Sound Concepts

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02 三 2008 10:17 - 02 三 2008 10:20 #60 by IHS Online Manager
Sound Concepts was created by IHS Online Manager
Question:

I was trained at Juilliard and grew up listening to the New York Phil. My first horn was the Conn 8D as this was the horn to play at the time.

I enjoy performing in the European style, which means that on occasion I will resort to playing off the leg. I like the freedom it gives me. But there is no question that some serious adjustments are required when going from off to on. For the "big blows" I prefer the sound that comes with playing with the bell on the leg because I hear myself getting louder but without a "brassy edge". For the brassy bits the bell in the air works pretty good but there is a control problem as one can easily get carried away. I must say that it was more natural (less of a bother) to play off the leg as a young student because I could sit on any chair and did not have to "anchor" myself into position. The big change was definitely in the sound. Many European players find the N.Y. sound to be "big" but "stuffy" and "tromboney" to some degree. I'm sure one can come up with all kinds of adjectives to describe a particular horn sound but my point is that "sound" infuences phrasing, dynamic range, intonation, projection, colour, volume and the physicality of horn playing itself. This "physicality" or "feel" of the horn becomes compromised if you have not sorted out the whole business properly. I have always appreciated the way the 8D could blend into any situation when played on the leg and sometimes even off the leg. Solo playing is another matter.

I have had the opportunity to correspond with Robert Ward on the question of instrument choice for an orchestra section. Is it better for all the players in the section to play more or less on the same type of equipment? Robert said no to that question. He said that what is important is that the players have the same "concept" of tone production regardless of the equipment. We can be objective about sound but tend to get very subjective when we talk about trying to get a certain sound. Playing on the leg you can "hide" certain things but playing off the leg requires what I would say is a more delicate or sophisticated approach. To complicated matters I would say that in one instance you have a sound that is "sung" and in the other a sound that is "played". As a second player I've had to play with those who play off the leg and the next day I may find myself in a situation where my partner plays on the leg. I am not only hearing a different sound but a different music. A situation which can best be described as unsettling.

I do apologize for going on and on here. I really did set out to ask a simple question. As horn masters I would just like to ask for your input on some of the issues I've touched upon here. I have heard some pretty bad players from all kinds of schools of sound. I would be very happy to hear anyone who plays a horn so that it sounds like a horn and makes beautiful music in the process. Unfortunately there are players and orchestras who subscribe to a particular "style" or "school" so what would I tell a young student who wants to audition for the BBC Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Many thanks.

Yours truly,
"Lagrimoso"

Answer:

Dear Lagrimoso!

You are raising three issues here, I think, all of which are related to that one element of our music making called "SOUND":
  • To play with the bell on or off the leg.
  • Should everybody in the section play on the same kind of equipment?
  • What to tell students, as they are approaching auditions for different orchestras.
I like to compare the individual choices of sound with the clothing makers' choice of material. There is a difference which can be felt and seen between rough denim, for example, and velvet, or silk, if you like. One could imagine two outfits with exactly the same design, but made out of two contrasting materials. The impression of two outfits will turn out very different to the eyes that are observing them.

The factors that influence our sound are many. I will attempt to make a list here, in the order of the importance these factors may have, in my opinion.
  1. The inner image and strength of the individual's personal, desired sound. (You may call this "concept", if you wish.) With a strong such desire, combined with sufficient playing tools, one could get more or less the desired sound on any sort of equipment. Having grown up with the New York Phil sound at the time, this was probably an important influence for Lagrimoso's preferred sound, may be it still is today.
  2. The speed and determination with which you project air through the instrument (and not just into the mouthpiece)
  3. The shape and the size of the aperture on the lips, as produced by the facial muscles.
  4. The position of the tongue and the throat. The use of different vowels during the playing will influence the sound.
  5. The position of the hand in the bell can make quite a difference.
  6. The use or non-use of some occasional muscular help from lower parts of the body for extra help in the sound production. (This is an interesting area with controversies between Chicago and Europe, between modern brass philosophy and what many modern woodwind players teach. See my article "Thoughts from the North" on this.)
  7. The position of the bell - in relation to the body and to the room. And here we touch the first question from Lagrimoso, whether to play on or off the leg. I have two stories to share on that subject: A young, aspiring horn player auditioned for a first horn job for an orchestra which was going to be sent on tour with an Opera Company. He auditioned for the conductor, and started by asking what preference the maestro might have on the on or off leg issue. The conductor got very puzzled and asked for a closer explanation, whereas the horn player, who had studied mostly in the USA but also for one year in Europe, demonstrated the same solos played both ways. The conductor liked the off-leg, and the rest is history, as they say, this person got that particular job. (Of course all conductors also like to feel that they have choices, and that their taste is respected!) The other story is about The American Horn Quartet, four great players, educated in the USA and working in Europe, and making it a point to show the Europeans (and others!) some really good, solid, American style ensemble playing. For the most part they play sitting down, on leg style. At a Nordic horn seminar they were asked to play the same movement - a sort of a Scherzo - twice, once on and once off the legs. And the audience unanimously liked the off-leg much better, which surprised and may be confused the quartet a little at the time. Lagrimoso says in his letter:

