Kristina Mascher-Turner: Can you tell us about your early training - when did you first become fascinated with low playing?
Charles Putnam: My early training was similar to most young horn players in the states - high school band and community youth orchestra; I was lucky enough to have great teachers and conductors. I also participated in summer music festivals (Eastern Music Festival was a highlight). My low range growing up was not very strong. Like most young players, I concentrated on playing high horn. I participated in a local horn club in Gainesville, Florida that introduced me to high and low horn playing. Everyone seemed to either want to play the first part or the fourth part. At university, we were always involved in large horn ensembles or quartets. Playing second horn on duets is very important for students in order to learn how to match articulation and intonation with the first player. When I started playing professionally, I played only high horn. It wasn’t until I went to Italy and Germany that I was exposed to playing low horn in an orchestra. I always enjoyed being part of a team, of a horn section that enjoyed playing together. I was involved with other European horn quartets early on so I had plenty of experience playing low horn in horn quartets before joining the AHQ.
KMT: In your daily life as an orchestral player, your position is that of “Wechselhorn” - playing both high and low. How do you keep up your high and low chops at the same time?
CP: All professional horn players, no matter their position, will be required at some point to play high and low. The problem with the “Wechselhorn” position (2nd and 3rd horn) is that there may be times where you have to play third horn on some Strauss or Wagner opera and then the next night, have to play the same piece on second horn. When playing 3rd horn, you need to have a strong high range to support the solo horn player in some passages and play with brilliance in your sound. When playing second horn, you need to be able to support the 4th horn player with solid low notes and a good core sound and volume. It is a tricky balance, and I feel that sometimes one of those two aspects will be compromised. Either you will have a stable and strong high range with an adequate low range or a strong and stable low range with an adequate high range.
I am always looking at my playing schedule in the orchestra to see what pieces are coming up and adjusting my warm-ups to either strengthen my upper range or strengthen my lower range.
KMT: Tell us about the early days with the American Horn Quartet. How were you asked to join, what were some of your earliest projects, when did you realize you were part of something big?
CP: Geoffrey Winter asked whether I was interested in auditioning for the group in 1989 after the previous low horn player (Jon Levin) had left Europe. Kerry Turner and David Johnson were also in the group at that time. We met for a rehearsal where we played through some of the AHQ repertoire. Afterwards, we talked for a while about future projects and commitments to the group. They discussed amongst themselves whether or not I would fit in to their style and ideas about ensemble horn playing and asked me to become a member. I was excited about playing with a committed group of excellent chamber musicians. Some of the earliest projects included preparing for our first CD recording and participating in a few chamber music competitions. After the AHQ won the Philip Jones brass chamber music competition, they felt a desire to promote the idea of a horn quartet as a legitimate chamber ensemble by entering other chamber music competitions around the world. We were lucky enough to win chamber music competitions in Tokyo and in Belgium that included all styles of chamber ensembles. This recognition helped us to be included in chamber concert series around Europe. Certainly, the music of Kerry Turner helped in the success of the quartet, and everyone in the group enjoyed playing his music and encouraged him to write more. I realized that when the AHQ started getting invitations from chamber music series that usually invited string quartets, we had broken or at least cracked a stereotype about horn quartets.
KMT: When preparing for AHQ concerts, did you follow a particular regime/set of exercises to prepare for the extreme demands of that repertoire?
CP: When preparing for AHQ concerts, I used a different horn and deeper cupped mouthpiece. Since I was always playing the 4th horn part, I wanted to have a bigger sound and more dynamic range, especially in loud passages. I discovered early on that I could not use the same equipment for my orchestra duties as I did for the AHQ. German horn sections generally play on smaller bore instruments and mouthpieces. The other members of the AHQ played on large bore instruments, so in order to fit in, I needed to try and match with a similar tone concept and timbre.
