The question I'm most often asked by beginner and middle school students is "How can I get better at high notes?" For high school and college level players, the question is "How can I be less nervous when I play in front of others?"
The first thing to know about nerves is that anyone who cares about playing well has them, whether that person is a high school student or a world class soloist. If a player you admire tells you they don't experience some form of anxiety, trust me, it's either bravado or self delusion. The perfect player who "never misses" is also a fictional creation too so let's put that legend to bed as well. Anxiety and occasional mistakes are important to come to terms with as horn players. While I would never say that our instrument is the most difficult (as some do), it's undoubtedly the most unpredictable.
While everyone experiences performance anxiety in one form or another, successful performers learn to channel nervous energy into intense focus. With this mindset, mild anxiety is actually an asset because it can be transformed into intense concentration. By being in the moment, or "the Zone", the mind is occupied with the task at hand and there's no room for mental chatter. You're not thinking about what just happened or what's about to happen, you're thinking about what's happening right now. If you can do this effectively, it's almost impossible to feel fear. Speaking personally, my anxiety is highest when I'm on stage waiting for the performance to start. Once the lights go down, the conductor walks out and the music starts, I usually become absorbed in what's going on around me and fear melts away.
We are all born with unlimited creativity and the ability to focus. At some point, a mysterious voice in our heads starts trying to convince us we're not good enough. As we start feeling the desire to be really good at something, self-criticism can becomes self-loathing and, eventually, perfectionism. I used think a "perfectionist" was something I wanted to be. What striver doesn't want to be perfect? But a "perfectionist" is not perfect because perfect doesn't exist. A perfectionist is someone who obsesses with the idea of being perfect to the point of anxiety, frustration and, all too often, burnout and injury. Even if a perfectionist is able to control their anxiety enough to function as a professional, his or her playing will usually be uninspired due to fear of taking musical risks.
I'm speaking as a reformed perfectionist. Early in my career as a principal horn player, I loved when my colleagues complimented me on my accuracy but started wondering why they rarely complimented me on my musicianship. I took a lot of auditions (more than I'd like to count) and, while I would almost always advance and would regularly survive to the final rounds, winning was elusive. I'd ask committee members for feedback and the most common response was some variation on, "you're so solid but there's just something ...missing."
After a few seasons of beating myself up for even the smallest errors, I realized perfectionism was unsustainable and, for my own mental health, was forced to give myself permission to be less than perfect. I literally told myself before big performances, "it's ok to make mistakes." And a funny thing happened: I was less anxious, more free to express musical ideas and I made fewer mistakes! While it took several years to really believe that being less than perfect was ok (and longer yet to become a non-perfectionist at auditions), I eventually became comfortable with the idea that I was a fallible human like everyone else. I still make my fair share of mistakes and get very frustrated when a performance doesn't go according to plan. But now I'm able to shrug off mistakes quickly and hop right back into the Zone.
There's a lot more I want to write about this subject in the future but here are some general concepts that are useful in letting go of perfectionism and using focus to cancel out fear.
- Remember the big picture. One disappointing performance or audition will have no bearing on your career. Your reputation is built on how well you play over the course of months and years. A "bad performance" is only bad when it infects the next performance.
- Performing often gradually desensitizes you to pressure. If every performance feels like a major, nerve-wracking event, you probably aren't performing very often. Young players especially need to create opportunities to perform. Retirement communities, churches, synagogues and homeless shelters are all places where you will usually find grateful audiences. If you are getting ready for an audition or recital, play for as many friends and family members as possible.
- Recording yourself is a great way to simulate performance pressure. The closest thing I've found to simulating the pressure of a live performance is turning on a recorder and playing as if I were playing for an audience or audition committee. Knowing you will eventually have to listen to yourself and confront your weaknesses is very stressful!
- Stay in the moment using mindfulness techniques. Even when you're not practicing or performing, you can practice finding "the Zone" with the help of mindfulness apps (Headspace and Calm are two popular ones). With or without an app, meditating on your breath for 10-30 minutes every morning can work wonders for your mental health and focus.
