On attention to detail, accuracy, and tonguing problems

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This week a legendary figure in the horn/music world passed away, Gunther Schuller. His name has come up in Horn Matters quite a few times, and I have over the years come to appreciate several things a great deal from his classic publication, Horn Technique.

Regular readers know that presently I am working on a project, preparing to record a group of forgotten horn and piano works from around the turn of the century on a period F horn (information on this project starts here). F horn is not easy to play at all on a high level. Playing this horn successfully has required a great deal of attention to detail, and my present warm-up greatly resembles the one advocated by Gunther Schuller in his book. More on that in a minute.

At an extreme horn teachers advocate one of two approaches to solving playing problems. One approach is to visualize what you want, get inspired and let the body adjust to make it happen! This is kind of a fun way to try to practice, it sounds great on paper, avoids paralysis by analysis, but in terms of mastering difficult articulations on the F horn it does not work.

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Instead, my best progress on the topic of tonguing on the early valved horn has been to really try to pay attention to the “bubbles” at the beginning of notes, using that word concept from Schuller (more on that shortly) and thinking a lot as well about tonguing as described by Eli Epstein in his book.

Warm-up is an interesting topic. As I sometimes tell students, my sense of the Schuller book is he had a copy of the Farkas book, thought to himself most of this is wrong, and wrote a very different book without directly attacking Farkas in any way. This article on Farkas and Schuller and the warm-up is a great place to ponder this point. The Schuller warm-up is focused almost entirely on articulations and first note accuracy. It is not at all a “captain warm-up” type routine like that seen in most warm-up publications.

Back in 2004 we were honored to have Schuller on campus several times at Arizona State. He confirmed his warm up ideas then, and this article recalls the two key details he was most interested in opening our ears to in the horn master classes, bubbles and clicks. Bubbles really are the enemy on the single F horn, and in that article I note,

“Bubbles” (his term) are a big concern for him, probably his biggest concern. Most players are not even aware of the somewhat uneven quality of attacks as they are just not really listening to them closely. We get used to how we sound. Open your ears! The cause of “bubbles” can be several things but in my opinion it boils down to two items. One is choice of mouthpiece and horn; some mouthpieces in particular will by nature produce an attack with a bubble. This is however compounded by choice of syllable for the articulation. We are taught so often to articulate a “TA” articulation, but in reality I rarely if ever really articulate “TA.” My normal articulation is something closer to “DA” or even “DUH,” and varies by range (very high is “DEE,” for example–“DUH” is more of a mid-range articulation). The best light articulations are made with a distinctly brushing stroke of the tongue to be sure.

IMG_0393Turning to the Epstein part of the puzzle, for me I find in the upper range on the F horn it is not just that brushing quality of articulation it is also very location oriented, it must be very precise to eliminate the bubbles. Epstein addresses this in great detail in his book, Horn Playing from the Inside Out. My review of the book starts here and is worth reading in full; in short, Epstein talks at length about the location of the articulation point in every range. As I ascend on the F horn I certainly have to think of the articulation location differently (or more precisely) than I would by default on a double horn, an instrument that really is much more technically forgiving overall to perform upon.

To that point, the truly freaky thing is that right now, when I occasionally pick up a double horn, I literally feel like I can’t miss notes. I think the attention to detail of figuring out how to articulate well on the F horn will totally pay off, performance will be on a higher level.

I should note for readers what my default articulation location is/was. In the high range Epstein recommends a position that puts your tongue up on the gums for the contact point, but normally I would tongue a bit further forward in much the manner recommended by Anton Horner in this article.

There is more I could go into, as another line of recent experimentation has been inserts. Without giving away all my secrets they do more good than I expected on single F horn. Dennis Brain famously had “match sticks” across key locations in some of his slides before he turned to playing a modern Alexander horn; I can see why.

There is a final point any reader can apply from this article. Years ago, as a younger student, I did an accuracy routine religiously on the F horn — a similar exercise may be found in the Singer book and the Schuller book. Try it! Work this exercise out perfectly over many weeks on the F horn at quarter note = 60, you will see a difference when you use standard fingerings.