And I thought we were exposed playing the Trumpet

  • Here is an article I found in the New York Times. Things could have been worse. I could have been a French Horn Player. Any comments from those of you who have played both? Are you better off being a Trumpet Player doubling on French Horn or a French Horn player doubling on Trumpet?

    The French Horn, That Wild Card of the Orchestra
    August 12, 2008
    Orchestral instruments don’t come more treacherous than the French horn, either for the musicians who play it, or, when the going gets rough, for the listeners who find themselves within earshot. Sometimes you wonder how the instrument found its way from the hunting lodge to the orchestra.

    At the Mostly Mozart Festival in recent weeks, the intractable early version of the horn has made its way into the Rose Theater as a series of period-instrument bands from Germany, England and Italy performed music ranging from Italian Baroque choral works to Mozart opera. When these groups were at their best, a listener whose fondness for period instruments dates to the 1960s could reflect on how far the performance standard has risen since.

    In those days period ensembles that sounded vigorous on disc often proved anemic in concert, and the instruments’ antique technology was regularly blamed for mediocre performances. Nowadays, the performances are more typically extroverted and expressive, and although period instruments, by definition, have not been modernized to make them easier to play, listeners are no longer asked to consider their difficulty when a performance goes awry.

    Except, that is, when the horn notes crack and slither. The horn remains the wild card in period-instrument orchestras, and in modern ones too. And if you find yourself cringing when horn players falter badly — as I did on Aug. 5, when Concerto Italiano played three Vivaldi concertos with prominent horn parts — caveats about the instrument’s intransigence come quickly to mind.

    It’s worth understanding the challenges hornists face. In its 17th- and 18th-century form, the horn is basically just a long, flared pipe wound into two or three coils, with a mouthpiece on the end. What it lacks, compared with today’s horn, is the valve mechanism: the complex tubing and finger keys at the center of a modern horn that let hornists play chromatically and in different keys.

    Without recourse to valves, hornists are most at home in the relatively few notes in the overtone series that come naturally to a bit of coiled metal: mainly, the notes you hear in hunting and military calls. As the music grows more complex, the technical demands escalate. One resource hornists have is hand-stopping: by putting a hand inside the instrument’s bell, they can flatten the pitch to produce chromatic notes.

    When everything goes right, hornists can work miracles. You need only have heard James Sommerville, the Boston Symphony’s principal hornist, play Elliott Carter’s Horn Concerto at Tanglewood a few weeks ago to know how chromatic (and lyrical) a horn line can be. But you can see the potential for pitch problems. And a bit of condensation from a player’s breath adhering to the inside of a coil can lead to cracked notes, or “clams.”

    As is often the case, when Concerto Italiano’s hornists were good, they were great. Their sound had a fascinatingly gritty texture, much closer to the horn’s hunting-party origins than to the mellow, warm sound of a modern instrument. But when they were off — oh, dear, what a mess!

    Strangely, some believe that period horn playing is meant to sound thus. When I was in music school, I had a job in a record store and would sometimes stay after hours to listen to new releases. One was a period-instrument recording of Handel’s “Water Music” on which the horns were consistently flat. When I crinkled my nose, the store’s manager said, dismissively:

    “Oh, you don’t understand. It’s only because of showoffs like Don Smithers” — a brilliant Baroque trumpeter who was also my music history teacher at the time — “that people think these instruments can be played in tune. But they aren’t meant to be.”

    I didn’t buy that argument then, and having heard many superb Baroque hornists, I find it less tenable now.

    For some reason — maybe it’s a little-documented, mouth-drying effect of global warming — the last season was particularly rough for hornists. In a concert of Brahms and Schumann works at the 92nd Street Y in December, the usually reliable David Jolley became ensnared in every tangle a hornist can encounter (or create), including serious balance issues in ensemble pieces. And visiting orchestras seemed more prone than usual to horn flaws.

    But surely the most catastrophic horn performance of the season — of many seasons, for that matter — was at the New York Philharmonic in March, when Alan Gilbert, conducting his first concert with the orchestra since having been appointed its next music director, opened his program with Haydn’s Symphony No. 48, a work with two prominent and perilous horn parts.

    The Philharmonic has long been action central for horn troubles; its principal player, Philip Myers, is wildly inconsistent, and the rest of the section is also accident-prone. Much of the time Mr. Myers’s playing is squarely on pitch, shapely and warm, and when it is, it’s everything you want in a French horn line. But he cracks, misses or slides into pitches often enough that when the Philharmonic plays a work with a prominent horn line, you brace yourself and wonder if he’ll make it.

    The Haydn symphony was a real clambake.

    Mentioning hornists’ failings in reviews invariably brings plenty of e-mail messages, often from people who did not hear the performances but feel moved to defend a player’s reputation. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of these correspondents have variations on the word horn (“corno” or “horncall,” for example) in their e-mail addresses, and they usually identify themselves as hornists, as if their addresses didn’t make that clear.

    In the case of the Haydn, some offered amazing conspiracy theories. The most interesting was that Mr. Gilbert had programmed the work knowing that it would be botched, so that he would later have reason to replace Mr. Myers. (Mr. Gilbert doesn’t seem that Machiavellian.) Another blamed the orchestra’s management for allowing Mr. Gilbert to program it.

