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20 questions on the 20th with Michael Sachs

This month we feature Michael Sachs, Principal Trumpet of the Cleveland Orchestra, esteemed faculty of both the Cleveland Institute of Music & Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, and music director of Strings Music Festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, since 2015. Mr. Sachs is the author of several pedagogical trumpet books, and has also been extensively involved in the acoustic design and play testing for the creation of the new Bach 190 C trumpet and 25M lead pipe, as well as the Artisan line of Bach Stradivarius trumpets.


1. What was your first instrument and how old were you when you started?


I first started on a King cornet when I was 6 and a half years old.

2. Could you describe what would be your perfect day?

Tough question depends what time of the year you are talking about. Maybe being someplace warm in southern California or Maui close to a beach. I would be get up not too early, have a nice breakfast overlooking the ocean.…..put in a nice hour of warm up (likely Stamp, Clarke, Bai Lin and Arban)….head out and play a round of golf…..enjoy a nice lunch……go to the beach and chill for a bit before enjoying a really nice dinner. End the day hanging and laughing with friends.


3. Most memorable performance?

Probably performing Mahler- Symphony No. 8 in Carnegie Hall with Robert Shaw conducting in 1995……also playing Mahler- Symphony No. 5 at the Salzburg festival, Mahler Symphonies No. 1 and 3 at Royal Albert Hall in London, and Bruckner- Symphonies No. 4, 5, and 8 at St. Florian Abbey outside of Linz all a close second.


4. Significant teachers/mentors in your life?

Ziggy Elman (my first teacher), Tony Plog, James Stamp, and Mark Gould who were my primary teachers, along with Louis Ranger, Chris Gekker, William Vacchiano, Alan Dean, Bud Herseth, Vince Cichowicz, and Arnold Jacobs, all of whom I took lessons from at various junctures. Other mentors and role models include- Tom Stevens, Armando Ghitalla, Roger Voisin, Phil Smith, David Zauder, John Mack (Principal Oboe here in Cleveland when I started), and Tom Morris (Executive Director in Cleveland when I started).


5. Something you’ve been meaning to try, but just haven’t gotten around to it?

Surfing. I grew up in Santa Monica and spent a ton of time at the beach, but never surfed, always body-surfed and boogie-boarded.


6. Favorite symphony?


The last Mahler Symphony that I’ve played (right now that’s No. 5).


7. When was the last time you cried, and why?


Watching my daughter playing (and winning) her last tennis match her senior year of high school earlier this year.


8. If money was no object, what would you buy?


Many more historic trumpets- I own a few but if money was no object I’d scour every source I could find and see where some wonderful old instruments were hiding, and get them. I’m not really a car guy but a pristine ’62 Austin-Healy and/or ’66 Shelby Mustang would probably be in the mix somewhere.


9. One thing most people don’t know about you?


As a little boy, I wouldn’t go to sleep unless I had my satin blanket nearby.I hate pickles, can’t have them even near my food.


10. Opera or ballet?


Opera. I love the action and the drama along with the silly stories.


11. First job?


Fourth/Utility Trumpet with the Houston Symphony.


12. Favorite sports team?


Los Angeles Dodgers. My mom and dad grew up huge Dodgers fans in Brooklyn and moved to LA two years after the Dodgers did. Went to many games growing up including the 1978 World Series with my mom.


13. If you could invite one person to dinner tonight, who would it be?


Living- Barak Obama (maybe Sandy Koufax!).Dead- Thomas Jefferson, Anton Weidinger, Gottfried Reiche.


14. Coffee or Tea?


Probably Tea. I don’t drink much coffee at all unless I’m at a nice Italian restaurant and then I’ll sometimes have an espresso, but only if I don’t have to perform later!


15. Favorite book?


Doris Kearns Goodwin- Team of Rivals, David McCullough- John Adams.


16. Favorite movie?


Godfather I and II, with Young Frankenstein, Legends of the Fall, Full Metal Jacket, earlier James Bond movies, Casablanca, Highlander, and Inherit the Wind all close seconds. Have to also toss in Animal House, Billy Jack, Up in Smoke, The Last Dragon, Blood in Blood Out, and The Warriors for their absurdity factor.


17. Siblings?


One- I have a sister who is a year older than me and is a writer living in San Francisco.


18. Favorite piece to play?


Any Mahler Symphony.


