Playing Brahms

The novelty of playing a new instrument has worn off, and I have to push myself now to practice when Al is done with his practice each evening. (In case you didn’t read my earlier post, he is learning to play the baritone horn. Or maybe it’s a euphonium – it depends on which band director you ask.) As I get tired of playing the same six exercises, and I know enough about music to go beyond what Al has learned in his lessons, I look ahead in the lesson book for melodies that I know.

There’s “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” (which will probably be assigned by his teacher at tomorrow’s lesson), “Erie Canal Capers” (based on “Erie Canal,” a song which I will forever associate with Veggie Tales ever since seeing The Wonderful World of Auto-Tainment), “Skip to My Lou“, and hymn tunes such as “Crusader’s March” (adapted from the tune to “Fairest Lord Jesus”).

My favorite songs have always been hymn tunes. When I was learning to play violin, I would go through the hymnal from church, trying to find tunes I could play (for a while I was limited by the fact that I only knew how to play in the key of G). As a teenager, I would go through various hymnals, using the soprano recorder to play both favorite hymn tunes and others that I had never heard or sung in church.

Those hymnals didn’t have “We Are God’s People,” because the words were not written until 1976 (the year I came to faith in Jesus Christ – though I had attended church since I was a baby). I learned it while attending Valley Community Baptist Church six years later (incidentally, the church also got its start in 1976). I especially loved the tune, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that was based on the theme of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.

So I was excited to discover an exercise in the lesson book based on this theme. So far, it is the one causing me the most difficulty, because it requires a new technique, slurring notes. On the violin, that was pretty easy – just keep the bow going in the same direction rather than switching directions between notes, as you normally do. On a brass instrument, it means not tonguing in between notes.

That should be easy enough. I had to practice quite a bit at the beginning to tongue in between every note. (At the very beginning, I was taking a breath for every note, which does not work at all.) So not tonguing shouldn’t be hard. Except that I still have to tongue between the non-slurred notes. And change my finger positions on the valves at the same time as not tonguing. And change my lip position to get the higher notes. So far, that’s more coordination than I can manage, at least while keeping in rhythm.

I had originally planned to call this post “Playing Mozart,” because the lesson book identifies the composer of one of the exercises as Mozart. I was skeptical, though, and looked it up. It turns out that Mozart wrote some variations on the melody, but it was not original with him. He is often identified as the composer, however, because the first edition of Trivial Pursuit gave that as the answer. (The question: Who wrote “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”?)

My husband says he gave up playing an instrument, as a boy, because it was so frustrating to be playing at the level of Twinkle, Twinkle, while winning district contests in singing. I enjoyed singing Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel at the concert Friday evening, but I’ve never had a voice good enough to win contests. So I’ll keep plugging away at the practice – to encourage Al if nothing else – and look forward to when I can play not only Brahms but Bach and Beethoven.


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