Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Beethoven Rondino

I've been asked to play with Ealing Symphony Orchestra this weekend (their regular first horn is busy elsewhere), for a special concert to honour Spencer Perceval, who became Prime Minister 200 years ago this year, and was assassinated in office 3 years later, the only British Prime Minister to have been killed in office. He came from Ealing, and a plaque dedicated to him is being unveiled on Saturday October 3rd at 7pm in All Saints Church, Elm Grove Road, followed by a concert in his honour, during which the local MP Stephen Pound will give a short talk about him. If you are in the area, do come along - tickets are just £4.

I'm playing in 2 pieces, the Dvorak Serenade for Wind, and the Beethoven Rondino for wind octet. I've played the Dvorak many times, it's a staple of the wind ensemble repertoire, but I've never got round to playing the Beethoven before, though I've heard recordings of it. I haven't been given the part yet, so I decided to print off the score from IMSLP. (IMSLP is an absolutely wonderful resource if you need to study any out-of-copyright music. I can't recommend it highly enough.)

And it is a delightful little piece with some very prominent horn parts - a fact made very clear because Beethoven puts the horn parts on the first 2 staves of the score, followed by the oboes, clarinets and bassoons.

Keeping with my recent theme of musicality, I thought I'd write a bit about how I approach this piece when practicing. Technically the piece is not overly challenging, but it will need to be played musically if the audience is going to enjoy it.

So, first things first. The piece is Andante, obviously intended to be a steady 4 quavers to a bar. It is in Eb major, and the horn parts are written transposed in Eb. It's a nice gentle speed for a horn tune - very characteristic of the instrument. It's the sort of speed in which many great horn solos have been written. Unless the group uses a conductor, the horn will lead off and so has to set the initial speed. It mustn't go too fast, otherwise the 2nd horn will murder me when he has to play demisemiquavers later in the piece, but it mustn't be allowed to drag. A nice steady walking pace, perhaps quaver=80 or thereabouts.

The first horn has the tune for the first 8 bars. It's a nice simple tune, 2 four-bar phrases, in each phrase the first and 3rd bars are repeated and the 2nd & 4th bars have a little variation. From all the slurs everywhere, it is clear that everything has to be very legato. This is a singing solo, the sound has to be projected but smooth and with the appearance of not being overly loud. The 2nd bassoon has a countermelody in the bass, and the 2nd horn and the clarinets are providing harmonic filling.

So, there are various choices I have to make with the opening solo.

Breathing: From the fact that there are tenuto instructions on the crotchets in bars 1 & 2, it is clear that there should be no break for breath after either crotchet. That means that I must take the whole of the first 4 bars in a single breath to give continuity to the phrase. Beethoven reinforces the point by putting in a nice quaver rest at the end of bar 4. That quaver is in fact tacet for the whole group. There's no mistaking how you are expected to breathe.

Grace note: Should the grace notes at the start of bars 2 & 4 be on the beat or before? Just before the beat seems to me to sound much better, it allows the 4 semiquavers to be nice and even, and trying to co-ordinate an on-beat grace note with the staccato bassoon quaver seems unnecessarily awkward. So ahead of the beat is what I'll do, unless the conductor or the group overrule me in rehearsal. Music making is a group activity - you work out together what is best and will achieve a good performance.

Dynamic changes: There aren't any marked dynamics apart from the initial p, but should anything be done beyond a steady piano throughout? Looking at it, I'm inclined to put a bit of a crescendo into bar 5 to make the first half of the 2nd phrase a bit stronger, then then drop down a notch for bars 7 & 8 to make a bit of an echo. It just provides that bit of variation to keep the audience interested.

2nd clarinet and 1st bassoon take the tune for the next 2 bars, and 1st oboe and 2nd clarinet take it for the following 2 bars, after which there is a tutti forte recapitulation of the opening phrase. Although the 1st horn is marked forte in bars 13-16, and only piano when it has the tune in bars 1-8, you shouldn't play much louder, since you don't have the tune and are providing harmonic filling. The extra sound will come from all the other instruments taking a step up in dynamic and this being the first point at which all 8 players and playing at once.

The next 8 bars for me just contain some repeated semi-staccato semiquavers, pianissimo. 1st clarinet has the tune, everyone else is accompanying. I'll need to listen out carefully to make sure that the dynamics match (so the clarinet can come through without forcing) and also to match the length of the staccato notes - we will want all 5 instruments with those semiquavers to be doing them in the same style. Although the semi-staccato marking is only written in full for the first bar, it is clearly intended to be played the same to the end of the passage.

After the repeat, the oboe takes the tune, and 1st horn has an arpeggio passage. This isn't tune, it is a combination of supporting harmony and rhythm. I think I'll play the semiquavers a bit detached (we will be in a church, the acoustic will probably be a bit muddy) and then the quavers more legato.

The horns are mostly doing supporting stuff for a while, so all the principles I wrote about in the articles on the Eroica apply here, until we come to the double bar and the second subject.

