The Upside of Quitting

"The Upside of Quitting" is the title of an episode of the Freakonomics podcast. In it they discuss the concept of opportunity costs and sunk costs. Opportunity costs are the time and resources that are being robbed from a possibly better future endeavor by sticking with a current one. Sunk costs are the opportunity costs that one has placed into an endeavor that can not be recovered.  Ideally, sunk costs should be ignored, meaning that one should choose to continue or quit based only on the time and resources that are potentially taken from something else.

The pressure to keep going too long or to quit too soon can be self-destructive and rooted in negative thoughts and behaviors. What can appear to some people as "persistence in the face of adversity" can be rooted in ego, pride, and self-delusion. On the other hand, what can appear to be "wisdom" can be rooted in impatience and insecurity.

I know from experience that I tend stick with endeavors in all areas of my life too long. My pride causes me delude myself and ignore the hard facts. I've done this with auditions in the past. For one audition I took this past spring I scheduled a flight to arrive at 7 pm on a Sunday, knowing that the audition was going to take place at 8 am the following day. Before I left for the airport I found out that the flight was going to be delayed and I wouldn't arrive until 3 am, leaving only five hours to rent a car, drive to my hotel, sleep, wake-up, eat breakfast, drive to the audition site, and warm-up.  I attended the audition, played terribly, and wasted $500+. When I found out about the delay I should have just admitted that the original flight plan was unwise, the rescheduled one was impossible, and that I should just cancel the trip and save my money. Because I was afraid of throwing away the sunk costs I took away resources that could have gone to another audition.

Recently, I made the decision to cancel an audition and forfeit my deposit. I had spent months and at least 200 hours preparing for it. However, some events in the weeks prior to the date (most beyond my control) caused me to have significantly less quality practice time than I had counted on. A few days prior, I played a mock audition for a friend. It wasn't up to the quality I know I needed to achieve. Two days before the audition I decided to save my money and quit. The money can be used to attend a future audition and thus I'm cutting my opportunity costs.

It was excruciatingly hard to choose to quit. I lost several nights of sleep before and after the decision. However, I knew that my chances of winning were small, thus quitting was the best thing to do. It's just as a former teacher of mine often said (paraphrased), "you have to go into an audition with confidence, ready to show what you've got, and win."

Dealing With The Things You Can't Control

Last weekend I took an audition in Canada. When I first saw the opening I was excited because it was a decent paying job in an interesting place to live. I got the list together and starting working on it in June. I spent nearly three hours a day on it for over three months. I decided that I was going to be the best prepared person at the audition. I played the list for multiple people, some of which involved travel to see. I played so many mock auditions that I lost count. I spent extra money to get to Canada a day early so that I would have plenty of time to rest and focus. Travel, lodging, and rental car alone cost almost $1000 (the plane ticket was pricy).

When I got to the on-deck room I felt comfortable and ready to show the committee what I could do. Suddenly my first valve started to stick, and I started to panic. I oiled the horn the day before so I couldn't figure out what could have happened. I only had a few minutes before I was to go on stage so there was nothing I could do. I dumped oil down into the valve but it didn't help at all. (Later I would find out that something washed down into the valve.) My performance was really good, except for the fact that my first valve would briefly stick half of the time I pressed it. There were lots of blips throughout the audition and most technical passages were ruined. Needless to say, I didn't even make it out of the preliminary round.

If the problem happened an hour before the audition I could have popped the valve out and fixed the problem. If any other valves asides from the first or second were sticking I probably could have done okay. I couldn't have come up with a better way to sabotage my audition short of bodily harm. I was so livid I felt numb.

The reality and weight of what had happened fully hit me that next day. I decided to go out and try to enjoy myself since I now had a free day before flying back to Texas, but it was hard to do so. I continually asked myself how could something I had prepared so hard for come to such a ridiculous end. Slowly I realized that it was truly out of my control and there was nothing I could do.

As I thought more about the situation this passage from the Bible continually came to mind. 

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil to give you a future and a hope." -Jeremiah 29:11 

I learned a lot from the preparation of this past audition and I have learned how to make the next one even better. The audition may have not gone well, but at least I got to visit a beautiful place I had never been to before. I'm not going to pretend that all is okay as this past week has been one of the hardest for me to get through in recent memory. However, I know that all will be okay in the end. I will keep working hard and hopefully I'll find that it leads to good things!

 

What caused me to decide to pursue music as a career and why do I stick with it?

The start of my journey as a hornist was very unconventional. When I signed up to play in band during 5th grade I wanted to play the trumpet.  However, there were already too many trumpet players so I played the saxophone (alto, tenor, and baritone) from 5th grade into high school.  I was a good saxophone player for my age, but during all of that time I still wanted to play the trumpet.

During the first semester of my sophomore year of high school my band director asked for volunteers to learn to play a few notes on the horn for a piece at our first concert.  Her current student-teacher at the time was a horn player and he would teach anyone who was interested how to play.  (There were no horn players in our high school band.)  I don't remember how, but I mistakenly volunteered.  Since it was as close as I was ever going to get to ever playing a trumpet I decided not to correct the mistake.  Three other students also volunteered. We only played horn on one short piece.  On every other piece we played our primary instruments. Everyone including myself expected to return to our primary instruments full-time after the concert. After the concert I put the school's horn away never expecting to see it again.

