relaxing the muscles a bit and allowing more airflow with less pressure tends to produce a more mellow "projected" sound.

And just as you can vary the attack as a string player by how you place the bow on the string, so you can do the same in wind playing, by how you tongue a note. You can vary where on the roof of the mouth the tongue rests, how fast you move it, and how much of an excess of air pressure you allow to build up behind the tongue. All of these things will affect how the start of the note sounds.

Each wind instrument has its own techniques. They tend to have a certain amount in common, in that they are for the most part concerned with intimate control over air supply and embouchure. But the effects do vary a significant amount from one instrument to the next, given the differences in the basic mechanics of sound production.

But the first and most important thing to realise is that you can gain conscious control over your tone, as distinct from control over your dynamics. You can decide how you sound as well as how loud. The second thing to realise is that differences sound much greater to you than they will sound to the audience having been attenuated by distance. So if you want variety of tone to feature in your repertoire of expression, then you need to be able to produce exaggerated changes. Only if the variation seems comically overdone to you will the audience be able to notice much of a difference at all.

Most professional horn players are well familiar with this, but I'm surprised at how many even quite good amateurs haven't quite grasped the concept of tone control and variation as a deliberate tool of expression.

Monday, 22 February 2010


The International Music Score Library Project is a most wonderful resource. It aims to be a comprehensive online library for out-of-copyright music.

Until recently, it had concentrated on getting as many public domain scores online as possible. But now it has also started putting orchestral parts online as well.

This has proved particularly useful for me this week. At Hillingdon Philharmonic, we were short of a horn for our concert this coming weekend. So I asked around friends, and fortunately a very fine horn player whom I've known for many years was available, and so I've asked her to play 3rd.

But she'll only be able to attend the final rehearsal on the day. So she asked if we can get the music to her so she can practice it ahead of time?

For two of the pieces we are playing in the concert, that's now extremely easy. I just gave her the links on IMSLP to Brahms' Academic Festival Overture and to Brahms 2nd Symphony. all she need do is download and print the appropriate part. For the symphony, somebody has even written out the horn parts in F! (Originally, the 1st & 2nd parts are in D, B natural basso and G, while the 3rd and 4th parts are in E and C).

That's two thirds of the problem solved. Then all we needed to do was get a copy of the part for Walton's The Wise Virgins scanned and emailed to her. All done within 24 hours of her agreeing to play!

I'm playing 1st for the symphony this weekend, and so I decided to take a look at the score to check out what else was going on around my solos that I ought to make myself aware of. IMSLP again - the score is available. And I found a couple of things that were useful. For instance, the famous solo for horn in H in the slow movement isn't actually quite solo - I'm doubled by the first bassoon. I never knew that. So I'll have to listen out for the bassoon and make sure we are in tune together.

In the first movement, in rehearsal I had been finding myself miscounting my entry 3 bars before K. So I took a look at the score. In my part, I have the timpani part cued for 5 bars before the horn entry. But a quick look at the score quickly revealed where I had been going wrong. The cue is correct, it is just a bit misleading. For the first 4 of those bars, the violins and cellos are still quite busy, and I wasn't hearing a quiet roll on the timps. It is just the final bar before the entry that is a timpani solo. So I'll get that right next time.

In the third movement, the opening allegretto grazioso passage has a barline pause about halfway through. The 1st horn is the only instrument articulating the last quaver before the pause. The oboes and clarinets are playing crotchets on the beat, while the horn is off the beat. So it's not a mistake that you're left on your own there. You just have to have the nerve to play it.

These are the sorts of things that easy access to score the can really help with. It only takes a few minutes to look this up - provided that the score is available. And it saves rehearsal time.

And more generally, it is quite an education to have a listen to a piece with the score in front of you - it opens your eyes to all sorts of clever effects that the composer has done which you don't notice merely from the sound - either from in the audience or from where I sit over on one side of the orchestra. If you want to be a musical musician, then taking a look at the score whenever you get the chance is very important. It allows you to compare the notes with the music - and see how other players have phrased and articulated passages.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Raising the tone

This is what I hope will be the first of a series of posts on tone - techniques for achieving it, working out what you should be looking for, how to control it and whether, when and how you should try to vary it when playing different pieces and different passages.

The Yahoo and Memphis horn mailing lists have innumerable discussions on how this or that mouthpiece or leadpipe with help "improve" a horn. The implication is that this improves the horn's tone, or at least that this is one of the improvements made.

