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.

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