During the next rehearsal we had seating auditions for the upcoming concert.  For the past couple of weeks I had been publicly bragging about how I planned to beat the first-chair alto saxophone player in this audition.  (I was second chair, and yes, I have always been a competitive person!)  I practiced a lot for the audition, however, when the results were posted at the following rehearsal I found (to my horror) that not only had I not beat the first chair player, I was demoted to third chair!  Not willing to face the embarrassment of my loss, I walked over to the instrument storage room, put my saxophone away, and picked up the horn.  I literally never played another note on a saxophone ever again.

Ever since I started playing horn in high school I've felt an unexplained attraction to music. I have talent in other far more financially lucrative fields (i.e. computer programming), yet I can't imagine myself doing anything else. Times are not great for musicians, every year several full-time orchestras close down or make cuts, and previously successful part-time organizations are struggling with declining single ticket sales as people guard their disposable income. Colleges and school districts across the country are being forced to make massive cuts, and arts education is an easy place to target. Even jobs that were once considered safe, such as positions in military bands, are now facing cuts. Worse of all lots of people do not see the value of the arts at all. Many don't even believe being a musician is a real job, deriding it as being paid to participate in a hobby. Many arts organizations themselves now malign musicians as being greedy just for their desire to make a living wage.

Because of the seemingly dire situation of the arts there are many bitter musicians out there. Lots of them have a hard time finding anything positive to say about their education/career choice and only talk about the regrets they have and their desire to get out of the field as quickly as possible. Any sensible person would see the writing on the wall and get out of the arts, but I guess I'm not very sensible.

There are still opportunities out there for those willing to work for them. Yes, in order to take advantage of any of these one has to be among the best players around. However, for those willing to work towards this goal, all is not bleak. Though things may seem dark now, odds are that at some point the economy will rebound, people will once again have more discretionary income, and there will be more opportunities available.

Everyday I get up early so that I make sure I get in as many hours of practice (at least three) as I can. I attend as many concerts as possible, I take lessons on a regular basis, I spend much of my free time listening to recordings, and I go to as many auditions as I can afford. I spend lots of time thinking about how I can improve my playing and increase the efficiency of my practice sessions. I do all of this work praying as hard as I can that one day I'll be able to take advantage of one of the opportunities I mentioned above.

John Ericson posted an article on Horn Matters about a major turning point in his life and how it has affected his life and his career. In it he quotes Philip Farkas from his book, "The Art of Musicianship".

Formerly, I had assumed that all the events leading up to my engagement by the Chicago Symphony were completely haphazard–a bit of luck here, a chance encounter there, until I eventually ended up in the Chicago Symphony, as unpredictably as a seashell washes up on a beach. But, with my change in thinking came the realization that perhaps all these apparently haphazard events weren’t haphazard at all. Perhaps, back in high school, when I had had that fight with the gym teacher, and the supervisor had suggested that I could fill my physical education requirement by switching to the marching band, it was not just an aimless suggestion. Was it mere chance that the street-car conductor, after telling me I could no longer bring my beloved tuba on board the street-car because it blocked traffic, pointed to a French horn being carried by another bandsman that I would be allowed to bring “one of them” aboard? … The more I pondered these questions the more convinced I became that it wasn’t all just haphazard–that I wasn’t just a seashell washed up willy-nilly on the Chicago Symphony’s “shore.” So it wasn’t jut a series of unrelated, random events which eventually put me on that stage. It was a series of incredibly interwoven and predestined events which put me there. … I was there because I had been led there by an amazing chain of events, not just mere coincidence, and, because I had been led there, certainly I could do the work assigned to me, and failure was not a part of that plan.

Like Farkas and John Ericson I don't believe my involvement in music was an accident. I believe that God has guided my life in this direction for a reason. I don't know what that reason is yet, but I know there is a reason. My career in music has been progressing well so far. Lately, I've won positions in part-time orchestras, I've made it to the finals for full-time orchestras, and I've begun to find more work as a freelancer in Dallas. It is a privilege to play and teach music for a living. I don't look to music to fulfill me, I firmly believe that anyone who does will be very disappointed. Being a musician is a job and it has positives and negatives just like any other job. However, even now, I can't imagine myself doing anything else, so I'll continue to work as hard as I can to become the best player I possibly can.

Questionable and Good Reasons To Change Equipment

People have many different reasons for coming to Houghton Horns to find a new instrument. However, sometimes the issues people complain about have more to do with technique than with equipment. Many times these people walk away, believing that they just need to keep searching before they find "the one". However, some issues can and should be attributed to the horn or mouthpiece. Below is a list of good and questionable reasons to look for new equipment.

"My horn/mouthpiece just doesn't have enough power." (Questionable)

Some horns (especially smaller ones) get more resistant when a player puts more air through them. Many people interpret this fact to mean that the horn doesn't have much power. However, the problem more likely stems from the fact that the person is playing with a tight embouchure and fighting the horn as more air is used. In my experience if you play with a relaxed embouchure as you put more air through one of these horns you'll get a very nice, powerful, and focused sound when compared to horns that seem more free-blowing in loud dynamics. Some horns (especially single Bb and descant horns) can't produce a very powerful sound, but one should examine their air flow/embouchure balance first.

