Classically Trained: As they say, practice makes perfect

Editor's note: This column is the second in a series about Bradley Zint's participation in OC Can You Play With Us?, an initiative where he and other Orange County amateur musicians will play alongside the Pacific Symphony professionals. The columns will run through May.

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From within a case on the floor of a suburban San Diego living room I picked it up, a battle-worn and scarred French horn, made that way after years of playing exhaustive symphonies.

Not long after I buzzed a few notes, the sounds piqued the interest of my girlfriend. She was seated nearby, listening with amusement.

"Can I try it?" she asked.

It was an innocent enough question, though it was a significant moment. There in San Diego, the city where I grew up, was the first time she heard me really play my instrument.

"Sure," I quickly replied, equally piqued by her sudden interest. "Why not?"

It was around 10 p.m. — late for most, but go-time for a night owl like me. The two of us were visiting my family for the weekend, and to continue preparing for the Pacific Symphony's OC Can You Play With Us? I had brought my horn along for the trip.

I try to play every day, and my jaunt down south was no exception to my dedication.

"The first thing you need to know is how to properly hold the horn," I told her. "Your left hand holds the top."

Then I showed her where all those human digits go: three valves, each for one finger, unused pinkie in the holster, thumb on the trigger valve.

"Then your hand goes in the bell, on the upper-right side of it," I explained.

"Why does it go inside?" she inquired.

In all my years of playing, I've rarely been asked that question. I guess that's why I maneuvered around the technical answers to it, most of them along the lines of giving the horn its signature sound, keeping the horn in tune and utilizing hand-muting techniques.

"You just do."

And there she was, all of three minutes into learning the orchestra's most difficult instrument. I was proud of her. She held the horn with the best of them.

Onto the playing part.

"Now buzz your lips, like this." I made a buzzing sound, which resembled the flapping rubber of a deflating balloon. (How pathetic we brass players' buzzing is out of context.)

She responded happily, but not quite correctly — good enough for me.

"Try it on the horn," I said.

The result of her effort was a struggle but not quite a sound. She was also puffing her cheeks.

"Don't puff your cheeks," I said. Many instruments, including the horn, demand tense muscles in the face and tight formation of the lips to properly induce a sound. Puffing cheeks don't help.

She puffed her cheeks.

"Don't puff your cheeks."

They puffed. Yet again.

"Don't puff your cheeks."

The third time stuck, and out came a note. In Westernized music, we assign letters to notes.

I didn't know which letter to assign to hers.

"I made a sound!" she exclaimed.

"You did!"

Indeed, we were both excited, and by teaching her I got to review for myself the basics of horn playing, something that after years of doing for thousands of hours is instinct.

As quickly as her horn career started it stopped, the production of a single, unidentifiable note being of proper progress for the both us. She returned to her spot to listen to my buzzing, and I continued on in my own imperfect way.

I've long known my practicing technique has never been the greatest. When I played in San Diego and just about anywhere else west of the Mississippi, I never had the discipline to work out tough passages over and over, to get better at the things I wasn't already good at. I was usually content with what came easy, figuring that my hard work should be devoted elsewhere.

So I talked to some of the Pacific Symphony pros. I wanted to get a sense of how they, as some of the lucky and talented few who have made it in the classical world, do their practicing.

Two of them I've interviewed before for past columns: Jessica Pearlman, principal oboe, and Barry Perkins, principal trumpet.

Jessica enlightened me on how oboists have to make their own reeds from scratch. They're extremely delicate, paper-thin tips.

"They're very, very difficult to make, so we have to make them often," she said. "Not every reed is a stellar, concert-worthy reed, though."

We brass players can't relate to that. We buy mouthpieces that basically last for life until we lose them in the hustle.

Though I could relate to Jessica when she said to keep her chops, she needs to play a lot. As in nearly every day, which, she says, fortunately she's got the time to do. She notices a decline if she goes more than two days away from her instrument.

Me too.

And when she does practice at home, she tries to keep it between working hours, the 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. range.

"Every comment I've ever received has been positive, though!" she said with a laugh, adding later: "They always ask me to keep my windows open."

I don't know what my neighbors think of my playing, which is sometimes not in the same time span as Jessica's. Maybe it's better that I don't know.

When I talked to Barry, we had more in common, being of similar breeding. Trumpet is a fellow brass instrument.

"Low, slow and soft" are some of his keywords.

He compared his technique to "like an athlete warm-up of your muscles first, before you get in the heavy lifting."

He warms up for 10 to 15 minutes, if he has the time. "I know guys who take 45 minutes to warm up," he added.

My warm-up is a fraction of all that, unfortunately. I guess I'm much too impatient.

He also tries to play every day, but sometimes takes some time off around the holidays.

"For every day you don't practice, it takes three to catch up," he said. I can't help but agree. A few days ago, I took two days off of practicing. After those missed days I sounded horrible, and it took me another day or two to get back on track.

Keeping those chops with daily practice is certainly no different for the string players, said Jeanne Skrocki, assistant concertmaster. As of next month, she will have been with the Pacific Symphony for 20 years.

She lives by the motto her teacher told her, which goes something like this: If you don't practice for one day, you know it. After two days, the critics know it, and by three days, the public knows it.

Tough gig, classical music is.

Jeanne tries to keep her violin-playing abilities in shape by practicing daily for at least an hour, during which time she is doing some serious technique workouts: playing scales and arpeggios, double stops (playing two notes simultaneously) and etudes.

"That would be the hour to feel warmed up, to get my fingers working," she said.

Occasionally Jeanne has the luxury of a few days off, maybe even a week. But she — Jeanne's violin, that is — notices such an absence.

"She gets mad at me," Jeanne said with a laugh. "My violin is definitely female and she gets angry!"

If that's the case, my horn must be furious with me. I left her alone for years, in a dark (albeit soft and comfortable) case that even survived a U.S. Postal Service trip.

Sorry, horn. But I'm trying to make up for lost time.

Speaking of time, I had better get to practicing. I feel inspired.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at bradley.zint@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter @BradleyZint.

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There's still room

OC Can You Play With Us? has open spots in the bassoon, bass clarinet and string sections. Visit http://www.pacificsymphony.org to register

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