The Beginning of a New Chapter

I was having a talk with a colleague and friend about how the job of a horn player has changed over the years.  When I was in school you were either a low horn player or a high horn player.  I realised that, today, students can’t really afford to specialise too much.  The number of jobs has dwindled enormously so “beggars can’t be choosers”.  You have to be able to do it all.   I am, and always have been, convinced that it is all a state of mind.  If you believe you are only a low horn player, you will be.

In the real world, composers have no qualms with giving the 2nd and 4th horns extreme parts, and I feel that complaining about it serves no real purpose.  Players complained that “The Rite of Spring” was too difficult, and now it is so standard to be almost banal (heaven forbid).  I agree that playing low horn for weeks on end will not be conducive to playing great high horn (and visa-versa).  It is because of these challenges that I am looking forward to my new role in the horn section.  Stepping down as first horn is going to be a big challenge, and I am hoping it will stimulate me in many ways.

*  New practice motivation

* Reconnecting with repertoire

* Improved playing

* Being a better teacher by understanding the whole “story” in a way that maybe I hadn’t before.

Total Horn

I am looking forward to a summer of not only low horn, but “Total Horn”. How to improve all aspects of my playing by better performing as a low horn. Opening my ears to new ways of listening (different priorities), sitting in a different chair (this is a big one psychologically, and acoustically), stop being a “leader” and becoming a “cheer”-leader.  

One of the reasons I mention the word “Total Horn” is that this summer I will be playing Penderecki’s Sextet for a chamber music festival. An example of a "total horn" composition. Cross-Training is all the rage, and for me it will not be any different.  I cannot ignore my low range any longer.  I will have to give equal time to both, and I have already started.

I want to specialise in being a "horn player” with no qualifiers.

What You Didn’t Have Time to Learn

     One of many amazing streamed events from the IHS LA Symposium featured Principal Horn players from around the world.  Stefan Dohr, Tim Jones, Julie Landsman, Jennifer Montone, and Co-Host of the Symposium Andrew Bain.  The “moderator” of the event was Sarah Willis and the net guru for all these wonderful streams was Tim Kelly.

I loved the honesty and openness that all the panelists shared with the audience.  Horn players, in the past, haven’t always been open to discussing errors or mistakes.  To hear a newer generation of players like Jennifer Montone and Andrew Bain speak about past difficulties makes it all seem more approachable.  Tim jones talked about the evolution/revolution for female principal horn players  like Julie Landsman and Jennifer Montone.

The session was WAY too short.  I am sure that many questions could have been asked, but time ran out.  One question that I wanted to ask was, “What did you wish you had learned before you became Principal Horn?”

One question I wanted answered was the following:

“Why did you never tell me about the first 10 measures of Beethoven 7?”

You listen to these pieces, you practice the solos, but sometimes the difficult parts aren’t on the audition, and I count the first ten measures of Beethoven 7 among them.

It seems to me that with so much time devoted to horn concertos, solo excerpts, recitals, etc… teachers must make compromises and prioritise their time.  The one thing I wish I had been able to learn more about before playing Principal Horn would have been concertos.  We learn the basics because they are on audition lists (Ravel and Brahms piano concertos, for example), but the ones that are not on the lists can be the most challenging part of the first horn players job.  The first time you play Mozart’s 5th violin concerto, Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, any Saint-Saëns concerto, any Mozart piano concerto, to name just a few.  I never had seen a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto part before I got my first job.  I knew about them, and I knew that they had great horn parts, but I hadn’t really practiced them.  

Concertos are filled with endless delicate entrances (Chopin 1st Piano Concerto), strange measures rest to count (see Beethoven), and a myriad of different rhubatos.  In some ways you can’t teach some of these things, but it would have been nice to have a “heads up” on some of the more difficult ones.  Some may say that these things are a rite of passage that we all must endure, but when so much emphasis is placed on playing Mahler 5 or Tchaikovsky 5 we shouldn’t forget that we will probably play most piano and violin concertos more times in our career than Mahler 5.

Traits d'orchestre CRLG Vol I (2015)

I have been working on an orchestral excerpt book for the Liège Conservatory horn class, and thinking about this was important.  It is true that maybe we have to make a compromise with our time, but it is possible to at least become aware of some of the more difficult less performed pieces in the repertoire.  Especially those that never make it on an audition list.  By making the book myself I hope to save students a lot of money.  €10 per book printed and bound is a good deal. (also downloadable in pdf) 166 pages, complete horn parts to all Brahms symphonies, Haydn variations, and piano concertos, complete first horn parts to Strauss’ Don Juan, Till, Ein Heldenleben, 2 horn Don Quixote, and some Rossini and Weber.  Also, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Berlioz and Debussy.  All the parts are public domain, with a second volume to prepare for 2016.  That volume will contain Bach, Mozart and Haydn, as well as other misc. pieces left out of volume 1.

The new school year begins with a lot of hope and excitement.

Build Your Memory Palace

A few years ago I read “The Madonnas of Leningrad” and was deeply moved by the book.  An idea was planted that finally grew as my students were preparing their recent end of term exams. (January 2015)

This amazing book, written by Debra Dean, is about a woman who worked in the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg.  During the siege of the city (then called Leningrad) during World War II, all the art work was moved to protect it and the museum was an empty shell with faded marks where the paintings had hung.  The woman would move through the empty museum  recalling every painting in her mind as if it was truly there hanging on the wall.  She used a technique called “creating a memory palace”.