"I need a horn/mouthpiece with a better high or low register." (Questionable)

I used to have a very bad low register and search for any type of horn or mouthpiece that would help me, but nothing did the trick. Now that I can play in the low register with confidence I can produce good results on any horn or mouthpiece I play. I find that most people who can play with excellent intonation in all registers with a truly good and stable tone can do so on any instrument that doesn't have a physical problem (ex. leaky valves). If you need to improve your playing in a certain range of the horn you should look to technique, not equipment first.

"My current horn/mouthpiece goes out-of-tune in the high register or low register." (Questionable)

This problem could very easily be equipment related, but it is more likely to be player error. Many people don't put enough air through their horns and play with an embouchure that is too tight in the high register or too loose in the low register. When this happens intonation problems usually occur. This issue is hard to diagnose because it could be a problem with the horn. If you have the same issues on multiple horns (be sure to compare horns of the same type, i.e. Geyer or Kruspe) then the problem is not with the equipment.

"My current horn has intonation problems." (Good)

Intonation problems on specific notes, or on notes in the middle register can be usually attributed to the equipment. One of the biggest differences between horns in the <$5000 range and horns in the >$8000 range is the quality of intonation. As you test this issue make sure you are truly playing at the center of each note with a good sound.

"My current horn sounds too dull/wide/constricted." (Excellent)

Every horn has a different sound. Sometimes the sound it produces is not to your taste or it's just bad. Horns that are more expensive will generally sound more lively and less dull than cheaper ones.

"My currently horn doesn't fit in with what others play in my area." (Excellent)

Although you may not like it, sometimes you have to play a certain type of horn to fit in. If everyone in your local symphony and freelancing scene plays a Geyer style horn, it's best for you to play one as well. Not only is there a sound difference, but others can be biased against you if you don't conform.

Choosing Equipment Based on Sound

On the Duerk Horns website there is an interview with Dale Clevenger posted which promotes their new Lewis-Duerk Clevenger model horn. At the end of the interview Mr. Clevenger says the following: 

"Everybody who plays my Lewis horn... they drop their jaw. 'How can a horn be so good?' and that is if you play a horn for sound first and for feeling (how it blows) second. To me how a horn sounds is everything."
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 When I first heard this statement it caused me to do a lot of thinking about my past experiences with different equipment. It also caused me to really listen to the things people say as I help them select new horns, mouthpieces, etc. for Houghton Horns. Over the past several months I've noticed a strange phenomenon, most people will talk far more about how equipment feels than how it sounds. In the past I've also concentrated more on how equipment feels rather than how it sounds. However, I agree with Mr. Clevenger, we should always focus on how equipment sounds, not how it feels.

To concentrate on feel first can cause us not to make big, but beneficial changes. Most people are comfortable with their current equipment by virtue of experience. Therefore, when they try new horns or mouthpieces they will only make small changes because big ones feel too foreign. More importantly we have to consider our ultimate goal as a musician. That goal is to sound good, that's all the audience cares about. We are very adaptable creatures and we can get used to a horn that doesn't immediately feel comfortable. 

Choosing equipment based on sound makes our choices easier. Every horn, mouthpiece, mute, etc. has a different sound to it. We just have to ask ourselves which one sounds better, not is it too free blowing, not is it too resistant, not is it too small, etc. To determine what sounds best we should solicit the opinions of others, listen to ourselves as we play, and record ourselves (something far too many people never do). I personally would never go somewhere to try out any equipment without a way of recording myself as I play.

As you play and listen ask yourself:

  • Does it have a great tone?
  • Does it have a great tone in every register on every note?
  • Does it have a great tone in every dynamic?
  • Do all slurs and articulation sound excellent?
  • Is the intonation excellent?

In the end we have to rely on our own tastes. Ira Glass, host of "This American Life" once sald, "Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste."  Think back to all of the concerts and recordings you've heard and think about the sound of the hornist who has inspired you the most with their playing. Sound like that.

What's in Your Gig Bag?

1. Music
Why? Because I would like to get called back to play in the future.

2. Lightweight Music Stand
Why? Because sometimes you never know whether there will be enough stands.

3. Peterson StroboClip Clip-On Strobe Tuner
Why? So that I can check my tuning while everyone is warming up before rehearsal.

4. Ion Balu Practice Mute
Why? So that I can warm-up at "full volume" if the stage is fairly quiet, or in some other place in the building if the stage is unavailable.

5. Tom Crown Stop Mute
Why? So that I can not panic when a piece calls for a stopped pedal E.

6. Reading Material
Why? So that I can have something to do when I don't play.

7. USB Charger (for metronome or phone)
Why? Because sometimes I forget to charge things up the night before.

8. Mio Liquid Water Enhancer
Why? Because plain water just isn't good enough!

9. Swiss Army Knife
Why? Because you never know when you're going to have to cut something or make a quick repair.

10. Stainless Steel Water Bottle
Why? I need something to put the Mio in!

11. Peterson BodyBeat Sync Wireless Pulsating Metronome
Why? This metronome has an attachment that allows one to feel the beat through a vibrating pulse instead of sound. It's convenient during gigs where I have to sightread the first rehearsal and I need to check the tempo markings and look at some of the more difficult passages before it starts.

