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Thread: Playing Skills as We Age

  1. #1

    Playing Skills as We Age

    I was just responding to a post where Dave had mentioned that he was working to get back his skills after being at a non musical day job for 24 years (I think he has recently retired from that job). That got me to thinking about how we see our playing ability change (for better or for worse or for same) as we age, particularly as we get well into our senior years.

    I have been playing since about the age of 10-11 and I am now just recently 73. When I auditioned for The U.S. Army Band back in 1971, I had just turned 23. My chops were like steel, and I could play for hours on end. I had been playing many hours every day to prepare for the audition. I don't think I had hit my prime at this point, however. I think it probably was several years later that I could play with the most speed and technique that I ever achieved.

    Today, however, I think I play more musically. I have a higher range, which I find quite remarkable. I think it is because I really learned how to increase my range, where I just did high notes with brute strength when younger.

    I believe my tone is as good as it was before, but that could be my ears failing!! I do want to watch out that I don't develop any nanny goat type sound as I have heard from "older" folks.

    When working on new, challenging pieces, I find that it takes me longer to get the fingerings and technical stuff under my belt, and I am not so sure that I do it as well as I did when younger. It is the old story of "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" I think a bit when trying to learn new stuff when older. It just doesn't seem to come as rapidly or easily as it once did. I am working on Pantomime by Philip Sparke (which I have never played before) at the moment for a possible performance this coming summer (who knows for sure with COVID). I have a handle on most of the solo except the final part which goes at light speed. I can play most of the final part at about 15-20% slower than I want it to be ultimately. It is seeming difficult to get that final bit of speed that I want, and the piece needs, to really be an exciting ending. I wonder how I would be doing with this piece when in my 20's or 30's? That final part also calls for a trill on high Bb at the very end. Doing it with valves just doesn't cut it in my opinion, it has to be a lip trill for the appropriate effect. I can lip trill on notes from tuning Bb up to say about F or G above the staff quite fast, but then it drops off dramatically when going higher. So, this is a part of the solo that I am working to gain a "new skill". Lip trilling in the upper range. I am making progress and have it at about 75% of the speed I need. But it sure is taking me a lot of work to get there. And with something like that, your endurance will be sorely tested when learning something in the very high range. You want to practice it a lot, but your chops say no after a while.

    I find I need to play a lot of repetitive stuff to keep my technique up. I constantly play scales, major, minor, chromatic in many octaves and many tempos. This one thing alone I think helps keep my finger dexterity. I have a little bit of trigger finger (which I took a shot for, but will probably have to have an operation or two now). It does not seem to mess with my fingering too much, but I am not sure that it might have some sort of negative effect.

    My tonguing, both single and multiple is about as good (fast) as it has ever been. But I do have to keep at it and include some of it in daily practices to keep it really quick and precise. It is one technique that I really am fond of, so this is not tedious to me.

    I am curious and interested to hear other folks who are in my relative age group sound off about their playing abilities as they move into their social security years. I certainly do not plan to ever stop playing, not even a consideration. I will literally play until I drop, that is my mantra regarding euphonium (and other instruments). I just hope when I go that my playing isn't too awful ratty!!
    John Morgan
    The U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own) 1971-1976
    Adams E3 Custom Series Euphonium, Wessex EP-100 Dolce Euphonium, 1956 B&H Imperial Euphonium
    Adams TB1 Tenor Trombone, Yamaha YBL-822G Bass Trombone
    Wessex TE-360 Bombino Eb Tuba
    Rapid City New Horizons & Municipal Bands (Euphonium)
    Black Hills Symphony Orchestra (Bass Trombone), Powder River Symphony, Gillette, WY (Tenor Trombone)
    Black Hills Brass Quintet (Tuba)

  2. John, you have the advantage over me of playing throughout your life. I played from Jr. High through H.S., took a 6-7 yr break, then played for a couple yrs in a community band as an adult. From there I never touched a horn until about 7-8 yrs ago at around age of 68-69. I'm now 75 and have been playing regularly in a community band for 3 yrs. Getting a full tone back, moving the air, and reasonable fingering came back fairly quickly. High register, lip flexibility and endurance not so much. Being a former athlete and always involved with some type of exercise program, my breathing was not an issue. Most of my improvement work now focuses on security in the high range, flexibility and finger dexterity/speed. And I'm all in with you on playing til I drop. I will not stop playing! I've played a few duets and solos with piano, but I'm primarily a section player in a band. And having no band for over a year because of Covid-19 has been devastating to me. I can hardly wait until the time when the baton is again raised in the rehearsal room!

