Finding Your Own One-Liners

My Favorite One-Liners

Recently I’ve been thinking about the influences that have shaped me as a musician, and the bits of advice and wisdom that have stuck with me over the years. Many of the concepts that have proved most meaningful were expressed as single sentences – statements or questions that were ripe with meaning or helped me look at something in a new way. I hope you can also gain insight from the following ‘one-liners’.

“While you are performing, words should not cross your brain screen, only music."
Randy Gardner, teaching a master class at a Southeast Horn Workshop.

I imagine we have each met the personal critic who sits inside our heads, making unhelpful comments during a performance. Additionally, mundane thoughts like, “Shoot, I forgot to buy milk.” can pop into our minds. Sometimes we are dealing with serious personal or family issues, and voices of worry resound inside us. All of these words inside our heads interfere with our ability to perform our best. Randy Gardner’s one-liner challenges us to focus, concentrate, and be present with the music in order to reach our peak performance state.

“When I miss a note, it surprises me more than anyone.”
Principal Horn player in a major American orchestra, teaching a master class at an International Horn Symposium

The greatest players of each generation raise the bar for subsequent generations of players, as they show composers, conductors, and audiences just what is possible from our instrument. Therefore the level of accuracy and technical prowess expected from professional horn players today is higher than ever before. This one-liner expresses the confidence one must have in one’s own technical ability, and the fact that it is necessary to make accuracy a priority in our horn playing, even as we strive to become more relaxed, more flexible, and more artistic.

“When does it not have to be in tune?”
Verne Reynolds, in a lesson during my freshman year at Eastman

I played a passage in an etude that included a high A, fingering the note open on the B-flat horn. Mr. Reynolds asked me whether I always used open B-flat horn for the high A. I replied, “I use open in fast passages, and one-and-two when it has to be in tune.” (This statement seemed quite sensible to me at age 18; I meant ‘in tune with another instrument’.) Verne Reynolds gave me his trademark deadpan look and asked, “When does it not have to be in tune?” This one-liner introduced me to the life-long study of playing in tune with oneself - every interval, every note.

“Do you only want to practice the things you can already do?”
Froydis Wekre, in a lesson during my year of study in Norway

I went to Norway to study with Froydis after completing graduate school. She spent the first few lessons ascertaining whether there were any gaps in my technique that needed to be addressed before we began studying new solo repertoire. As part of this process, she assigned me the Gallay “Second Horn” Etudes (12 Etudes, Op. 57). I enthusiastically prepared the first few etudes and performed them well at my next lesson. She seemed satisfied, so I asked eagerly, “Should I work on some more of these?” She replied “No. You can do the things in these etudes. Do you only want to practice the things you can already do?” This one-liner expresses one of the most difficult challenges we face as musicians: to recognize what we can and cannot do well, and muster up the courage to address those things we cannot yet do well.

“You need to practice the things you can do well or they will stop being things you can do well.”
Jean Martin, in a discussion session at the American Horn Competition (now called the International Horn Competition of America, Inc.)

On the face of it, this seems like a contradiction to the previous one-liner. But in reality, it’s just the flip side of the coin, and equally important. It is vital to investigate every aspect of our playing on a regular basis, because as we mature as players and age as human beings, we experience subtle changes in muscle tone, breath capacity, hearing, and so on. In addition, we could experience an injury or require a medical procedure that affects our physical playing apparatus. If you’ve never thought about how you accomplish the ‘natural’ aspects of your playing – how you produce your tone, where you place your tongue, or what you do with your air when you slur, for example – then it will very tough to maintain or regain these skills throughout your lifetime. Additionally, it is helpful to return regularly to the things we can do well in order to build and maintain self-confidence.

“Just do it.”
Famous Nike advertising slogan.

I was a member of a panel discussion about performance anxiety at a regional horn event some years ago. Initially, another player and I presented many psychological and philosophical approaches to performing well, even when nervous. Finally Chris Smith cut to the chase: “You know, the best advice I ever got about performing when you’re nervous came from Lowell Greer: ‘Just do it.’” Indeed, we can read every book about performance anxiety, try beta-blockers, and go to counseling, but in the end it comes down to simply playing the music to the best of our current abilities in each and every performance, because the composer and the audience deserve our best.