Wednesday, March 30, 2005

eavesdropping on a French horn god

Yesterday afternoon I went to a masterclass by Philip Myers, principal horn of the New York Philharmonic. Everything about PM is big - his sound, his ideas, his reputation, his sense of humor, his girth. I unfortunately chose to sit about seven feet away with his bell pointed straight at me, so I had to repeatedly cover my hears when he picked up his horn to demonstrate something. I was able to pick up a few things, though, while trying to avoid being deafened.

1. Don't practice screwing up
Too many people spend far too much time practicing things they do badly. You need to fix whatever is not working, but you also need to accustom yourself to nailing things, and build the self-confidence that comes with doing it. If all you ever practice is the stuff you suck at, you're going to feel like you suck. Instead, "you want to leave the practice room feeling like you're Jesus Christ." Meaning a badass with all the answers, not a guy about to get crucified.

2. Know your strengths, then do them better than anyone else
You should have four or five things you know you do really well - and you should do them every day. This ties into the previous point, but it's worth emphasizing. When PM was auditioning for orchestras, he told us, there was a certain excerpt from Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Juan that he knew he could nail. Every time he was asked to play this excerpt, he won the audition - it became so automatic that he already knew when he saw the proctor turn to that page that he would win a job that day.

3. Be offensive
This one is a little difficult, since we're all so indoctrinated to sound pleasant and beautiful. Great playing should sometimes get in your face, though, like talking to someone who is encroaching on your personal space. It should have an intensity that refuses to let you sit back. "To me, there's nothing more offensive than when someone says everything should be beautiful. I hate that shit - it's far too limiting."

4. Have a system
You don't have to stick with your plan all the time, but you do need to have one so you know when you are making an exception. Having a plan also means finding a technique that fits your unique needs, not just adopting principles that work for other people.

5. You're paid to do, not to try
No one is impressed when you try a low percentage move and screw up. In fact, PM told us, he's not really impressed when he hears someone try something risky and pull it off. He would rather hire someone with the experience and savvy to execute a high percentage move well than an idiot who just got lucky. So find what works consistently, and make choices based on what will work that day.

6. Don't take his word for it, horn god or not
If someone tells you to do something a certain way, don't just swallow it whole. Listen to recordings or seek out other sources to find an answer that you believe in. That way you can take ownership of all your decisions.

6 comments:

Brian Roessler said...

A) "cover my hears" is one of the best typos I've seen in a while!

B) I love this advice. It really gets at a practical way to play in a less careful way (advice I get a lot). Training yourself to succeed so that in an audition you can just let go and do it feels like a great goal to head toward.

Thanks Matt.

Anonymous said...

These are great points. #3 is so true. Most people just don't get it... Thanks for the post.

Winson C. Hinkle said...

Interesting Horn God story. Speaking of Horn God check out Dale Clevenger. Imagine a sound darker, bigger, and able to carry to the last row of seats in the house - that's Clevenger. But a terrible teacher in understand, due to his monstrious ego.

MariLima said...

Thank you for the post.
It's a privilege to have access to what really great artists think about what they do.
Plus, this stuff works!

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Anonymous said...

I would disagree about the Clevenger sound description, but certainly believe that horn god PM is one the mark!!
Ann