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Roger View Post
    ...And I'm all in with you on playing til I drop. I will not stop playing!...
    I think we should try to find an appropriate t-shirt with the mantra "Play Until You Drop"! I would buy one of those. I suppose there could also be one that says "Play Until Somebody Tells You to Stop"! And yes, Roger, I'm a big ME TOO when it comes to getting back to the rehearsal room (and performance stage).

    My daughter is a chemist at Pfizer in Michigan and is on the team doing testing and methods for the COVID vaccine. I keep telling her to hurry up already with the vaccine.
    John Morgan
    The U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own) 1971-1976
    Adams E3 Custom Series Euphonium, Wessex EP-100 Dolce Euphonium, 1956 B&H Imperial Euphonium
    Adams TB1 Tenor Trombone, Yamaha YBL-822G Bass Trombone
    Wessex TE-360 Bombino Eb Tuba
    Rapid City New Horizons & Municipal Bands (Euphonium)
    Black Hills Symphony Orchestra (Bass Trombone), Powder River Symphony, Gillette, WY (Tenor Trombone)
    Black Hills Brass Quintet (Tuba)

  4. John Morgan,

    My experience bears some resemblance to your own. I started playing American baritone at age 9, 60 years ago. I came from a musician family (Univ of Michigan graduates) and was taking private lessons at age 10 from a recent Univ. of MI graduate and doing annual state solo competitions starting at age 11. I was very intense in my study of "baritone horn" through high school, performing Marcello "Cello Sonata in C" in 7th grade, "Morceau Symphonique" as an 8th grader, Mozart's "Bassoon Concerto" as a freshman, "From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific" in my junior year and Boccalari's "Fantasia di Concerto" in my senior year. The last two years I was the California State Honor Band 1st chair euphonium performer. In college, I was a computer science major, not a music major, but I played constantly as 1st euphonium including in the Cal Band and Wind Ensemble at UC Berkeley through 1974. I even took up trumpet and played with the University Jazz Band. (helped build my chops and added a high F to my euphonium range).

    I continued performing after college in wind ensembles and community bands in southern California while working in aerospace. When we moved to Massachusetts, I joined a couple of professional wind ensembles as the sole euphonium player. To make a long story short. I have never stopped playing, but never was a full time professional as my job. I was always committed to playing as well as I could and relied on the benefits of my early training and youthful strength to carry me through just about anything. I even took lessons from David Werden in the early 1980s. I continued this for many years, even as my position in high tech started requiring massive amounts of domestic and international travel.

    In 2000 this all changed. I had a heart attack and left my career in high tech. As I started my recovery, I found that my former ability to just pick up the horn and play was gone. My breathing was shot, my strength and stamina was poor. All the things I used to be able to do in my youth had been sabotaged by the loss of cardio-pulmonary capacity and bad habits developed over years of casual playing. After a few years of recovery and starting my 2nd career as a math teacher, I decided to get serious. In 2006 I met Michael Milnarik, a Boston area free-lance tubist and terrific low brass teacher. I started weekly lessons with Mike focusing on fundamentals of breathing, embouchure, and technique. My goal was to see how far I could go in my musical and physical recovery. I started attending summer workshops run by Mike and also adult band camps like "Blue Lake" in the US and the International Brass Band Summer School in Wales. By sometime around 2010, my playing was better than it ever had been. with several recitals performed including performances of Pantomime, Horovitz' Euphonium Concerto, Party Piece by Sparke, and others. Since 2007 I have been to Wales 10 times, been a member of the New England Brass Band for 11 years, performed several seasons with the Metropolitan Wind Ensemble, and many other groups. I even did solo competitions at NABBA. Since my 2010 retirement as a math teacher, being a high level amateur musician has been my full-time retirement avocation.

    I definitely now find myself obsessed with maximizing my "good habits" developed under Mike's tutelage, like good posture, embouchure, breathing, musicianship, etc. to the max so that I can perform at the limits of my now declining physical abilities. I have a rigorous daily routine that helps me gauge my current readiness to play well. I have to play around frequent hand injuries (3 trigger fingers, 2 operations, broken fingers, tendinitis in both left and right arms, reduced lung capacity, etc.) by optimizing the good things I have learned as I age.

    I must admit, coincident with the start of the pandemic of March 2020, I also reached a low point in my motivation. I had been getting burned out with the level of rehearsal, practice, performance, and particularly the administrative roles (librarian and treasurer) I had carried in volunteer groups over the last 10 years. I am hopeful that 2021 will bring back the joy of performing live music with people who help motivate me to be my best.

