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May 1992 Concentrate on Sound, By Dale Clevenger

Tone production is the result of what I do, my personality, and how I hear the horn. Why I hear horn tone a particular-way reflects the conditioning by people who took an interest in me, showed me the ropes, and inspired me to listen to records and broadcasts. I was allowed to hear, and made to hear, the different tones produced by fine players; from them I assimilated my concept of horn tone.
   I gravitated toward a certain sound because I admired the performances of several fine musicians. One outstanding horn player in this country was Bruno Jaenicke, who made a famous recording in 1927 that I bought for $1.98 in 1953. The sound of that man’s instrument caught my ear as no one else’s has. Freiburg was one of the Viennese horn players I heard in person in Pittsburgh playing the Schubert Octet. I felt the Viennese sound was closest to the ideal of how a horn ought to sound. One of his successors, Roland Berger, is in Vienna now and played solo horn for 25 years, then moved down to third horn of his own choice. There were some earlier, great horn players who never were recorded.
   I believe each of us has a personality that develops as we grow up and would be apparent regardless of what career we choose. I was fond of music very early and wanted to play horn in an orchestra by the time I was 14, but until I graduated from college and started auditioning I didn’t know where I would end up. I had listened to most of the first horn players in orchestras who recorded and knew of the very best playing by Jimmy Stagliano, Mason Jones, Myron Bloom, Phil Farkas, Joe Singer, Dick Moore, Jimmy Chambers, John Barrows, and Gunther Schuller. I still remember how they sounded.
    I have a record of Rudy Puletz playing first horn in the second and fourth movements of the Mahler 4th Symphony with the New York Philharmonic under Bruno Walter. It is a gorgeous, creamy, beautiful, reposeful sound.
   Sound is the essence of expressiveness; it is the reason I play the horn and everybody else plays the instrument of his choice. I was captivated by the horn’s sound. The cello didn’t get me at the time, nor did the oboe, bassoon, or trumpet; the sound of the horn is what got me. Once you learn how important the sound of an instrument is, you start listening and imitating. Imitation is one of the most important keys to playing music; everybody in the arts imitates somebody. When you become good enough, you break off, let your own personality take over, and hope your imagination will go beyond whatever you have imitated.
   This happened to me two years after I joined the Chicago Symphony, when William Steinberg came to conduct Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. I knew Steinberg from playing as an extra with the Pittsburgh Symphony years before, and after the concert in Chicago I went in to chat with him about the old days with the Pittsburgh Symphony and its 1964 tour. I commented about the just completed concert and how I had tried to make the beautiful horn solo at the end sound like Bruno Jaenicke. Steinberg was a fast retorter and snorted out the command, “Sound like Clevenger!”
   This started me thinking that I had the job and should let my personality take over and play with my own sound. I stopped thinking about playing like someone else and more about, “This is my sound; this is what I have to offer, and I hope you like it.”
   Some horn players have a beautiful sound but are limited technically. There are a certain number of notes on the instrument that are must-do’s, necessities. On the horn the notes span about four octaves, but beyond the matter of range is the technical consideration of starting those notes. I can name a minimum of five ways to start and end a note and a maximum of infinity. A note is a note, but the register and the sound can be different. The more an artist can do with these, the better he is equipped.
   Then there is the area of dynamics, loudness and softness, the steps between fff and ppp. These go all the way to infinity, but logically nobody can play that many. So there are notes, beginnings and endings of notes, phrases, and dynamics as well as sound, color, timbre, and tone quality. These are the basics. Some people don’t think about them and just play whatever comes out. It is a simplification to say you should be able to play three ways: darker, lighter, and the base tone.
   In discussing color, dynamics, and style, the horns more than any other instrument are pivotal. Horns play in big orchestras, brass quintets, woodwind quintets, solos, with each other, and with strings. We have to adapt the sound to each of these situations. In the Schubert 8th Symphony when the bassoons have the lead and the horns have chords, we need to support them with a bassoon sound. At other times the horn has the lead.