- Set the highest standards possible in "practice mode" and be completely non-judgmental in "performance mode". I will write more about practice mode vs. performance mode, but the basic concept is that the place for analysis, constructive self-criticism and refinement of technique is the practice room. When you're on stage, remind yourself that the preparation is done you can and simply the ride wave. In other words, demand great results in the practice room but "let go" in the performances. Bud Herseth's trick for battling nerves was to imagine he was in Orchestral Hall performing for 2000 people when he practiced at home. When he was actually on stage performing, he imagined he was in the comfort of his home studio.
- Truly great musicians value risk taking and musical commitment over accuracy. If you take enough auditions, you will notice that smaller, regional orchestras will often eliminate candidates for small mistakes while major orchestras will advance candidates who make minor errors but are musically compelling. Accomplished musicians think of technique as a tool for communicating musical ideas. Great musicians tend to be accurate and technically sound as a byproduct of mastering the technique necessary to play expressively with a beautiful sound.
- Build your performance in the practice room, then set it free on stage. I often think of preparing an audition or a solo piece like building a model ship in a bottle and, at the performance, throwing it into the ocean and watching it float away. The work has been done and now all you can do is release what you've created into the world. In this way, performing in the Zone often feels like observing rather than doing.
- Serve the music, not your ego. When you feel anxious before a performance, it's helpful to ask yourself what you're actually nervous about. Often, it's fear of being exposed as an imposter. This is especially true if you rely on praise from others to convince yourself you are good enough. If you have a shaky performance, you worry that you might not elicit praise from the conductor, colleagues and audience members. Without praise, your fragile confidence structure could collapse. The best defense against imposter syndrome is to take yourself out of the equation and focus solely on "serving the music". Make your performance about honoring the composer's intention and communicating that to the audience. In this sense, you are simply a conduit between the composer and the audience. Stop worrying about how you will be perceived as an individual so you can better contribute to the collective. Sincere praise from fellow musicians, audiences and critics is always nice but hopefully it's not what motivates you to be a musician. Love of music and dedication to the art form is the most sustainable motivation for a long, healthy career.
Dale Clevenger was often asked by his students about his daily warm up routine. In his oft-impersonated Tennessee drawl he would famously reply "why, I never warm down!" Another well known anecdote about warming up involves a horn student at the Marlboro Music festival who observed that John Barrows would arrive ten minutes before rehearsal, "belch out a middle C" , leave stage to drink coffee and chat with colleagues, then return to stage at the tuning note and proceed to play brilliantly. When the student asked Barrows if he warmed up at home, Barrows replied "I used to warm up. I warmed up every day for years and years. One day I was warmed up!"
Most of us mere mortals require some type of daily warm up, for both physical and psychological reasons. When I was first getting serious about playing the horn, I found a copy of The Art of French Horn Playing by Philip Farkas in the band hall library of my high school and took it as my bible. I was especially drawn to his fully notated daily warm up, which Farkas professed to practice in full every morning. Over the next several years, I tried to make the Farkas Warm Up the foundation of my practice routine. Some days I would slog through it and come out ok; other days I found it to be exhausting. I was definitely way past "warmed up" by the end! While I have since become a more efficient player, going through the full routine still makes me feel like I need a nice, long break before I continue practicing.
While the Farkas Warm Up was not for me, I was attracted to the idea of a systematic routine that could improve my skills and consistency without tiring me out. I tried lots of prescribed routines endorsed by great players (Standley, Singer, Caruso, Brophy, etc.) but eventually burned out on all of them. Over time I realized that the appeal of a prescribed warm up is not so much about the exercises themselves but rather about trusting in daily rituals and routines that get positive results today and have a good chance of getting positive results tomorrow. While there's a bit of a placebo effect in the concept of a daily warm up, any ritual that provides a sense of stability in the sometimes chaotic, frustrating endeavor of playing the horn is not something to be dismissed. But a routine is useless unless one can find the time and energy to actually do it every day. An hour long intensive daily warm up is not something I have the endurance or discipline for; especially if I have lots of other actual music I need to practice. I want my routine to be concise, purposeful and interesting enough to keep me engaged. Most importantly, I want to feel fresh and flexible by the end of it so I can practice actual music.
