Abe Kniaz (1923-2007)
Abe Kniaz was highly regarded as an orchestral horn player when he left the National Symphony Orchestra to teach at Indiana University in 1961. Perhaps he has not been as well known in the United States as a teacher, especially after he moved to Canada, but many students attest to his influence on their playing and also in their lives. Abe is remembered by many as a kind and caring mentor.
Abe was born in 1923 in Milwaukee, grew up in Chicago, studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and earned a master's degree at Michigan State University. He played in Pittsburgh, Houston, and Columbus, Ohio. When the Columbus orchestra collapsed in 1947, Abe free-lanced in New York City and then served as principal horn in the National Symphony in Washington DC from 1950 to 1961.
After such a distinguished playing career, Abe felt ready to teach. However, years later, after decades of teaching, he regretted that he had not continued to play longer. After ten years at Indiana, he moved to Canada, playing for a year in the Quebec Symphony and then taking a professorship at Laval University, from 1972 until his retirement in 1994. He played with a brass quintet in Quebec over the years and even after retirement. He was proud of keeping up with the other members of the quintet even though he was by far the oldest of the group.
George Housenga (retired principal horn of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Xalapa in Vera Cruz, Mexico) studied with Abe at Indiana University. "He didn't just teach you to play notes," George says, "he taught sound, for one thing." For six months, he had George play only the second line G. "I thought he was nuts, but he wasn't, because at the end of the six months, I had something."
Abe died in 2007. His widow, Édith Bédard, says, "Abe was a warm person, full of doubt, but who loved music and the search for perfection." Abe's gravestone reads: "The journey of the soul and the journey of music were one to him."
Notes from Abe Kniaz on Playing the Horn
Collected by Thom Gustafson; edited by Marilyn Bone Kloss
Abe Kniaz was my teacher, colleague, and friend. His accomplishments were considerable, but I discovered them mostly by listening to recordings of his performances because he was also modest. He did not publish any pedagogical theories, but he left notes on his thoughts about teaching horn playing. This is a distillation of his notes, organized into categories.
Perhaps one reason he didn't publish his theories was that he never thought he had all the answers. One of his strengths was that he was willing to change when his approach was not working or when he saw a better way. Another friend of Abe's, A. Robert Johnson, wrote in The Horn Call (October 2007) about his experience playing second to Abe in the National Symphony:
Abe's was not a natural gift, and he made no secret of that. His was not a “natural” embouchure. He learned how to make it conform to his will by sheer effort and endless experimentation. And he succeeded. Colleagues in the brass section let it be known that for a season or two his tenure was in doubt because he hadn’t yet mastered the idiosyncrasies of the instrument across the spectrum of demand made on the first horn. It is fair to say that this combination of will and uncertainty were one story of his life in music. The main one however, was his consummate musicianship. Anyone of my acquaintance who heard him from the audience confirms that he made a beautiful case for the horn in the orchestra by the way its voice was heard while in his hands.
Stephen Lawlis, who studied with Abe at Indiana University, wrote:
Abe had quite a reputation during his years at Indiana University for changing embouchures. While there was some truth to this, in general, he would patiently demonstrate his own way of playing through lip and mouthpiece buzzing. This often resulted in the students themselves wanting to make the change, particularly after discovering that this change could help correct an existing weakness.
The contents of this section can be downloaded in a single pdf if desired: pdf Notes from Abe Kniaz on playing the horn
Thanks to Édith Bédard for making Abe’s notes available, to Marilyn Bone Kloss for editing the material, and to Steven Ovitsky for the audio restoration of the orchestral excerpt recordings.
About the Author
Thom Gustavson studied horn with Abe Kniaz at Indiana University and later at Univérsite Laval in Québec City. He has played fourth horn in the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec for 39 years.
Abe always wanted to write a book about horn playing and left copious notes, which Thom categorized after Abe’s death. The long friendship Thom shared with Abe over the years inspired the effort to publish this book.
Goal number one is control of right notes, right sound, right intonation, right length, and right volume. Goal number two is to be able to be in shape at the time of the concert.
First make individual notes familiar and bring them under control. Then go back and forth in interval work between two notes (or two notes of a study or solo) guarding against over-changing (collapsing) the lips and familiarizing yourself with the difference in the distance of lower teeth from upper. Then apply the above to all playing.
Some things lips can do only themselves and other positions that the lips can take only with the help of the mouthpiece. Studies should be put together on the mouthpiece as well as playing each note separately. This also applies to scales.
Demonstrate buzzing of lips alone (on a specific tone), then on the mouthpiece, and then on the horn. Play daily a C scale on the mouthpiece separating notes repeatedly and then the building of a connected mouthpiece scale (not slurred), keeping the muscular structure alert.
The first downward scale (or any first notes) should arrange a solution for the problem of embouchure – diaphragm. Repeat many times pp (quite a few should be done getting emptier of air) so that support begins to come without overblowing and the consequent distension of the embouchure.
Practice a daily routine that gets you around the instrument, but which doesn’t abuse the physical, which, instead, creates security and a feeling of control and doesn’t force you to indulge in bad habits of collapsed embouchure and excessive mouthpiece pressure. Sometimes in warm-up, when the effort is made to use good support, the blowing of air is neglected and more than desirable pressure is used on the lips. The important thing is to achieve a combination of both. Also the “blowing at the mouth” feeling is harder to feel on high notes when the pucker is less and the pressure greater.