   Accents add emphasis to notes and are part of sound, style, phrasing, nuance, and blending. What I try to teach students is to stop looking at the parade through the knothole in the fence and look over the top of the fence, where they can hear and see much more. Expand your horizons. There are physical things that can affect sound, such as octave placements, the bore of the horn, the size of the bell, the kind and thickness of the metal, whether it is spun from one piece or put together from two or three pieces, whether it is hand-hammered, how thick it is if hand-hammered; all these things affect timbre. Nothing affects tone more than the human ear. Students should listen, study and work at it, imitate, and try to discover new sounds.
   I would not talk about the shape of the mouth in terms of there being only one successful way to play, but I certainly believe it is important to experiment and to discover through trial and error how raising the jaw makes the oral cavity smaller, raises the pitch, and makes the sound thinner, drier, and less interesting. By letting the jaw down consciously, saying eeeooowuuu, you change the mouth cavity and the tone color.
   It is equally important to know what to do with your lips inside the mouthpiece. I demonstrate for students where I place the mouthpiece on my lips when playing a low middle register tone, doing something that looks rather grotesque. Once I get the tone going, I let what is outside the mouthpiece cave in or the cheeks puff out, but I can keep the tone exactly the same. Then I gradually perform what John Barrows called facial isometrics: strengthen, tighten, and change from a loose face to a tight face, keeping the tone the same. By isolating the flesh inside the mouthpiece that keeps the air moving steadily, I maintain a sound virtually the same with major facial muscle changes. I can change inside the mouthpiece in one second and absolutely destroy the tone.
   On the subject of pressure, I am not a non-pressure player because I don’t believe non-pressure gets the sound. I have never had a student who did it successfully. They are basket cases if they try to play this way because they cannot produce a fine sound.
   By playing one note from ppp to fff, the embouchure and the facial muscles will change noticeably, and the mouth cavity probably changes. What goes on physically with the body, however, with the oral cavity, the face, the hand position, is only interesting information, not the criteria for how we sound. Our ears and minds control everything; I learned that from Arnold Jacobs, and it amazes me. I just had my eyes examined by a doctor whose specialty is the relationship between what the eyes perceive and how the brain handles the information. Some of her comments were quite interesting because a regular ophthalmologist doesn’t talk about what the brain does but only about visual perception. For instance, the brain uses only part of its capacity to control involuntary actions within our bodies, such as breathing, which takes two percent of the brain’s capacity. If a person has emphysema, it takes in excess of ten percent of the brain’s capacity; that’s a large percentage for lung activity. If ten percent of the brain’s capacity deals with involuntary functions, we have ninety percent left to think about things such as playing an instrument. If we use twenty percent primarily thinking about technique, how tight our face is, or where our tongue touches, we have taken away from the brain’s potential to function.
   To the extent we overdo thinking about the physical part of playing, we minimize attention to the mental part: how we want to sound, where we want to phrase, where a note fits into the key or chord, and what the balance is here. We should think about the artistic considerations while playing an instrument and as little as possible about the physical and technical. The artistic result we have in our minds dictates what we do technically.
   Most of us grow up learning about 75% craft, but that is out of proportion with what it should be. At some point, a fine musician, conductor, artist, teacher, or player makes us click. Morris Secon did that for me when he said, “Dale, you are a wonderful horn player, and you have so much talent you can do anything with the horn. Now, I want to talk to you about singing.” For a split second, I was a little bit insulted. First he tells me how wonderful I am, then wants to talk to me about singing. Fortunately, I had heard him play the horn and knew what he could do with a phrase, so I agreed with him about singing.
   Technique is largely conditioned reflex. Many students and professionals never learn that to the extent they should. I discovered ten years ago that I somehow came up short in playing the chromatic scale. I had not spent enough time on it as a student and found myself faltering on the technique of a chromatic scale in the piece I was playing. I thought, “This is wrong; I should know this already.” For ten or thirty minutes a day I practiced chromatic scales until I learned them. Now I work to play them as musically as possible; I am not concerned about finding the next note. There is a time and a place for compartmentalizing your practice; I tell s
   udents to never play a note without meaning or purpose if they want to be a professional.