You create a house, palace, or in her case a museum in your mind and you fill the rooms with the images, memories, or sounds of what you want to remember.  By walking through the house, from room to room, you can remember everything that you felt was important by a series of mental connections.  It is a very famous technique used by memory specialists.

Why did this book and recent events spark these reflections?  Well…..years ago I was watching a master class given by Frøydis Ree Werke.  She was working with a student to get them to visualise, or feel what their best performance/sound/articulation was.  Trying to bring forward a memory of when everything was going well. Through good practice we develop muscle memory.  After years of work you don’t think about what the muscles need to do to play a high C.  It becomes a reflex action.  When problems creep in we need to rediscover those memories or sensations which we have lost.  The same could be applied to performance anxiety.

Francis Orval used a similar technique to help to prepare for an audition or recital.  He would have me imagine a large cabinet, like the image below.  Each drawer, or door would have a name on it. (concerto, etude, excerpt, etc…)


The concept is very simple, as you can imagine.  Mentally, put each item in it’s own drawer.  When that drawer is closed the piece does not exist.  You only concentrate on the open drawer.

So, for an audition.

1.  Open the drawer for Mozart 4

2.  Play Mozart 4

3.  Close the drawer for Mozart 4

4.  Open the drawer for Till Eulenspiegel

5.  Play Till Eulenspiegel

6.  etc…...

The most important part for me is that whatever happens during the performance of the current piece all other considerations are forgotten.  Missed notes and other errors are closed away when the piece is finished.  You can go back later and look through the drawer for the errors when the time to fix things comes around.  The same technique could be applied to an orchestra concert, or recital.

This cabinet is my memory palace.  It contains all the memories of the music I have worked on.  All the technical details, all the breathing locations, all the fingerings, all the intonation concerns/resolutions.  How does a high C feel, how does it sound, how is the air used, how is the tongue used/placed, etc…  Every detail is saved.  I try to get my students to avoid bad memories.  We clean out the drawers to remove the bad notes, or other errors on a regular basis.  All that is left is the positive part of each experience.  The drawer cleaning process is part of the self-analysis that we all have to go through.

We have all been there.  We are performing a piece and an accident happens.  For the next few measures, or even the rest of the piece, we think about that error and it impacts the rest of our performance.  We perform a piece with a difficult part which we have been worried about.  It goes well in the concert and we are so surprised/pleased that we miss the next few easier notes because our concentration lapses.

Build confidence, build a useful strategy to learn and remember what you need to correct, and what went well.  Build your own “memory palace”.

The Origins of “Your" Sound

I haven’t written a blog post for some time, and I imagine that the reason is simply that I have been so busy that I have prioritised other things over writing.  Also, Facebook has become a de facto blog space and I have been more active in a couple of the horn groups. (Horn People, Harcore Horn, Chinese Wagner Tuba, etc…)

Yesterday I had the privilege of performing the Mozart Symphony Concertante for flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn with the Liège Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  Chamber music between 50 people where you feel the support, and love from everyone.  Great evening, and great experience.

After all that intro., on to the title of this post:  The Origins of “Your” Sound

I have noticed a lot of posts on Facebook, and elsewhere, recently that have focused on sound production, color, equipment, etc… and how they interact to create an individual’s personal sound.  It seems that mostly students, amateurs, and some returning players (after long breaks, illness, or injury) struggle with the same issue.  They are trying to find their personal sound, and often ask what equipment they should use to find it, i.e.. mouthpiece or horn.  What school of teaching will help them to find it.  What embouchure method is best.  I want to sound like X, Y, or Z.

We all have been there.  As a student I wanted to be Dennis Brain, then Barry Tuckwell, then Dale Clevenger, then Dave Krehbiel, then Frøydis Ree Werke, then Francis Orval etc…  We hear a performance/recording of our favorite concert or symphony and we want to sound like that player.  It is no different than wanting to be a policeman or doctor as a kid.  We are drawn to the qualities of that person’s playing which touch something inside us.  We spend hours next to our teacher (in my case: Neill Sanders and Francis Orval) listening to their playing trying to copy everthing we hear or see.  Have you noticed that every student of a particular teacher empties water in the same way, or makes notations in the score in the same way, or breathes in the same way, aticulates in the same way.  It is from these very small details that a style and sound are formed.  It is completely natural, and when you are inside the microclimate of your teacher’s studio you are completely unaware of it’s impact.

Amid all these small details your sound is born.  Your choice of teacher is the first step. The following is a list of things which impact us all in our sound production.  Some are adaptable, but others are more or less fixed for life.

1.     Morphology, or our physical selves.

          A. Lung capacity

          B. Oral cavity 

          C. Hand size

          D.  Physical strength (obviously this can be developed, and is quite     debatable in it’s importance)

          E.  Lip size and shape

          F.   Teeth

2.   Teacher(s)

3.    Instrument choice (linked with number 2 & 4)

4.    Mouthpiece choice (linked with number 2 & 3)

5.     Other musical interests

          A. Singing

          B. Piano, or other instrument

          C. Personal music tastes ie. Jazz, Rock, Classical, Pop

6.      Where you choose to study (after high school/secondary school)

          A. This is obviously related to number 2.  The atmosphere of the school and studio to which you join can make all the difference.  I have never heard of a good teacher with a bad studio atmosphere.  They go hand in hand.