12. Etymotic Ety-Plugs High Fidelity ER20 Universal Fit Earplugs
Why? Because some orchestras really like to place the horn directly in front of the percussion.

13. iPad Wifi + 3G
Why? These days it seems to come along with me everywhere I go.

Limiting Extraneous Motion

While I was leaving the audition room after one of the auditions I took this year I had a sudden realization: I didn't miss, frack, or chip any notes. Not only did I not miss any notes, the issue of accuracy hadn't entered my mind throughout the entire round. In addition to that I realized that accuracy hadn't been something I thought about nor had it been an issue (only 1-2 mistakes) for the past several auditions I had taken.

After this realization I started to think about how I had gotten to this point. One thing I believe helped to improve my accuracy was my work on reducing extraneous motions. First, I tried to reduce the motion of my tongue while articulating notes based on the suggestion of a teacher I took lessons with this year. Second, I started to work on reducing the "chewing" action of my jaw while playing. Third, I started to work on being very still while I play because I noticed that many of my students who had accuracy and stability problems moved their bodies around too much. Finally, I began to seriously work on not moving my fingers off of the keys while playing, an issue that has been pointed out to me many times in the past.

In my case, all of the extra motions I made while playing can be attributed to my subconscious attempts to display musicality by the way my body moved instead of "displaying" it in the sound being produced. When recording myself I never felt that my phrasing was as apparent in the recording as I felt while playing. When I started to control my physical motions it caused me to open up my ears to the actual music I was producing and thus improve it significantly.

The side effect to all of this was the improvment in accuracy I experienced at the beginning of this post. For me reducing my extraneous motions gave my playing stability. This stability made it easier to hit notes.

Is Your On-Stage Warm-up Annoying People Around You?

A few months ago I played with one of the many regional orchestras in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. It was my first time playing with the group and (as always) I wanted to make a good impression. I arrived early to each rehearsal and concert, went on stage, and played a warm-up plus some excerpts from my parts. Of course I followed basic stage etiquette such as not playing random orchestral excerpts or solos, not playing passages from other player's parts, and not playing anything at fortissimo. However, I still annoyed some of the people around me.

A few days after the week of rehearsals and concerts I asked a friend of mine how well I fit into the group. (I believe it's always a good idea to get feedback whenever possible, about everything possible.) He told me that everything was fine, but some of the other players complained about the loudness of my warm-up. What I felt was a reasonable volume for an on-stage warm-up was apparently not reasonable. After thinking about it for a little while I believe that the materials I played were also an issue. Part of my warm-up usually involves fast articulated scales and full-range harmonic series based lip slurs. These exercises are probably too aggressive and annoying to play around others.

Now when I am on stage before a performance or rehearsal I limit my playing to slow exercises at mezzo piano and light excerpts from my parts. If I'm playing a rehearsal or concert where I feel I need a more robust warm-up I will go somewhere isolated or use a practice mute.

For years I must have unknowingly annoyed many people with my on-stage warm-ups. I can only hope that I have not done so too excessively. I know that many of the people reading this post may say to themselves "so-what" and believe that it doesn't matter if someone is a bit annoyed by something like a warm-up. However, the music industry is a competitive business and if you antagonize someone, even a little bit, there is a very good chance that there is someone else they can call next time.

 

 

Low Hornist's Journey

One gigantic personal triumph of mine this year was to conquer the problems I've had with my low register. These problems have been with me since I started playing the horn but didn't become a huge issue until I started to continually run into the low excerpt from Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 in auditions for many different purposes. My sound was very tight, pitch very sharp, and tone very unstable all throughout the low register.

I believe that these problems stemmed from the fact that I NEVER played below middle C for my first several years as a horn player (I had no private horn teacher for most of high school). I developed an embouchure that was very tight and geared towards playing as high as possible. I went through one embouchure change that helped loosened my face up a bit and helped my flexibility when I started college, but it didn't help my tone nor my low register production. Midway through my master's degree I went through another embouchure change that further loosened my face and revolutionized my tone but did not help my low register. After this change I felt that I was playing efficiently (and I was, compared to what I was doing before) however, I still had a ways to go.

This year I did not go through an embouchure change to finally produce a good tone in the low register, but I did have to make a few changes that caused me to play in a far more relaxed manner.

1. I stopped trying to drop my jaw.

When I played the opening excerpt to the 1st horn part of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben for a teacher this year he asked me why I was moving my jaw around so much, he then asked me to try to keep it in the same place. Not only did the excerpt go better, but all of the low notes sounded much better. From the very beginning of my time as a hornist I've been told that I needed to drop my jaw to play low, so it never occurred to me to try not doing that. When I try to drop my jaw it causes my chin to bunch up because I end up using muscle to try to keep my lips together. Thus other muscles are activated and I end up playing in a manner that is too tight. Maybe I have shorter lips than other players who do drop their jaw.

