The story of how I came to the horn is a funny one. It shows how tiny incidents can alter the course of a life. My father had played trumpet in his local brass band. Though he was a war invalid and didn't play any more by the time I was small, he told me, “My boy, when you get bigger, I’ll buy you a trumpet!” Simple and clear – it was decided! But a few years later, when I was 11, he died, the plan for me to play the trumpet dying with him. I don't know why.
I was born in 1954 in the village of Mindelzell in Bavaria, the third son on a small farm – too small to make a living from, but just big enough for our family to live off. Since my father was wounded in the war, we 3 sons had to do all the work, together with our mother. We all had to toil hard to make ends meet. It was a hard but happy childhood, full of lessons for life!
When my older brothers were big enough to work alone, our village teacher insisted on sending me to high school (Gymnasium in German,) a boarding school 50 km away. Since my father couldn't afford the 150 Deutschmarks for tuition, the director agreed to take half of the fee for 6 months, pending my exam results. I was top of my class and received a scholarship up till the age of 16. After that, I made my living playing the horn.
But what brought me to the horn? At the boarding school, there was a tradition (still is) that every pupil had to learn an instrument. By the way, this is the St. Stephan School in Augsburg, and the school orchestra travels to the USA almost every year on a concert tour. The music teachers at that time had all studied piano and violin, and they made the good singers study those instruments too. I was a bad singer, so to my great good fortune, was allowed to choose an instrument for myself.
Why was I a bad singer? I sang a lot before I went to high school, and many professional vocalists tell me I would have been good, based on my speaking voice. Our teacher, however, was of the opinion that only girls could sing well. She was rude to the boys, so we boys didn't like to sing. And when a boy would enjoy singing, the others would beat him after school. So I unlearned how to sing. This was the luckiest thing that happened to me, as it turns out.
We could visit our parents once a month from Saturday afternoon until Sunday evening. Back at school, one of my mates told me went hunting and went into rapture about how beautiful the horns sounded. I had no idea how a horn looked or sounded, but from this moment it was the instrument of my dreams. [It was like in Janosh's children's book where the bear dreamed of Panama because everything smelled like bananas.] So I told the brass band conductor at my school, "I want to play Waldhorn!" Not very happy with this, he told me he didn't need a horn player at the moment, rather a tenor horn player, and that anyway tenor horn was much nicer. He was right - in a brass band, tenor horn is certainly nicer to play than Waldhorn. I also had no idea what a tenor horn looked or sounded like, but I loved the name "Waldhorn," and there was that story from my school mate. I insists on Waldhorn and got a single Eb alto horn, the normal "horn" of a brass band at that time. Professional horn players think it should be forbidden by the police. It has something similar to a horn bell, but practically no tapered lead pipe, with a mouthpiece somewhere between horn and tenor horn. Not a noble sound at all.
Three weeks later on my visit home, I proudly showed my mother and brothers what I could already play. My mother tried to look thrilled, but my brothers got a crooked mouth and said, "It sounds like a cow!" Of course he was right! But I stuck with that Eb alto horn because that meant less time having to do homework in the study room at boarding school. So I practiced for hours every day. Playing this instrument came easily to me. After 9 months, my teacher, the brass band conductor, told me he couldn't teach me anything more and send me to another teacher. My next teacher, also not a professional horn player, sent me after another 9 months to a professional player. I'm still very grateful to those early teachers of mine. I got a real double horn, won the German Youth Competition twice, and came to be well known in my area. As I mentioned before, I was able to earn my living playing horn from the age of 16 and was able to afford a small flat in the city. I became solo horn with the Bavarian Youth Orchestra,next the German Youth Orchestra,and afterwards of the German Student Orchestra, later called the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie.
Ten days after high school, I got my first professional job, solo horn with the Munich Symphonic, then the RSO Berlin, then 2nd horn in the Berlin Philharmonic. At the tender age of 23 I came back to Munich as solo horn of the Munich Radio Orchestra, my final position, which I held for 10 years.
