Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Blending as a horn section

When you are playing in an orchestra, a significant part of your job is to fit in - with your tuning, your tone colour, your style and articulation and your phrasing. As you will realise from my posts on the Eroica symphony, the horns spend most of their time accompanying, providing harmonic background to tunes going on elsewhere.

Let's start with tuning. A section that is not in tune with itself will sound horrible no matter what else it is doing. This means that it is the first duty of the other players to match their tuning with the principal horn - even if they think the principal is playing out of tune! This doesn't just mean tuning to the A at the start of the rehearsal or concert, but listening out for the tuning of every chord and making minute instantaneous adjustments as necessary. The first horn should be listening out and adjusting to the woodwind or strings, and the others have to adjust to the first horn. if both the principal and the rest of the section are doing their jobs in this respect, the tuning will be wonderful. The fact that you are listening out for each other helps enormously for other aspects of blending as well.

The second most important thing is to match playing style. In this respect, the first horn has a bit more freedom than the rest of the section, since there will be occasions when he/she can set the playing style not merely for the section but for the orchestra as a whole, when choosing how to articulate and phrase a solo passage. Whatever the first horn is doing with regard to articulation and phrasing - e.g. dynamics, length of staccato notes, extent of crescendos and diminuendos etc, must be matched by the rest of the section - even if they think they would do it differently if they were first horn! They probably would do it differently, but some one person has to make the decision about how the section will play an ensemble passage, and that one person is almost invariably the principal. If you want to be a good second, third or fourth horn, you must accept that adapting to the principal's playing style is part of the job.

Once you have a section playing in tune and in a common style, I find that differences in tone colour between different players matter relatively little. I'm sure that if the players go the extra mile to try and match tone colour to the principal as well, then the sonority of the sound can further improve. Some professional sections go even further in this direction and expect the regular players all to play the same make & model of horn. In an amateur orchestra, this is obviously impractical, and even in a professional setup I have my doubts as to whether it is actually all that helpful. How you blow into the instrument matters more than which instrument you blow into.

If you want to find out whether you are blending well into your horn section as heard by the audience, then the simplest way to find out is to have a knowledgeable musical friend or a teacher sit in on a rehearsal and listen to you, and offer their opinion. Alternatively, if your concerts are recorded, get hold of a copy of the recording and have a listen to how the section sounds.

By the way, if you think that there is unfairly little opportunity as a non-principal in a section to engage in your own musical creativity and interpretation, spare a thought for the violins - 16 or so players all playing the same part. They have even less opportunity for individuality than you do!

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