2. I started to only move my jaw out (but again, I don't move it down at all).

I'm not totally sure why this helps me to play low, but it does work. It may be that moving my jaw out causes me to change the direction of my air stream or it moves pressure off of my top lip.

3. I stopped just trying to relax my lips and started concentrating on relaxing my entire face.

I would continually try to relax my lips, however, I would still play with a lot of tension in my cheeks and my eyebrows (angry eyes). Although not seemingly connected to my lips relaxing my entire face made a world of difference when working on my intonation and stability of tone in the low register.

4. I pushed my tuning slides in.

I know that pushing one's tuning slides in is a very controversial issue. Many teachers feel that the tuning slides should just be placed where the hornist plays notes in tune, and I fell in this camp until recently. I took a lesson with a teacher this year who suggested that my tuning slides were pulled way too far out and that I should push them in and learn to relax into each note. I was skeptical of doing this, but I tried it anyway. Pushing my slides in helped all registers of the horn, including the low register. I'm now playing in a more relaxed manner, with a far more "centered" tone, and with better intonation than I ever have before.

5. I started to drop my tongue instead of dropping my jaw.

Dropping my tongue gives me a richer tone in the low register and opens up my mouth cavity in the same manner as dropping my jaw, but without the uneccessary tension.

Through lots of hard work I was finally able to conquer a problem that I have been actively struggling with for the past five years. It had almost gotten to the point where I resigned myself to believing that I would never be a good low hornist. However, I don't think it is a good idea for anyone to give up on the low register. I have noticed that many of the players I've known who do well at auditions (even high horn auditions) have excellent low registers. In the horn world a player with an excellent low register is far more rare than one with a great high register, so that fact gives them an edge over others. However, players with excellent low registers may just play in such an efficient manner that they end up sounding great in every register. I've certainly noticed that my low register work has improved my overall tone and accuracy significantly.

This summer my goal is to spend as much time possible playing in the low register to solidify all that I have learned in the past year and attempt to become an exceptional low horn player. I'll update all of you with my progress at the end of the summer!

How to Survive a Severe Humbling

I have discovered that auditions you play really well can be more detrimental to one's mental state than those that don't go well.

Over the past few months I took many auditions in my search for a full-time playing job. I've taken auditions before, but never as seriously as I have this year. I spent lots of time, money, and energy in preparation for these last few job openings. Over the past year my skills have improved by leaps and bounds and I felt that I was playing better than I have at any point in my life. When I went into this series of auditions I felt that I was prepared to be truly competitive. I played the first couple of auditions well, however, I made mistakes that I felt probably left me out of the running. I was able to move on past those auditions without much struggle and move on to my next challenge. Then I played an audition that I completely nailed. I felt that my rhythm, intonation, accuracy, and tone had all locked in and I was playing at my very best. However, I was shocked when I was stopped after the third excerpt (there were five total in this preliminary round). It was the first time in a long time that I haven't played all of the excerpts in a preliminary round. Also, after talking to many of the people who followed me I may have been the only one who was cut off so soon. I know that I must have done something to offend the committee, but since this particular audition did not allow for comments to be given to the candidates I can never know what happened.

This outcome crushed me. I had never been so upset after an audition than I was after this one, nor afflicted mentally for so long. I had been severely humbled and my confidence shaken. The subsequent auditions I took did not go nearly as well and I am certain that the hit taken to my confidence had much to do with the outcome of those performances.

In an audition one can not control what the committee is looking for, how the committee is feeling, nor how well the other candidates play. A friend of mine once wrote that at an audition you don't compete against others, you only compete against yourself. Instead of focusing on playing my best, and improving with each subsequent performance I focused on competition with others, playing with a sense of rivalry and conceit. It was this attitude that set me up to be severely humbled. I realized this mistake by the last audition I attended and subsequently played much better.

One must practice many long hours for an audition and become confident that they know and can execute each excerpt with a high degree of excellence every time it is played. However, that confidence should not be focused on an expected result. At the audition the focus should be on creating an excellent musical performance. Regardless of whether the desired result (winning the job) is achieved, after the audition one's focus should be on making their next performance even better.

Can I Change My Bell Flare?

The main reason many people have horns with detachable bell flares is to increase portability. More specifically, fixed-bell horn cases will not fit into the overhead compartment of most commercial airplanes while most screw-bell horn cases will. However, a screw-bell horn has another advantage, the ability to switch bell flares.

A different bell flare can have a significant effect on the tone, range, control, and feel of any horn. Yet it is often overlooked, even by some professionals, when one is looking for a change. Bell flares have four primary variables: hand-hammered vs. pressed, metal, weight, and screw ring.

Hand-hammered and pressed bell flares are made in two different ways. Hand-hammering is more time consuming (more expensive) and results in a flare that is thinner at the edge but thicker at the joint. The thinner edge is the reason why some hand-hammered bell flares will have a garland (a piece of metal around the edge that may or may not be decorated) added for reinforcement. Pressing results in a bell flare that is thicker at the edge but thinner at the joint. Hand-hammered bell flares generally produce a tone that is darker and closer to that of a natural horn as opposed to the more modern sounding pressed bell flares. From my experience pressed bell flares produce a better tone at loud dynamics while hand-hammered bell flares sound better when playing soft. Also, hand-hammered bell flares tend to favor the horn's high register while pressed bell flares favor its low register.