The Origins of Becoming a Horn Builder
As a child on the farm, I had to do labor that was normally left to adults. I took over most of the work feeding our two horses and cleaning them and their stall at the age of four – unimaginable nowadays! There was no making excuses that something was too heavy for us. We just did what was necessary to survive.
We did not have the money to buy things – we just made them. When our father was healthy, he had acquired many tools. We had a nicely equipped workshop where we worked over the winter. We made our toys ourselves, but mostly we produced all the necessities for the farm: wooden ladders, pitchforks, wooden wheels for our carts, etc.; also, we repaired the machines. All three sons developed a natural skill for crafting just about anything. In high school, my favorite subjects were mathematics and physics. Yes, I preferred these subjects to my music classes. I loved the sound and all the possible sound variations of the horn, listening to every available recording and live concert. It sent shivers down my spine to hear horn solos in works like Weber’s “Freischütz” and the “Michaela” aria from Bizet’s Carmen. But the way the music teachers taught at school, at least at the time – it seemed designed more for giving up music than anything else. It was a totally different story with the instrumental teachers: I can say that all my horn teachers were engaged and intent on teaching my to be my best.
Already during high school, I discovered that behind the horn, there must be mathematics. After a math lesson about the hyperbola (during my religion class,) I made drawings of the hyperbola and discovered that if I mirrored this curve, it looked like a horn bell. That same afternoon in my flat, I measured my horn, calculated the mouthpiece at the length of a Bb horn and came to 4.2 mm, exactly the bore size of my mouthpiece at that time. I was sure this could not be a coincidence and knew there must be mathematics behind the design of the horn. I wrote to all the well-known horn makers of that time, asking if they used mathematical curves like hyperbolas; they all replied and confessed that they didn’t. Only Richard Merewether wrote that he was using parts of a parabola for the lead pipe. This was the starting point for me in the calculation and design of horn models, with theoretically interesting trials but not much practical success. For example, I created a single Eb with Pumpen valves, a system I could patent, but that only would have brought expenses.
During my early years as a professional horn player, I bought 7 instruments – all famous brands included – but did not have the luck to find a really good one. I always had the feeling that I was a successful horn player in spite of my equipment rather than because of it. During my time as solo horn with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and 2nd horn of the Berlin Philharmonic, no instrument maker could realize my spontaneous ideas, making me think more deeply about ways to improve a horn. Around this time, I met Dr. Wogram, head of the acoustical/mathematical department of the physical-technical ministry in Braunschweig, who was then exploring brass instruments. We worked together, and when I returned to play in Munich, I built my first horn in Adolf Dost’s small repair shop. Mr. Dost, a very nice man and experienced craftsman, was happy to have an excuse not to go home until nightfall and enjoyed having the solo hornist from the Radio Orchestra building horns in his workshop and discussing things such as politics and other instrument makers. Sometimes I would ask how this or that is done, but the craft came naturally to me – I didn’t have to learn it. I combined the theoretical computer calculations of Dr. Wogram with practical trials. After 2 years, in 1980, I introduced my computer-calculated horns at the first European Horn Workshop in Trossingen. Soon after, I got top customers, among them Hermann Baumann and Peter Damm.
I had to find bigger places to make the first series of horns, so I made the prototypes of the Engelbert Schmid Horns of the 1980’s by my own hands. But the series was made an extremely gifted craftsman, Günter Gahler, in a larger company in Geretsried (south of Munich.) For 10 years, we had a successful collaboration, but still limited by available parts spread over different companies in that small town. I had it in mind the whole time to found my own workshop in order to produce horns without compromises.
It took me 3 hours to learn how to engrave my horns by hand. I did the exam for my journeyman diploma without any special preparation and the masters without having worked as an instrument maker with any company. The only problem was being admitted to the examinations, not the tests themselves. From the start, I was meticulous about making sure every instrument bearing my name was of the highest standard of craftsmanship.
