A View From Both Teacher and Student

by Lynn Steeves and Tina Barkan

A Teacher's Perspective

Over the course of this past year I have had the pleasure of teaching Tina Barkan, an adult amateur hornist who began playing horn again after a 30-year hiatus. Although I have taught a wide age range of students, from fourth grade to the collegiate level, this was my first experience teaching someone older than myself, and I would like to share the valuable lessons I have learned through this experience.

Side Note: Although most of these suggestions can be applied to all horn students, they seem particularly applicable when teaching an adult.

Helpful Hints:

1. During the first lesson, discuss the adult amateur’s goals
Adult amateur hornists, those players that have chosen a career other than music and who are probably picking up the horn again after a long hiatus, will have different goals from a younger student pursuing a musical career. It is important to discuss these goals with the student so that the teacher can tailor each lesson to the student’s specific needs. This is also an important discussion because the student may not have determined any specific goals yet, so the student and teacher can discover the goals together. What level of horn playing does the student want to attain? Are they just playing for fun or do they desire to play a recital or perform in a community ensemble? Do they want to be able to play a certain solo or do they enjoy playing orchestral excerpts instead? Discussing these goals early can give both the student and teacher a clear direction for further lessons.

2. Test the student’s horn
Most adults have not been playing their horn for many years, which means the horn has probably been sitting idle in the closet, so it is a good idea for the teacher to play on the horn to make sure there are no major problems and to address any issues that may be keeping the student from performing at their best. Remind the student of the proper ways to care for the horn, such as using valve oil and slide grease, and giving it a bath when it is needed.

3. Start with the basics
An adult who has learned how to play the horn already may believe that they do not need to focus on the basics, but this is essential to their growth as a horn player and musician. First address their breathing; explain how to breathe correctly and then give them breathing exercises that will address any problems they may have. Breathing deeply can be very different and much more difficult for an adult amateur than it was when they were a young horn student. Since air is a crucial aspect of horn playing, the teacher might also suggest that the student do some form of cardiovascular exercise several times a week, which will greatly enhance their ability to breathe and, therefore, greatly improve their horn playing overall.

Posture is the next basic fundamental to address. Although a teacher may think discussing posture is insulting to the adult, bad habits can form easily and certainly affect breathing, embouchure, etc. The correct posture is essential to a smooth transition back into playing horn. Another posture suggestion that may be a difficult transition at first, is to ask the student to play with the bell off their leg; ultimately, this will also help lead to better overall posture and tone.

One more basic is mouthpiece buzzing. An adult student who is trying to rebuild their embouchure and gain the needed muscle to play the horn again can greatly benefit from buzzing on the mouthpiece. A wonderful aid in this fundamental is the use of the BERP, a tool that adds even more resistance when buzzing and therefore helps the student to improve at a faster rate. Giving the student exercises that they can easily perform on the mouthpiece as well as encouraging them to buzz the music they are already practicing can help them to improve rapidly. Anything that a teacher can do to simplify an adult amateur’s transition into playing horn again will greatly aid in the learning process.

4. Introduce new concepts slowly
Many adults do not learn at the lightning-fast pace of the young music student, so the teacher must be careful not to introduce too much information at one time. Taking things slowly will ultimately lead to better results. Always be patient with the student and keep encouraging them so that they will not become frustrated. Most adult amateurs start playing the horn again because they enjoy it, so do not take that joy away from them by assigning too difficult an exercise or get angry with them when they cannot do something correctly. The main objective is to have fun!

5. Encourage the students to teach themselves
Adult amateurs are usually much more organized and dedicated than the normal music student, so give them the tools they need to help them learn on their own. Encourage the student to keep a practice journal so that they can better track their progress. Students may also like to record themselves so that they can better hear their improvement and understand what they are doing wrong. Re-learning the horn can be difficult and frustrating, so by recording their daily progress, through written word or audio file, a student can more easily see that their hard work is paying off. Another way for the student to learn on their own is by listening to recordings of professional orchestras and solo hornists. Since this is something that can be done away from the horn, students can still learn without the worry of a lack of endurance. Providing the student with a list of recordings they can borrow or purchase can be an invaluable tool that will not only aid in learning how to produce a good tone, but can also help them become more familiar with the horn repertoire. Another aspect of this practice would be to encourage the student to play along with the soloist on the recording. Although the student may not be able to play every single note as fast or as well as the soloist, much can be learned from this exercise, such as musical phrasing and rhythm. Always finding new and different ways for the adult amateur to practice will help combat boredom and frustration.

