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.