I thrive on variety. I teach modern horn, early horn, and brass literature and history at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, play horn, make horns, do research into horn design, construction and history, and write about the horn. “But wait a minute!” the astute reader will say, “That’s not variety. That’s all about horn!” Well - OK, it is all about the horn, but as we all know, there’s a lot of variety under the subject of horn. Teaching is about working one on one and in classes with our talented IU horn players, helping them to develop their skills and move toward their goals. Playing is sharing music with the people who you are playing for, and the people you are playing with. Writing and researching are the academic side of things, and not done in real time with real people, but rather alone and at a leisurely pace, and often involve interesting travel. Horn making is just me and the metal, but I’m still working with people, making something that will be a tool that will make their work easier and more enjoyable. Over the past nearly forty years, each one of these things has been an antidote to all of the others, and whether I am sitting on a stage, teaching horn at IU, sitting at my computer, or in my workshop, I always have the pleasant feeling of “I like this part best!”
But when Jeff Nelsen and Kristina Mascher-Turner asked me to write this, they were specifically interested in the instrument maker side of me, sometimes known as my second full-time job. I started making reproductions of historical horns because I needed appropriate horns when I began seriously playing with period instrument groups in the 1970s. At that point the choices were either expensive antique horns or a few rather modern valveless horns that were being made. But fortunately I came from a family that made things. My father made airplanes as a hobby, - real airplanes in which we flew, and I grew up thinking that if you needed something, you just had to learn out how it was made, get the right materials and tools, and then go ahead and make it.
In my senior year of high school I had horn lessons with Lowell Greer, who was then assistant principal horn in the Detroit Symphony. From Lowell I learned not only to play the natural horn and the valve horn, but also got my first instruction in instrument repair and making. One evening after my lesson we went into his basement with an old French horn shaped mellophone, and emerged a few hours later with dirty hands, a few cuts and burns, and a simple natural horn with a couple of crooks so that Lowell and I could play the Handel Water Music with the Ars Musica Baroque Orchestra in Ann Arbor, MI. Over the next year or two we made other horns using mostly modern parts, and that was the beginning of my hands on work in horn making.
Over the next few years I did my modern horn studies with Eugene Wade at Wayne State University in Detroit, and after having been out of school for a few years playing professionally, went to Indiana to do a Masters degree in horn where I studied with Philip Farkas, Robert Elworthy, Michael Hatfield, Myron Bloom, and Meir Rimon, all of whom taught at IU at one time or another during this period. There I became more serious about studying the natural horn and early music and it soon became clear that I needed to move toward more authentic natural horn reproductions and construction techniques if I wanted to really pursue both historical horn playing and making properly.
It was a slow process learning what I needed to know to start designing and making horns. One of the first things that I did was to take silversmithing classes in the School of Fine Arts at IU as my required outside field for the Masters degree, and studied with Prof. Randy Long, a master silversmith and metal artist. From her I learned a lot of good metalworking basics, including metal forming, soldering, finishing, and a lot about materials. I also visited every horn maker I could get in touch with to see what they were doing and ask lots of questions. The next step was developing designs, tooling, and methods.
Louis Stout, horn professor at the University of Michigan, was incredibly generous in letting me study and measure some of the best horns in his collection, and by 1983, I had the tooling and methods worked out to start making my first serious historical reproduction; a very precise copy of a Raoux orchestra horn from the Stout collection. To have the steel bell mandrel and other tooling for this horn made, and to have a batch of bells made at a shop that specialized in bell making, I needed some start-up money, and to get it, I did something that only an excited twenty-six year old aspiring horn maker would do. I asked my teacher, Philip Farkas if he would like to invest in a sure-fire business that I was about to start - making reproductions of natural horns. I showed him the design and my estimates of what it would cost to get things going, and to my utter astonishment, he agreed to loan me what I needed. I had the good luck to make the first few of these horns for Francis Orval, Kristin Thelander, William Purvis, and a few others who played them in important places, and was able to repay the loan from Mr. Farkas within a year. I made quite a number of this model of horn for about 8 years, and it was very true to the original in its dimensions, but I needed to go further in the construction methods. The next few years were spent making the move to single piece or gusseted hammered bells with garlands rather than modern two piece spun bells, developing other natural horn models for other periods of music, studying historical mouthpipe tapers, and working with historical horn mouthpieces.
These and many other details were necessary to pursue in order to feel like I was really working at the cutting edge of historical horn making. This involved a lot of visits to museums and private collections to measure instruments and make drawings. Over the next thirty years, I gathered designs for horns from the baroque period by J. W. Haas, J. Leichnambschneider, and Christopher Hofmaster, and classical and romantic period horns by Anton Kerner, M. A. Raoux, A. Halari, A. Courtois, and L. Uhlmann, for a full array of instruments with which horn players in period instrument groups can have the proper instruments for all of the periods of music they need to play.
I’m very grateful to the curators of a number of instrument collections including the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, the German National Museum in Nürnberg, the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the Salzburg Museum, the Streitwieser collection in Kremsmunster, Austria, The National Music Museum in South Dakota, and several private collectors for letting me measure their horns, either to copy a specific instrument or mouthpiece, or just gather more information on early horns in general. The travel to all those places has been fun too.
I have specialized in natural horns, and have made a few early valve horns and detachable valve sections, but have never been compelled to go into competition with all of the other fine custom modern valve horn makers out there. In fact, the only double horn that I’ve ever made from scratch was a Geyer style horn I made as a birthday present for my wife Celeste, which makes her the only horn player who can say that she “plays exclusively on Seraphinoff instruments.” People have asked if I would make more, but when I made this one, I called it “Das Erste, und Letzte” – the first and last, and I’m pretty sure I’m sticking to that. In spite of the fact that I don’t make modern horns, I’ve had the great satisfaction of teaching a couple people who have become makers of amazing double horns. Darin Sorley and Jacob Medlin spent a good deal of time learning and doing some of their first work in my shop, as well as Lucas Workman who is now working in the repair department of Siegfried’s Call with Scott Bacon.
If anyone wants to see my one and only double horn, you only have to get a copy of the newly published “Guide to the Solo Horn Repertoire” written by Linda Dempf and myself, and published by Indiana University Press. The horn that I made for Celeste is the horn pictured on the cover of that book. But don’t get it just for the picture of the horn – Linda and I put a lot of good information about solo horn music on the inside of the book.
In addition to IU teaching and the summer natural horn playing workshop here in Bloomington, my summer teaching also includes the International Trumpet Making Workshops, in which participants make a 17th century natural trumpet, forming the bell and all tubes totally by hand from sheet metal. I am joined in this workshop by brass instrument makers Robert Barclay from Canada, and Michael Münkwitz, from Germany, co-authors with myself of the textbook for the course, “Making a Natural Trumpet” See: www.seraphinoff.com/itw
After about thirty-five years of making historical horns, and continually refining the designs and working methods to make the horns play and look better, I’m approaching my 500th horn, and will continue the entire process of studying and making them in my workshop deep in the forest outside of Bloomington for as long as I’m able. The mixture of horn making, working with my students, and writing are the things that keep it from never being dull.
Just so that I don’t give the impression that horn is the only thing that I ever think about, I like practicing the baroque one-keyed flute, which I started playing after an accident a few years ago that greatly diminished my horn playing skills. I also like making Arts and Crafts style furniture, gathering mushrooms in our forest with Celeste, practicing speaking and giving speeches at our local Toastmasters club, and am writing a novel that I plan to finish in my lifetime. Though I have to admit, the novel is about horn players of the 18th century…
Thanks to all who have taken an interest in my instruments over the years!