There are three basic metal choices when considering a bell flare: nickel-silver, yellow brass, and rose brass (sometimes called by other names). Each of these metals has their own unique sound characteristics that are very hard to quantify with words. To my ears the best way I can describe the sound of the metals is this: Nickel-silver is the brightest sounding metal, followed by yellow brass, with rose brass being the darkest. However, nickel-silver will produce less edge in its sound at louder dynamics than yellow brass.

Heavier bell flares project sound better while lighter bell flares have more control at soft dynamics. The heavier ones also tend to sound a bit darker. Garlands (as described above) add to the weight of a bell flare.

The last thing to keep in mind is whether or not a particular bell flare will fit your horn. Alexander-compatible screw rings are most common and are made and placed on bell flares/horns by many different makers. I would recommend this type to anyone purchasing a horn or getting the bell on their current horn cut as it will allow for the most options for a different screw bell in the future. Paxman and Englebert Schmid horns use their own proprietary screw rings that only work with bell flares from their respective manufacturers. There are also horns out there with custom made screw rings. I would avoid these since they almost completely eliminate the possibility of a future change.

I personally own two yellow brass bell flares. One is a hand-hammered, moderate-weight flare made by Duerk and the other is a pressed, light-weight flare that came with my current horn (Lewis-Duerk LDX5). After purchasing the horn I obtained and switched to the hand-hammered bell flare after a few months. I did so because I preferred the sound of that bell at that time. Years later, after I moved to Texas, I switched back to the pressed bell. I did so partially because my tastes had changed, and partially because I felt the sound fit in better with the local players.

When one is looking for a change of sound or feel they should remember their bell flare along with all of the many other aspects of a horn.

So you think you might have a metal allergy / Stainless Steel Mouthpiece Rims

Back in June of 2010 I started to notice that my lips were becoming irritated. I tried all sorts of different lip balms to try to tackle the problem, but nothing worked.  So I decided to see if the mouthpiece I was using (silver-plated Laskey 80G) was the cause of the problem. I briefly switched to a mouthpiece with a gold-plated rim (Stork Custom) to see if it would help. The irritation got better, but didn't go away completely. So then I started to look at stainless steel mouthpieces.

I decided to try a Houser Standley model stainless steel mouthpiece. I didn't like the mouthpiece cup itself, but I did like the rim so I paired it with the cup from the Stork custom mouthpiece I mentioned earlier. After using the rim for a few weeks the irritation went away. I eventually switched the cup again with a Houser San Francisco model (silver-plated brass) that I felt was similar to the Laskey 80G that I initially used.

The feel of the stainless steel rim that I currently use took a little bit to get used to. It is almost as slippery as a gold-plated rim, but lacks the warm feel on the lips. In fact stainless steel is the coldest metal I've ever used. I'm considering ordering another Houser Standley rim with their H-Kote titanium coating to try to warm up the feel and increase the comfort.

I don't think that my stainless steel rim has had any effect on my sound that can be attributed to the metal. There are other little unique things about the rim such as the fact that it unscrews from it's cup far more easily than gold and silver. I don't think it could ever become stuck. Overall I would highly recommend the use of a stainless steel mouthpiece rim to anyone who may believe that the metal of their current rim may be irritating their lips.

So You Didn't Make It Into One Of Your Top Schools

As I write this post it is currently early March and music school auditions are wrapping up all around the country. Although it has been a few years since I took a school audition I still remember the pressure and stress of it all very clearly. I also remember how it feels to not make it into any of the top schools on your list.

I was in this situation when I applied to schools for my master's program. I've written a bit on this subject before, but when I finished undergrad I had many problems with my playing that left me with a harsh tone and no control over the instrument. Nonetheless I had convinced myself that I was a much better player than I really was. I believed that if I practiced hard enough I could still make it into a good school, so I applied to four top schools and one that I really wasn't that interested in. Predictably, I was rejected to my top four and was forced to go to my "back-up".

I was not happy about going to the school I went to at all. (Even though I wasn't even at the top of a studio that I felt was below me.) Due to my bad and ultra-arrogant attitude (another post for another day) the two years I spent there were miserable. However, it was there that I became a decent player. I had an excellent teacher, the opportunity to study with other great professional musicians, a city with an inspiring music scene, and the time to seriously practice and study. Due to this and a lot of hard work I left a FAR better player than when I went in and I was able to get into almost every school I applied to for my doctoral degree.

Top schools with a good track record of producing successful full-time professional musicians usually have very good horn studios which allow one to regularly play with and learn from some of the best students in the country. Many of these studios also regularly have members who win full-time playing jobs while they are still in school, thus allowing one to truly see how close they are to reaching such a level. It would be a fallacy for me to say that going to such a school should not be the preferable option for almost anyone. However, if you don't make it into one of these schools you are not doomed to failure.

Yes, weaker schools generally attract weaker players. Even though there are many excellent teachers at these schools, many of the people in their studios believe practice is what you do only before juries and recitals. Their ensembles may not play on a high level, and may not play very advanced repertoire. However, the most important factor in your success is you and your desire/hunger to succeed. How hard are you willing to work and what inconveniences are you willing to deal with to get to your goal? Sure, most people around you may not be working hard but you can create your own personal conservatory environment. With a good teacher (and there are many to be found at schools that would surprise you) I firmly believe that it is possible to succeed anywhere.