My function as the bass in the quartet first made me get used to only reading parts written in bass clef. Not a big problem, unless you are a student that didn’t spend a lot of time learning bass clef. I would concentrate on warming up using only the F side of the horn. I worked on playing some of the Joseph Singer exercises to develop dynamic range on the mid-low and low side of the instrument. These exercises also helped in learning how to drop the jaw and push it out. This leads to that “wide-mouth bass” look when the corners of your mouth turn down. Playing with enough volume in the low range was a constant struggle for me. I worked on blasting out low notes while trying to stay relaxed and then backing away from “blasting” to playing those same notes with enough volume and a good sound. This is not a nice exercise to anyone listening on the other side of the practice room door. I practiced starting pitches on different notes and dynamics without using the tongue to start the pitch. This exercise was for eliminating the “scooping” that happens in the low range, first hitting those low notes without the tongue and then with the tongue. This also helped in being able to start the low pitches on time and not to sound late. I also worked on having a flexible “break” in my low range. Some players who play low horn have no break in their embouchure and play great. I cannot do that. I have two breaks in my mid-low to extreme low range embouchure. I would play scales and arpeggios in that range going over my breaks where they normally occurred and try to even out the sound so that it didn’t sound like a break, and then I would try to move my break to different notes (higher or lower) and then play scales and arpeggios that would allow me to keep the same embouchure setting without going over any break. In the end, I could move my break up a fifth from where it occurred naturally. This type of flexibility helped in fast passages. For most of the mid-low fast passages I would play on the B-flat side of the horn. This was in order to work on matching the sound and intonation of the F-horn (with rich overtones) to the B-flat side, which has less rich overtones in that range. Playing Bach Cello Suites and specific Kopprasch etudes also helped develop the low range. Taking your right hand slightly out of the bell for clarity in low playing helps. Basically, do whatever you need to do (within reason) to get the result you want.
KMT: What would you say are the personality characteristics needed to be a great low player?
CP: Being flexible and calm helps most of the time. Playing the horn in general or interpreting music as a chamber ensemble can sometimes lead to frustration, which may lead to people getting upset or angry about situations. It helps to be supportive of the other horn players in the orchestra and not make negative comments if things go wrong. As a second or fourth player in the orchestra, one needs to be able to anticipate how the solo horn or third horn will play a particular passage as far as intonation, entrances and articulation go. We are not robots so sometimes things will change. It is best to go with the flow and adjust.
KMT: What are some of your favorite moments with the AHQ?
CP: I have many favorite moments with the AHQ, but just to name a few:
Our first invitation to perform at the 25th IHS workshop in Tallahassee was a personal highlight. I had graduated from FSU and studied with Bill Capps. In the audience were three of my former teachers and my parents plus a few friends who had never heard the quartet before. The concert was well received, so that gave me a nice warm feeling inside. Playing concerts in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia just after the wall came down was exciting. We played one bizarre concert in a cave used to help respiratory problems, and it was packed full of interested listeners. Playing tours around the world promoting horn quartets and meeting and listening to horn players in these different countries was eye opening. There are good horn players everywhere! Our AHQ CD recordings along with the octet recordings with the NY Philharmonic horns and the Queensland Symphony horns were fun collaborations.
KMT: How would you say that living in Europe for so long has shaped you as an artist and a person?
CP: One of the first things I noticed about being a musician in Europe was that in general people had more respect for you. When you told them you were a musician in an orchestra, they would be interested and ask questions about music rather than immediately ask how you made any money or what your “real” job was. The horn sections are also generally bigger in Europe so that you have a bit of free time during the season. The jobs are designed so there can be a rotation within the section if someone gets sick or the opportunity to play chamber music arises. The AHQ would not have been able to exist if it hadn’t been for this European orchestral system allowing us to take time away from our jobs to pursue chamber music. Of course, having colleagues that allow you to do this helps. The opportunity to play chamber music in Europe is still alive and no matter what or where you play, you will always have an audience. Learning to be open and tolerant to different cultures and ideas has certainly shaped me as a person.
KMT: You have played in the Beethoven-Orchester Bonn for a long time now. How do you keep your enthusiasm for the horn going when you are playing a piece for the umpteenth time?