          B. Sometimes we don’t have any choice.  Financial problems can mean having to study at a school which offers financial aid.  Money can often be a deciding factor, I know it was for me.

          C. Your sound, teacher choice and geographic location can make a big difference in where you choose to study.  Studying in France or Germany depends mostly on where you were born.

               If you were born in the Midwest of the USA (like me), or on the East coast, etc…  I grew up near Chicago and the only orchestral player that mattered was Dale Clevenger.  When I wanted to choose a teacher Cleveland Conservatory was not an option (Wrong sound, wrong equipment, wrong teacher history.  Boy does that sound bad as I type it, but it was a painful reality)

So you see, everything about you and your experiences make up YOUR sound.  Fundamentally, your sound comes from inside you.  Your mind, your lip type, your oral cavity shape/size, your lungs, your SOUL (if you believe in that kind of thing), your experiences.

All the technical “stuff”: horn choice, mouthpiece choice, etc…  These only amplify YOU.  YOUR personality, YOUR music, YOUR passion, YOUR life. 

Your teacher’s job is give you the tools to express your sound and your music.  They need to help you find the right combination of tools which allows you to techically play while expressing not only a quality interpretation in an appropriate style, and expressing your own personal style.

When I performed Mozart last night it answered a question to which, I guess, I have always known the answer.  Why have I stayed in Liège, Belgium?  I studied with Francis Orval, my personal tastes match the orchestra’s traditions, my musical talents are good enough to play at this level,  my family is happy here.  When we first rehearsed the Concertante we read the piece through and we knew immediately that it was going to work, but not only at a basic level (we are all professionals), but a deeper level. The blend of sound, interpretation, articulation were almost instantaneous. 

Don’t fight who you are.  Embrace it, nuture it.  Be yourself, and allow your sound and your music to soar.

How many tools do you have in your toolbox?

A couple of recent conversations have led me to put pen to paper (sorta).  Whether it is in a lesson, or preparing for a concert we often have to sort through our horn player's toolbox to find solutions.  Lets equate tools to skills, now I am not talking about the basic technical skills of playing the horn, but something else.  Although I might argue that some of these skills should be common place, and that some have become common place in our times, sadly when I was a student some were not part of the curriculum.  That is not because of a lack of interest or resources, but purely because they were not considered absolutely necessary at the time.

Natural Horn

Wagner Tuba

Triple Horn

Contemporary techniques

I completed my Masters degree without any direct contact with any of these skills.  Contemporary techniques became important the last 2 years, but could have gone further if not for the restrictions of time.  I have to thank my teacher, Francis Orval, for instilling the love of contemporary music and the accompanying skills which I have been constantly expanding ever since.  Although Francis Orval loves the Natural horn, teaching it to me was not an option.  No instrument, and other playing priorities to fix made it impossible at the time.  I would argue that learning how to use the skills listed above will have an influence on everything you do and make you a better horn player.


Harmonic series


Hand techniques

Did you know, or spend time thinking about, that all natural horn techniques can be applied to everything else that you do. It is kind of like that quote that after Bach no new music has really been written. (jazz, rock, romantic, it's all there if you look hard enough)  If you understand the harmonic series then you apply that to fingerings and hand positions.  I am at best an amateur natural horn player.  I spend time trying to improve, but I don't have a lot of time.  I'm told that I don't need a lot of time just regular practice, but finding just 20 minutes of extra lip isn't easy.  I could find an hour, but my lip doesn't have an extra hour in it.

How many students are unaware of the basic tendancies of the valve combinations, dare to try alternate fingerings to improve the intonation of an interval, or alter hand position.  All these things are vital.  In today's vibrant contemporary music scene I can't imagine not being able to decipher a score without these tools in my toolbox.  The Ligeti Trio is standard repertoire these days, but even Ligeti felt it necessary to write in the harmonic series that you needed to use to play the "natural" sections of his score.  If I had had the chance to learn natural horn in my 20's I would have found the Ligeti much easier to learn in my 40's.

Why is Triple Horn and Wagner Tuba on this list?

In the early days triple horns were a true test of your ability to master alternate fingerings to find reasonable solutions.  Today's triple horns are amazing instruments without most of the compromises that their earlier brethren inherently required, but even so, handling three instruments leads to real investigation into alternatives which can only help you in your general playing.  Why does this sound so different on the high F side, why is the articulation so much better on the Bb side,  why does the low F side sound like a tug boat in this register, etc…  I am not a fan of the triple horn, but I accept that it is an important part of the horn playing culture.  

Wagner Tuba:  If you have spent any time with the Wagner Tuba you know that most of what I have written before applies to playing this fantastic instrument.  Learning the Wagern Tuba is an exercise in alternate fingerings.  If you were to compare a WT part with the same score played by a horn player very few of the fingerings would the same.  The other handicap for the WT player is that we can't use our hand to make fine adjustments, something we take for granted in our horn playing.  Harmonic series plays a big part in the WT.  Since many instruments do not have solid harmonics the  acoustic location of these harmonics make missing notes VERY easy.  The notes are just not where you expect them to be.  By using alternate fingerings you can attempt to recreate the appropriate location of the harmonics, but this leads to some tough choices. The last movement of Bruckner 7 is an excellent example.  It is not easy using a lot of alternate fingerings when leaping all over the place.  (But what a reward for that effort!)

