Kendall Betts, now Principal Horn of the Minnesota Orchestra, once related to me the following amusing anecdote about John Barrows:
In the summer of 1969 I was participating in the Marlboro Festival and we were rehearsing the Beethoven 7th from 9 to 12 AM with Pablo Casals. John Barrows was playing 1st and I was on 2nd. I had arrived at 8 and warmed up for an hour. John showed up about 8:50, walked to his chair, belched out a middle C, put his horn down on the chair and went to have coffee. He returned at the oboe's A and proceded to play the 1st horn part brilliantly without an assistant. I was stuggling to keep up on 2nd at that awful hour of the day. At the break I asked, "John, do you warm up at home?". He replied, "No, Kenny, and let me tell you something, kid. I used to warm up. I warmed up every day for years and years. One day I was warmed up!".
Everyone has a different way of warming up. If you're like John Barrows, you're lucky. If you're like me and have to spend a bit longer than five minutes, I hope this collection of warm-ups can help you find a way to warm up efficiently and effectively. You can put together a routine that you can use every day or select a warm-up to have a directed kind of approach for a particular piece. You can even find a warm-up that helps your lip recover the next morning after an extremely tiring recording session of Ein Heldenleben.
Above all, be willing to experiment and try new things--as horn players we must not only keep our lips fresh, but our minds as well.
It may seem self-evident that listening is very important when playing the horn (and by extension, warming up), but I know that there are many horn players out there who have never learned to listen well to their own playing, or who have listened in the past but now just go through the motions rather than do what I call "active" listening.
Every time we hold auditions for the San Francisco Symphony, I am amazed at the different ways that people play--there are bright players, dark players, in-tune players, out-of-tune players, musical players and less inventive ones--in short, the whole range of horn playing is represented. It's why I like to listen to auditions; it opens my ears. The challenge in playing is to listen to yourself as if it was someone else. Or, in other words, try to hear yourself as others hear you. Ever taped yourself practicing? Not many people enjoy it, because they don't usually like the way it sounds. In my experience, it takes quite a while to get something on tape the way you like it. But the rewards of taping yourself are great. After you do it for a while, the difference between what you hear on the tape and what you hear while you're actually playing becomes less and less. In other words, you get a reality check on what you're doing, and it trains you to actively listen.
Without true participation by the player in listening to him- or herself play, there can be no feedback from the ear to the brain, and there can be no real improvement. Charlotte Joko Beck, in her book Everyday Zen, tells how her piano teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory asked her to play back to him a small three bar fragment--every time she repeated it he would say "No." Finally after three months of doing this, he finally said, "Yes." What had happened? She had learned to listen, and if you can hear it, you can play it.
So how do you learn to listen? As I said, taping yourself is one way. But the key is awareness. You must choose an aspect of your playing to actively listen to. One excellent place to start is with tone. If you are getting a good sound on the horn, you have made a good start toward playing well. After all, what do most people tell you when they find out that you play the horn? "Oh, I love the horn, it has such a beautiful sound!" Here is a small exercise that looks deceptively simple. It was first shown to me by a flutist who said that it came from Marcel Moyse, the great French flute player and teacher.
The key here is to listen carefully and attentively to each note and try and match the sound of each so they sound the same. For purposes of illustration I chose a G to begin on, but it's best to choose a note that sounds particularly good that day, and try and make all the adjacent notes have the same excellent tone. That "best-sounding note" will be a different note every day, and part of your active listening is to determine which of the 50 notes on your horn sounds the best at that moment at the beginning of that exercise and then go on from there.
Another part of playing that is relatively easy to focus on is tonguing consistency. Play a slow group of repeated notes in the middle register and actively listen to each one and compare it to its predecessor. Do they sound the same? If not, what is different? Is your tongue moving the same way for each note? Is your tongue tonguing in the same place? How does your tonguing change when you change registers? Become aware of how you are playing and how you are sounding -- don't just automatically play without awareness.
Another awareness practice could be to focus very specifically on rhythm by sub-dividing to very small note values while you play, so that your rhythm becomes more exact. This helped me one time in an audition, not just because my rhythm was good, but because it gave my mind something to latch on to during the audition.
Often, a player will come to me and complain of bad endurance and of having a problem with high notes. They tell me that they practice in a small space, perhaps an apartment, and are worried about playing too loud when they practice. They sound constricted, dark and hollow, but say they are just trying to get a beautiful sound. Without looking at that player's horn, I almost always know that they play with their tuning slide pulled way out. These players suffer from not playing in the center of the note. They are consistently pinching and lipping the note so high that they are almost on the verge of popping up to the next harmonic. Why do they do it? There are two main reasons: it feels more secure to pinch and the player thinks he or she is getting a rich, mellow tone. Especially on larger horns where the notes are wide, it's very tempting to play up against the upper edge of the note, because it gives you a place of reference and security. Otherwise, it's hard to know where you are intonation-wise. To compensate, the player pulls out the slide. What goes along with that is tone which the player thinks is rich and full but in reality, from a distance sounds stuffy and dull. So here's an exercise that may be of help:
Pick a middle register note (best between G above middle C and the C above) and practice bending the note with your lip. Bend it as high as you can, then as low as you can. Find the place that is right in the middle between the sharpest you can lip the note and the flattest.
That right-in-the-middle place is likely going to give you the best sound as well as improve your accuracy and endurance. There are occasionally players who sag instead of pinch, but they are rare in my experience, so you are likely to find that you want to play lower in the note than you were.
One very important concept that I have learned over the years is that you must train yourself to accept a sound from your bell that is brighter than you think you ought to play. The reason for this is: it is the upper harmonics of a sound that project and enable one to color the sound. Without them, a player sounds foggy and unclear. Many players shy away from that brightness because they think it is ugly or crass, and there are even schools of horn playing that teach that one is never supposed to get bright, regardless of the dynamic level. I must respectfully disagree. I feel strongly that one should have the whole palette of tone available for musical purposes, from bright to dark. So I advocate a middle-of the-road approach to sound--right in the middle, not too bright and not too dark. I am writing this from the experience of having been one of those really dark players early in my life while at school and in my first job. What I began to realize was that the players who had a brighter, more complex sound also sounded more interesting and musical. In addition, selecting equipment that was smaller with a more focused sound has made it easier in a number of areas:
The issue of resistance is an interesting one. There are many players who prefer a very wide open, free blowing horn with a big sound. I have a theory (with no evidence except my own experience) that in order to play the horn, everyone ends up with roughly the same net amount of resistance if you combine the resistance generated by the horn with that generated by the player's embouchure. To elaborate, what this means is that if you play a big, free blowing horn, with very little resistance, then you yourself must supply a large part of the resistance yourself with your chops. How do people do that? By pinching and impeding the flow of air into the horn inside the mouthpiece. As a result, they have to be incredibly strong, or risk having poor endurance. That's why I think a big horn is harder to play -- because you have to supply the resistance yourself.
Intonation is better and more consistent because the horn helps me out by not having such wide notes. Projection, especially for me in a first horn chair, is improved. Musicality comes easier with a wider range of tonal variety. Once I got used to the narrower notes, my accuracy improved. It was easier to play generally, beacause with smaller equipment, I had to learn to play efficiently. My soft playing has been greatly improved, because there is more resistance to push against.