    Still others offered technical excuses: that the work requires a variety of horn that Mr. Myers doesn’t play, for instance. (That an orchestra’s programming is announced months in advance — ample time to deal with such technical problems or lobby to have the work replaced — seems not to have troubled anyone.)

    Of about a dozen e-mail messages, all but one correspondent found someone other than the players to blame for the performance. A few blamed me: I am supposedly a raging cornophobe with some deep-seated resentment of horns and hornists.

    To the contrary. I played the horn briefly as a teenager, somewhere between the violin and the trombone (which had a nicer bite), and I gave up brass instruments only when I realized that continuing would mean spending weekends marching around at football games in a dopey band uniform. It was the late 1960s; that kind of thing just wasn’t done.

    Nearly a decade later, as a composition student, I revisited the instrument and what it could (ideally) do when I wrote an unaccompanied horn piece and a quartet for horn, violin, bassoon and percussion (what was I thinking?) for a hornist friend.

    I like the horn, honest. And I know how difficult it is to get a good, centered, well-tuned sound out of it.

    But here’s the thing about musical performance: It’s all difficult. It’s meant to be. Composers write, and have always written, music that pushes the limits of technique. And if you’re onstage in a professional capacity, you’re expected to be able to negotiate it. That’s the least audiences expect, and it’s a precondition for what they buy tickets for: to be moved by an interpretation; to savor its nuances and to hear something revelatory, whether the work is new or familiar.

    If, instead, they end up wincing at mistuned notes and reminding themselves how tough the instruments are, they’ve been pushed out of the zone. And at that point, no amount of rationalization will make the performance anything but a sow’s ear.

  • It may just be late and I may be a bit fogy, but what was he point of that?

  • @Kehaulani You're not foggy. I don't get the point either.

  • I used to double on horn. When I mostly played horn and occasionally cornet, my trumpet embouchure deteriorated rapidly. When I mostly played trumpet and secondarily played horn, the embouchure was OK for both.

  • Playing horn is kind of like being an airline pilot -- hours of boredom interspersed by moments of terror. The most extreme case was one time when I played horn in the pit orchestra for a production of "Brigadoon." For two hours, the horn part mimics bagpipe drones BUT THEN they suddenly want an alpine hunting horn solo when the mist and fog parts in the mountains of the Scottish Highlands.

  • During the band recruitment concert in junior high school (7th grade), I fell in love with the trumpet. I liked it before, but the idea that I could make those sounds myself was thrilling. I joined Band and was promptly told by the director that he had enough trumpets and put me on alto horn. Was I disappointed! I did fine, and the director loaned me a French horn for me to familiarize myself with over the summer.

    By the end of summer, I'd had enough. Although it was a difficult instrument to play for some of the reasons mentioned above, I didn't have much trouble sounding at least presentable. My irritation was with the timbre of the French horn itself and the type of parts a horn player was expected to play. I convinced my parents to buy me a trumpet, and I returned the French horn before the start of the new school year.

    I told the director that if he wanted me to be in the band, it would be with me playing trumpet, not French horn. He was livid! He told me that I would have to start at the bottom - the last chair in the 4th Cornet section. I feigned disappointment, but inside I was screaming "I'M GOING TO BE PLAYING TRUMPET!!" We had a system whereby if you thought you could play better than the player ahead of you, you challenged him, and I moved up on a regular basis.

    For me there is no more difficult wind instrument to play than the French horn; I would rate trumpet a close second. I think that it's easier to go from French horn to trumpet than the other way around. The focus and precision required to play horn can be a help in playing any other brass instrument. To this day I use concepts and play exercises developed by Philip Farkas, the legendary horn player.

  • Global Moderator

    People always tried to convince me to play something else. One band director told me I had the chops for baritone. Anyway, I stuck with trumpet and never regretted choosing some other instrument. Heaven forbid I chose the clarinet.

    I found my greatest enjoyment on the instrument playing great orchestral works, like Mahler 3, Shostakovich 10 and especially Dvorak 7.

  • When I was finishing my last year in high school, my trumpet teacher, who was also the band director at the university, told me I would always be a good trumpet player, but I could become a great horn player, and convinced me to switch over during the summer.

    I spent my first semester in college playing first horn in the university band but just missed jazz big band too much and told him I wanted to go back to trumpet and he, like the man above, was also livid. He threatened me point blank that I would never graduate as a trumpet player. Kind of lucky because I transferred to North Texas which fit me like a glove.

    It came in handy when I joined the A.F. later because there were only two vacancies worldwide for horn and none for trumpet. And the draft was breathing down my neck.

    I'll tell you, though, I'd rather play in a woodwind quintet than a brass quintet any day,

  • The gent who plays French Horn in our band is also a really good trumpet player. He is only playing the French Horn because the conductor is a friend and felt the band needed French Horn more than it needed a 5th trumpet. So he is playing the dang thing as a favor and though he plays well, he hates it when he has to deal with condensation problems. I don't know much about the FH but it doesn't appear to have water keys anywhere.