Contemporary Techniques:

Understanding true hand stopping is vital.  (forget the stopping mute for a moment)  If you understand natural horn technique there is not a single stopping technique that should worry you.  Quarter tones/Micro tonality -  no problem, stopped or otherwise.  The combination of the right fingering choice, judicial placement of your thumb, and muscle tension in your hand make most everything possible.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea.

You don't need a triple horn to play contemporary music, but you can see that it does offer more options to achieve your goal.  I own one and have used 5 or 6 times in the last 8 years.  I own a natural horn, but have never played it professionally.  It has taught me so much about myself and my playing that I cannot believe that I went so long without learning how to play it.  I wish I owned a Wagner Tuba (my favorite), maybe someday...

Be open to what you can learn from these skills, and make sure that they are part of your tool box.

Does it really matter if I know who Philip Farkas was?

This past week a 19 year old minor league baseball player was asked to write a report about a famous Baltimore Oriole player Frank Robinson, because he didn’t know who he was, and what he had done for the team and baseball in general.

I am curious.  How many students know what the name Farkas on their mouthpiece means?  If you (gasp!) don’t own “The Art of French Horn Playing” have you heard of the author, and even if you do own it  do you know anything about the author?  How many students actually read the “forwards “ of these books?  If you live outside the US it is quite probable that unless you read english, that you don’t own this book and therefore haven’t heard of Mister Farkas (possibly the most important pedagogue of the last 100 years.  You say you play on a Geyer wrap horn, but do you know what that really means or who Mr. Geyer even was?  You get my point.

Here are some names.  How many do you really know anything about, or at least recognise?  Some are historical, pedagogical or orchestral, and some are very recent.







Frøydis Ree Werke



Aubrey Brain


















This list could be endless and filled with more historical figures, orchestra players, etude authors, more Americans, less Americans, etc…  I don’t think that you need to memorise books on the topic, but a working knowledge of these people, and many others would greatly enhance your understanding of what we do and why.  I am not saying that memorising facts about these people will make you a better horn player, or even a better person, but…

As musicians we are in constant contact with our past through the music we perform.  We investigate performance practice to use appropriate articulations in a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven symphony.  We learn how to interpret all the different markings in a Brahms symphony.  We say we like Dale Clevenger’s sound and then someone else says that they prefer the sound of James Chambers.  Why do you have a preference, and why are their sounds different, apart from being two different men from two different cities playing on completely different equipment. Why do some countries have a history of more vibrato use, and do they still have the same traditions today?  Have you asked your teacher why they play the instrument they do?  Do you know who your teacher studied with and why?

It is important to build respect for the past, and to understand our roots as horn players.  The growth of all art is an organic process.  We build the foundations of our playing on the backs of all these great people.  Take a moment and think about them and what they mean to us today.

IHS 45 Memphis


Sunday evening, the eve of IHS 45 Memphis, Tennessee.  Took a walk around today to reconnoiter.  Everything looks great.  I have forgotten how amazing most college campuses in the US are.  One of the benefits of having so much space.  Something most European campuses can only dream about.

It has been 12 years since my last Symposium.  Timing and location have been the bane of my existence over that time.  A big thank you for whomever is responsible for this years Symposium being so late in the summer.  It actually falls in the middle of my vacation.  Fantastic. (although my family might disagree)

Tomorrow begins the grand experiment.  I get an unknown Wagner Tuba, from Dieter-Otto, and an unknown Wagner Tuba mute (Ion Balu).  4 days to adjust to the new instrument and perform.  The good news is that I can practice twice as long on the Wagner Tuba.  It might be necessary.  I just hope that I won't have to change too many fingerings.

I will post photos separately in a Facebook album, and will add them to the blog later.  I am doing all of this on my iPad Mini and a Belkin bluetooth keyboard which makes editing and adding photos complicated.  Possible, but I want to be able to get these posts up as soon as possible.


Monday, Day 1

An amazing day. A great opening concert with a moving tribute to Ethel Merker by Thomas Bacon.  This included a video of an interview that she did a few years ago.  The IHS needs to investigate doing video interviews of horn players from around the world to create an archive.  Horn and Song (the theme of the symposium) is off to a fantastic start.  Jeff Nelson, Luiz Garcia and Frank Lloyd what an opening day.  I got a little nostaligic listening to the Cooke "Nocturnes".  It reminded me of playing them with my mother (mezzo-soprano).  We did a lot of that repertoire.  Britten's Canticle III is still one of the most moving pieces in the literature.  Something about writing for horn brings out the best in composer poetic choices.  I was so moved today that I forgot to take pictures.  Sorry!


