by Katy Woolley
I want to talk to you about practise. Maybe I’m a bit behind the curve here, but I only recently really realised the extent to which our private work is linked to the eventual outcome on stage. Am I unfocused in my practise? Then my performance will likely be distracted too. Do I beat myself up during my sessions? Then I will probably be suffering from detrimental negativity in the concert as well. Do I try random things over and over and hope that they work? Then the performance may well suffer from that hit-and-miss character, too. Now of course there is no one right way to practise—we are a wonderful collection of various learning styles, preferences, tendencies, etc. Imagination, therefore, ought to be the shining light at the centre of each player’s creative world.
Imagination: “The act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.”
One of the fundamental points of practise is to improve. By necessity, we must continually be searching a multitude of newness and traversing what can be a scary voyage of change. We must be comfortable exploring actions/sounds/feelings/processes that have never before been wholly perceived in our realities. We must, therefore, also be understanding and respectful of a whole host of outcomes we are bound to experience, both desirable and, sometimes, not so desirable.
Many of my current students and friends know about my love of the following trilogy: Thought—Action—Result. I have noticed that my frustrating, less-effective practise sessions are when I become overly focussed on the result. At the end of the day, Result is what we want: a great entry, smooth lines, a ringing sound. But this is the one part of the trio that isn't directly under our control. Thought is trainable, controllable, adaptable. The resulting Action (and the link between the two) is also trainable, controllable, programmable. Result is wonderfully enlightening and educational, but it is purely a consequence of the first two.
So for this short article, let’s peek more at that first stage: Thought. This is interchangeable with Imagination. Let’s take a brief look at some definitions of Thought: “An opinion or belief in the mind,” or “The intellectual product or the organised views…of a period, place, group, or individual.” Now this is splendid if your views and beliefs are helpful and conducive to excellence, but in my experience, many deep-rooted opinions can be the opposite: I’m too young, too old, too small; my low/high register isn't good enough, my fingers are too slow, I’m not strong enough, etc. Yet my experience shows me that every one of us is capable of doing one single thing that we thought we couldn’t, and one small change can lead to more and then become cumulative in their growth potential. It is my firm conviction that anyone can develop past their present beliefs. That is what excites me to practise—to use my imagination beyond any limiting assumptions that I’ve held—and you can do the same.
So how can imagination be applied to practise? Here are a couple of my favourite examples, both of which I begin without my horn in my hands. First is the “What If” game. “What if I were someone who could…” …play this with a great, wide, audience-rattling sound, with a beautiful subtle entry, with the smoothest connection. What would that feel like? look like? sound like? What breath would facilitate that? How would the air flow in and out of my body? Where is the power source? I imagine an answer to one of those and turn it into an action which can be practised away from the instrument. Once I truly and deeply have the thought and action flowing nicely, it’s time to see what the result is! Second, I try and imagine the shape of any particular note or phrase, as if it were alive in the room. How can I allow that note or line to ring in the room? What texture, colour, depth, personality, weight, way-of-moving does it have? How can I create that note and set it free? These examples allow for freedom of thought to experiment outside the prejudices we hold against our own playing. We then use these to adapt our actions, movements, and techniques, and we observe the result as a tool to further direct our exploration.
But these are just a couple of my processes! You will have many ways of finding your own exciting boundary-defying intentions. The entire scope of possibility is available to us all once we climb into the infinity of the imagination.
Born in Devon, England, in 1989, Katy Woolley is a passionate and dedicated teacher. At the age of twenty-two, Katy was appointed Principal Horn of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and this led to solo performances of works by Mozart, Strauss, and Britten, as well as the premiere of Tansy Davies’ Forest Concerto for four horns with the Philharmonia and New York Philharmonic Orchestras. Katy was appointed Solo Horn of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2019, and she is widely regarded as one of the most exciting horn players of her generation.