Preparing for an orchestral career

  • Philip Myers
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27 Nov 2008 22:35 #207 by Philip Myers
Preparing for an orchestral career was created by Philip Myers
Question:

In your eyes, what should be the number one priority during the undergrad years for a horn player wishing to pursue an orchestral career?

Where should we direct our time, energy, and money... (all of which we seem to have little of and need a lot of to make it) in order to be the best horn player and musician we can? (IE: some advocate lots of score study, music festival participation, concert attendance, lessons from different teachers, etc)

What are the most important things for a horn student to keep in mind while going through school?

What advice can you give to up and coming young horn players to prepare them for what's next after school is over and reality sets in?

What should the student be doing NOW to get ready for what's in store?

Phil Myers' answer:

OK, you really cover a lot of stuff here so let's break it down into a few specific areas of decision making.

1. Picking and choosing to remain with a teacher

I studied with seven different people. This broke down as one in junior high, two in high school, one main teacher in college and studied with two others during the summers, and finally, I studied with another for five years after graduation during the time that I was first horn in Halifax and third horn in Pittsburgh.

Now some may find this unusual but there are several advantages to this. Most importantly, I was able to tell pretty quickly by the third teacher who had a way of thinking and saying things that spoke to me and who did not. This is not to say that any of these teachers was inherently better or worse than any other, but some of them were simply a good fit for me and some were not. If they were not, I moved on, I didn't feel I had the time to spend a year or two with someone that wasn't helping me.

Now what did them being a good fit mean actually. For me it meant that on a bi-monthly basis I could see progress. Maybe not every month, but for sure if I checked in with myself every other month, I would have been able to see that I was able to do something that better than I had two months previous.

The other thing though was this: with every one of the teachers that I seemed to click with (four out of seven), there would be a bombshell lesson only maybe every ten lessons. The rest were good, always felt like I was getting something, but every now and then they blew my socks off.

2. Picking a school

I was going to try to get into a well respected school in the Midwest for my college career. I was studying with Dale Clevenger during my senior year in high school. I went into a lesson with music I wanted to prepare for my college audition and he asked me why I had chosen this particular school. I told him the college's music school had a great reputation (which of course he knew) and that my father and sister had both gone there and loved it.

He asked what I knew of the horn teacher. I knew his name. He then told me of the history and career of the teacher (Dale knew everybody) and said that he didn't think that this teacher and I would necessarily be the best fit. He thought I should consider studying with his (Dale's) teacher, Forrest Standley, at Carnegie Mellon University. I told him I had never heard of Carnegie Mellon University. His reply was the one best piece of advice that I ever received from a horn teacher:

You pick a college to study with a particular teacher that you know can help you, not to a prestigious school that might be prestigious for every reason except the horn teacher.

Forty years later, thank you Mr. Clevenger, again, for this advice.

Now I was different from many in this regard. Coming out of high school I needed a lot of remedial help on the horn. Forrest Standley changed my embouchure (in retrospect, he had no choice), breathing (had no choice) and tonguing (really had no choice), this over a period of three years. Of course we were covering a lot of other things like professional behavior (hey, he had no choice about that either), etc. But the bottom line is that Dale was soooooo right and I knew it after one lesson. This is exactly what Mr. Clevenger had told me, you will know after one lesson, and he was right. Changed my life, wouldn't have been a professional horn player had Dale not sent me to his teacher.

So, before you go to a school that is going to cost you thousands and thousands of dollars, spend a few hundred to take a lesson or two with the person that you expect to be studying with. You must expect to pay for this lesson. This teacher doesn't know you and probably doesn't need you to fill their class the next year, so the only thing in it for them is making their living the way they do, getting paid for playing and in this case teaching. Simply call them or get in touch with them by writing to them c/o the school, and tell them you would like to take a lesson in the pursuit of trying to decide which college to attend. Ask them how much a lesson costs so that you are not surprised by this the day of the lesson. Any teacher that you want to spend four years with will see such a lesson a beneficial to both of you. If they try to make you feel as though their reputation means you should take studying with them on faith, move on.

3. Career in school

So now I am in college with a teacher that is right for me. What about the rest of it? Well, like a lot of people that decide to study music in college, I was one of the better people in my high school, certainly on the horn. So I was used to being chosen for the best performance opportunities. My high school had a band and an orchestra, I had won both auditions and so coming out of high school I was used to playing a fair amount.

This ended in college. For various playing and non-playing reasons (see above - needed help with professional behavior), I didn't end up playing many good parts in college. Only my last year, when one of the conductors got even more angry at someone else than he was at me, did I get to play a few good parts in a group. The rest of the time I was playing basically the parts that no one else wanted to play. What did this mean? Something really good!

I did not have to maintain my playing at any point to perform in a group. If I had to take two or three steps backward to take one forward, I could, because through no choice of my own, I had no performance responsibility. This worked out for me because I had to take about fifty steps backwards. I always thought that those guys that were playing all the good parts couldn't destroy their playing and put it back together again because they had to be in some kind of shape to play the next concert.

So this leads to my basic piece of advice for your college career based on my own experience:

No one and I mean no one is going to remember the world's greatest performance that you give in college. So don't worry about that too much. Don't worry about how many performances you are getting or whether you are playing first or second. Let your sole focus be on improvement in you own playing. You and your teacher, that is it. Others may have had quite different experiences but this is mine.

4. What to be thinking about otherwise

If you can prepare your part well enough so that when you get in a group you can spend your time listening to other people more than yourself then you will enjoy music more. It allows you to fit your part into theirs. For instance, what if in the practice room you see a fortissimo written in your part. What does it mean? It means that if you have the melody, the main part, then it is fortissimo.

But what if you don't? Then it means that whoever has the melody has fortissimo and to the degree that they do it, you may support it. This means that if the trumpet has the melody you may be playing full force to support it, but if it is the flute, the meaning of that fortissimo in your part may be mezzo piano. Same with crescendi. If you have a non-melodic crescendo, then the composer is merely telling you that the person with the melody has a crescendo and to the degree that they make one, you should support it. If they don't make one even though they should, then you hands are tied, neither should you.

This is basic ensemble playing. The one question I don't ever want to be asked without having the answer is "who has the melody here". If I don't know that, I am not playing music, I'm playing by myself.

5. Preparation

I was always concerned that I wasn't getting enough chance to take auditions. I think I read quite recently someone saying that the only way to learn to take auditions is to take them. I agree. I would audition for everything I could. Don't wait until you think you are ready, I never felt like I was ready for and audition and I have talked to many others with jobs that say they never felt ready for an audition either. So don't worry about that.

The only thing I might suggest is pieces for unaccompanied horn. I began in Pittsburgh to include them in recitals and eventually did recitals that were entirely unaccompanied. There weren't so many pieces thirty years ago, there are a lot more now. And the audience absolutely loves them.

And finally, play along with the record. My first job was in a very small orchestra (45 people) and we didn't play very many different programs in a year. I learned almost all the basic literature by buying the parts from Kalmus and playing through them with a record.

One example: when I got to the N.Y. Philharmonic I had never played first horn on Brahms 1st. I had probably played it fifty times with the record. But even so I didn't have a definite idea about I wanted to play the call at the beginning of the fourth movement. I had thirteen recordings of Brahms 1st. I sat and listened to all of them and chose the one I liked the best and tried to play it like that. It took me awhile to come up with my own ideas. Love those records.

OK, that is probably more than you wanted to know but I feel compelled to explain what personal experience has led me to come to whatever conclusions that I have come to. That way you can compare it to your own and come to your own conclusions, not mine. Maybe the same, maybe different, but yours. Take care.

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