   I don’t have regular daily exercises. Some days I begin a rehearsal, although not a concert, without having played at all. The first note I play is on the job. I want to see if I can do it, and of course I can, even though I don’t feel the same as if I had warmed up for ten or thirty minutes.
   I absolutely must have a nap before some concerts, while for others it isn’t necessary. French music calls for a certain playing discipline, as does an hour of Wagner with the Siegfried Call or Immolation Scene. If every other night on a tour I play either Ein Heldenleben or the Siegfried Call, I have to rest before performances to maintain sufficient mental and physical energy. We are expected to play like gods when we are on tour, especially when we play in big European cities.
   I play by sound. The physical feeling is not a primary criterion, but how I sound is. If I am going to play a major work, I pace myself carefully. When I warm up, I think in terms of quality tones; I play everything from staccato to long notes, thinking primarily of quality. I rarely go through routines or rote. Whatever note, length, or volume I play, it has to have quality. I don’t play long tones, I don’t play short tones, I play quality tones.
   Jacobs says a way to practice getting the center of a note is to start out by just getting a note, without accuracy being too important. Once you get the note, then think in terms of quality, roundness, thickness, thinness, or whatever you want. Don’t worry about the ending of the note but that middle section of the note. I practice the lengths of notes that are in the pieces that I am playing.
   I practice and teach the ability to start a long tone or play staccato without tonguing. Tonguing is the biggest problem in playing staccato, so eliminate it. Don’t tongue, go “phooh.” Do it very short, a little longer, whatever. It is analogous to how string players bow. They can play a spiccato by bouncing the bow off the string, or they can play staccato on the string. In a leadership position, I set the pace; if my section does not play the kind of staccato that I want, I will tell them, “Let’s not play quite so clipped. Don’t cut off the note with your tongue.” It may not sound that much different out in the audience, but it sounds better close up.
   Let a note ring, however long, rather than cause it to ring. To play “tah” is one kind of sound and may be used in certain situations, but “taaahh. . .” sounds so much better. What technique to use is dictated by the desired effect. If I hear anybody else in the orchestra play an effect that I like better, I’ll imitate that, and vice versa. I’ll make mine more pointed if I don’t like what I hear.
   Sometimes I use vowels in teaching and performing, but not to a fault; I don’t do anything all the time. I may get on a kick and talk to students about the importance of the personality and the emotion of playing. We have a special calling in that playing gives us great joy because it pleases other people. We should produce as many colors in our sound as a painter uses. I don’t mean someone like Rembrandt, who used mostly dark colors, but the French Impressionists who planned colors so carefully. I don’t think they just slopped paint on a canvas and it came out the way they wanted it; you can’t look at Monet and think that. Whatever might help us accomplish a certain color or effect we should try. At times I will make a suggestion or a guess to help a student, but I don’t know how much tension they have in their lips, how much air comes across, and whether their tongue is up too high. I certainly don’t want them thinking about those things to an extent that could be detrimental, so I might suggest, “… lower your tongue a little bit, say a little bit more “Oh” or “Ah.” Let’s see what that does to your sound.” More often I say to them, “Relax your face just a little. Put the mouthpiece up just a little bit firmer. Let the air come through slightly more relaxed lips, rather than tense lips.” Tension equals tense sound, white sound as they call it in the voice world.
   My students will never know how much I have learned from them. I have heard students play a phrase or scale for me in the first couple of lessons, and I was dumbfounded at the beautiful sound they got. They may not have realized how beautiful their sound was or that their teacher would imitate their sound. It is not always possible for my lips to do what theirs do, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. Often high school students don’t try to play pretty tones; they just play notes with tones, sounds, and effects that are grating. Students should try to play a lovely legato, beautiful slurs, and even rhythmic scales. Most students do not play in rhythm or in tune.