    For the "big blows" I prefer the sound that comes with playing with the bell on the leg because I hear myself getting louder but without a "brassy edge".

    The interesting words here are "because I hear myself". Most tests that I have done show that people do not always realise that what you hear yourself may not be what other people hear, out there, far away. A little brassiness might sometimes end up being received as clarity and good projection, as opposed to something which might sound good to the ear of the player, but may be stuffy and unclear to the listeners.
  8. Choices of fingerings/lengths of tubing. By nature, there are differences in the sound between the high F and the low F-horn, obviously, (even though the descant horn players like to believe that they are able to cover up those differences) and certainly also between all the 12 tube lengths that we have at hand on a double horn in F and Bb. (When a whole strings section plays a phrase exclusively on the G-string, one can hear and feel a sound and intensity which differs from more regular fingerings, making the tones come from several strings, depending upon how the music in question can be produced the most comfortably by the left hand.)
  9. Size and dimensions of the mouthpiece. In my opinion this matters more for the sound you will be able to produce than the instrument.
  10. The instrument. I have a story also here: At the International Horn workshop in Los Angeles in 1979 my Russian teacher, Vitaly Boujanovsky was giving a lecture called "The Leningrad School of Horn Playing". As the Russian story telling tradition goes, he started with Peter the Great, who created St. Petersburg etc. etc. etc. For some of the listeners this took too much time, and after Boujanovsky played a small sample from the Russian literature, one person interrupted the lecture and asked loudly: "Mr. Boujanvosky, would you please play the same solo on a Conn 8 D?" Being quite surprised by such an (for him) unexpected interruption, Boujanovsky dutifully picked up the Conn that was handed to him and performed the same music, with 99% the same sound and phrasings and atmosphere. Shocking for those who thought the Conn would have its own sound coming out of it, not so shocking for me, who was there, helping to translate the lecture.

I believe that the above basically covers my viewpoints on the off/on leg issue, and also on the blind - or should I say uneducated - belief that the same horns within a section will give the same sound coming from all the players. The question about what to say to students before their auditions is a little tricky. If the accuracy is good, and the general musicianship is good, (rhythm, intonation, articulations, dynamics including phrasings, style etc.) the sound will also influence the jury's decision, but it depends if they are looking for a new and fresh 1st horn player, or if they are looking for somebody to blend into the section from inside. Many people were astonished when the Berlin Philharmonic hired Radek Baborak for their vacant position of solo horn next to principal Stephan Dohr, because Baborak certainly "sounds" different than the other players in the section, in several ways, even though he plays on the same brand of instrument. But the "strings eat him up", as one of my sources told me. And of course, variety is also a virtue! Another famous horn player, Radovan Vlatkovic, was only 19 years old when he became principal horn in Berlin Radio Orchestra, playing on a different brand of horn than the norm in Germany, and playing with a much darker, creamier sound than most West German players at the time. (He still does, now out on his own and better than ever as a soloist and chamber musician.)

Enough from me on these issues, and keep at it, Lagrimoso! The fact that you feel that you have to change your sound playing 2nd horn next to different players just show that you are smart and alert and ready for these kinds of challenges. And that is how it should be! Life as a professional horn player is very interesting indeed, never a dull moment, in my experience.

Most CORdially,
Frøydis Ree Wekre \@()
Last edit: 02 三 2008 10:20 by IHS Online Manager.

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