Make the connections between on-off practice and endurance; the obvious one is more moments of rest when playing on-off. The less obvious is that fatigue is caused by legitimate (acceptable) factors and by non-acceptable ones. On-off creates and finds the exact rightness for each note and helps therefore to eliminate fatigue because fatigue is caused by unsmooth production. The other valid reason for fatigue is pressure. This is more needed in the high register. Pressure is reduced to its proper degree by the finding of exactness in embouchure resulting from on-off practice.
Before gaining control on your instrument, and before even beginning to work for that control, you must first have concepts. These concepts become your goals, your standards while practicing. To work toward either a tiny slender pianissimo or toward a masterfully sustained, forceful fortissimo, you must first conceptualize musical situations that would call for these things.
Control means that every note speaks exactly when you want it to. That you can play with accuracy at the softest level to the loudest level in all registers. On long and short notes, between notes that are close together or far apart, with good intonation and the required articulation, without smacking into notes.
The real condition of the lip is difficult to judge from day to day. It may feel good, but it has to be proven out. Only by patient, dogged repeating of figures that are awkward (and may look simple) can the various muscles in the cold lip be reawakened, reminded, and brought under satisfactory control while critically listening for forte.
You pick up the horn, look at the music, and plan to play it. You observe the time signature and begin to mentally hum the written notes against a rhythm or beat within yourself. You understand the key and perhaps can hear the written pitches. You know the fingerings and you recall playing well yesterday. You understand something about air, embouchure, and support but you sound awful when you start. Perhaps you can’t even play a simple study beautifully. Why? As in ballet, the pretty result seen on stage is nothing more than the total of all the dry, laborious, physical procedures.
So many of the mistakes that happen are from some little thing being wrong, a slight exaggeration of any otherwise correct action. It is clear from this that one of the most important aids to playing well is to practice with care and alertness. Good routines, carefully practiced and with great effort not to miss is one of the secrets of playing well.
A certain amount of sheer determination is necessary for results on some days. When the lip is truly sluggish, stiff, or feels weak, then the player must with careful determination proceed through a warm-up routine, during this warm-up saying to himself, “I ought to be able to play these notes clearly and accurately, and I am going to!”
When the sound is bad, and the mind seems to wander, and the flesh doesn’t feel willing, then one must determine to turn such a bad day into a good one. One must proceed as though a concert were to start in thirty minutes, and with an intelligent warm-up make the lips do the work that they have previously proven themselves capable of. Never mind the bad sound and the bad lip sensations. If one proceeds with determination and intelligence to produce the notes of the warm-up routine, the sound will gradually improve as the lips find themselves.
Be more impressed by the player who sounds well in the concert after sounding badly in the warm-up than by one who starts out sounding better and deteriorates from there.
The slow, separated, and clear striking of notes breaks the careless movements of jaw and mouth muscles down to exact requirements for each note.
- lip (reeds)
- air (power, energy, etc.)
- attack (or release) system – glottis and tongue
Playing can be compared to cooking, and good playing is the result of having correctly measured the ingredients. The ingredients are the same for all players. Each of us has lips, fingers, teeth, lungs etc. Just as in cooking, even a bad combination of the ingredients may be edible or will at least end up by being recognizable as food. So in playing the wrong proportions of the ingredients called for may still produce tolerable playing or at least bad sounds and wrong notes.
The moment of truth is when the various physical efforts, each measured to the correct degree, combine at precisely the required instant. It is achievable only when a unity of all the required parts occurs at the desired moment. Any mis-measurement or tardiness of any effort suffices to create the musical accident.
The whole result of good playing is the combination of the individual efforts of various ingredients in the player. They become a unity of action. Because they are basically separate things, each ingredient can be separately understood and developed.
When the parts become a unity, a subtle and slight change takes place in the way each does its job in so far as it is affected by the others; for example, the embouchure not being set quite exactly right without a well-blown airstream.
Lip tension + lip arrangement + mouthpiece placement + support + pressure = output.
The enemy of a good attack is a flabby, unarranged lip. The embouchure has to be good enough to turn on loud and full with control and also soft with control. If the embouchure can’t do those things, practicing becomes more detrimental than helpful. Building on no foundation gets one nowhere. Test early in each day’s practice to be sure the facial arrangement can do the demands of secure loud and soft over the range. Only this way is one building security.
Perhaps a better approach than saying that the embouchure produces a loud note is the right one is to play softly (or loudly) but with little air and good support and insist on immediate response.
The separate notes should anticipate the slur problem. Portamento tonguing is an excellent way and possibly the best way to practice everything. It keeps the embouchure just right.
One of the main reasons for my kind of embouchure (white on white with firm held corners) is that it gives a great feeling of security, of knowing what’s going to come out.
In this lesson room you must:
- Strive to satisfy my musical demands more than your own
- Learn to be patient with yourself
- Put reliability and control way up, and put speed, and flashy playing way down
- Do a small amount of literature played well rather than a lot played poorly
The student starts playing and he plays badly. How soon should I stop him? How can I make it clear to him that my opinion is correct; i.e., that he is playing badly? Do people become better players by playing badly for a sufficient length of time? Is progress inevitable?
One problem in teaching is trying to explain to students why they do not get better quickly and why they can’t benefit from simply playing through a lot of music. A good teacher understands the systems of playing and can watch the student more carefully than the students themselves.
Intonation, rhythmic control, control of dynamics, and consistent accuracy are four skills that separate the men from the boys or the ladies from the girls.