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A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument

A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument - Jasper Rees Approaching 40 and a bit of a midlife crisis (divorce, etc), Jasper decides to pick up the French horn again, which he hasn't played in 22 years since he was in school. He sets a high goal of doing a performance in front of the British Horn Society in one year's time. Given that he felt he never really developed any proficiency as a student, this is setting the bar quite high. The book is the chronicle of his year immersion in to the world of the French horn. Personal experiences are interspersed with the history of the French horn, composers who wrote for the French horn, etc. The histories I mostly skimmed through. Great stuff about persistence, goals, adult learning, and lots of technical stuff about the horn, music, trivia, session musicians, etc. Very interesting."I can guess why my horn teacher rather testily recommended buying an instrument with a water key. 2 minutes into a lesson, I would start obsessively hunting for the spit locked inside the horn. As I was not very good at the actual playing, this would have been one area where I could do a thoroughly professional job. Swathes of a lesson would be whittled away in a parade of twirling, upending, and shaking as I hunted down the offending liquid in the byways of the metal maze. I'd roll the horn round and round the other way. And when that failed, I"d start examining the slides> First the slide for the main body of the horn< which was always the most likely hideout> then the slide connected to the first valve< followed by the second< and when they yielded not the faintest dribble< I'd try the third slide, even though I never actually used the third valve apart from those rare occasions when I chanced upon a G sharp.The spit hunt could be also be a party piece. When asked at Christmas to pay for my Welsh grandmother, I would make the arcane art of extracting the spit an integral and ritualistic part of the performance.""As a horn player's skills develop," he says, "so do their powers of critical observation. If we get to a very unfortunate situation where someone with highly developed critical evaluation is struggling to recapture previous glories of youth, it can be very frustrating, because you are thwarted by your own ability to hear your own failures." He means me. "And they become larger. If they could give you a pill -- a partial lobotomy pastille -- then all would fall into place naturally. Part of what we practice as players is confidence. We practice aplomb."In other words, stop screaming at yourself in the privacy of your head. Pretend to yourself that you're a good horn player. Easy on the self-flagellation. It makes a lot of sense. Delivered of these well-chosen words, Lowell launches himself into a magnificent cadenza of his own about how the jocularity went missing from Mozart's concertos in the po-faced 19th century. Lowell thinks people take Mozart's concertos way too seriously. He wants me -- he wants everyone -- to hunt for the levity that underpinned Mozart's friendship with Leutgeb.""In the process of the Beatle's transmogrification, an album track on side 2 of Revolver assumed a significance out of proportion to the 2 minutes' traffic of its playing time. It's not simply that "For No One" was the 1st Beatles song in which John Lennon and George Harrison would have no involvement. . . It also marked the 1st solo on a Beatles recording by an orchestral instrument. That instrument was the French horn. . . .The Beatles were enjoying a 3-month break, much their longest since 1962, so McCartney didn't get round to recording the backing track until May 9. 9 different takes were made of him playing one of his signature descending progressions on the piano, while Ringo Starr supplied the drums. For the 10th take the piano was overdubbed with a clavichord; Starr added maraca and tambourine. On May 16 McCartney recorded his vocal. All that was needed an instrumental solo. Why the horn? "For No One" was not the horn's debut with a groundbreaking 1960's group. [The Beach Boys used it on Pet Sounds:]... "I honestly don't remember," says Sir George Martin. 40 yrs later I am sitting in Abbey Road with the producer who steered the Beatles into uncharted musical waters. "I think it was probably me.. . .Yes, I'm sure it was me, because Paul in those days would say, 'What can we use here? What classical instrument can we use?' And I probably suggested the horn because I quite like the horn as a solo instrument.""At 17, I was now overdosing on self-belief in every other area of my life. Ancient boarding schools are organized to breed such feelings in young males as they swagger toward adulthood. The school that produced Sheridan and Bryon, Churchill and Nehru, that produced Mark Thatcher, did not fail in this task. An anachronism evolved over the generations, the system existed to purvey to nation and empire a rolling supply of plummy young gentlemen well-oiled in the unimagining ways of the establishment. We were custom-tooled to go forth and occupy the imp. postings in Her Majesty's Forces, HM's Govt, and, for several of the more raffish white-collar adventurers among us, HM's Prisons. I did not escape the side effects of this training. By my final year I thought I was pretty wonderful. I was brimming with knowledge and acumen, discernment and taste. Teachers had enjoyed the privilege of teaching me. Literature and languages had the privilege of being studied by me. I was really quite the thing. I could even escort the girl cellist off the hill to Andrew Lloyd Weber's Cats w/o having to untie my tongue. The only time I never felt 10ft tall was when I had the Lidl (horn) in my hands.. ."