At this point it all gets a bit darker as the piece modulates from a carefree Eb major into a much darker Bb minor. (The key signature isn't changed to reflect this, but you can work it out from the extra accidentals written in.) 1st horn has the tune again, but the accompaniment is even more pared-down than at the start - just 1st bassoon & 2nd horn playing quavers. There's no supporting rhythm, just a bit of harmony below. The tone and phrasing has to reflect this darker mood.

The first 8 bars are 2 repeated 4-bar phrases. In other circumstances I might consider echoing the 2nd set, playing it quieter for a contrast, but it doesn't seem appropriate here, the tension is intended to build through the next 8 bars which have a similar rhythm but are a tone higher. So I might do the the very slightest crescendo through the whole 16 bars to maintain this slight sense of menace, and drop back to pianissimo for the semi-staccato detached quavers in the 17th bar after the key change.

Although it's not written in to the horn part, the pianissimo is clearly intended to last only 3 notes, and the solo piano to return on the high G crotchet. The sf markings on the Ab notes are not major accents, it is just leaning into the note a bit, everyone does it the second & third times.

And with a pair of hairpins on two crotchets, we return with relief to the sunlit uplands of Eb major and a recapitulation of the original tune, with some small variation in the notes of the tune and a much busier accompaniment including 1st bassoon playing an Alberti bass below you. It's very important to make the recapitulation sound like a homecoming. The audience have been on a difficult journey, but they are back home safe now and can rest & relax.

The horns are now mostly supporting for a while, though 2nd horn has a busy demisemiquaver arpeggio passage for a few bars, which will probably be easier played all with 1st valve on the F side.

And we finally come to the coda, where the whole group shuts up and it is just the two horns with the tune and a bit of harmony. It's the same tune as at in the first 4 bars of the piece, but there is now a nasty twist - the 2nd & 4th bars of the original phrase are now repeated, marked con sordino. Definitely an echo effect intended here, but it is going to be tricky to get mutes in and out so quickly.

This is perhaps the earliest use of the con sord instruction for horns in Beethoven's work - about the only other example that comes to mind is the closing solo in the slow movement of the Pastoral Symphony.

But enough of history, there is still the need to work out how to play the con sord passages. For the 1st horn part, the answer to me is fairly straightforward. Even with the mute on a cord round my wrist, there's not time to swap between mute and hand. I don't want to play the open bars with the mute half-inserted, I don't like the effect on my tone. So I'm not going to attempt to use the mute, I'm going to play those bars handstopped. I can get a nice echo effect that way. But the second horn is also con sord, and playing in a much lower register, going down to a pedal C (actually Bb once you take into account the transposition). Handstopping doesn't work so well down there. Quite how we will address that is something we'll have to work out in rehearsal. There are various options available, and we'll have to see which works best for the player concerned. If I were playing it, I would be inclined to handstop the first con sord bar, and then handstop the first note of the next one, and just play the remaining two quavers (the low G and the pedal C) as quietly as possible, but not stopped.

So there you are. It's a small piece. It doesn't have the grandeur or drama of the Eroica symphony, but it has its musical and technical challenges, and I hope the audience will go home thinking "I hadn't heard that Beethoven piece before. It was rather beautiful, I'd like to hear it again sometime."

Friday, 25 September 2009

Musicality and musical content

Lyle Sanford has been pondering on my musings on musicality. The interesting thing about his response is how it veers between expressing resonance for the ideas I'm trying to express and very perceptively noticing how much I haven't yet found a way to describe.

One thing that fascinates me is that he makes a number of wonderful points about how to play with more expression, and how to avoid breaking the spell the music is casting, without going into the nature of the expression or the spell. ... His post tells how to make pieces of music express their content, but not how to ascertain the nature of that content.

And that is a very good point. As an orchestral musician you aren't really required to think too much about the content - you have the dots on the page and you play them. I commented about this on the Memphis horn list a year or so ago.

"I suspect that a surprisingly large number of orchestral musicians (even at a professional level) regard their work as a craft rather than an art.

By that, I mean that they regard their task as beginning and ending with the mastery of their particular instrument and playing the notes in whatever fashion the conductor requires of them. They aren't much concerned with musicianship and interpretation, they leave that to the conductor."

It triggered a heartfelt response from Wendell Rider

I love the comment in JW's post about leaving the musical part to the conductor! So true and so pathetic. Conductors? They have been bottom-lining for so long they haven't got any music left in them. Fortunately for them, the performances are now judged only by the "perfection index," which simply requires the right notes at acceptable tolerances of dynamics and rhythm. Just read the reviews. Those have been bottom-lined too. We have lost our way.

I don't think things are quite that bad, but having seen friends and family who are professional musicians (I decided against a career in music and have never regretted the decision), I can see how the work and the unsocial hours and the travelling and the sheer repetitiveness of playing the same stuff over and again can get people down after a while, and cause them to take a rather cynical attitude to the work they do and the music they play. I'm lucky, I'm an amateur, there are few orchestral pieces I have ever performed more than half a dozen times, and the performances usually come sufficiently far apart that the piece is fresh each time I return to it.