But just what exactly is good tone?

Of course, in words it is impossible to define. You have to listen to good players (both live and in recordings) and decide for yourself who you admire and want to emulate.

In the early days of learning, the most important role model in this respect will be your teacher. But I would encourage even quite young pupils to listen to lots of classical music for solo horn and for horns in orchestra, mainly for enjoyment, but also in order to absorb ideas about good horn tone.

I was greatly influenced by the fact that at a young age I was bought an LP of Dennis Brain playing the four Mozart concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Karajan. My younger sister, who is a professional violinist, was similarly influenced by a LP "Party Pieces" for violin and piano with John Georgiadis on the violin, bought for her when she was aged under 5, but had already been learning for 2 years.

So the first aim of a student player with regard to tone is gradually to refine your tone to a point where it is a passable approximation to the "ideal" tone based on what you hear from those players who inspire you.

Ideas of optimal tone do vary from place to place, though not as much as they did perhaps 80 years go. Internationally available recordings, better instruments, and easier travel around the world have ironed out many regional differences, which is perhaps inevitable but still is a pity. It can be quite illuminating to hear an old recording of Debussy played by a French orchestra on narrow bore piston valve horns with their distinctive sound, or to hear a Russian orchestra playing Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov with the horn solos played with quite a wide and pronounced vibrato.

These days, the variation in tone is much less, vibrato seems to have largely fallen out of fashion everywhere, and what we seem to have now internationally is the German sound, with relatively slight variations of tone colour - a bit brighter in France, maybe a bit darker and heavier in the US. But the variations are such that horn players can move all over the world and fit in to whatever orchestra they can get a job with, and quite easily adapt their sound to the local norms.

But a student is not going to have that refined a tone in the early days. It will start out being quite rough and "buzzy" and won't appear to have much resonance. No matter - it will improve with time as the student hears more music and develops musically and physically. If the teacher knows what he is about, he will help the process along by making sure effective technique is taught, and that the pupil's embouchure and breathing are working OK.

Part of learning a good tone is opportunities to perform in a larger space at every possible opportunity. Many teachers arrange pupils concerts where each pupil in turn gets up on stage and plays whatever piece they have been learning. This is invaluable, it teaches so much.

First, if a pupil gets used to playing in public when he is of a sufficiently young age that he doesn't know he is supposed to be nervous of performing, then it is quite likely that he will be immunized against the worst excesses of concert nerves for evermore - not only when playing, but for other public occasions - speeches etc. Even if you don't continue to play even as an amateur once you finish school, this is a skill and a confidence that you never lose.

Second, pupil concerts tend to mix the older and the younger pupils - and so the younger ones get to hear what they will be aiming for next. Hearing a boy or girl a couple of years older than you playing a piece that is just beyond you is great. It feels reachable, unlike the Olympian heights scaled by professional players. And the better tone achieved by the older players forms part of the aims of the younger ones - though neither is consciously aware of it at the time.

Third, playing in a larger room gives opportunities for the teacher to explain and the pupil to try out producing a projected sound, so that the people on the back row will be able to hear clearly what is being played. This will be useful for when the pupil finally gets to the stage of being ready to join the school orchestra or band.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Joined a new orchestra

I've now joined the Hillingdon Philharmonic as a regular player. I've deputised for them a couple of times before, most recently at the concert in Coventry Cathedral in October.

The regular first horn there has very decently invited me in as joint principal horn, and we've come to an amicable agreement that he and I will divide up music between us so that for each concert so we each play first for some of the time.

The next concert is at the end of this month, and consists of the Brahms Academic Festival Overture, William Walton's ballet suite The Wise Virgins, (which is an arrangement and re-orchestration of various Bach pieces, including Sheep May Safely Graze, and one of the chorales from the St. Matthew Passion), the Bach Concerto for 2 violins (no horns in that), and finally Brahms 2nd Symphony.

He's invited me to do 1st for the symphony, while he plays 1st for the other half of the concert. Both halves of the concert have some wonderful solo moments for the horn, so I would have been very happy with either half.

The symphony if famous among horn players, in that it has a prominent solo in the slow movement for "Horn in H", which is German for horn in B natural basso. It is the most awkward possible transposition, down a diminished 5th. So you have to read down 2 lines, and put a sharp in front of every note except B.