6. Introduce the available horn resources
Adult amateurs are hungry for information, so feed that hunger by introducing them to all of the horn-related online and print resources available. Thanks to the internet, horn resources are widely available. Show the student how to access the various horn discussion lists online as well as the rapidly growing number of horn-related blogs. If they are not already familiar with the International Horn Society, encourage them to join and possibly attend a regional or international horn workshop where they can easily meet many more adult amateurs and play in ensembles specifically designed for them. All students are different, but most will enjoy furthering their horn studies through research and interaction with fellow hornists and musicians.

7. Encourage the student to join a community band, orchestra, or chamber ensemble
Adult amateurs who are just picking up the horn after a long period of time may be hesitant to play in front of others, but when they feel more comfortable, encourage them to join an ensemble. Most larger cities have community bands or orchestras that may actually not even require an audition to join. Not only will playing in an ensemble improve their sight-reading skills, it will allow the adults to interact with others their own age. This interaction is a crucial part of their studies because it not only motivates the student to continue playing horn, but it shows the adult amateur that they are not alone in their quest to re-learn an instrument.

8. Increase enjoyment by playing duets or other “fun” music
Since adult amateurs play horn because they enjoy it, one way to further this enjoyment is to play duets during lessons. Duets are not only good for sight-reading, but they also can aid in musicianship and ear training. Another way to further enjoyment is to occasionally have the student practice music that is fun to play. Examples of this could be a piece they have worked on in the past or other music that is familiar, like movie tunes or hymns. Even though they may be practicing something that is not as difficult as their regular lesson material, they can still learn valuable lessons and increase their endurance by working on this type of music. Once again, enjoyment is key!

9. Don’t be intimidated by teaching someone older than yourself
Although it may be awkward at first to teach someone older than you, always remember that adult amateurs are playing horn because they enjoy it. They do not expect you to have all of the answers and to fix all of their problems in one lesson. Instead, try to relax, always be patient and encouraging, and remember that the both of you have something in common – a love for the horn.

Lynn Steeves received a Bachelors of Music degree from the University of Kentucky where she studied with David Elliott and a Masters of Music degree from Florida State University where she studied with Michelle Stebleton. Lynn plans to graduate with a DMA in horn performance from SUNY-Stony Brook University on Long Island in May of 2010. More about her can be found at http://www.lynnsteeves.com

An Adult Amateur’s View:

I picked up my horn again about 18 months ago, not having played since college. After a few months, I realized that trying to learn by myself was not the best idea and that I needed to take lessons if I wanted to get farther then playing beginner pieces. I’m very lucky to have found my teacher, Lynn Steeves. She has been very patient with me and, along with teaching me the basics of horn playing, has been very encouraging and supportive, often telling me that I am better than I think I am. I don’t think I have ever heard any negative comments - e.g. “You didn’t do that right.” Instead, it is always “Let’s try this a different way.” I think for an adult who is playing for fun, leaving criticism at the door is extremely important. Adult amateurs should look for teachers that understand that even if the amateur wants to excel at playing the horn, ultimately the reason for playing is enjoyment, not admittance into graduate school. Most adult amateurs will do best with a teacher who has plenty of patience and understanding.

1. Think about goals
When I took my horn out of the case for the first time I hadn’t thought about goals. I was just going to see if playing the horn again was something I would enjoy doing. Obviously that answer was yes, and when I decided I needed lessons, clearly there were some goals floating around in my head even if they were as simple as learning to play better.

My first lesson was something of a ‘getting to know you’ process for both Lynn and I. There had to be rapport between us, which is another thing that an adult student should insist upon when looking for a teacher. I don’t remember if we actually talked about goals at my first lesson though, as Lynn points out, it’s a very good idea, but we definitely started talking about goals very quickly. As we talked, I realized that, at the very least, I wanted to play well enough to perform with a band and eventually an orchestra. As I play better, my confidence increases and my goals continue to evolve. I think having a discussion about goals on a regular basis is beneficial for both the teacher and the student.

2. Make sure the horn plays well
One of the things we did talk about at my first lesson was getting my horn into better shape. I had taken it to my local music store a few months earlier, but the valves were still really sluggish and moving the slides was virtually impossible. Lynn talked to me about the valve oil she liked to use and told me how to give the horn a bath. Of course, klutz that I am, while giving the horn a bath, I managed to get the snake stuck in one of the valves. Pure panic gave me the wherewithal to grab the pliers and pull hard enough to get the snake out, breaking the snake, but luckily not the horn. Fortunately, I avoided a very embarrassing phone call to Lynn asking how to fix what I had done. I have since had my horn cleaned professionally, but giving it a bath first just to get it playable was important to me because I didn't want to stop playing for a few days while it was being cleaned, especially since I had just started lessons.

