Any horn players who are interested in how to prepare for solo competitions would do well to read the excellent advice of our interviewee of the month, the talented, articulate, and all-around nice guy Austin Larson (first prizewinner in both the University and Professional divisions of the International Horn Competition of America as well as Assistant Principal/Utility Horn in the Colorado Symphony.) Austin has also been the recipient of several honors from the IHS, winning the Mansur and Hawkins Awards in 2012, and the Solo Competition in 2011. Happy reading! -Kristina Mascher-Turner
- What is the most challenging piece you have ever been asked to present in a solo competition?
Othmar Schoek Concerto, which I had to play for the final rounds of both the Jeju International Brass Competition in Korea and the International Horn Competition of America just this past summer. I found the piece both very physically strenuous and musically awkward. It is a very difficult piece to sell to the audience in a convincing fashion and from a technical standpoint, it's very user-unfriendly.
- How important a role does physical fitness play for you in your competition preparation? Do you run/swim/bike/do yoga etc.?
Being in good physical shape is very important to my preparation. I find that what I eat really effects my ability to perform. I generally minimize consumption of alcohol, caffeine, salty foods, fatty/fried food, and sweets. Hydration is also a huge factor in my ability to play so I take extra precaution to stay hydrated, especially when traveling. Since I usually eat pretty healthy, I don't change my diet before an audition or competition. I'm not an exercise nut but I also make sure to stay active by walking and biking on a daily basis.
- How, if at all, did your approach change in the lead-up to the IHCA University vs. Professional divisions? (i.e. what have you learned to do differently in the past few years?)
I've competed in the IHCA three times (2009, 2011, and 2015) and each was a very different experience. My first time was the summer after I graduated high school so I didn't really have much of a preparation plan, I just practiced rather haphazardly, ran through the rep a bunch, and that was about it. The second time, when I won the University Division, I was about 1/3 of the way to developing what is my current competition preparation plan. I was more patient with my woodshedding, more disciplined at making sure I had a passage the way I wanted it before continuing, and recorded myself much more consistently. However, I still didn't really have a plan in terms of managing my time and keeping track of my preparation progress throughout the process. The final time, I had a complete preparation plan and a chart to keep track of my progress, which is the same thing I do in auditions. I had all my music divided up into sections and kept a detailed record of what I had worked on so I could see very simply how to best approach each practice session. I also relied much more on singing and mental practice instead of just beating my face up.
- What horn soloists and recordings inspired you when you were growing up?
Barry Tuckwell, Dennis Brain, Hermann Baumann, Stefan Dohr, Radek Baborak, Alessio Allegrini to name a few, basically anything I could get my hands on!
- What sort of mental training do you do? Does meditation play a role?
Mental preparation is paramount. I am a big believer in visualization/mental rehearsal and practice that on an almost daily basis. When I practice, I put myself mentally, psychologically, and most importantly, emotionally in a performance mindset so that when the actual performance/audition/competition comes, it's not a foreign experience.
- Can you describe your routine on competition day?
My competition day routine is about using just enough emotional and physical energy to get myself ready to play and absolutely no more. I usually try to wake up either from a nap or from a good night's sleep about four hours before I have to play. Then I eat, (re)warm-up, do some mental work, and rest before I play (in that order). This ensures that I am playing on neither a full nor an empty stomach and that my warm-up is neither too close or too far away to when I play. Obviously, there are situations where following the plan is not possible but I've always felt that just making an effort to get close gives me an advantage.
- You have been successful in both solo competitions and orchestral auditions. How does your musical approach differ between the two?
My approach is actually quite similar for both. In competitions, my first and most important goal is always putting forward a convincing musical statement. Subsequently, I've realized that I play my best, both musically and technically, at auditions when I'm in the same mindset, making the music my highest priority and letting the technique (mostly) follow. To me, auditions are more about being able to convincingly shift gears stylistically and competitions are more about putting together a comprehensive story and keeping the listeners' attention throughout.
- I’ve read that you have dealt with asthma in the past. A lot of horn players suffer from asthma - how have you overcome this in your playing? Is it even an issue anymore?