That would be reasonably challenging if the part were a straightforward Mozart-style part sticking basically to the harmonic series written in C major. But Brahms expects the horns to be far more chromatic than that, and includes A flats, B flats, E flats and D flats in the part. (You can see it at the IMSLP website).

This next bit is addressed to high school students who hope to become professional horn players one day. You must learn your transpositions. This particular movement is so famous that I know of some people who have written out the part in F. But horn in B natural, while relatively rare, is by no means unheard of (I've also played Schumann's Rhenish Symphony which also has passages for horn in B natural).

Professional orchestras are chronically short of money, so it is entirely possible that you would have to play a standard of the romantic repertoire with just a single rehearsal on the day. That means you either have to know the piece well beforhand, or be able just to play it, transpositions and all, as well as people who have been around for 20 years and have played that solo a dozen times or more. You cannot afford to be flummoxed by transpositions.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Inspiring conductors

Lyle Sanford has been musing lately on the autocratic habits of conductors and the childlike and dependent attitudes of some amateur musicians.

I've come across my share of autocratic conductors, and there are of course famous examples of such people at the top reaches of the profession - Fritz Reiner was a notorious martinet for instance.

But from my experience here in the London area both of the orchestras I am or have been a regular member of and those for which I've deputised from time to time, conductors of amateur orchestras do seem to recognise that their continued employment depends to some extent on making the rehearsal experience rewarding and enjoyable to the players. You do hear of an occasional conductor who drives his players to tears but inspires great loyalty because of the results he achieves. But here, this seems very much to be the exception rather than the rule.

I suspect that this in part is because there is a huge oversupply of wannabe conductors compared to orchestras available for them to conduct. Your average amateur orchestra is perhaps 60 players, and it requires just one conductor. And many conductors run a number of amateur orchestras, each meeting on a different night of the week. If you take a look at the London page of the UK Amateur Orchestras listing website, you'll see that conductor's names often pop up 2 or 3 times.

Outside London, this is less common because of the longer distances to travel. But within London, this does put the orchestra committee at a great advantage - if the orchestra finds itself disliking a conductor, there are always plenty more where he (it is almost always a "he") came from. This means that a conductor has to work much more by encouragement than has perhaps been traditional in the past.

But I think it is also partly due to the example of their predecessors whom they themselves have learned under.

I've long since lost count of the conductors I've played for. I've mentioned here a magical occasion on which I once had the opportunity to play under the baton of Simon Rattle, but generally I find myself comparing any conductor against three that I regularly played for in school and student days. On the few occasions that I've had the opportunity to do a bit of conducting myself, these three are the ones I model myself on.

The first was Fred Firth, who conducted the Norwich Students Orchestra. I played under him for about 2 years from the age of about 13 to 15, when he retired. One one occasion after that I played under him in a series of performances of Verdi's I Lombardi which he conducted with the Norfolk Opera Players.

He wasn't the first conductor I played under or the first orchestra I played in - I joined my first youth orchestra at the age of 9 in London before my parents moved to Norfolk, but I don't remember all that much about the conductor there. Fred Firth was the first conductor to inspire me. He had a broad Lancashire accent that shone out of his mouth every time he spoke, even though he had lived in Norfolk for decades. The kids in the orchestra were willing to follow him anywhere - and we followed him through some very tricky pieces - things which I would regard as difficult even today. Kodaly's Hary-Janos suite, the Elgar Cello Concerto, Delius Paris: Song of a Great City, and Sibelius' 1st Symphony are four works that come to mind. By the standards of the 1970s, this was quite daring repertoire even for an adult amateur orchestra, let alone a set of high school kids.

Next was Lawrence Leonard. When I was at high school, the Norfolk County Youth Orchestra would meet twice a year for a one-week residential course at Wymondham College in the Easter and summer holidays. I loved those courses - though I was utterly exhausted at the end of them. Lawrence had a most amazing fund of anecdotes and would keep us all in stitches of laughter telling us real or imagined stories of his musical adventures. I didn't know it at the time, but Lawrence had been the conductor of the Morley College Orchestra, which transformed itself into the Hoffnung Festival Orchestra for some utterly hilarious concerts in the Royal Festival Hall called the Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival. An idea of the fun to come was in the announcement given by the Festival Hall's general manager T.E. Bean, at the start of the first concert.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have to ask your indulgence for an announcement. Owing to circumstances over which the LCC [London County Council] and the management of the Hall have no control, tonight's programme will be given exactly as advertised.