Tuesday, Day 2

IHS 45 Memphis Day 2.  Cantata No. 4:  Canticum Sacrum, "Canticle of Zechariah" by Robert Bradshaw.  Now just saying that is a mouthful, but 50 minutes later I imagine that the dream team performing;  William VerMeulen, Rachel Schulz and Jeb Wallace, Alex Shuhan, Matthre Eckenhoff, and Josh Phillips (thanks for adding his name Jeb) must have been completely wiped out.  What a performance, and those who know me will not be surprised that what stood out for me was the horn quartet.  Glorious, high risk, taking no prisoners playing.  William VerMeulen negociated a treacherous solo part with great aplomb, as you would expect, and the brave string quintet withstood the onslaught with great style.  What a night!


Wednesday, Day 3

IHS 45 Memphis Day 3.  Nostalgia was the byword for Day 3.  Connections with days gone by, emotions and memories.  All of these things were linked by 2 things, Western Michigan University and Neill Sanders.  Meeting 3 ex-students of Neill, and graduates from WMU, and all overlapping with connections leading to today.  I met the mother (Lori Clifton) of one of the solo competition finalists (from WMU) who just happened to have been studying at Western at the same time that I was , and now her son is competing at an IHS Competition.  Being invited by Lin Foulk to play with the WMU horn ensemble's lunch time concert was fun, but even better was hearing all the great young horn players that she is guiding so skillfully.

And then....the National Anthem played at the Memphis Redbirds baseball game.  I wanted to film it so I stood in the stands, and I am glad that I did.  It was a Wednesdy evening so the crowd was sparse (AAA ball), but I am certain that they all went home remembering that Anthem.  If the symposium ended today it would have been worth the money, but no.  We have 3 more days.


Thursday, Day 4

IHS 45 Memphis Day 4.  It might have been a bit hopeful that I could keep Days 4 & 5 together in one post.  Too much great stuff happening, so Day 4 now and Day 5 later today.

With often 6 things happening at once I took the cowards way out and  listened to the Farkas video presentation by John Ericson.  It is so fun to go back and listen to what was, then, the latest pedagogy/interpretation choices.  Nice playing for a 75 year old.

With rehearsals that I had to do in the afternoon I missed the afternoon concert, but I have heard Jaspar de Waal play Brahms at the British Horn Society three years ago in Edinburgh.  He has a new Single Bb horn made by Klaus Fehr near Maastricht.  Lovely horn.  If Klaus can come to London next year you can try his horns for yourself.  I have wanted to hear Crumb's "Idyll of the Misbegotten" for a long time.  Especially in this horn version.  It is a piece of "experimental" music which seems to be timeless, and is more accessible  today than when it was written.  Bravo to Robert Patterson.

Thursday evenings performances were fabulous.  The Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse (stunning name by the way) gave a prelude performance and played with great passion, precision and originality.  This brings me to a point about this IHS Symposium.  The horn quartet playing has been truly, truly magnificent.  From the Four Hornsmen, Quadre, Ad hoc Quartet, the various "ringer" groups thrown together for special pieces, etc, etc....  This leads me to the full evening concert.  Angela Barnes, and this might be an obscure reference, carries on one of the few remaining truly national horn sounds, the UK.  I remember my teacher Neill Sanders, Alan Civil, Ifor James, Frank Lloyd, Anthony Halstead, Stephen Stirling, etc.  and Angela Barnes.  Smooth, lyrical sound  simple yet carries powerful emotion.  Just pure horn playing which is truly British.  It is hard to pin down other countries horn playing in the same way.  Great that we still have that.

Horn Quartets.  Great hunting songs with Men's chorus, and then Pam Marshall's "Walden at Evening". Imaginative, evocative, spiritual.  Beautifully performed by Jonathan Boen, the chorus and percussionists. 


Friday, Day 5

IHS 45 Memphis, Day 5.  I missed the morning sessions and concert.  A long slow warm up was required today so I had to miss some things.  Performing at the end of the week means not having as much fun as you might otherwise be able to, or maybe I'm too serious.  It won't be the first time that I have been accused of that. I have to thank the string quartet with which I had the pleasure of playing the Koetsier Wagner Tuba piece.  They were great and fun to perform with. Also the composers from the Liège Conservatory:  Guillaume Auvray and Eric Bettens.  There compositions made it all possible.

IMG 0036

Two more quartets to mention.  The "Ad Hoc Quartet" performed the wonderful "Beale Street" written by James Naigus.  A wonderful addition to the repertoire. The.....WOW.  Three Hunting Songs by Brian Holmes.  What a performance filled with power and passion. For not the first time Nina Yoshida Nelson shone on the stage this week. Skillfully accompanied by QUADRE.  Great music gloriously performed.

I got to hear Andrew Pelletier perform the fiendishly delicate Five Love Songs by Alec Wilder.  Great playing.  At this point I started to fall asleep, so a nap meant that I missed the rest of the afternoon concert.  

The evening concert was a wonderful experience. Great discoveries have been a highlight of this symposium and the Horn Concerto by Luís Tinoco was no exception. Very atmospheric music beautifully performed.  The haunting ending of Britten's "In memoriam" is so moving, abruptly ending just like Dennis Brain's life. speaking of Dennis Brian, British horn playing, and it's traditions this brings us to Frank Lloyd.  Britten's Serenade is as iconic a work as there is in our repertoire.  That must bring a lot of pressure when performing in front of a specialised audience.  I didn't sense this in the hall, all I felt was an assuredness which made me feel content throughout.  Beautifully played by all concerned.  Great playing by the Eroica Ensemble.  It is always hard to perform for these events because of the restricted rehearsal time, but they performed well and all the supplemental musicians really added to what was already a great week.

