Aspiring performers are naturally curious about those who have become superstars. Do they practice long hours or were they born with a gift, or both? Did they make it to the top through perseverance or luck? Or is it simply a matter of knowing the right people?
The secrets of success are both surprising and predictable, as revealed by a dozen or so of the the top twentieth-century horn soloists. Their advice is a wonderful blend of what to do and what not to do. Beyond scales, lip slurs and mouthpieces, they also have much to say about the mental and spiritual aspects of musical performance.
The proverbial New City tourist who asked how to get to Carnegie Hall was told to "practice," but most of us want more detailed directions. Barry Tuckwell says that the secret of horn playing success is the same as for success at anything - hard work and concentrated practice, and he is echoed by his British colleague Ifor James , who urges students to learn to enjoy practicing for long stretches of time.
Frøydis Wee Wekre , however, advocates a kind of "interval training." As she puts it: " Most people make the mistake of practicing in long sessions without breaks, even small ones."
The most famous teacher of his generation, Philip Farkas also had a specific suggestion: "Take the problem and practice it to the extreme. Play the high passages a tone higher, the low ones a tone lower, the slow passages too slow and the fast passages too fast.""
"Absolutely master the 'elements,'" says Hermann Baumann, "such as the scales and arpeggios"
Compared to trumpet, trombone, and tuba players, indeed compared to any other instrumentalist, horn players are preoccupied with tone quality. Meir Rimon, who advocated constant scrutiny of every aspect of performance, urged students to focus especially on tone production. James too feels, as he once told readers, of the Horn Call, that a good tone is the basis of great horn playing.
Horn players frequently get a faraway look in their eye and reach into a mystical vocabulary when discussing the subject of tone. The Danish player Ib Lansky-Otto , who brings a uniquely big, dark sound to Mozart's Concert Rondo, K. 371, says that " your horn-tone is your soul."
Every great horn soloist has a distinctive tone quality, as well as what James Stagliano used to call "repose," by which he meant a noticeable savoring of "each tone to the maximum, avoiding any sense of urgency or compulsion to get through."
Despite their intensity, horn players tend to be friendly, helpful people, especially concerning the matter of equipment. Alan Civil used a modern German Alexander double horn in orchestral music, but preferred a single B-flat horn for solo and chamber work. He had a large collection of natural horns, which he used frequently for early music, but he urged his students to discover their own affinities and solutions.
However, horn artists agree that it's not all in the metal. Even when on the payroll of a particular instrument company, they are careful to tell students that performing well is neither in the instrument nor the mouthpiece but in the person. Georges Barboteau is impatient with those who continually look for the perfect horn. "It is not so much the make of the horn as the way one plays it," he has said.
Both Wekre and Baumann advocate changing teachers from time to time: "After three years with the same teacher, this is a good idea," says Baumann.
Tuckwell, though a consummate artist, is also a realist. His remarkable success has perhaps resulted from his Draconian standard: You must play every concert as if your life depended on it.
Excerpts from an article originally published in THE HORN CALL Volume XXIX No. 2.
IHS member Michael Meckna teaches music history at Texas Christian University. His book Twentieth-Century Brass Soloists is published by Greenwood Press.