I see no sense in making average instruments. If this were the case, then I would rather have remained a horn player. I didn’t have any physical or nerve problems forcing me into early retirement on the horn – I stopped at the pinnacle of my professional career. My last public performance was in Tallahassee at the 25th IHS symposium, performing the Weber Concertino in a shared recital with Peter Damm, an unforgettable experience! It was just too much work to establish my production company while playing, having also at that time a family with 3 little girls. I had to learn that one cannot do everything.
It is my goal and mission to make life easier for horn players, allowing them to experience more enjoyment and motivation making music with the help of a horn with clean acoustics, more efficiency, quicker technique, better slurs, a more alive sound. To help people understand this, I made 15 videos in 2015 explaining my instruments (in German; this year I will have them spoken in English and Spanish as well.) They are available on YouTube. I combine my knowledge as a horn player with mathematics and craftsmanship – in my opinion, these are best in one set of hands.
I’m totally against the present trend of having one uniform style of playing and sound all over the world. Progress in intonation, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, technique – of course that’s great and necessary, but this is all possible in different styles. For my part, I want to contribute to the preservation of different styles by offering horns in 4 alloys: yellow brass, gold brass, nickel silver and sterling silver, as well as 4 bell sizes (in addition to the historical sizes) - “kompakt,” “golden cut,” “wide,” and just now the “Hollywood sound.” It’s a pity that more and more regional styles are disappearing! I want every style to be achieved with Engelbert Schmid Horns. Different styles make music more interesting! Would you want to eat roast pork every day?
The life of a craftsman in general is less amusing that that of musicians, and I sometimes miss the humor among performers. But I love the work at the bench. It’s like vacation a vacation for me. If mischief happens for a performer, it makes a funny story. In a production company, mischief translates into financial loss Most of my funny stories come from my contact with musicians. For instance, once I sent a single Bb horn to a principal player in a German orchestra. He used it right away the same evening for Fidelio and missed a top B natural. He sent the instrument back, complaining that this note was not secure. I tried the instrument and saw that this note was actually one of the best on the horn. So I called him and told him I would send him another horn in 6 weeks. I sent the same instrument back to him – he wrote back with gratitude, that this note now was perfect, and he played this instrument until his retirement.
I’m working more efficiently than ever, but I’m fully aware that my clock is ticking. Aging comes on suddenly in some ways, so I am careful not to get stressed. In the meantime, I’ve built up a crew of 15 employees, and my intelligent and skillful workshop leader, Rainer Oberhoffner, ensures that many things already run without me. The modern world means using social media, which I do as a big part of my work, something unusual for someone at my age of 61. It looks like none of my adult daughters will take over my company, but I will have my first son in 2 months! My wife is a generation younger than me and is already engaged in managing the Eastern European market. My plan is to fade out step by step within maybe 30 years. Some people might think, “That poor man! He has to work even past ninety!” But it’s a boon to have interesting work, though I am slowly setting my course.
Making horns remains my primary passion, but I also love making wine. I slipped into this because of my fondness for drinking good wines as well as having found an opportunity to make wine in Spain. I learned the language and put down roots in Spain.
I grow the grapes in my vineyards in northern Spain and transport them as a mash to Mindelzell, where the wines are processed and bottled in the cellar of my horn company building. I see many parallels in making horns and my Don Angel wines. You have to go to the ground, to understand the subject through and through.
After 20 years’ intermission, I’ve begun playing some horn for the past 3 years, mainly in order to demonstrate the features of my instruments with some passages during my lectures and to welcome the audience at lecture/wine presentations, accompanied by my wife Karina on the viola. You can see and hear these also on YouTube.
The Spanish have a very nice toast: “Salud, amor, dinero y tiempo para gastarlo!” “Health, love, money, and the time to spend it!” That’s what I wish for all horn players in the world!