    At this point, I am ready to acknowledge that as a 70 year old with several of the well known co-morbidities, my physical abilities (eyesight, ability to sight read, stamina, etc.) are on the decline. But I believe there are still some good notes left in me and I am very willing to contribute in a supporting role as the "young-uns" take leadership in some the ensembles that I hope to perform in.

    Doug
    Last edited by daruby; 01-03-2021 at 08:51 AM.
    Sterling Virtuoso 1065HGS & Adams E3 Prototype 0.70 Top Sprung valves
    Sterling Virtuoso 1050HGS baritone
    New England Brass Band
    Winchendon Winds/Townsend Military Band

  5. #5
    This is fascinating, so thanks for contributing.

    This year has been revelatory to me because several things have become apparent as I get older - I’m 44 so in British brass band euphonium terms well on the downhill slope. I don’t know whether it’s an age or musical development thing, but I find myself concentrating on doing simple things well, rather than “exciting” things.

    Do I need to play super G? Nope. Have I ever seen one? Yes, once a long time ago. Do I need to be able lip trill on top C. Nope.

    Do I need to make a full even sound? Yes. Do I need to have a reliable pianissimo articulation? Most assuredly. Do I need a double pedal D? No. Do I need a sonorous bottom G? Yes. Bottom G to top D is where I generally play, and rarely at the ends of those registers, so I’m not going to paralyse myself over the Top E in Harmony Music, because it will either come out or it won’t.

    Blithering aside, I’ve decided not to spend what time I have to practice on ephemeral techniques and registers Dan Thomas or Gary Curtin have mastered, and now concentrate on playing in as vocal style as I can.

    I’ve also noticed an ability to play things that I couldn’t a couple of years, now I’m not practicing the flamboyant stuff. The Wilby concerto I couldn’t get near a few years back, but now can struggle from end to the other. I’m not practicing anything it calls for in terms of range or technique.

    Is this musical maturity, or just casting off the desire to be impressive rather than musical? I appreciate I’m a stripling compared to you veterans, but have any of you found similar?
    Last edited by Magikarp; 01-02-2021 at 05:51 PM. Reason: Idiocy.
    1983 Boosey & Hawkes Globe Sovereign
    Vincent Bach 4GB

  6. #6
    Doug - a great read, and I understand you completely I think. I am sort of a perfectionist, so I make life for myself difficult at times. But I enjoy the journey.

    And Magikarp - I also like your approach to this. Yes, it isn't necessary to be able to do what some of the very, very talented players can do to still be fulfilled playing this grand instrument, the euphonium. I really like trying to sound as musical as I can. I can or could be happy to play things that don't require a ton of work or keeping myself in the best possible shape. And I realize, but hate to admit it, that when I listen to some of these incredible euphonium players, like Gary Curtin, I am inspired to do the same, but know full well at my age and ability level, I won't be playing what he is or as well as he is playing. I sort of want to be able to go back and do it all over again, knowing what I know now. But most of all, I want to be able to play musically and sound good on what I do play.

    And I have found that some things that I didn't think I could do well many years ago, I can do fairly well now. Range is one. Playing with musical maturity and expression and dynamics I think are better now for me than ever. I really enjoy being able to play solos before audiences, and I suppose some of the difficulty will start to ease up, but hopefully I can replace that with pleasing and nice music that an audience can enjoy and appreciate.

    I hope the last notes I make on euphonium are pleasant and not wretched.
    John Morgan
    The U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own) 1971-1976
    Adams E3 Custom Series Euphonium, Wessex EP-100 Dolce Euphonium, 1956 B&H Imperial Euphonium
    Adams TB1 Tenor Trombone, Yamaha YBL-822G Bass Trombone
    Wessex TE-360 Bombino Eb Tuba
    Rapid City New Horizons & Municipal Bands (Euphonium)
    Black Hills Symphony Orchestra (Bass Trombone), Powder River Symphony, Gillette, WY (Tenor Trombone)
    Black Hills Brass Quintet (Tuba)

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Mar 2012
    Location
    Farmington Hills, MI
    Posts
    298
    Great topic! At 63 I find the major issue is nerves. Itís long been an issue but itís getting more difficult and manifests mostly in the upper ranges. My technique has not degraded much but there are times when my fingers donít move as quickly as the once did.

    Iíve played in a concert or brass band for the last 40 years, almost always as the principal but there are so many fine young players that itís getting harder to keep up. Most have great technique and range.