Dealing with asthma is a tricky issue to address because everyone's case is different; everyone has their own set of things that can trigger an attack and the severity of the condition varies widely from person to person. The nature of one's asthma often changes throughout a person's lifetime; some people have it at a young age and grow out of it, some the opposite, sometimes it can go away and reappear 10 years later for seemingly no reason, the list goes on. I have mine almost totally under control, but it took years of careful self-observation, medical treatment, and trial-and-error experimentation to get to this place. I was in and out of the hospital when I was a kid but I've only had one attack in the last 5 years, and it was the morning of my audition for the Colorado Symphony, so I obviously survived! The most important thing for someone who has asthma to do besides seeing a pulmonary doctor regularly is be aware of what one's triggers are (smoke, dust, stuffy rooms, exercise, mold, pets, seasonal pollens, etc.) and avoid them at all costs. Having a plan in place for dealing with an attack is also a must.
- Where do you do your best practicing and when?
I am more of a morning person so I like to warm up in the early or mid-morning and then do any additional practice sessions in either the late morning or early afternoon. I almost never practice after 4 pm because I never feel as focused.
- Musically speaking, are you more of an impulsive player, or do you plan every detail out in advance?
A bit of both but more towards the planning side. I sing through both every solo piece and excerpt until I am satisfied both musically and technically before I even touch it on the horn but also really do everything to live in the moment of the music I'm making as much as possible. I like to think of it as "planning to take musical risks".
- How much artistic freedom do you feel a player has in competitions today? Is there one particular sound or style to which juries tend to gravitate?
I have always felt a great deal of artistic freedom with competitions, obviously much more so than auditions. I think most juries in American competitions are looking for someone who presents a compelling musical performance that is backed up with solid technique, someone who is a musician first and a horn player second. Competition juries in the US tend to not discriminate in terms of sound and style. The first rule of the IHCA actually says that it "does not discriminate based on the model of horn, tone color, or choice of performance style/school. The International Horn Competition of America seeks to support and promote excellence in horn playing in the preferred style of the contestant." This is unfortunately not always the case in other parts of the world.
- What are your favorite pieces to play, the ones where you can shine brightest?
My favorite pieces are those that are both exciting and intimate and offer a wide variety of emotions throughout. A few of my all-time favorites include the Gliere and Strauss concertos, the York Bowen concerto, the Messiaen Interstellar Call, the Franz Strauss Nocturno, and the set of short pieces by Gliere.
- Do you have any funny competition stories - any bizarre happenings or times when things went spectacularly wrong?
Somehow I have been immune to catastrophes happening in competitions so far (Knock on wood!) but I've experienced the opposite trend in auditions. I came dangerously close to fainting in the preliminary round of my Colorado Symphony audition due to a combination of a once-in-ten-years asthma attack a few hours earlier, the mile-high altitude, and having to take way too many breaths on the Shostakovich low tutti as a result. After I finished the excerpt, I felt so dizzy I had to grab onto my chair to keep from falling off, cover my face, and breathe through my nose to reverse the hyperventilating that I had done for about 20 seconds before continuing to the next excerpt. Fortunately, the audition only got easier after that!
-What, besides music, inspires and motivates you?
I have always been interested in psychology and in particular sports psychology. I have done a lot of reading on the subject and find it both fascinating and inspiring. Having grown up in Northeast Wisconsin, I'm also a Green Bay Packer fan by default and I think they are lucky to claim one of the best athletes of all time in Aaron Rodgers as part of their team. I have always thought of Rodgers as an inspiration because of his down-to-earth approach and relentless work ethic, fighting through remarkable odds to become one of the best players of all time. Rodgers is not built at all like a typical football player (he's relatively short for a quarterback) and attracted no attention from Division I schools out of high school, resulting in him spending part of his collegiate career at Butte Community College. However, he has since worked his way to the very top of the game, all while staying out of any controversy/drama/trouble and maintaining a very humble and friendly attitude towards both teammates and opposing players.
- What advice would you give a young player just starting out on the competition circuit?
Just do as many competitions as possible and learn as much as you can from every one. The more competitions you do, the easier it gets and every one is a learning experience regardless of the result.