Monday, 20 July 2009

So, you've decided you want to be a professional horn player

You're a high school student, and have been inspired by the sound of Denis Brain or Philip Farkas or Dale Clevenger, you are practicing hard and you want to go to college and then on to play in the profession. Wonderful! The chances (I'm sad to have to say) are that you won't get to make a career out of playing, even if you graduate college as a performance major.

Remember that there are hundreds of kids across the country who have a level of achievement comparable to or greater than yours. If you make it to music school, be aware that there is only space in the profession for about the top 10-20% of those who graduate. Competition for places really is that fierce.

That means it is not enough merely to be an outstanding player. You will need from an early age to be a thoroughgoing professional in all aspects, including:
  • Always make sure you are on time, tuned and ready in your seat with instrument, pencil and the correct music well before the conductor starts. Traffic and bad weather are inadequate excuses for being late or missing a rehearsal. Serious illness or injury, death of a close relative and the end of the world are about the only excuses that will be acceptable, and even the end of the world will require musical accompaniment.
  • You need to be an outstanding sightreader, not only in F but also in all transpositions. If you are going to force your way into the profession, you will need to compete for work with people who have performed Brahms 2 (with passages for horn in H) on 20 or more previous occasions, and play it as well as they do.
  • Contacts, contacts. Maintain an address book with the names & contact details of everyone in the music business you come across. You never know who you will need to phone in a hurry. Keep a backup copy in case you lose it.
  • Networking. Always take the trouble to be nice to people. Don't gossip behind their backs. Music is a small world, and you can be sure that any nasty remark you make about anybody will make its way back them - and that means the end of work sent your way by him or her. On an engagement with a new orchestra, always introduce yourself to the principal horn and to the person who booked you. Take whichever part you are given, and if asked if that is OK with you, say "yes" decisively and positively. You aren't old enough to get away with being a prima donna in any context - including your school band. Get into good habits early.
  • Know your orchestral parts. In all probability this is the meat of what you will actually be playing in your career if you make it. Make sure you practice the lower parts as well as the principal's part. There is only one principal horn and usually three others. Initially, and perhaps for your whole career, you will mostly be playing those lower parts.
  • The principal is always right, even if he is out of tune. Tune to the principal, so that the horn section is always in tune with itself. If you are principal, listen out for whoever nearby is playing with you - eg principal clarinet or bassoon. Tuning doesn't consist merely of checking that you are right with the A at the start of the rehearsal, it means listening to and adjusting if necessary every note you play. Even minor tuning adjustments to eliminate "beats" can make a decisive difference in how good the horn section sounds. Get used to listening and making those adjustments as a matter of habit.
  • Rehearsal etiquette. Unless you are principal horn, only in the most exceptional circumstances should you say a word during rehearsal unless a question is directed to you. You don't call out a question to the conductor for anything except in dire emergency. If you think there is a misprint in the part, don't waste rehearsal time by calling it out, take your part and compare it with the score during a break. Don't swap jokes or gossip with the person sitting next to you during rehearsal. If you have any kind of lesser query, quietly ask the first horn or the player next to you. Unless you are principal, you don't tell any other player what they should be doing under any circumstances. Even if you are principal, don't tell anyone what to do unless you are confident that you have the trust of the other player first, and always speak encouragingly and in terms of how to make a phrase even better, rather than saying somebody is playing wrong. Save chat and minor issues for the coffee break.
Also, be aware that injury, tiredness, family circumstances, illness or disillusion may cause you to cut short your playing career even if you succeed in making that top 10%. Therefore, you must think about what you want to do either if you don't make it as a player or decide to give it up
for whatever reason. Plan your education accordingly.

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