I knew she’d listen to every note I played. I wished the professor had suggested she sit somewhere else. Somewhere she’d hear other musicians and their mistakes.
Instead of mine.
The young high school junior was visiting her university-going sister on campus. No doubt, it was an exciting time for her. I still remember that age.
Wide-eyed and inexperienced, the world held exhilaration at every turn. College years would be a chance to be out on your own — away from the careful direction of overprotective parents. A campus visit ahead of time offered a stimulating preview of the freedom that was to come.
Her sister is a member of the little chamber orchestra they are kind enough to allow me to participate in at the small liberal arts university. Since the visiting young lady is also a French horn player, the professor thought it would be nice for her to sit in the horn section.
On my right. Where the bell of my horn points.
I just knew she would hear every mistake and bobble proceeding out of the wayward instrument.
Well. There was nothing for it but to get through the hour. I started my warm-up.
I like to start with long tones — mid-range notes lasting several seconds each, descending down a scale before coming back up to finish on the original note. After a few moments of that, I play some arpeggios — open chords — mostly descending until I reach a point at least two octaves below the starting mid-range note.
The low pitch I end on is quite low, somewhere in the vicinity of what a tuba player would call mid-range. Since my warm-ups always include that note and those leading down to it in the scale, I like to think I have developed a rather nice tone in that range, a range most horn players never attempt.
I end my warm-up by playing the arpeggios on up to the original mid-range and then up another octave before sliding back down to finish on the original note with which I began.
I saw her turn her head to look at me as I finished my warm-up. I thought perhaps she wanted to say something, but the professor was already talking, introducing the young lady to the whole group.
It wasn’t a relaxing rehearsal. We played a piece I only remember reading once before, so many of the passages were unfamiliar. I stumbled and muffed more notes than I care to count, acutely aware of the girl’s presence beside me through all of them.
She heard every note. Every one.
At the end of the rehearsal, I said a few polite words to her. I hoped her visit would be all she was hoping for. She was also polite. We talked for a few seconds and she asked one question.
“What kind of range do you have?”
Immediately, I jumped to the obvious conclusion. I supposed she meant: how high can you play?
I jokingly mentioned the highest note I’m comfortable playing is a high G, but pointed to the young lady on the other side of me, suggesting that she was the one who played the high C’s when necessary.
The girl wasn’t quite satisfied, starting another question.
“But, what’s the low. . .”
Before she could complete the question, her sister called her over to discuss what was next in their day’s schedule. She never got a chance to ask what was on her mind.
I went on about my day, not thinking again about the girl’s curiosity.
I’m thinking about it now.
She wanted to know about my low range, not my high range. She had heard my warm-up and knowing that most horn players avoid those low registers, wondered about how low I could go.
I’m wondering the same thing tonight.
Do you know I don’t have a very good high range when I play my horn? Most players with similar experience to mine are quite adept at playing the highest notes on the horn. Even many young players have a high range much superior to mine.
I wish it weren’t so.
I want to play the high notes. But, I can’t.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.
Why can I play the low notes (the ones most horn players eschew) with ease, but I can’t reach the high pitches? What’s the problem?
As Mr. Tolkien puts it in his description of the scatter-brained innkeeper in his famous tale: He thinks less than he talks, and slower; yet he can see through a brick wall in time. . .
I’m somewhat the same, thinking less than I talk (frequently), but I believe I can see the answer to my problem.
You’ve probably already arrived at the solution, especially since it’s been explained at length up above.
I’m good at the low notes because those are what I concentrate on every time — every single time — I pick up my horn to play. My warm-up is a regimen I perform — without fail — before I look at a piece of music, before the conductor raises the baton for the first time, before even the first tuning note is sounded to be sure all the instruments are capable of playing the same pitch together.
I play low notes. Every time, I play low notes.
I’m good at low notes. Really.
But, I want to play high notes.
And, the Apostle said, the thing I want to do, I don’t do. But, the thing I don’t want to do, that’s the very thing I do. (Romans 7:19)
Of course, he’s talking about more important things than playing a horn, but then again, so am I.
The thing I practice is the thing I will perform. It is true in all walks of life.
If I practice complaining, one would never anticipate that I would rest patiently and with confidence.
If I practice arrogance and pride, I will never perform with humility.
If I live continually in defeat and anticipation of loss, I can have no expectation of joy or fulfillment.
When the time comes to play the brilliant high notes in a concert performance, if I have resigned myself to practicing only the low and middle registers during every rehearsal, I will never — ever — shape my lips to sound the right notes.
I read today the words of a friend who is, by all earthly wisdom, fighting a losing battle. His battle is for his life. I was shocked to read of his laughter and joy as he fights the battle.
But tonight, I understand. He is practicing for the performance still to come. In anticipation of what he calls a joyful death, he’s decided to practice joy now — today — and for the rest of his days, however many he has.
I’ve been working on the low stuff for too long now. I’ve gotten much too accomplished at it.
I want to play the high notes. I want the folks who are doomed to sit and listen to me to hear the good stuff.
It’s time for a new warm-up routine.
Today’s as good a time to start as any.
For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.
(Aristotle ~ Ancient Greek philosopher ~ 384 BC-322 BC)
Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me — everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.
(Philippians 4:9 ~ NLT ~ Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2018. All Rights Reserved.