    One area I feel Iím improving is expressive playing. Itís always been a strength and maturity has improved this aspect. The younger players seem lacking in this attribute.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Mar 2006
    Location
    Hidden Valley, AZ
    Posts
    782
    I haven't played since I broke my neck back in May. At first, the doc said no. Then limited time doing so. Now I'm cleared full OK.

    Previously the virus shut down my banding and then Tuba Christmas, and I just haven't had the drive to even pick up the horn.

    I watch U-tube performances and get emotional, but still...

    Something will fire me up soon, I hope.

    DG
    1966 Besson 181 highly modified New Standard
    1918 Hawkes & Son euph 3&1 original
    1915 York Bb tenorhorn original

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by highpitch View Post
    I haven't played since I broke my neck back in May. At first, the doc said no. Then limited time doing so. Now I'm cleared full OK.

    Previously the virus shut down my banding and then Tuba Christmas, and I just haven't had the drive to even pick up the horn.

    I watch U-tube performances and get emotional, but still...

    Something will fire me up soon, I hope.

    DG
    Hey Dennis,

    Well, you had a very nasty accident for sure, and I imagine the recovery was no fun. But, if you are now cleared, play my friend!! I don't have any groups right now that are playing (true since March of last year), but I play just about every day. Sometimes two hours or more. I do this mostly just out of the sheer enjoyment I get from playing my horn. And I have a nice one. And so do you!!! One of the things I work on is any future solo(s) that I may play at some point, so there is something to work on or a skill to learn or improve. I have two or three picked out that I haven't played before, and they all have parts in them that will require some or a lot of work to get performance ready. You may not have solos in the future pressing you to pick the horn up, but it is just fun and nice to play for your own enjoyment.

    I did something this year that I have never done before. O Holy Night is my all time favorite Christmas carol and I love getting to play that in a church with a big monstrous organ on Christmas Eve. That is just about the most exhilarating thing for me to do each Christmas season. Well, no place to play this year, so on Christmas Eve, I went outside on my back porch just before dark, and played O Holy Night to whoever may have heard me in the neighborhood. That was fun. And I practiced the piece for a week before, even though I can play it cold, I wanted it perfect.

    I got some new music that I am working through. I have learned a new skill. I could lip trill notes around tuning Bb up to say F above the staff fairly well, but could not trill high notes worth a hoot, those say around high Bb give or take a few on each side of that. Well, through determination, time, work, and my dear wife's unending patience with everything I do with my horn, I have gotten high trills just about to the point I want them. I did that primarily for the ending of Pantomime which calls for a trill on high Bb and a valve trill would not cut it in my opinion. So find something new to learn. At 73 I learned and improved!!

    Or set a goal to increase your double or triple tonguing from whatever it is now to 10-20 beats a minute faster. Or memorize a piece or two. Or grab your horn and think of beautiful melodies (I get a lot of these from musicals I like) then play them by ear. And once you have a piece down, change the key a couple times and do it again. That is always fun for me.

    What Michael said above about expressive playing is somewhat true for me as well. My technical skills may not get much better, but I think my musicianship skills have/are improving. It is always nice to go back and play through things you played many years ago and see how you play it now, how you feel it, how you present it. It is fun to play with others for sure, but I just know that most everyone can get a good level of enjoyment out of just playing for themselves.

    I hope you grab that horn, Dennis. No time like the present!

    John
    Last edited by John Morgan; 03-15-2021 at 10:25 AM.
    John Morgan
    The U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own) 1971-1976
    Adams E3 Custom Series Euphonium, Wessex EP-100 Dolce Euphonium, 1956 B&H Imperial Euphonium
    Adams TB1 Tenor Trombone, Yamaha YBL-822G Bass Trombone
    Wessex TE-360 Bombino Eb Tuba
    Rapid City New Horizons & Municipal Bands (Euphonium)
    Black Hills Symphony Orchestra (Bass Trombone), Powder River Symphony, Gillette, WY (Tenor Trombone)
    Black Hills Brass Quintet (Tuba)

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by highpitch View Post
    I haven't played since I broke my neck back in May. At first, the doc said no. Then limited time doing so. Now I'm cleared full OK.

    Previously the virus shut down my banding and then Tuba Christmas, and I just haven't had the drive to even pick up the horn.

    I watch U-tube performances and get emotional, but still...

    Something will fire me up soon, I hope.

    DG
    PICK UP THE HORN. There will be band and Tuba Christmas coming up and you’ll need to be at your own best to get the most out of them. If you love it and long for it and miss it, PICK UP THE HORN.

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