3. Basic fundamentals are important
In our early lessons we also talked a lot about breathing and posture. I had developed some bad habits during the months I had practiced without a teacher. The adult student should get a teacher as soon as possible to avoid developing habits that can be harder and harder to correct. I had very poor posture, I slouched in the chair, and I wasn’t taking deep breaths at all. I also could barely buzz the mouthpiece. I started playing better once Lynn got me sitting up straight and breathing better, although breathing is something we still discuss at almost every lesson.

After about eight months of lessons Lynn asked me to play a passage with the bell off my leg. Instantaneously I sounded much better and I also started sitting up even straighter. She didn’t have to ask twice. It was such a pleasure to sound better that I made it a goal to always play off the leg and it didn’t take much more than a week or two to accomplish it. Lynn mentions that a younger teacher might find it difficult to address posture with an older adult. For me, I wanted a teacher to teach me regardless of the problem area and anything she could tell me that would help me play better was most welcome. I think this would be true of any adult that was serious about learning the horn.

One of the first things I asked Lynn about in our lessons was my embouchure. I was convinced that it wasn’t good because I wasn’t playing very well and had no endurance. Lynn said she thought it was fine, but we still spent some time working with a mirror where she showed me how the mouthpiece should be placed correctly and we talked about buzzing and using the BERP. I ordered a BERP and used it a little, but at the time I didn’t really understand why it was important, so it sat in a drawer until recently. Now I get it. I use it all the time and it has really helped. I wish I had started using it a long time ago. The adult student should remember to ask lots of questions of their teacher. They are there for you.

4. When learning something new, be patient
I do learn a lot more slowly now than when I was younger, the BERP being just one example of that, and I have a lot of problems remembering patterns. I remember one time after about two or three months of lessons when Lynn played a relatively simple arpeggio and I couldn’t repeat it no matter how hard I tried. I could see the surprise on her face and I was actually pretty surprised myself. Fortunately, she was extremely patient, which is pretty much a requirement for teaching an older adult, and now when I can’t repeat a pattern we just laugh about it. This is where rapport with a teacher is especially important. Lessons should be informative and instructive but also should be fun. Without rapport lessons will just be something to get through instead of something to look forward to.
We’ve also discovered that either Lynn or I have to write down what I should work on when a new technique is introduced and how to do it if I have to learn something new. She is absolutely right that more than two new things at a lesson is usually too much because more than that tends to be overwhelming and I just don’t have the endurance to work on so many different technical issues at once. Again, the key is to find a teacher that has a lot of patience. Everyone learns at a different pace and the teacher needs to work at the pace that works for the student.
5. Keep a practice journal
At Lynn’s suggestion, I started keeping a practice journal about six months ago. I think we both realized that I should have started it back when I started taking lessons. It's a lot easier to gauge progress when it's written in black and white rather than trying to remember. One important thing about keeping a practice journal is to be careful to write something cogent. A lot of my early notes just say things like ‘no good today’. This is not particularly useful. Adding why it was "no good today' makes a journal much more effective.

6. Get involved with a musical ensemble
As I mentioned earlier, one of my goals was to join a band. Lynn found one band very close to my home and urged me to join. I was quite skeptical that I was good enough and very worried about needing to audition. I did finally get up the nerve to email the band director and he emailed me back saying to just come on and join them, no audition necessary. Playing in this band has been a wonderful experience for me and I’m really glad Lynn pushed me to join. I did struggle through the rehearsals at first, but I’m getting better and better. Playing in the band has helped my sight-reading, my rhythm, my intonation and my confidence. Plus it’s tons of fun and I’ve met other amateur hornists who have become friends. Every adult amateur should consider joining an ensemble as soon as they can.

7. Play duets!
For the last ten minutes or so of my lesson Lynn and I play duets. Although I enjoy my entire lesson, I really enjoy the duets. During my very first lessons I felt quite nervous and I could barely play a few measures without stopping and Lynn had to keep saying ‘you can do this’. I’m really glad she encouraged me because now it’s one of my favorite things to do. I even play duets with some of the members of the community band.

8. Don’t try to learn on your own
The adult amateur may think that learning the horn can be done without a teacher because they've played once before. I know that was my mindset at the beginning. If I hadn’t gotten a teacher when I did, I think I would only be playing a third as well as I do now, if that. I love playing my horn, but I can get frustrated and exasperated and a teacher really helps with that because they can catch the problems causing the frustration right away. The adult amateur can achieve the level of excellence they are looking for. Having a teacher will help them get there more quickly and with the right teacher it will be fun as well.

Tina Barkan is an adult amateur student who started learning the horn again, having given up the instrument after college in 1972. She has been playing since May 2008 and has been a student of Lynn Steeves since August 2008. She is the author of the blog newhornist.com.