As a principal horn, what advice would you give regarding how to effectively use an assistant in orchestral playing? General ideas or specific examples/experiences would be appreciated!
Kendall Betts Answers:
Assistants are the unsung heroes of the horn section. A very demanding but only occasionally rewarding job. Sometimes, no stress. Other times, as stressful as it gets. My experience includes a lot of assisting as well as 25 years+ as principal.
Different principals use the assistant in different ways. Some like to plan everything and mark the parts accordingly and then stick with the plan. Others give general rules and trust the assistant to use good musical judgement when they should play and stay alert to the principal's (and section's) needs at the moment. I subscribe (and enjoyed my services as the assistant more) to the latter.
In my opinion, the assistant is a member of the horn section, not an accessory or slave to the principal. A good horn section is a team and everyone's job is important. You cannot have successful performances if there are weak links in any position. The principal's job is not only to play the solos well but also to lead the section by example. He should set the highest standards and the section players should emulate those to the best of their abilities. Music performance, beyond the audition process, is not a contest. The job at hand is obvious to those playing numbered parts: 2nd through 8th. For the assistant, this is a bit more difficult to determine except that when you are playing, you must play as well as the principal. There are times when you are supportive to the entire section as well.
I always told my assistant to "play everything except the obvious solos and soft passages." I let them come in and double my part as much as possible. Sometimes, two players playing MF is much more effective and musical than one player playing F. It's good now and then to let them help out even during solos. Several passages in Brahms 1 come to mind as well as the long solo at the end of the 1st movement of Brahms 2. Mason Jones liked his assistant to play the long "E's" in the Tchaikovsky 5 solo. He said "A little rest there is a good thing." I never did that as principal but I fully understood his thinking when I assisted him. Personally, my lip always feels better if I am playing more, either as principal or assistant. I generally had an extra player assisting me in Ein Heldenleben, as the regular was playing down the line on 5th. I let them play as much as possible. By the time I really needed help on the last page, I was happy I had someone next to me ready to go! If I got a solo bow, which was most of the time, I would always acknowledge my assistant as well as the entire section. That surprised a lot of conductors, but the good ones knew the importance of a fully qualified and dedicated horn section.
My advice to principals: Let your assistant play a lot!
My advice to assistants: Be as supportive as you can be to your colleagues!
My advice to all members of the horn section: Work as a team to perform the music the way the composer envisioned his creation! Be flexible and creative in your work! Lead your orchestra by setting an example for all to emulate!
"Be nice to your fill in the blank (assistant, second horn, accompanist), for in them may lie your true genius."
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