Lastly, there was a composers forum with questions and answers about how to commission, costs, philosophy, etc...  Very interesting and informative.  10 or eleven of the composers represented at the symposium were present chaired by Eric Ewazen.  A great ending to an amazing day.

IHS 45 Memphis, the final update.  As I wait for my flight back to Belgium I have been contemplating the experiences of the last week in Memphis.  It has been 12 years since I last had been to an IHS Symposium.  (in the interim I have been to 3 British Horn Society events)  What I love about the IHS is the open support that horn players share which is sometimes lacking amongst other groups.

Apart from the catered food everything was great.  The variety, which is only possible during this kind of event, was out of this world.  Over 25 world premieres, of which I only heard about 12, and some were absolutely stunning.  Performances which took your breath away, and not only by horn players.  Non-horn players which amazed where the singers/choirs.  There are so many, but suffice it to say they all did an amazing job.  The president of the society, Frank Lloyd, played quite a few things, but the performances which I will always remember are of the Canticle III and Serenade by Benjamin Britten.


Other favorite moments were, and sorry for listing them like this:

Basically everything that included Nina Yoshida Nelsen singing.  With or without her husband Jeff (who popped up all over the place all week)

Compositions by Otto Fisch which kept us sane during all the intensity.

The fact that Eric Ruske and Angela Barnes performed the entirety of their programs from memory, and that Frank Lloyd did the same with the Britten Serenade.

The horn quartet playing in the Cantata No. 4

The National Anthem and the baseball game with BBQ instead of a traditional symposium banquet.  Inspired idea by Dan Phillips, our host.

Pamela Marshall's "Walden at Evening"

I know this one may not have been to everyone's taste, but I was really looking forward to this one, and liked it a lot:  Idyll of the Misbegotten by George Crumb in the version with horn.

The Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse


The elegance of Angela Barnes sound, and the "Lone Call and Charge" by Richard Bissill

BBQ at Corky's

The men's chorus pieces with yet another great horn quartet

Beale Suite by James Naigus  (not the only piece by him that interested me this week)

Three Hunting Songs by Brian Holmes (also a new composer, to me) performed by Nina Nelson and Quadre

The second movement of the Ewazen Horn Concerto performed by Jeffrey Fordden.  I enjoyed meeting Jeffrey and talking at the composer's forum.  I have never met a slow movement by Eric Ewazen that I didn't like.

The Friday evening concert was the best concert from beginning to end:

Rossini, Tinoco "Horn Concerto", Britten "In Memoriam:  Dennis Brain", Fidelio excerpt, Mozart 3 by Jasper de Waal, and of course Britten's Serenade.

Composer's Forum (very interesting)

Max Friedman's "Mnemiopsis" (great bass clarinet playing by Nobuko Igarashi)

All the horn ensembles which performed at lunchtime.  BRAVO !!!  It's not easy to perform under those conditions, but everyone did a great job.

Lastly,  playing with the WMU horn ensemble brought back so many memories.  It was actually hard to play, I was running my life through my mind remembering Neill Sanders and Johnny Pherigo and multiple generations of horn players from Western that I met during the week.  Thanks to Lin Foulk for the opportunity.  It is great to see WMU in such safe hands.

Spending some time chatting with a friend that I haven't seen in 30 years.  (John Ericson) and bumping into David Griffin (Chicago Symphony) and his gracious acceptance to have dinner with me.  Meeting such "real" people, unpretentious, open, approachable, warm, etc...  It was a wonderful chance and I am glad that I took it.

Finally, a special thank you to 5 people.  Dan Phillips for an outstanding job.  Truly epic.  And finally to my string quartet:  Will Haapaniemi, Heidi Han, Anthony Gilbert and Griffin Browne.  Thank  you for making the Koetsier a real highlight of my career.  It was a pleasure to perform with you, and I am only sorry that it was a single concert.  I wish you all the best.

Wagner Tuba: The Story behind a project


Almost one year ago I wanted to have a set of Wagner Tuben for students to practice/tryout on at the inaugural Conn-Selmer Academy Summer Course.  Problems related to my health, and instrumental insurance issues meant that I couldn't arrange it in time. (I will rectify it for this summer)  What came out of last summer was a desire to give students a better understanding of what the Wagner Tuba is and to demystify it.

May 22, 2013 will be Wagner's 200th birthday, and I couldn't stop thinking about finding a way to commemorate it via the Wagner Tuba.  Our orchestra in Liège, Belgium will have a week long festival dedicated to Wagner's birthday, but I had noticed that the International Horn Society annual symposium in Memphis was dedicated to "Horn and Song", and obviously connected to Benjamin Britten's birthday.  

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The gears in my head started spinning and smoke started to pour out my ears.  When I get a project going in my head I can't sleep running it through, over and over.  I vaguely remembered a piece for Wagner Tuba and string quartet by Jan Koetsier that I had read about in William Melton's:  "A History of the Wagner Tuba" and started researching other possible pieces which could be used to create a program.  I found nothing that didn't include large horn/Wagner tuben ensembles or unusual combinations of instruments.  I felt the only solution was to find a composer and have a piece written for Wagner Tuba solo which, at the very least, would simplify rehearsal scheduling.

