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
Pip Eastop is interviewed by Jeff Bryant
for the Horn Magazine.
(Vol. 5 No. 1, 1994)
What is your age?
What instrument did you first play and at what age?
Recorder. Aged seven.
When did you start playing the horn?
On the second Friday in February, 1969.
What make and model was your first horn?
A Calison compensator: it had valve linkages in solid nylon of a milky-white translucency. I’ll never forget the moment my father appeared with it, brand new, having been on a day trip to London by rail to buy it. He stepped in through the front door with it under his arm wrapped in brown paper, having been unable to afford the case to go with it. I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by the importance of this new thing in my life and fully aware of privilege for a nine-year old of having such a thing.
Who was your teacher?
My first teacher was my father who was then an oboist in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Staff Band. He read the Farkas book and taught me from that. Later, from the age of fourteen, I studied with Ifor James at the Royal Academy of Music. My Dad was a great teacher.
What make and model is your present horn?
A gold-brass Alexander 103 which I have played on since new twenty years ago, with millions of dents and several interesting features: It has a stand attached to it so that its entire weight is taken on my right leg. This is wonderful, as my arms take none of the weight whatsoever. I use a bent (fifteen degrees or so) Paxman 4B mouthpiece in it which, by rotational adjustment, gives me a large range of different head-to-horn angles and thereby enables me to get a bit more comfortable with the instrument when sitting or standing to play. This may sound weird but is actually a very useful feature, and both Steven Stirling and John Rooke have since adopted the idea and gone bent, although they both have the mouthpiece turned so it bends upwards, whereas I have mine bending downwards. The detachable bell is hanging on by a thread which, due to my negligence, is so badly worn that it won’t be long before it gives out and I will have to use gaffer tape to stick the bell on. Strangely, I am rather proud of this and deliberately never grease it, thereby hastening the day when the thread finally strips. John Ward has promised to repair this for me when finally goes.
What is your favourite horn?
The factory-fresh Schmid gold-brass double which I tried last summer in Herr Schmid’s factory at Tiefenried, near Munich. I have ordered one the same, which I am going over to collect in April.
Do you come from a musical family?
My brother is a bass trombonist and my sister is a bassoonist (so I guess the answer is no, ha-ha).
Why did you start to play the horn?
The honest truth is that I can’t remember, and my parents never found out where I got the idea from, though I probably saw one on the telly.
Who is your favourite composer?
It varies from day to day; Schubert, Brahms, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Bach etc.
What is your favourite piece of music?
This is not a constant but, for example, today it is a chunk of the last movement of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony. Tomorrow it might be Nat King Cole singing “When I Fall In Love”.
What is your least favourite piece of music?
Ligeti’s horn trio. It stinks. I loathe it. Or anything by Harrison Birtwistle…
Who is your favourite horn player of all time?
Jeff Bryant, of course.
Which horn players have had the greatest influence upon your career?
Ifor James, Jonathan Williams, Christopher Giles – until his tragic death in 1975, Dennis Brain, Georges Barbeteau, Frank Lloyd, Philip Farkas, Richard Watkins and, of course, Jeff Bryant.
Who are your favourite non horn-playing instrumentalists?
John Wallace, Maurice Murphy & Arturo Sandoval – trumpet; Richard Hosford – clarinet; Alfred Brendel, Martha Argerich and Lyle Mays – piano; Pat Metheny – guitar; Michael Brecker – sax; Jaco Pastorius – fretless bass guitar; The Vegh String Quartet, The Chamber Orchestra of Europe etc…
What was your first job and when was it?
Principal horn in the Antwerp Philharmonic, ’76 to ’77. My second job was with the London Sinfonietta from ’77 to ’86.
What is your present job and when did you start it?
Freelance since ’87.
What qualities, do you think, make a successful horn player?
Good looks, an engaging personality and the ability to stay upright in a chair for long periods. While this tends, unfortunately, to be true I would also add the following three important things:
1. Knowing the pitch of any note before you go for it hence better accuracy.
2. Producing a sound which, whether fat or thin, small or big, has the capability of floating in the air like a still dawn mist or ripping through it like a chainsaw.
3. Perfect intonation, always.
Who is your favourite conductor?
I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.
What, where and with whom was your most exciting musical experience? A “Weather Report” Concert in 1981, in the back row of the stalls at the Hammersmith Odeon, with Hilary, my then girlfriend. The Earth moved and my hair stood on end. Massive tingle factor.
What is the best aspect of being a professional musician?
Constantly meeting friends.
What is the worst aspect of being a professional musician?
In my case, bewildering chaos: being a freelancer I feel the lack of any daily routine and sometimes I yearn for it.
If you didn’t play the horn, what instrument would you like to play?
Piano, violin, cello or alto saxophone.
What would you like to do if you were not a horn player?
Spend loads of time larking about with my kids, and making new ones.
What could you do if you were not a horn player?
Virtually anything not requiring intelligence or physical exertion. Perhaps conducting?
What is your hot tip for budding horn-players?
Having given it some thought, my most useful and concise single piece of advice would be to simply ignore anyone who tells you about the diaphragm if they can’t give you any facts about its anatomy or its physiology.
Outside of your horn-playing, what are your hobbies?
Listening to all kinds of music, making things out of wood, writing letters to my brother who lives in Sweden, growing organic pumpkins, reading the New Scientist and, of course, trainspotting in my Millets anorak.
What would your eight desert island discs be, and why?
1-4. Jeff Bryant playing the four Mozart horn concertos.
5. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, because it was played at my wedding (though, unfortunately, not live).
6. Parsifal, because I have never heard it, and I bet it is fantastic.
7. Beethoven’s “Harp” string quartet – the first movement of which has a passage which never fails to make me convulse and froth at the mouth.
8. “Mirror of the Heart” a solo piano piece written and played by Lyle Mays, which could be the most profound and beautiful piece of music I have ever heard.
What book, apart from the bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, would you like to take with you to the desert island?
It just has to be the Farkas book of embouchure photos. And please could I swap the bible for Delia Smith’s cookery book “One Is Fun”
What luxury items would you like to take?
One of the following – It’s so hard to choose: a set of traffic cones, a karaoke machine, or a pantomime horse outfit.
This picture is pretty old now – taken in 1994.