The concert included such items as A Grand, Grand Overture by Malcolm Arnold, which included three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher among the required instruments, and a Concerto for Hose-pipe and Strings, with Dennis Brain playing a garden hosepipe with a horn mouthpiece in one end and a funnel on the other.

This was all before I was born, and I only learned about it later, but gives an idea of the sort of fun that he could be. Anyway, Lawrence was also inspiring to us. He was a cellist as well as a conductor, and during rehearsals would grab the principal cellist's instrument and demonstrate what he wanted in terms of an effect or style - whatever instrument he was speaking to.

He was always a good sport. On the last night before the concert there was a tradition of "follies", an informal concert of light-hearted pieces by members of the orchestra. One year I got him to agree to do Ernst Toch's Geographical Fugue. It is a perfectly good fugue, except that it is entirely spoken and there are no notes in it. It starts like this.

And the big Mississippi
and the town Honolulu
and the lake Titicaca,
the Popocatepetl is not in Canada,
rather in Mexico, Mexico, Mexico!

So I got Lawrence to start alone on stage. He made a huge performance out of tuning his cello, and then put it to one side, and said "Ladies and Gentlemen. Trinidad! And the big Mississippi..." The other three of us taking part in the fugue each started our own part from our seats in the audience and made our way up to join him on stage.

On another course, he had been very critical of one of the violinists who had something of a tendancy to fling himself about when playing and to use too much bow. On Follies night, Lawrence performed John Cage's 4' 33" (arranged for solo cello), with an excessively serious expression on his face. Halfway through, the errant violinist called out "Lawrence, too much bow!", and everyone completely fell about laughing. Lawrence's expression didn't even crack!

Lawrence Leonard also got us through some very tricky pieces. Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka suites, Brahms 2nd Symphony, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherezade, Sibelius 2nd Symphony are highlights I remember. All before I was 18. We played Petrushka in a concert in Kings Lynn at the end of one course, and just as we reached the passage where the horns are playing a quaver passage slurring up and down alternate notes, an ambulance drove past the outside the hall with its two-tone siren going - in a different key but at about the same tempo!

The third conductor I particularly remember was Harry Legge. He was a founder member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (playing the viola) under Sir Thomas Beecham. He was in a way responsible for my existence. He set up The Rehearsal Orchestra, as a residential course during the Edinburgh Festival in August 1957, (it has been run there every August since) and my parents met as a result of attending that very first course. Probably nearly half the professional musicians in Britain have been through the Rehearsal Orchestra in their student days and so a great many of them knew Harry. It meant that at his local amateur orchestra in London, the Brent Symphony Orchestra, he was able to get some of the most amazing soloists to come and play with the orchestra. I remember Moura Lympany playing a Rachmaninov concerto, Robert and Raymond Cohen playing the Brahms Double Concerto together, Nigel Kennedy playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto (and staying on with his girlfriend to listen to us play Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony in the 2nd half). I first played for Harry in the British Youth Wind Orchestra (now the National Youth Wind Orchestra) on a tour of Canada and the US in 1977. When I was in London at university, I played both for the Brent Symphony Orchestra and for various of the Rehearsal Orchestra weekend courses in London. I remember in particular in one weekend getting through not only the whole of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, but also Bartok's Kossuth as well (which requires an almost identically huge orchestra).

Harry had played under many of the greats, particularly including Beecham and also Rudolf Kempe, who succeeded Beecham as chief conductor of the RPO, and so he knew precisely what he wanted from an orchestra, and got it without much fuss. He modelled his rehearsal technique on Beecham's, basically working on the principle that you speak as little as possible, and let the players play the notes as much as possible, eventually they become familiar with what you are trying to achieve.

It's noticeable that all three of these conductors who had a great musical effect on me were ones I first played for before I was 18. They were playing great and difficult and inspiring pieces of music, requiring the utmost concentration from both conductor and players. None of them worked by shouting at the orchestra - except under extreme provocation. And they were all hugely loved by their players. They, along with my teacher at the RCM, Douglas Moore, provided me with my musical education. What I know of music I know largely as a result of having played it for them. I count myself incredibly fortunate and privileged to have had not just one but three such outstanding musical role models.