19. Least favorite piece to play?


Tchaikovsky- Capriccio Italien, Lizst- Faust Symphony, Bizet- Farandole from L’Arlesienne Suite…..Just not my favorite pieces of music to hear.


20. Dogs or cats?


Dogs- I grew up with big German shepherds!

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What to Do When Playing Hurts

Pain Clip Art
Pain Clip Art

You’ve heard the phrase “No pain, no gain”, but when it comes to your brass instrument, pain might impede your progress instead of fostering growth. Who wants to practice when it hurts?

If you frequently experience pain while playing, DO NOT push through it. Speak up! Ask your teacher and your doctor for advice. Continuing to play in ways that cause harm to your body may result in permanent injury. Fix what hurts now, so that it doesn’t hurt forever.

Here are some common causes of pain while playing a brass instrument, and suggestions for correcting them.

Lips

Allergy

If your lips are swollen and stinging after practicing, first eliminate the possibility of a metal allergy. You might consider a nonallergenic titanium mouthpiece such as the Black H-Kote Houghton Horns mouthpiece rim.

Houghton Horns French Horn Mouthpieces Black H-Kote Rim

Poor Breath Support

You might be using your lip muscles to compensate for a lack of solid air flow. Focus on your breathing and posture. Ask a teacher or friend to watch you play and critique your technique.

Incorrect Mouthpiece Angle

Maintaining the correct mouthpiece angle is particularly problematic for marching band students, and who can blame you? You have to stay on beat, move in formation, obey all the commands the band director is shouting at you, AND hold your instrument at the right angle? You’re only human!

French horn players might want to try a Verus M1T mellophone mouthpiece, a Verus M1H marching French horn mouthpiece, or a Faxx mouthpiece bent for marching band to achieve an angle that puts less pressure on your lips.

Verus Mellophone Mouthpiece M1T
Verus Marching French Horn Mouthpiece M1H
Faxx French Horn Mouthpieces Bent for Marching Band

This video by Karen Houghton might be aimed at band directors, but it has some helpful advice for how to correct your mouthpiece angle on the horn.

Incorrect Embouchure

Watch yourself play in a mirror to find and correct embouchure problems. Consider using an visualizer to practice buzzing. Watch Mark Houghton’s video on how to use an embouchure visualizer.

Over-Practicing

Don’t tell your teacher we said this, but there is such a thing as too much practice. Know your limits – probably no more than three hours a day – and stay within them. There’s really no other way to avoid tired and sore lips.

Some people swear by Robinson’s Remedies for aching lips.

Robinson's Remedies

Braces

For starters, do you have your orthodontist’s approval to be playing a brass instrument in the first place? Otherwise don’t mash a metal mouthpiece against your expensive braces.

If your orthodontist has given you permission to play with braces, ask them for advice. They may recommend sticking wax on your braces, or they may be able to sell you a “Morgan bumper” you can wrap around your teeth while playing.

One reason braces are painful for brass musicians is poor breath support. If you are overusing your lips to compensate for insufficient breath support from your lungs and diaphragm, it’s going to hurt more. Practice your breathing and ask a teacher to critique your posture and technique. If you’re playing correctly, the mouthpiece won’t put enough pressure on your lips for the braces to cut into your skin.

Hand

French horn players are in luck here, as it’s fairly easy to tweak many horns to better fit a player’s hand.

First, look at your flipper and pinky hook. Do they have screws that can be adjusted with a screwdriver or hex wrench? You may be able to move the flipper and pinky hook up or down to perfectly fit your hand. When in doubt, ask your band director or a professional repair technician to adjust your flipper and pinky hook for you – they snap off pretty easily, but can cost $$$ to replace.

Don’t have an adjustable flipper and pinky hook? Our repair shop can install one on most horns.

Adjustable Flipper for French Horn
Adjustable Pinky Hook for French Horn

Horn players with small hands might want to consider a Fhrap, which takes a lot of the weight of the horn off the pinky.

Fhrap Black Strap for French Horn

Trombone players can install an ax handle brace to take some of the stress off their wrist. There is also an astonishing variety of straps and braces for the trombone. Ask our trombone specialist Christian for help with your trombone grip.