A key concept handed down to me by my teacher Bill VerMeulen was the idea of a daily routine being the "nuts and bolts" that hold your playing together. Charles Kavalovski (another famously diligent warmer upper) called them his "Daily Dues." In this sense, the daily routine is more about maintaining and improving technical skills than warming up. In reality, most professional players, especially if they've arrived at the concert hall uncomfortably close to the start of rehearsal time, are ready to play after a few minutes of noodling (provided Bruckner 4 or other similarly touchy repertoire is not first up on the rehearsal schedule.) With this is mind, the "warm up" portion of the routine should be the first five to ten minutes. Whatever you have time to do after that falls under the category of daily maintenance. This maintenance block of practice usually immediately follows the warm up but it could occur later in the day as a prelude to a practice session following a morning rehearsal. These exercises can be practiced in sequence although sometimes I feel more engaged with technical practice when it's mixed in with other practice material such as excerpts, etudes and solos.
After years of experimenting, here are some conclusions about what works best for me:
- A routine should be no longer than 30 minutes. Quality practice time for a busy professional or student is often a luxury and I'd prefer to spend it working on actual music rather than technical exercises. If there's a specific technical problem I want to work on, I'll find an etude or orchestral excerpt to address the issue whenever possible.
- A routine should make my chops feel better, not worse. Long exhausting "warm ups" defeat the purpose of getting you ready for the day and often engrain bad habits. Try to use exercises that emphasize efficiency rather than strength. If you want to work on stamina, it's a lot more fun to play through a Mahler symphony or a Strauss Concerto.
- The exercises that make up a routine should address fundamental concepts necessary to play well. In my experience, good technique can be boiled down to relaxed breathing, easy sound production, flexibility, mastery of scales and arpeggios, and efficiency. If the exercises you are working on don't address these concepts or repeat other parts of your routine, you might ask how they are serving you.
- The routine should be consistent but have an element of novelty. The basic framework can be the same from day to day but, for the purposes of avoiding boredom or burnout, it's nice to mix things up slightly. For example, the scale patterns might change with the days of the week (Sundays are major scales, Mondays are natural minor, etc.) On odd days, start scale and lip slur sequences tongued; on even days, start slurred. Use a flashcard app to add an element of chance to what you're doing that day.
- Start each day with a "beginner's mind." I like to think of my first sounds of the day as restarting the process of learning to play the horn. I always like to start with buzzing in part because, as a beginner band student, we weren't allowed to touch the horn for the first month. Instead, we were left to figure out how to play tunes on our mouthpiece alone. This was so helpful for understanding that the sound of the horn is merely an amplification of the buzz! When we were finally allowed to play thr horn, we started with easy middle register notes and took nice, relaxed deep breaths to create beautiful sounds. Gradually we expanded into the lower and upper parts of the register. I I try to start each day by recreating the feeling of being a beginner "finding" his sound. My biggest criticism of the Farkas routine (and other well know warm ups) is that, within the first minutes, you're playing at the upper and lower limits of the horn. I believe it's much better to start slow to focus on taking full, relaxed breaths and making beautiful sounds...just like a beginner!
- When the routine feels stale, make a change. This point is maybe the most important to me. For most players, doing the same routine every day for years on end is a recipe for diminishing returns, or worse, the development of bad playing habits. While some parts of my routine have remained consistent over the years, every few months I feel the need to make a change. Sometimes that means simply changing the order of a sequence. Sometimes it means adding, eliminating or substituting an exercise.
Here's the basic framework for my routine. The actual exercises change from time to time but they generally follow this template:
The Warm-Up (before rehearsals, concerts and practice sessions)
- Slow middle register long tones with deep breaths
- Harmonic Series/Lip Slurs/Flexibility
Nuts and Bolts (after the warm up but before a practice session)
- Scales, scale patterns and arpeggios
- Accuracy and intervals
- Long tones over the full register of the horn
- Special techniques in a daily rotation as needed (lip trills, stopped notes, extreme high register, multiple tonguing, etc.)
There are infinite amounts of exercises covering all of the above but they are usually variations on the same basic principals. I'll talk about more about these in more detail in the future. For now, I would encourage horn players to try simplifying their daily routine. Try some variation of the sequence above using established exercises or, better yet, create your own.
Always remember that technique is a means to an end; a tool for creating art, not the artform itself. With this in mind, the goal of a daily routine should be to maintain and refine technique so that we are able to express our musical thoughts freely and become better storytellers.