If you plan to release a recording of your playing, DO IT SOONER, NOT LATER!!!

On my media page there are clips of some of the Mendelssohn and Schubert Lieder I recorded for my doctoral project. I originally planned to release a CD with all of the songs. However, at the time I finished the project I just didn't have the money to spend to have it professionally mastered. After that I became very busy teaching and freelancing so I continued to put the mastering and release on hold.

It has now been over a year since the songs were first recorded. At this point I can no longer release the CD, even if I had it mastered. I can't release it because I can no longer stand by it as representative of my playing. In the past year I've been exposed to many new influences, my playing has improved by leaps and bounds, my musical ideas have evolved significantly, and my tone has changed/improved. More importantly many errors in the recordings that I could tolerate/didn't notice in January 2010 are now completely unacceptable to me in March 2011. Because of that the CD will probably never see the light of day. I have been told by multiple respected musicians that the CD is of a high enough quality to be commercially released, however, I can no longer accept it.

So the moral of this story is: If you plan to release a recording of your playing, do it while you are still proud of your accomplishment!

Wait, I thought my resume and biography was supposed to get longer as time progressed?!?

Today I was reminded that one's resume and biography is always a work in progress, never to be truly completed. After receiving comments on my current resume by a prominent hornist I decided to spend a few minutes to edit it and the biography on this website. I was shocked when I looked at them after my edits and compared them to drafts I had from three years ago.

I remember the first resume I put together back when I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois applying for summer festivals. I felt that there was no way that I could fit all of my "experience" in the one-page format that is commonly asked for in the music world. My first resume draft contained 6-point fonts to fit it all in! After a meeting with my horn professor I cut away a lot of the information and made it barely fit into one page (one page with 0.5" margins and 8-point font). Since then every time I've reviewed my resume it's gotten shorter. The same thing applies to my biography, first created in 2007 for this website.

As I've obtained more experience I've removed items that no longer seemed relevant. More importantly, as I've gotten older/wiser I've taken away lots of information that probably never should have been there in the first place. In retrospect, I've always had a tendency to want to pad my resume. I was under the illusion that a professional could be swayed by a document that was long, when in fact all I probably did was annoy the people who reviewed my resume as they looked for the information they actually cared about. Now I currently follow some guidelines when deciding what to include and exclude from my resume and biography:

1. Performance Experience - Include: Professional (paid), nationally, or regionally known ensembles. Exclude: Non-professional groups of any kind, groups in which I've only subbed for rehearsals, groups I've only played with on one occasion (unless nationally known), and school ensembles.

2. Education - Include: All degrees, schools, and dates. All Principal teachers. Other teachers who are nationally known and with whom I've had four or more lessons. Masterclasses I'm performed in with nationally known hornists. Exclude: Teachers I've only had one or two lessons with. Anything that happened before I started college. All but the most highly-respected and competitive summer festivals.

3. Miscellaneous Experience - Include: Current horn teaching jobs. Exclude: Everything else.

What you don't put on a resume says almost as much as what you do. A resume/biography that contains things such as school ensembles, anything but the very top summer festivals, non-professional ensembles, random chamber groups, etc. can communicate to the reader that you are not a very good player. It's best to only to leave the most relevant and important professional experience on your resume even if it makes for a very short document.

A Guide to Horn Mouthpiece Selection for Band Directors and Horn Teachers, Part 1: Players with Large Lips

It used to be common for many teachers to say that those with thick lips could not become successful horn players. There are multiple reasons why this idea existed but I would not be surprised if the dimensions of the average student-level mouthpiece contributed to it.

The average student-level mouthpiece has a rim with a small internal diameter (16.75-17.25mm) and a medium-wide width. Manufacturers who make these mouthpieces use these specifications for some valid reasons. Small rim inner diameters can help students to reach to play higher notes easier and sooner. Wide rim widths are more comfortable to play than those that are narrow.

The average student-level mouthpiece is completely inappropriate for someone with large lips. These players need mouthpieces with large rim inner diameters (17.75-18.50mm). A rim with a large inner diameter will allow a student with thick lips to have more room to move within the mouthpiece without any detrimental pinning of some muscles due to attempts to squeeze the lips into a space that is too small.

After many years of observing students and based on my own experimentation I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all mouthpiece. Band directors and teachers should avoid giving out the same type of mouthpiece without regard for their students' individual physical characteristics. Even mouthpieces whose manufacturers tout as good "all-around" mouthpieces will lead some students to success and others to failure, especially those who have thick lips.

How to Make an Audition Tape

It is currently audition tape season! Many people are making tapes for orchestra auditions, teaching jobs, summer festivals, and college auditions. One great way to learn how to make an audition tape is to take a few hours to listen to auditions posted online for the You Tube Symphony orchestra. There are clear difference between those who won and those who didn't. Below I've posted a few rules that I've learned over many years of audition tape recording.