Trombone Ax Handle Brace Kit

Unfortunately for players of many other brass instruments, there might not be too much you can do by yourself to fix the problem of a poor hand fit. But before you toss out the entire instrument, it never hurts to consult a professional repair technician. On trumpets, for example, they may be able to move the pinky hook so that your pinky fits more comfortably.

Many brass musicians could benefit from looking into something like a Leather Specialties leather guard. If your hand is having to squeeze extra-tight to compensate for sliding in sweat and oil, something that secures your grip will release some of the tension in your hand.

Leather Specialties right hand guard for horn, Lewis model, black leather

Shoulders, Arms, & Back

After hours of holding up a heavy instrument, a little bit of soreness is only to be expected, particularly for beginners who haven’t built up the correct muscle groups. But if you cross the line from “kind of sore” to “actively painful”, there might be a problem with how you’re holding your instrument.

This is easier said than done, but teach yourself to be conscious of any tension in your shoulders and arms. Relax them as soon as you feel it. Practice in front of a mirror so that you build a habit of holding your instrument and distributing its weight correctly.

One of our favorite accessibility tools is the Ergobrass. It’s a brace that allows you to rest the weight of your instrument on the floor or a belt buckle. We highly recommend it for people who would otherwise struggle to play an instrument due to a disability, but it’s great for abled people who want to give their arms a break during an extensive practice session too.

Ergobrass Trombone Support

French horn players can read this guide to holding their horn.

Holistics

Learn to pay attention to your body. The signals it is sending you are important early warning signs of injury that can allow you to prevent larger issues later on. Consider taking up a practice such as meditation or yoga that will teach you mindfulness about your body and how it communicates with you.

Be diligent about warming up before each practice or playing session. Ask your teacher for warm-up techniques. Don’t restrict yourself to getting tips from brass musicians, either – vocalists, yoga practitioners, dancers, and athletes may have great stretches and exercises that help you loosen up before and cool down after a heavy stretch of playing.

Any other brass instrument-related health issues? Ask a question in the comment section below and our staff will get back to you with our recommendations.

Any advice we left out? Please leave a comment.

— Kacie Wright and Dr. Sally Podrebarac

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20 Questions on the 20th with Billy Hunter

Billy Hunter
Billy Hunter

20 on 20 for February features Billy Hunter, Principal Trumpet with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, and Assistant Principal Trumpet with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra in Chicago. Additionally, Billy has performed in various roles as a guest with numerous other orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and many more. Mr. Hunter’s honors and awards include first prize in the Kingsville International Solo Competition Brass and Non-String divisions, second prize in the National Trumpet Competition, recipient of the Roger Voisin Trumpet award as a fellow of the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires, and most recently, the University of Texas at Austin Outstanding Young Alumnus Award. Billy is a native of Austin, Texas.

1. What was your first instrument and how old were you when you started? 

Trumpet, age 11.

2. Describe what would be your perfect day.

I can’t answer this question. I honestly do not know.

3. Most memorable performance?

Several: Tchaikovsky #4 with New World Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Alpine Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting. Capriccio Italian with the Grant Park Orchestra and Carlos Kalmar conducting…. many others.

4. Who were the most significant teachers/mentors in your life?

-Leon Prause (junior high)
-Ray Crisara (all things trumpet and beyond)
-Mark Gould (playing own voice)

5. Can you think of something you’ve been meaning to try, but just haven’t gotten around to it?

Re-learn to sketch again.

6. Favorite symphony?

Tchaikovsky #6.

7. Who was the last person that made you cry and why?

A few years back when a friend passed away unexpectedly.

8. If money was no object, what would you buy?

Private island.

9. What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

I love cartoons.

10. Opera or ballet?

Opera : )

11. First job?

‘Gyro Wrap’ at Highland Mall in Austin, TX.

12. Favorite sports team(s)?

-San Antonio Spurs
-Dallas Cowboys
-Texas Longhorns

13. If you could invite one person to dinner tonight, who would it be?

Björk.

14. Coffee or Tea?

Coffee.

15. Favorite book(s)?

-The Art of War by Sun Tzu
-Light in August by William Faulkner1

16. Favorite movie?

History of the World, Part 1.

17. Siblings?

1 older sister, 1 older brother.

18. Favorite piece to play?

Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’.

19. Least favorite piece to play?

Bellini’s ‘Norma’.

20. Dogs or cats?

Cats… my favorite cat is the Tiger—my Chinese zodiac sign.