Book Excerpt: Playing More Musically

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Every so often I get a big idea. A recent one was to update the best of my publications into new editions and sell them exclusively as Kindle ePublications. Part of that update process was text revisions, with the most heavily updated books being the low horn book and also the mellophone book. Contrary to what you might guess, the text that went into both was largely not text from my online writings, but instead from an abandoned “big book” project (hardly any text in any of the books is duplicated online, in fact). The idea of one version of the big book project was to cover every topic in the Farkas book, but in new and updated ways. Eventually, after several drafts, I never was happy with how it looked, and moving the text to the ePublications was a good move. 

While applicable to literally any musician, one section that went to the mellophone book is the following, on playing more musically. More musically on a mellophone? The idea of the book is that the target audience is someone who is working on mellophone to improve their playing to get in a drum corps. Part of your audition is how you play, and you want to sound good! So as part of my text I get into deeper topics such as this, making it a virtual “Farkas book” of mellophone, laid out in a question and answer format. Check it out here on Amazon. 

How can I play more musically?

You can’t play musically without total technical control over every aspect of dynamic and articulation. You may have wonderful musical concepts, but you won’t be able to communicate them to listeners unless you have the full vocabulary of dynamics and articulations mastered! The process for mastering this vocabulary is practice. It won’t happen magically; you have to learn this skill well and be guided by competent teachers and mentors.

Beyond that basic issue, there are two ways to approach preparation of musical works for performance, and both of these are correct. Depending on the work I will chose to lean more toward one or the other.

I will call the first of these, for purposes of this discussion, the literal approach. Etude study is often geared toward building this skill; when the music says loud, you play loud; when it says short, you play short, etc. It is a bit mathematical and cold, but actually there are some works that when approached in this manner sound great to an audience. It really depends on the composers and how they worked out their music. For instance, I tend to approach works by 20th century composers with this literal approach by default. I am sure this is partially the result of having been a student of Verne Reynolds. As a composer he spent a lot of time putting every marking in his works and I am very sure that he really did expect that you as a performer would try your best to play every one as exactly as written in a very literal manner. When the markings are from the composer, do try to follow them, but if they really don’t work musically I am open to modifications — but keeping to the spirit of the markings.

Some works really don’t lend themselves to this type of approach; they require what I would call, again for purposes of this discussion, a non-literal approach. The Mozart horn concertos are a perfect example. Most editions have you playing low dynamics for long periods of time and have many staccato passages. These markings were mostly generated by editors long ago, and if you take the markings literally as written you will play the work very blandly except for the over articulated runs which jump out in a way that does not match the character of the phrases in which they are embedded. This type of work requires an approach where you more actively adjust the dynamics to appropriate dynamics for a soloist and play phrases and articulations suggested by the musical lines themselves. It is a skill that can be polished in etudes of a more songlike, musical character. Listening to music played well on not just horn but also other instruments really helps put the concept of what a musical, non-literal approach is in your mental ear; especially try to emulate vocalists and instruments such as the oboe and violin.

Ultimately you will have to decide what sounds the best to you and blend these two approaches. That is the beauty of music making and the essence of artistic musical performance.

Going back to the big picture, sometimes tempo markings are clear and fit the music, sometimes they are unclear, and sometimes they are clear and don’t seem to suit the music. A well written work will tend to generate its own best tempo. Don’t be married to your own idea of how it feels best on the instrument; as you practice the work, try to be very sensitive to the musical lines, and if applicable, the accompaniment, as you sort out the tempo.

University of Horn Matters