1. Don't miss any notes. Period. Not even small chips are acceptable. It is likely that your tape is one among many and one person has to spend gross amounts of time going through them. Many people will stop your tape and move on to the next one once they hear any chip. Record as many takes as necessary to make a note perfect tape.

2. Make many mock recordings for weeks before you sit down to record the final product. If you haven't made multiple perfect tapes beforehand you won't be able to pull it off easily or quickly when you go to your recording space.

3. Record in a small concert hall, a recital hall, a large ensemble rehearsal space, or a medium-sized church if the audition rules don't explicitly state the type of space you should record in. These spaces simply sound better than any other location. It also communicates to the person listening to the tape that you took the audition seriously enough to find an excellent space record in. However, don't record in a space that is too reverberant such as a large stone cathedral.

4. Avoid recording in your average classroom or office. These spaces are usually shaped like squares or rectangles and are full of hard surfaces that result in a phenomenon called "slap echo". Slap echo results in a harsh sounding reverberation and dilutes the sound of your articulation.

5. If recording in a hall is not an option choose a large residential space, preferably one with vaulted or high ceilings. These spaces are not ideal, but they usually don't have the acoustical problems of classrooms due to the presence of soft furniture and walls made of drywall, or wood paneling as opposed to cinder blocks.

6. Don't record in a small residential space, i.e. a bedroom, home office, or small living room. These spaces will usually sound acoustically dead or be subject to slap echo and ugly sounding reverberation.

7. Avoid recording in a practice room for the same reasons you shouldn't record in a small residential space.

8. Make stereo recordings! Even though you are only recording one instrument, stereo captures more of the depth of your sound. The difference between stereo and mono recordings can be cleared heard by almost anyone.

9. If you play horn don't place the microphone behind you. Yes, if you see photos from recording sessions you will see microphones pointed at the horns' bells, but these recordings are altered and mixed to make the horns sound good. If you are recording a single horn for an audition tape place the microphones eight feet in front of you and eight feet high (if possible) for the best recorded sound.

10. If you have a choice between a live audition and a recorded one, chose the live option. Making your own recording is difficult. In many ways you are competing based on your ability to make a good recording instead of purely competing on your skills as a player.

Seeking Opportunity

Today is my birthday and throughout the past week I've been reflecting on where I was last year at this time. I had just finished my time as a full-time student, but I had no idea what to do next. I was doing some playing in Phoenix, AZ, but not nearly enough to support myself with. I had five private students, but no luck recruiting any more. I knew that I wouldn't be able to make a living with music in Phoenix and the only option that seemed viable to me was to take a full-time 9-5 job, probably in the tech sector. However, I knew that type of job wouldn't leave me with enough free time and energy to do the type of practicing that is required to make a living with music. I felt that all of the opportunities that others take advantage of in music had evaded me. In a misguided way I felt like a victim and I thought my dream of becoming a full-time musician was dead.

Some goals are easier than others and becoming a professional musician is one of the hardest ones to pursue. The traditional route to this goal is taking ultra-competitive auditions for playing jobs in a full-time orchestra. One can also start their own group, or become a freelancer. However, for some reason I was under the impression that those who became freelancers, joined/created chamber groups, or made their living by playing in other ways just had that opportunity presented to them on their doorstep. I believed that if you were a good player, good things would just come to you.

I eventually realized that the above sentiment is completely incorrect. If you want something to happen you have to take steps and have a plan to help it along. There is no guarantee that something will happen, however, it is guaranteed that if you do nothing, nothing will happen. In order help my goal along (no matter what form it would take), I decided that I was going to have to leave Phoenix. It was tough to have to leave my friends and my community behind, but I knew that I couldn't stay.

After contacting several people I eventually decided that Dallas was the best place for me to go. I had some friends that were already established in Texas who were very helpful to me, especially one of my old friends from ASU whom I can't thank enough. Now I'm here doing a lot of teaching and slowly starting a freelance playing career. I now make enough money to support myself and I'm still able to practice four hours a day so that I can develop the skills I need to move on to the next stage of my career, whatever that my be.

You can't wait for opportunity to come to you, you have to go find it. That is the lesson that I have learned over the past year, and it is one of the most important I have ever learned.

Why do I continue to take lessons?

Tomorrow is my birthday and I will officially be in my late 20s. As of November 2010 I have been playing the horn for 12 years. I have finished three degrees in music and I have had the privilege of studying with distinguished hornists. I have studied horn performance and pedagogy far more in depth than most people will ever study anything. I now proudly call myself a professional musician. Many musicians at my age and/or at my stage in life haven't taken a lesson in years. So, why do I continue to seek out lessons from others?

Sometimes you reach a point when you feel like there is nothing else big that you can learn. You know that you are a good player and you think the only things you have left to do can be classified as small tweaks. I almost felt that way, and then I had a lesson earlier this week that changed all of that. I'll leave the details for a later post, but a teacher taught me a couple of things that instantly and dramatically improved my accuracy, intonation, tone, and solidified my low register. (By the way, these were all aspects of my playing that were already good, but just got a LOT better.)

This lesson reminded me that there is still much more for me to learn. One should never believe that they've learned everything, or that they can't be a dramatically better player. As long as there is someone out there better than you (and there are MANY people out there better than me) there are new goals to reach!