  • About 30 years ago I was playing trumpet in a community concert band, we had an excess of trumpets and no horns.

    The MD asked me to look at a couple of secondhand horns in a music shop, not that I knew anything about horns, one was a beaten up Amarti, the other a French Selmer in excellent condition and reasonably priced,

    I n a moment of insanity I bought the Selmer, then found a teacher for lessons, I played that horn in the concert band for 15 years until I moved away.

    1990 I was invited by a friend to join a community symphony orchestra where the horn section was a Eb tenor horn and an Alto Sax playing transposed parts, at that time I was playing trumpet in an amateur Big Band.

    Currently still playing in both groups, Trumpet on thursday nights and Horn on saturday mornings. For a while I found some difficulty with the change of fingering from one to the other, eventually no problem.

    Playing 2nd horn a lot of the time I am an octave lower than the 1st, she marks my part where she wants me to go up to give her a rest and she is half my age.

    Regards, Stuart

  • My junior high band director tried to get me to switch to tuba, telling me I would never be any good as a trumpet player. All these years later, I'm beginning to believe he was right...

  • The point of my post was 1) I didn’t realize the French Horn was so difficult to play and unpredictable. ( I have enough problems with the Trumpet) 2) I was rather surprised that the New York Times published this piece that was so critical of French Horn Players, especially the 27 year ( at the time of this article) Principal Horn Player of the New York Philharmonic. He retired from this position 10 years after this article was published at age 68. 3) shortly after entering High School the French Horn playing Band Director tried to get me to “convert” to the French Horn. I too resisted and worked my way up to the First Trumpet folder by senior year. 4) while traveling in Spain I picked up a Stomvi Corno da Caccia, , AKA Soprano French Horn, that plays with a Trumpet or Flugelhorn Mouthpiece. It sounds and plays more like a 4 Valve Bb Flugelhorn. It seemed to amaze Horn Players in my Community Band that I could play it with relative ease. Now I know why. As best I can tell it is essentially a Flugelhorn with a different configuration. 5) I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind to pick up an eBay of GW double French Horn and experiment. I now will probably take a pass on that.

  • @GeorgeB said in And I thought we were exposed playing the Trumpet:

    . . it doesn't appear to have water keys anywhere.

    It depends on the horn. Anyway, how much trouble is it to remove and replace a slide?

    I personally didn't find the Horn more difficult than the trumpet.

    I've said it before, but that includes playing nothing but First Trumpet (except for my first three months) in school and professional playing later as contrasted with playing First Horn in college, horn in a military band and the Tokyo Youth Phil.

  • I doubled on all sorts of brass instruments when I was in school, and probably was the main reason why I was never 1st chair, all district, all county, all state, etc...

    #1 rule of all: Stay with trumpet and become the best you can be.

    In my case, I had a bizarre interest in fiddling around with other instruments out of curiosity. The 7th grade band director caught notice of that, and handed me a french horn and said, "Here you go... play it..." and stood in shock when I play a major scale in F.
    Trumpet fingerings Bb scale (written as C): C=0, D=1&3, E=1&2, F=1, G=0, A=1&2, B=2, C=0.
    French horn fingerings F scale (written as C): C=0, D=1, E=0, F=1, G=0, A=1&2, B=2, C=0.

    Go up higher....
    Trumpet C=0, D=1, E=0...
    French horn C=0, D=0, E=0... 😨 (it's all in the lips/embouchure!)

    I got braces in high school and that ended my trumpet playing (briefly). I ventured over into Euphonium and also doubled on trombone as well. Didn't get into tuba as the mouthpiece was bigger than a shot glass and I didn't have the wind power to play it properly.

  • Global Moderator

    @SSmith1226 So you did get that Stomvi corno... does Barbara know?

  • @barliman2001 said in And I thought we were exposed playing the Trumpet:

    @SSmith1226 So you did get that Stomvi corno... does Barbara know?

    She was with me in Valencia. As a result it indirectly cost me twice as much!

  • You gotta watch those handbags and shoes!

  • @Kehaulani said in And I thought we were exposed playing the Trumpet:

    You gotta watch those handbags and shoes!

    Or jewelry

  • Global Moderator

    @SSmith1226 Oh, the sethoflagos method... he can buy any trumpet he wants, as long as he pays the value of the trumpet into his wife's jewellery account...

  • Here's the analogy I always tell people. Playing the baritone horn is like riding a bike with training wheels. Pretty hard to fall off. Playing a trumpet is like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, you pretty much get it. Playing a french horn is like riding a unicycle on ice. Even when you are really good, bad things can happen at any moment.

    I played FH for one year in college because the band had none. It was fun and then I went back to trumpet. Now retired, I started a brass quintet and bought a horn to play because we didn't have a horn player. Three years later, that's all I play in all my groups. I play a double horn in community band and a marching french horn in small jazz groups. I now think in horn for fingerings and such. When I get a chance to play trumpet, it's a struggle because of the different fingerings.

    Plus, with horn, I rarely get tired. Trumpet players who switch to horn have a huge range advantage as well as an endurance advantage. Go us!

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