I posted something about all this on Facebook, and Dan Phillips, the host of the IHS Symposium in Memphis, mentioned:  "Why not play it in Memphis next summer?"  Why not indeed.  Wagner's birthday in 2013 and no Wagner Tuba performances scheduled at the International Horn Society Symposium.  The guantlet had been thrown down.


Last Autumn I had planned to present the horn to the composition class of the Conservatory in Liège where I am horn professor.  It then struck me that maybe some of these students might be insterested in writing for this ignored instrument, so I presented both the horn and Wagner Tuba to the class.  Since the students have to compose a certain number of pieces throughout the year, and for their final exam, their composition professor Michel Fourgon agreed that if any students wanted to write for the instrument the resulting composition would count for their final grade.  Lo, and behold 2 students took on the challenge.  I placed a limit of ±3 minutes. (3 minutes of Bb Wagner Tuba is much more tiring than 3 minutes of horn)  Both pieces were delivered on time (amazingly!) during Easter break.

a bruckner-1

I proposed to the orchestra a lunchtime concert program about the Wagner Tuba, the week before the Wagner festival.  The planning is still in the works with only 2 weeks to go: panic, panic, but in addition to the two new works and the Jan Koetiser "Skürrile Elegie auf Richard W." for Bb Wagner Tuba and String Quartet we needed 45 more minutes of concert material, but only using 4 Wagner Tuben.  So the concert "The History of the Wagner Tuba" was born.  Using a slideshow, recorded audio examples, live quartet excerpts played by my colleagues in the horn section, commentary, and the 3 other pieces a structure started to come about.

Excerpts from Wagner's Ring cycle, Bruckner's 7th Symphony Adagio, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring,  Janacek's Sinfonietta, Christopher Rouse's 1st Symphony are all being used in addition to jazz by Jim Rattigan and Arkady Shilkloper.  Stories about the invention of the instrument, as well as a comparison of the same Wagner excerpt on Saxhorn and Wagner Tuba. Information about Schoenberg, Strauss (Franz and Richard), orchestration, and even an interesting story about John Philip Sousa.  It is going to be an hour long Wagner extravaganza.  I may not survive it, but will certainly be fun.  Special thanks must be given to William Melton, author of The Wagner Tuba:  A History (edition ebenos:  Excerpts from this book have been published in "The Horn Call" by the IHS. 

In the end all I want to do is share my passion for this instrumental oddity which, seemingly obscure, is in reality a constant presence in the orchestra of today, and in more and more varied ways.  There is much more to the Wagner Tuba than just Wagner and three Bruckner symphonies, and I can't wait to share that with the audience.  The next best thing is that I will have the honor and privilege of playing these three pieces in Memphis this summer for the IHS Symposium, and I can't wait.


As I am sure you have figured out some of this post was written prior to the Wagner Tuba demonstration concert.  I must make something very clear;  the pieces I performed required an enormous amount of time to prepare.  Those who play Wagner Tuba will say that I am mad, that the instrument isn't worth all that effort.  I beg to differ.  I have never felt more at ease with the Wagner Tuba than now, it holds no terror for me.  That is not to say that it is easy, it will never be easy, but it does mean that after the pieces I have worked on Bruckner 7 will not create the same tension as in the past.  I have mentioned in a previous blog entry, and on Facebook, that the Wagner Tuba vibrates the depths of your soul, and I truly believe that.  I easily spent 100 hours practicing Wagner Tuba since last September.  It remains a frustrating instrument, a fragile instrument, a difficult instrument, but above all it is a glorious instrument.  

I vowed that regardless of the result I would not have any regrets about this project.  I learned a lot about myself and the instrument (historically and musically) during this process which will stand me in good stead for the future.

Paxman Horn Quartet Gig book: take 2

Gig Book Cover

I have had the unusual privilege of being a small part of the process in bringing the second edition of these very useful books to fruition.  The pictures here were taken during the proofreading sessions done at author/editor/arranger William Melton's house.   

It took five of us to get through it all, but somehow we got together a few afternoons over a few months, and read through every piece checking for errors in the proofs.  We also discussed possible key changes, marking clarifications, etc…  

There are some real gems in both editions.  As well as some very challenging longer pieces, there are also many short pieces which can be put together in a very short time for a quick fanfare.  Since all the pieces are in Horn Key Signature, that means no sharps or flats in the key 

(Image of volume 1 reprinted with the permission of the editor)

signature, transposition, if required is easy.  This means that lower level students should be able to not only read some of the more challenging pieces, and, also practice their transposing in a group.


(l - r:  Michael Roberts, William Melton, Nigel Munisamy, Bruce Richards)

Something that I don't think people realize with these books is the enormous research that has gone into them.  Finding period original quartet music, obscure quite valid composers, and tireless work arranging  everything from the Canadian National Anthem to part of a Bruckner Mass.

An issue which I have heard raised about these books is the cost.  What most people do not seem to realize is that divided by 4 it is not that expensive.  Hours of quartet music for €15/quartet member.  Imagine how much you would spend for the same quantity of individually purchased quartets.  I have found the first set to very valuable.  Students can borrow them during a summer course and read pieces through for fun.


