Learning to Keep Score

Isn't amazing how, as you get older, you start be less and less bothered by the occasional mistake.  With age do we become more tolerant, more understanding, more empathic, etc…?

When you quit college/conservatory you are often preparing for auditions where every missed note is potentially the end of your day.  I remember doing a excerpt master class with Dale Clevenger in undergraduate school. ( a few years ago…)  During the master class he had a chalkboard on stage behind us, and he would make a mark on the board for each mistake that he heard during the excerpt.  The mistakes could be anything from intonation, tempo, rhythm, etc…  Now, there are two parts to this story because the fact that you know every mistake will be noted, and that you will hear him scratching the chalk on the board while you play is very nerve racking.  Those few minutes with him doing that were more stressful than any audition I ever took afterwards, and that was the point, of course.  My only real success during the exercise was that he didn't give me any marks for Siegfried's Short Call, the same can't be said for Tchaikovsky 5.  Be that as it may, when you are young you are taught to count the mistakes.  Keep a running tally, repeat the phrase a hundred times until it is perfect (does that exist?).


Once you win a job things change, but only slightly.  During your trial period it takes a very special person to not over think every little error, and its possible impact on your tenure.  So you are still counting missed notes, amongst many other things.  You would think that once you have your tenured contract in your hot little hands that you might relax.  Well, depending on your mental resistance, you might start to really relax and enjoy the amazing job which is being a professional musician.

Personally, I found that it took years for me to get over mistakes.  I learned quickly to not keep them in mind during the rest of the concert, but afterwards I had some terrible sleepless nights "replaying" the mistake over and over in my dreams.  This happened even over the littlest error.  After 22 years I sleep pretty well after an "off" night.  Maybe it is possible that with age we are philosophical about mistakes.  I know that I analyze why the mistake occurred much better than 20 years ago.  That is only logical, but as a "rookie" you are not always the most objective observer.

As a student "keeping score" and learning how to keep score are vital to our development.  With experience comes more nuance in our analysis.  I suggest doing the following:

1. Play a run-through of your concerto movement, etude, scale, excerpt, etc….

2. Take a notebook and begin to write down everything mistake that you remember.  If unsure of your memory record your  performance and play it back. Just be aware that unless you have a portable studio with you that the quality of the recording will not do justice to some aspects of your playing.

3.  Leave space after each error for your own comments/crtitiques.  Then continue with a plan to correct that mistake.  If you are unsure take your paper to your lesson and present the problem to your teacher for  their analysis.

4.  When you schedule your next "run-through"  compare notes between different versions to see how you have progressed.

This is slightly different than a practice log, or at least more detailed than some I have seen or heard about because this a log book to track a performance not day by day work.  Give it a try.  It may not be a useful tool for everyone, but it would be good to start keeping your own score and not just letting your teacher do all the work.

The next time you practice Till Eulenspiegal give it a try.  If you do this for a week you will have 7 versions performed with comments for every single one.  Be your own chalkboard and make a mark in your own book, and then find the solution.

Messi, Barcelona and Learning your Trade

During a Champions League game (football/soccer) recently I watched Barcelona and their star Messi play on a field that was in terrible condition.  They won the game, but it was far from their best performance.  After the game the quality of the pitch (field) was blamed for their poor performance because it didn't allow them to play their usual form of flowing, passing football.

As horn players we are true creatures of habit, and those routines are vital to our confidence.  What do you when conditions are not what you are used to having?  Do you complain and use that as an excuse for a poor performance, or do you just get on with the job.  Frøydis Ree Wekre, in her wonderful book Thoughts On Playing the Horn Well has a chapter entitled  "Anyway!", and she talks about planning for distress, nerves, conditions, etc…  Sometimes you just have to play anyway.

As you learn your trade you come up against lots of obstacles that professionals, for various reasons, don't have to encounter very often.  Dealing with those variables is part of learning the job and being prepared to cope in the future with adversity.

I recently subbed as second horn with the Conservatory orchestra for Schubert's 9th Symphony.  The second of the two concerts was in a Basilica.  Now we were in mid March and heating was nonexistent.  It was bitter cold.  If this would have been a "union gig" the orchestra would have refused to play under such conditions, but these students had no choice.  All the parameters change because of the cold, and tuning suffers the most.  As musicians we love to whine about lots of things, but when thinking back on this experience I began to realize that most of these students don't realize the valuable lesson they learned that day.  We can learn from any experience, we just have to be open to it.

Some times we just have to play "Anyway!"

The Fear of Coming Back

I have taken time off from my blog because I needed to spend extra energy finding my feet after my heart illness.  The transition has not been easy.  This post may come as a bit of a contradiction when compared to my summer post about returning to playing, but returning to work and returning to my previous playing level are, and were, two different things.

One of the things that I found most troublesome was the inconsistency that I encountered on a week to week basis.  Repertoire, teaching, chamber music, and family life all contributed to my struggles. The numerous beta blockers diminished my concentration levels, and I noticed that with certain repertoire I still lacked the power and/or stamina and even after 10 months this still remains a problem.  I have had some colleagues tell me that they thought that it might take a year to recover what I have lost, we will see.  I know from past experience that the old axiom, "1 day off/ 2 days to recover" holds true for me.  That would mean 8 months to recover my full stamina (March-April).

A detail concerning my "heart failure" and its impact is about oxygenation of the blood. Reduced heart function (65% at this time) means less efficienct oxygenation.  This means (in my experience) that getting fresh blood into the lip muscles takes longer.  Long, loud phrases are more difficult and I tire faster than usual.  To be honest, I never thought about conserving energy in the past.  I was always used to having not only enough, but extra in reserve.  Now…….

It is so hard to train yourself (at age 49) to take it easy and plan how to get through the whole rehearsal, concert, or even the next 15 minutes.  My practice sessions have gone down to 30 minutes at a time.  I used to do 45-60, but that is now impossible.  Becoming conservative at my age may seem odd, but it is really a problem.

As is often the case in these situations you always second guess yourself and wonder what colleagues think. I know that I haven't been myself and I know that it may not be completely obvious to everyone, but it is a worry.


The previous paragraphs were written before Christmas.  Things have improved a lot since then.  I decided that I would say no to all free-lancing until after Christmas of last year.  That decision cost me a lot of money, but also bought me piece of mind.  January of this year saw me start to say yes.  It has turned out to be a painful lesson, but a valuable one.

This January I started to finally feel like myself, but had trouble putting together back to back weeks of high quality.  Mental fatigue was as big a part as the physical part.  Confidence is the "golden ticket" to horn playing.  If you have put in the hard work you build a solid base of confidence, but when you sit down in the orchestra it takes time. 

More on this later, but for now I will be catching up on various topics which have been put on the back burner for the last 6 months.

New Brass Directions

The first of April I be will giving a master class in Herk-De-Stad, Belgium as part of New Brass Directions concert that evening.  Trumpet, Trombone and Tuba master classes are also available.   Details may be found on the NBD website.

The Master Class is open to anyone, and the concert will feature classical and jazz repertoire.

© Bruce Richards 2012-2019