CP: I have played in the Beethoven Orchestra for 31 years as of this month. Retirement is just around the corner for me as Germany has a mandatory retirement age. Keeping up enthusiasm, at least the enthusiasm one has at an early age is sometimes challenging as an older person. It helps to surround yourself with younger players who have that youthful enthusiasm that you can feed on. In my personal experience, playing the horn does not get easier as you age. Pieces that were difficult to play when you were younger do not get easier as you get older. Boredom can set in if you let it, but reminding yourself that it is a privilege to play in a professional symphony orchestra and that only a small percentage of horn students are offered that opportunity can be quite humbling.
KMT: How has your life changed since the AHQ gave its final farewell? Do you miss it? If so, what do you miss most?
CP: Life has become simpler and more relaxed since we gave our last concert in Los Angeles. My practice schedule has changed a bit so I am not changing mouthpieces and horns so much anymore. There are certainly times when I do miss the AHQ. Playing concerts was always enjoyable, and in spite of some of the heated discussions we had during rehearsals about musical interpretation, it was satisfying to be able to shape a piece of music and present it to an audience. One of the goals of the AHQ was to get other horn players interested in playing quartets and by the looks of things, I think we achieved a measure of success as there are now quite a few more horn quartets around the world playing chamber concerts.
KMT: Horn aside, what piques your interest?
CP: I enjoy playing tennis and belong to a tennis club close to home. Traveling and being a tourist is always fun. Cooking and grilling is very relaxing even if I am preparing easy menus. Of course, I also enjoy eating meals and drinking wine. I ride my bike a lot but am never in a hurry. The bike paths along the Rhine river are fantastic, safe and scenic. In the warmer months, I enjoy visiting the beer gardens. I try and visit our local fitness studio when I can to work off the wine and beer. I enjoy watching movies and some of the good TV series that come from the United States. I have always been interested in current events. Also, I stay up-to-date in the political world and make sure that I vote in local, state and national elections in the States.
KMT: A lot of people won’t know that you have played extensively as a natural horn player. Can you share with us some of the projects that are most memorable from this aspect of your career?
CP: Playing the natural horn was an eye opening and life-changing experience for me. Playing Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven symphonies on the natural horn and works from Bach and his contemporaries on Baroque horn made performance of these early works so much fun. It finally dawned on me what it meant and what the sound of the horn should be if you are playing on a low C crook as opposed to a high A crook. Each key and crook has its own feel and tone color, the longer crooks sounding thick, fat and dark and the higher crooks sounding progressively lighter and brighter. Some of the memorable projects involved playing and recording the Telemann Tafelmusik Concerto for two Horns (with Andrew Joy – 1st horn) with Concentus Musicus Wein in the Musikverein in Vienna and in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with Musica Antiqua Köln. Also, recording the Heinichen double Horn Concerti and Suites with Musica Antiqua Köln on the Deutsche Grammophon label (with Renee Allen-2nd Horn).
KMT: Whenever players name their low horn inspirations, you are often at the top of their lists. What’s your secret? Is there one?
CP: Well, I do not know if that is true, but it is very flattering. There are no secrets to playing low horn or high horn other than finding your own path. Observing, listening, asking questions, practicing, trial and error, some blood (too much mouthpiece pressure and practice), sweat and, yes, tears are all part of the process. How many times have I wanted to throw my horn out the window while practicing? Unfortunately, too many to count. But, I did learn to put my horn down gently and leave the room and come back later with a more positive mindset.
You can hear Charlie’s power and artistry on many YouTube clips – here’s a short list to get acquainted:
With the American Horn Quartet:
With Musica Antiqua Köln:
Concerto in F- Dur for Two Horns Seibel 233. Johann David Heinichen
(Charles Putnam, Renee Allen, horns)
Charles Putnam is a member of the Beethoven Orchestra. He is a former member of the Florida Orchestra, Israel Sinfonietta, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Gelsenkirchen Philharmonic. His early music experience includes Musica Antiqua Köln, Concentus Musicus Wien and Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Charles played 26 years with the American Horn Quartet.