   Playing melodies and tunes on the mouthpiece will help. I just got a book by Phil Collins with melodies from the repertoire; some are horn melodies, some are originally voice or string melodies, but they are melodies and we play them. I use the Concone books too, for melodies; I want to hear how students turn a phrase. I also suggest singing and playing melodies on the mouthpiece, then on the instrument. This is good advice for all instruments.
   Many students hear that the horn is the most difficult instrument while others say it is not any harder than a tuba, guitar, bassoon, or flute. All instruments are difficult, and they are all easy; it depends on who is playing them. A major goal in playing is to make the audience feel at ease and comfortable. I want them to say to themselves, “He likes what he’s doing, he enjoys what he’s doing.”
    To be professional takes talent, drive, motivation, single-minded-ness of purpose, tunnel vision, and compulsion. It takes excellent schooling, the best that one can get. It is rare that those who are self-taught become professional musicians because they lack discipline, whether tonal, intonational, or personal. Even with excellent education, it is a matter of having the good luck to be at the right place at the right time. All these together still are no guarantee of success, because you have to play an audition well.
   Preparation for an audition is a major ingredient in being able to play at an audition at a given moment, the first time through, just as in concerts there is no chance to stop and play the solo again. The concept of playing something without stopping is foreign to many students who, whenever they make a mistake, grunt, frown, roll their eyes, or quit playing. It is extremely important to break the habit. Organize practicing to fix this problem; play for an hour without “stopping for anything. Play right on through no matter what. Then play for another thirty minutes, and stop for everything that is wrong.
   Concentration can overcome nervousness. Rather than think about whether you are going to miss a note, or what people think, try to get rid of the what ifs. Think about tone, line, effect, and the artistic purpose. I heard a fellow play a solo today, and I said, “Imitate me; I’m going to do something a little different.” I used a lot of vibrato and that kept him from thinking about missing notes or getting through the solo. An instrument is a powerful stimulus; once it comes in front of your face, all the habits, good or bad, that you have will appear. You try to replace those habits, but you don’t get rid of them. They are still in your brain, but you cover them with better habits, thought processes, concentration, and different ways of doing things. Instead of playing straight tones all the time, play with a vibrato. Play a melody on a mouthpiece. Do anything you can to make your thinking artistic rather than technical. Concentrate on playing phrases; plan a sequence of phrases. When you can do that well, you will be able to play despite little things that might go wrong.
   There are people who audition well, but they cannot play with an ensemble. Others do poorly in auditions but play well in an orchestra. Nobody plays perfectly, only as perfectly as the concept in his head. I try to mirror what is in my brain as closely as I can. This notion is difficult for some students.
   Sometimes teachers do not place enough emphasis on music and good sound but let students get by with unpleasant sounds. If teachers are not able to tell students what to do to improve their sound, they should tell them to imitate recordings. A good band or orchestra director will have a stereo sound system in the band room and will talk   about   music.   The   director should point out any important characteristics in an artist’s playing that might help students. Many students assume that playing well takes a great deal of force and effort; point out that there is no pressing or strain in the sound of the artist on the recording. Playing should sound effortless, however you get to that point; technique is normally the means.
   A student may have artistic direction, talent, imagination, and inspiration. Others have talent to varying degrees, and the proof is how they sound; sound is everything. I never tell students they should quit. That is too traumatic, and it is not necessary to say it in so many words. Students should come to their own conclusions about whether they can make it. I have had students who I thought had only a small chance of ever playing professionally, but they grew and matured. I was too young and shortsighted to recognize what their real talents were, and they proved me wrong.
   In my philosophy artistry is first, tone is primary; the most important things are the line, the effect, the artistic side. Then comes the technique. I set these priorities with my students in the first lesson, so that when we talk about the craft, it doesn’t get out of proportion. How large the cavity, where the tongue touches, hand positions; these are important but they are not the most essential criteria. I will talk about craft, but only in balance with the art form.