Happy late summer, everyone! I hope you all have had some time to relax and breathe in the comfort of artificially cooled air. Here in NYC, it's been well into the 90s and, when the temperatures dipped, we were left with humidity and the ripe smell of...well, NYC. It's a love-hate thing that only makes sense if you love living here. Let's just say that a lot of stroller maneuvers happened here in the Village!
Most of my summer was spent wrestling with the new Patterson Triple I got at the beginning of May. I am not one to try a lot of equipment, though I think I'm beginning to catch on to my tendencies in the process. My horn genealogy is from Conn to Schmid to Patterson, with a brief respite from the Schmid to a Kuhn double. One thing I've learned is that trying horns always works in three phases for me:
Phase 1: Eureka!
This is my favorite phase by far. There's that moment where you pick up a horn, and your air moves more efficiently and the valves move a little easier, and you think "wow, there was a problem with my horn all along!" This is often a make-or-break phase for me, whether I care to admit it at the time or not. The question pops into my mind: "could I play this instrument for the rest of my life?" If the answer is "maybe?", I know it's worth looking into. Most of the time, I start negotiating all of the changes I would have to make in my playing, and I end up at the crossroads of "do I want to play my way, or do I want to change my voice on the horn?" A legitimate question for sure, but I tend to stick to horns that make me sound more like the me that I am, and not the me that I want to be.
This phase lasted a little longer than a month this time around, which is not a bad average for me. I spent ten years really knowing the Schmid and was approaching the alto horn as a separate but equal side that I used as a fifth gear option. Post-Schmid, I've had to significantly change my style of playing, and a lot of the things I was doing on that horn simply just don't blend the way that I would like to. When I had to turn the tide, I realized that the other sides of the horn weren't as dependable as I would have liked them to be, and a big part of that might have been that the horn was old and needed some real work. One major issue was that I had no idea when slides would fall out as I was playing and, if they fell out, if I would ever see them again! I have decided to keep the Schmid I recorded the album on as a back-up, after I get it touched up at Landress Brass here in midtown.
Phase 2: I'm going back
In any long-lasting relationship, there comes a time where I find myself operating on terms that don't fit the current relationship because it's what I know. When you spend ten years playing one way and have a certain degree of success, it's easy to lather, rinse, and repeat. The lead pipe and the concept behind the Patterson are vastly different from the Schmid because they're made for different purposes. I would have loved to have gotten Engelbert Schmid's take on why he makes his horns the way he does, but I never managed to get a hold of him in the times that I contacted him. I did, however, get to speak with Jim and Phil Patterson, the father-son team that made the horn I'm playing now.
The most important thing that I took away from our conversations was that he makes his horns to give the player more options for color. Their horn is heavier than many triples on the market now, but it's really worth it to feel the horn ring in my hands. For me, the horn is heavy enough that I don't miss the lacquer of the instruments I've played before, and I find it easier to focus and sustain in all registers. A major difference between the two horns is the approach of the alto horn. When I compact my embouchure the way I did for a Schmid, I ended up feeling overly tired and even gave myself a few headaches. For me, taking a step back to breathe and use efficient air made the alto side work. But not all the time.
On the hardest days of my time on the Patterson, I thought to myself "I know I can function on the Schmid and I'm not representing myself the best that I can on this Patterson. At what point do I turn around and go back?" So I started asking my colleagues a barrage of questions: "What kind of horn do you play? What kind of mouthpiece? Do you like it? Is this the only horn you've ever played? What about it makes you sound so good?" Apologies if I severely annoyed everyone! But as it turns out, this horn was built differently, and there was still one major component that I had put off addressing: the mouthpiece.
Phase 3: Be all in
A colleague of mine noticed that the shank of my mouthpiece was not going in as far as it had on the Schmid, because the metal showing above the lead pipe was stripped. I was starting to notice that the resistance was mounting on this horn, and I didn't have a great handle on where to attack certain notes. At this point, I was ready to put the horn up for sale and apologize profusely to my family for taking such a huge leap of blind faith.
At this point, I also realized something: I was still trying to play this horn on my terms, and not giving the horn what it needed. The bore is bigger and the horn will respond if you throw a bunch of air at it, but if you find a more relaxed approach to a focused sound, the horn will sing. The thing I loved about it the most was what I had forgotten in practice. It also really helps that Jim and Phil were so willing to ship mouthpieces out to me until I found one that worked for the horn and me, which I thankfully did! I should add that I was having trouble playing flat on the horn, and that problem disappeared when I switched to a Patterson mouthpiece.
I never get to this point on some horns. In the case of the Kuhn, I found that what would work for the horn took away what I loved about the way I play, and I put it back in the case. The Patterson is not only a great horn, but it's a horn that needs me to grow with it. So many things about it are sturdy and dependable in a way that I really need help with, but there is still a measure of physical discipline that I need to remember on the horn. And who wants to be in a long-lasting relationship where there's no opportunity for growth?
All this having been said, I do really love this horn. I love the way I sound on it, and I love that I can use it as a straight-forward double, solely as a descant horn, and that I can switch between all three sides on many more notes, which gives me more options for musical decisions. I've switched to a better mouthpiece, caught up with my fundamentals, and even had some success recently on this horn. I still need to learn how to better approach some parts of the horn, but most of that has to do with the degree of honesty that I'm having with my technique. The better I'm playing, the better the horn is getting.
I was once admonished by someone I thought I knew that I "wasn't all in", that I "wasn't operating as a part of their team". In the context of this very heated discussion, I was taken aback because I had taken detailed notes on how very important the team goal was, and I even had step-by-step pictures of details that I was meticulously trying to nail. As time has gone on, I can see now that he was trying to say two things, the first being "you're not becoming a part of our group", and the second being "you're changing things and I don't like it, but I'm pissed because we need it." And that, friends, is why I hate changing equipment. It's a double-edged sword of "I need a change because I need help," and knowing what your deficiencies are versus what the new horn's needs are. Sometimes the more you try to force the horn, the less you accomplish. But then you get it right, and your sound comes back at you in a wave, and your hands ring because the sound is just what you want it to be. Just like that first measure of a great Broadway overture, the first thought to enter your mind is...yeah. So I'm going back for a few more bars and I'll let you know how it goes. Now if I can only get rid of the green stripe that seems to be permanently pressed into my left palm!
Any tips for me? Comment below!