Life, the Horn and Everything.
(First published in The Horn Magazine, Vol.3 No.1 Winter 1995.)
Who says rehearsals are boring? I discovered a wonderful thing the other day, during some bars rest. If I cover my right nostril with one finger, put the mouthpiece of my horn to my left nostril and inhale vigorously a note sounds, as if by magic, from the bell – and my musician colleagues tell me it sounds better than when I play in the more traditional manner. I am a freelance horn player, which essentially means that I haven’t got a job or, if you prefer, that I am self-employed. I play with many different orchestras, chamber orchestras, brass groups, wind quintets, contemporary music ensembles, in concerts, shows, and recording sessions. It’s a very mixed diet, and I love it.
The lifestyle which such a varied work schedule entails is essentially chaotic and probably not to every horn player’s taste but I have been doing it for some sixteen years now and have no intention of changing to an easier job such as brain surgeon or astrophysicist.
Lately, as a dep. I have been performing some contemporary music with those specialists, the London Sinfonietta, an orchestra once described by a critic as the musical equivalent of the S.A.S. In a couple of works – one by Schnittke, another by Rostakov – there were parts for two horns and I had, paradoxically, by my side, the esteemed Raul Diaz – a very fine and versatile horn-player of Venezuelan origin. I say “paradoxically” and “versatile” because he is best known as a dazzling exponent of the hand-horn, and must be one of the few hornists in the world brave enough to attempt playing the lead part of Schumann’s Concertstuck on a genuine piston fox-frightener in F; yet there he was with me, still sane, in a warehouse somewhere near Waterloo Station navigating those horn-parts-from-hell with consummate skill, and apparently having no trouble pushing the new-fangled levers up and down in time with the music.
I am humbled by the obvious fact that his modern horn is much shinier, and more modern, than mine, and it doesn’t rattle when you shake it. It is one of those nice Holton/Tuckwell machines on which you get a choice of lead-pipes which can be swapped over in seconds by means of some exciting little hand-operated screws (I would suggest Velcro for an even quicker release). I had a go on it, tried out both the lead-pipes and was flabbergasted at the difference between them – not having expected to be able to detect any. I couldn’t actually see any difference, but in feel they were poles apart: one was great, the other was crap. Not for me, I’m afraid; choices like that scare me.
Most of the regular players in the London Sinfonietta are basically freelancers, who are lucky in that they have the assurance that they will get first call from the Sinfonietta’s fixer for any work requiring their particular instrument; they also qualify for the title of “principal ondes-martenot” or whatever it is they play – although “principal” is a somewhat redundant term in a band having basically only one of each instrument (apart from having two fiddles)- although it does effectively give the regulars a sense of belonging. Naturally, this almost-guarantee of regular work adds an element of security to what can be a precarious life for the freelancer. I know about this because I was the principal horn in the Sinfonietta from 1977 until 1986. I left and gave up playing altogether, suffering from “chronic squeaky gate syndrome”, a technical term for the dissipation and personality-disorder associated with a surfeit of contemporary music (which, to save ink, I shall from now on refer to as “schnitzel” – a word made up from the names Schnittke and Birtwistle, both famous living composers).
After I left, in a state of physical and moral corruption, the Sinfonietta upgraded its horn section to the solid and unwavering Michael Thompson, whom I predict will be there for a good while yet as he has a much healthier attitude to his schnitzel than I ever did, taking plenty of time off to pursue less damaging forms of self-expression. Like Raul’s horn, his also seems much shinier than mine.
When you play a lot of schnitzel you get called upon to make some pretty freaky noises. For example, there was one bit, in the Rostakov, where Raul and I each had to double-stop, that is simultaneously to play and sing, in low fifths, though not the same fifths and not quite at the same time; good fun to attempt, we found, but quite difficult to judge for ourselves the effectiveness of our efforts because of severe in-head vibration and in-throat turbulence. This turbulence is caused by interference patterns between the sung and the played notes and immediately turns one’s brain to slush. However, judging by the peals of laughter from our colleagues, the effect does convey some emotional nuance, which is, after all, what music is all about, even schnitzel. I have two concerns about this:
1. I wonder what the M.U. think about the two horn-player’s fees saved by this economical composing device.
2. that it is politically incorrect for composers to write horn-parts which cannot be played/sung by female horn players due to the lowness of the written vocal range.
As I was saying, I turned my back on schnitzel, gave up the horn, and the Sinfonietta, and decided to complete my training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, with the intention of teaching it for a living. This I did and thereby managed not to play the horn for one whole liberating year. Then one day something in me cracked and I found myself under the bed, hurriedly dragging out the dust-covered horn-case. With trembling hands I undid the catches, took out my corroding old appliance, kissed it and blew a few notes. Whether it was due to a momentary madness or a combination of distorted sensory appreciation then and false-memory syndrome now, or some other trick the mind can play upon itself, I do not know, but those few notes were the sweetest I ever heard me play – a sweetness lasting approximately one and a half minutes. Then, as we say, my chops went. After that memorable day, when my spirits soared then crashed, it took six months of hard work to get my sound, stamina and confidence back. I can recommend it to anyone. From now I was playing the horn because I had decided to; in effect I had taken over total possession of my career. This claim requires some explanation: from the age of nine, when I started playing the horn, my parents, to whom I am infinitely grateful, had given me every possible encouragement; from sitting with me year after year helping me practice to living a life of frugality and self-denial in order to afford expensive instruments for me – first a Calison compensator, then a Hans Hoyer double, then my treasured Alexander 103 in gold-brass which I have used exclusively for twenty years. I would not wish to change anything about these early years but it did mean that to some extent I played the horn to please Mum and Dad, even later on as a professional. It was not until I gave up playing that I realised what a large emotional investment they must have had in my continuing career as a horn-player, and what a terrible wrench it must have been for them when, in essence, I threw the whole thing back in their faces, like a belated adolescent rebellion. They didn’t criticise me at the time, for which I am retrospectively grateful, but they can only have been very upset and hurt by what must have seemed to them examples of perfect stupidity and ingratitude in the throwing away of something of great value.
Of course to me, it didn’t and still doesn’t look like that. I had had enough of the horn, I was free to stop it if I wanted – so I did. And when I say that it enabled me to take over total possession of my horn-playing, and that I would recommend it to anyone, I mean that from when I started up again it was all mine and I really felt that quite deeply. It was a fresh start, a clean slate, without which I would not now, seven years on, be feeling so enthusiastic, delighted and smug about being a horn player. The reason I write here about the minutiae of this distant part of my life is not simply to encourage professional suicide among my colleagues, but also to open up some debate on the subject of what, apart from money, motivates us in our struggle with the instrument, what encourages us, the various effects of parental involvement, emotional or financial.
©1997 Pip Eastop