(l-r: William Melton, Bruce Richards, Michael Roberts, Hubert Stähle)

Michael Roberts and William Melton  Aachen Symphony Orchestra  Aachen, Germany

Bruce Richards and Nigel Munisamy  Liège Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Hubert Stähle WDR Symphony Orchestra Köln, Germany


(l-r: William Melton (informal dress), Michael Roberts, Bruce Richards, Nigel Munisamy)

The second volume of these books will be laid out in exactly the same way as the first, with downloadable program notes available from the publisher's web site.

I want to emphasize that you should ask your horn teacher/professor to either invest in these books, or have their respective music library consider aquiring them.  Students could then check them out for gigs, and they would become a very handy resource for years to come.  The publishers web site:

The Paxman Horn Quartet Gig Book Volume 1  and the William Melton's book on the history of the Wagner Tuba are both available at this site.

I will be sure to announce the availability of the second set when they become available.  All photos are the property of William Melton.

Color and Sound

Two recent events have pushed me to put "pen to paper".  A recent Facebook thread on the Horn People page discussed the relative value of high priced hand-made, boutique horns.  One of my points was that I felt that on my Rauch I had a larger palette of colors to choose from than I had previously experienced in other brands.  In addition to this discussion I recently gave a lesson on contemporary interpretation and my student told me that I need to write this stuff down.

Synesthesia is the brain process that means that we hear colors.  Olivier Messiaen and Wassily Kandinsky were famous names in this area, but what I am referring to is not perceiving colors in music, or art in general.  I am talking about producing different colors and changing your sound to adapt to the requirements of the music you are performing.

Singing and Vowel Sounds 

Singers have their instrument built in and each instrument is different.  A column of air is vibrated by the vocal chords and then (this is the important part) that sound is amplified by the their resonating chamber.  That chamber is the oral and nasal cavities.  If you have ever listened to a singer warming up they often do exercises where they use the different vowel sounds during their vocalises.  (a, e, i, o and u)

Try singing and change the vowel sounds.  The alterations of your oral cavity can be astonishing.  Tongue placement, Palate (not to be confused with a painter's palette) and throat muscle tension.  All of these factors change the harmonics in the sound creating a different color.  Singers have an infinite selection of colors by changing vowel sounds and the variations in between.  Language can be another help in this way.  Some languages are more "musical" than others.  Languages with more complex, or subtle vowel sounds like Chinese or French might give a  person an advantage in this area.

How do you become more attuned to these variations? 

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The Throat:   We are taught to never introduce tension in our throats because of what it does to the sound and the effenciency of our breathing.  Think about that a moment:  "…what it does to the sound…."  What actually happens?

Try breathing through your nose, singers do this to help center notes and to eliminate the tension in the throat.  By doing this you bypass the throat as a mechanism for tension.  After doing this breath through the mouth and try adding tension.  The easiest place to do this is where the collar bone joins the rib cage.  Then work your way up towards the jaw trying to feel the variations that occur in your sound.  You may not discern all of these changes but that is because you are not attuned to them.  After you have worked from the collarbone to the jaw move to your tongue. 

The Tongue:   More specifically the back of the tongue.  As you may be aware the tongue is actually quite large and it has an enormous impact on everything we do to communicate either by word, song or horn, but I am not talking about articulation here (another enormous topic) just sound.  As with the throat, experiment with tongue positions and tension.  Often when people think there is tension in the throat it is actually the tongue which is tense. With the tongue it is very important to think of the vowel sounds while trying different positions.

The Palate:  To be more specific the "soft palate" (soft meaning flexible/moveable)  The easiest way to understand how your palate changes is to sing.  Try singing in the lower part of your range and then slur up to a very high note.  Concentrate on what happens inside your mouth, in particular your palate.  A very old teaching technique is to imagine that you taken a bite of something which is too hot.  That reaction is another version of this same effect.  "A hot potato in your mouth"  Now, I realize that more than just your palate is involved in these sensations, but it is a point of "visualization" or "sensation".  To understand what is happening it helps to feel your way bit by bit and analyze what is happening at each stage of the way.

Lip tension/movement:  I mention this part with trepidation because under no circumstances should you work on this part without express consent or assistance by your teacher.  Your sound may be changed enormously by changing lip tension and/or by rolling the lips in or out, but only seasoned players will be able to do this without taking the risk of changing their embouchure.  Younger students that are still training their muscles and installing muscle memory should not be trying this.

Getting back to my teaching.  My student came to me with a piece of contemporary music which required the player to use different vowel sounds on different notes.  These techniques are very, very subtle and would be lost in a large orchestral setting, but for a solo piece the effect can be quite stunning.  The point of the exercise is to become aware of these various parts of the sound equation and learn how they change what you do. (for better or worse)  Learning about this will make you a better teacher and a more thoughtful/adaptable player.

I am not talking about instruments in this discussion because it is a deep and bottomless pit which divides opinion as much as some religions.  Each instrument is but an amplifier of what we do before the lips vibrate.  The characteristics of each amplifier are different, but the techniques applied before your sound reaches that amplifier are the same for everyone.

Experiment and expand your color palette.

© Bruce Richards 2012-2019