by Julie Landsman
I recently interviewed Julie Landsman, retired Principal Horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and horn professor at Juilliard and the University of Southern California, about her horn playing and her teaching. We discussed foundations of technique and musicianship, and how to teach these things to students. The essay below puts Julie’s words into a narrative flow about horn playing and pedagogy. We began by talking about Carmine Caruso, who worked with many brass players in the 1970s and developed a series of exercises designed to build a stable technique. -Daniel Grabois, Pedagogy Column Editor
The Carmine Caruso exercises are totally a part of my teaching and playing. They have been there since I was twelve. I’m always in the Carmine mindset when there’s a horn involved. But I have found that you really need to move at the pace of the student, not of the method. Being wise as a teacher in what I give my students really helps tailor what I give to each student in the Caruso. For example, some of my students do better without free buzzing, and we may find a few ways around that. It really depends on the student. If you force free buzzing, you could get in trouble.
What you don’t want to do with the Caruso is overdo it. Those who overdo it run the risk of getting injured. Keeping the mouthpiece in place and breathing through the nose is a really good idea for the Caruso, but I would never recommend it for regular playing. It helps stabilize the embouchure as it moves through the registers. There are so many aspects to this method that I find therapeutic and helpful. Developing an embouchure that doesn’t need a lot of reset as you go through the register breaks is one of the greatest assets of the Caruso method.
There is much refining of how the embouchure functions. The concept of using subdivision for movement is crucial. If you refine your subdivision as you’re moving through the intervals by using the subdivision of 16th notes in the beat before you move, it really refines how your chops move (with the hundreds of muscles that it takes to move from one note to another), and what you want is coordination and refinement, so that your technique is clean and clear. That refinement really shows up in orchestral auditions, where roughness is a deal breaker.
Defining horn technique includes building from the ground up. How is your support working? How is your air working? Are they in balance with how your embouchure is working? If you’ve got good foundation and good blow and good support, it’s going to take you very far with balance, and balance in the embouchure is essential. The tongue, for instance, can’t work without support and blow. I teach foundation through Caruso, but I’ve also studied Alexander Technique and Feldenkreis. Both of those methods really helped me with basic foundation, so your body is optimized with air and support.
“Support” is a very amorphous concept since we can’t see it. It is the engagement of your core in your horn playing. In my last few years at the Met, I started studying Alexander Technique, and I learned to pull my belly in to provide support to the sound. This was an essential aspect of healthy playing: without support and without blow, you punish your chops (embouchure) more than they can handle. You can actually damage your chops and your endurance without good balance of air and support.
“Good air” means a constant steady moving stream of air. It could be steady and fast (loud) or steady and slow (soft), but it is moving and engaged and constant. This is how we feed our chops to create dynamic playing. These are essential ingredients in the recipe of good horn playing.
There’s something called the “taste” of the note that is a miraculous thing that we horn players can do. We can hear it, we can feel it, we can see it, and then we time it and play it. What does that note taste like? There is a note tasting exercise in Caruso that develops accuracy. There is a certain magical aspect to what a note tastes like. As a young student in beginning band, I was mystified that classmates knew how to find the first note they had to play. How did they know? As we age and practice and develop, the taste of the notes gets developed and becomes automatic and natural.
I don’t ever think about my lips. I don’t direct my embouchure by instruction. I just feel it. If another horn player or a student plays a note, I have an empathetic feel of that note. We just develop a sense with repetition over time.
Many players, when they drop their jaw to go into the low register, lose even and equal pressure on their chops. If that’s going on, I may say, “Make sure you feel both sets of teeth.” Players often lose this contact as they descend. I can hear when a student loses this contact because the sound becomes unstable. It should sound similar and beautiful in all registers (in an ideal world). A tuner is a great teacher for descending through the registers: when it goes flat, you know you’re not using enough pressure in the lower range. I help my students discover, moving slowly and incrementally, how they are connecting with the mouthpiece. So, I do talk about chops if there’s trouble.
If the blow (airflow) going out the aperture and through the horn is even and equal to the pressure in the front, you’re good. If you overblow and you don’t have enough pressure in front, the sound gets raucous. And if you smash the mouthpiece into your chops in front and you don’t hold it up with a good blow that has even and good support, you can get into trouble, and you hurt yourself.
Less thinking is better. A lot of teachers micromanage their students’ embouchures. I like going for the larger groups of muscles: butt, belly, core, and tailbone – those are so much more stabilizing than micromanaging the embouchure. I remind my students constantly to turn off their thinking. I redirect their focus away from their chops.
In the best of moments, I am fully engaged in what I’m doing: loving the music, loving my part, loving my contribution, loving my colleagues and what I hear on stage. I engage in positive emotions. I also time what I’m doing very strongly. I’m looking to make it sound easy, even if it’s hard. I want a “tool chest of ease,” and number one is timing. Number two: am I blowing and supporting? Beyond that, if I’m worrying, I have things in the tool chest to replace worry. For instance, I dedicated many performances in my heart to my parents. There’s a live recording on my website of Va tacito from Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare. I had had pneumonia six weeks before, so my chops did NOT feel good. I had to do a lot of meditating and visualization to bring myself away from the worry, to go instead to the imagination. I played the aria having a conversation with my parents, thanking them with a grateful heart for all they did for me. That’s how I managed my high anxiety, and it went great. I’m so proud of this recording, where I’m channeling different energy. It has NOTHING to do with technique – it’s all about imagination.
To get out of your head, you must find something stronger than what’s in your head. Put yourself into a scene and provide as many details for the scene as possible. You should experiment. Find something very specific to imagine, and come up with a story, so that when you play, you’re caught up in the details of the story rather than thinking about your own worries. You must make the story stronger than the worry. And it’s fun!
The purpose of doing the Caruso exercises is to free yourself so that you can be completely immersed in the music.
The biggest education you can give yourself for knowing how you want to sound is to listen to others performing. It doesn’t have to be horn players. I was at the opera five times a week when I was in high school, listening to incredible singers. My world changed listening to these singers. I wanted to sound just like Marilyn Horne: a beautiful, centered pitch with a solid core and a rich creamy outside. Can I ever sound like that, please??
I warm up on Caruso: six notes, lips-mouthpiece-horn, and so on; I have a set routine, which I can expand. I move through all the registers, feeling the flexibility.
When I got to Juilliard as a student, I couldn’t play low at all. I started to work with Carmine Caruso on low register: how to practice, and what to do to make the sound even and in tune. I worked an entire summer on developing this. “Even and equal pressure” was what he told me: let the lips find the balance.
What does it take to learn balance on a bike? Repetition, falling, skinning your knees, and getting back on the bike. Your body naturally can find the balance with time and repetition. I like to raise the creativity level with my students: think about images, colors, scenes. The visual element can take students away from their thoughts about how to play. I try to distract the analytical side of the brain so that the creative side is more active than the analytical. Students have their own style of learning and their own pace. The master teacher treats each student as an individual. How do I get the best results from this person as an individual? Do I need to change my approach? I just keep looking, and I don’t accept anything less than great.