Abe Kniaz (1923-2007)

kniazAbe Kniaz was highly regarded as an orchestral horn player when he left the National Symphony Orchestra to teach at Indiana University in 1961. Perhaps he has not been as well known in the United States as a teacher, especially after he moved to Canada, but many students attest to his influence on their playing and also in their lives. Abe is remembered by many as a kind and caring mentor.

Abe was born in 1923 in Milwaukee, grew up in Chicago, studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and earned a master's degree at Michigan State University. He played in Pittsburgh, Houston, and Columbus, Ohio. When the Columbus orchestra collapsed in 1947, Abe free-lanced in New York City and then served as principal horn in the National Symphony in Washington DC from 1950 to 1961.

After such a distinguished playing career, Abe felt ready to teach. However, years later, after decades of teaching, he regretted that he had not continued to play longer. After ten years at Indiana, he moved to Canada, playing for a year in the Quebec Symphony and then taking a professorship at Laval University, from 1972 until his retirement in 1994. He played with a brass quintet in Quebec over the years and even after retirement. He was proud of keeping up with the other members of the quintet even though he was by far the oldest of the group.

George Housenga (retired principal horn of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Xalapa in Vera Cruz, Mexico) studied with Abe at Indiana University. "He didn't just teach you to play notes," George says, "he taught sound, for one thing." For six months, he had George play only the second line G. "I thought he was nuts, but he wasn't, because at the end of the six months, I had something."

Abe died in 2007. His widow, Édith Bédard, says, "Abe was a warm person, full of doubt, but who loved music and the search for perfection." Abe's gravestone reads: "The journey of the soul and the journey of music were one to him."

Notes from Abe Kniaz on Playing the Horn

Collected by Thom Gustafson; edited by Marilyn Bone Kloss

Abe Kniaz was my teacher, colleague, and friend. His accomplishments were considerable, but I discovered them mostly by listening to recordings of his performances because he was also modest. He did not publish any pedagogical theories, but he left notes on his thoughts about teaching horn playing. This is a distillation of his notes, organized into categories.

Perhaps one reason he didn't publish his theories was that he never thought he had all the answers. One of his strengths was that he was willing to change when his approach was not working or when he saw a better way. Another friend of Abe's, A. Robert Johnson, wrote in The Horn Call (October 2007) about his experience playing second to Abe in the National Symphony:

Abe's was not a natural gift, and he made no secret of that. His was not a “natural” embouchure. He learned how to make it conform to his will by sheer effort and endless experimentation. And he succeeded. Colleagues in the brass section let it be known that for a season or two his tenure was in doubt because he hadn’t yet mastered the idiosyncrasies of the instrument across the spectrum of demand made on the first horn. It is fair to say that this combination of will and uncertainty were one story of his life in music. The main one however, was his consummate musicianship. Anyone of my acquaintance who heard him from the audience confirms that he made a beautiful case for the horn in the orchestra by the way its voice was heard while in his hands.

Stephen Lawlis, who studied with Abe at Indiana University, wrote:

Abe had quite a reputation during his years at Indiana University for changing embouchures. While there was some truth to this, in general, he would patiently demonstrate his own way of playing through lip and mouthpiece buzzing. This often resulted in the students themselves wanting to make the change, particularly after discovering that this change could help correct an existing weakness.


The contents of this section can be downloaded in a single pdf if desired: pdf Notes from Abe Kniaz on playing the horn


Thanks to Édith Bédard for making Abe’s notes available, to Marilyn Bone Kloss for editing the material, and to Steven Ovitsky for the audio restoration of the orchestral excerpt recordings.

About the Author

Thom Gustavson studied horn with Abe Kniaz at Indiana University and later at Univérsite Laval in Québec City. He has played fourth horn in the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec for 39 years.

Abe always wanted to write a book about horn playing and left copious notes, which Thom categorized after Abe’s death. The long friendship Thom shared with Abe over the years inspired the effort to publish this book.



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