But there is something else about playing in an orchestra. It is that you are part of a crowd. As anyone who has participated in songs at football matches knows, when crowds are involved, music takes on a whole new dimension, even if the participants are entirely untrained at it. Nobody can possibly be unmoved when the whole of Anfield stadium is encouraging Liverpool to greater efforts by a full-blooded rendition of "You'll never walk alone".

If I recall correctly, Brian May (lead guitarist of Queen) once commented about how he loved playing big stadium concerts, because of how he could affect the emotions of such a huge group of people merely by making movements of a quarter of an inch with a finger of his left hand. of course, he would be able to tell he was doing that unless they responded to him and he could see and hear them.

Most of my most exhilarating moments in music have come when participating in a large-scale performance (though not in a stadium!), usually of a thoroughly romantic work, where all is going well, and everyone is playing just that bit better than they realised they could, and I'm surrounded by this tremendous pulsating energy, this wall of sound, and I know I am making my own small contribution to it. The total seems so much more than the sum of the parts, it is so uplifting.

When playing in a large group doing well, all kinds of instantaneous feedback and adjustment is going on between and among the players, who are responding to each other and not merely to the conductor. And this happens far too fast and unconsciously for anybody to be able to describe in any kind of detail exactly what is going on, even after the event. I know (sort of) what is going on, because I see it and I hear it and hopefully I do it myself, but it's a devil of a job trying to describe it. I have a habit of analytical thought from my scientific training and my work as a computer programmer, so I'm perhaps in a better position to try and describe it than professional musicians who are far better than me at it in almost every way. I can perhaps detach myself a little bit and look on it from a perspective not available to many professional musicians.

It is one of those things you just have to learn by taking part and getting better at it. You hear and you instantly adjust in order to fit in with the overall idea or emotion that is being collectively expressed through the music. And in doing to, it can make your heart sing.

Lyle goes on to say:

High level players are expected to play any piece put before them well and musically and with whatever spin a conductor wants to put on it. I guess the assumption is that when played coherently and correctly, any piece will convey the content the composer intended.

It helps if the players have an idea of what they are about in terms of the composer's overall intention, but surprisingly it isn't always necessary. Earlier this year, a local orchestra I play in included Michael Tippett's Triple Concerto on one of their concert programmes. Tippett writes uncompromisingly modern music. The solo parts (violin, viola and cello) have a great many notes, far more than the orchestra can really hear and relate to. Rehearsing the orchestral accompaniment felt like trying to solve a particularly fiendish cryptic crossword. There were so many changes of time signature, changes of speed, odd intervals and rhythms that in the orchestra we were fully occupied with the technicalities of counting, hitting the right notes and not getting lost. Talking with the other players during the coffee breaks, I found that they all were finding the piece difficult and not all that rewarding to rehearse. I suspect that this feeling came from the fact that they weren't able to perceive the overall structure, and so couldn't properly understand how their own contributions were supposed to fit. I suspect also that very few of them could have expressed that aspect of their dissatisfaction in words.

And yet, come the concert, friends of mine in the audience (including some who had rarely been to a classical concert) found the piece very powerful and stirring and enjoyable. It seems that sometimes the composer makes his intentions sufficiently clear in the score that as an orchestral musician you don't have to do much more than accurately play what is written and keep together.

In chamber music, you have to take much more responsibility for the shape and structure. You need to be able to understand the emotions being conveyed, nor merely in the choice of speed and phrasing and dynamics, but for instance in invoking the sense of "returning home" when the movement comes back into the key and theme that it started out with. You have to have some understanding of the journey you are leading the audience on.

And if you are the conductor of an orchestra, you of course have to have even more idea what you want to achieve. Deciding what shape the performance will take and inducing the orchestra to follow you along the road you lead them on is the your one and only task. You produce no sound at all during the performance (or at least, that is the idea!) but without the conductor, no coherent performance is possible. I may write a bit more on conducting another time.

Monday, 14 September 2009

"8 Simple Rules" for playing in an orchestra

8. Make sure that you have everything you need with you at rehearsal
That includes instrument, mouthpiece, music, stand (unless supplied by the orchestra, if in doubt bring your own), pencil, eraser, and any mutes needed for the works to be played.

7. Be sure you know whether repeats are in or out, and mark them in the part
You don’t want to bring a rehearsal or concert to a halt because you get this wrong and make a solo entry 40 bars out of place.

6. Check your transposition
It is embarrassing to bring the orchestra to a halt because you didn’t notice that the part is in E and made a solid entry a semitone out. Clarinettists have an equivalent special rule – always make sure you start a piece with the correct clarinet in your hands. For everyone else, the nearest equivalent rule is to check your clef and key signature.

5. Don’t gossip
Music is a small world, and all gossip will ultimately get back to the person you are gossiping about. And that is the end of any prospect of them phoning you to ask you to do a gig. If you can’t say something nice about a person, remain silent on the subject.

4. Keep to the same speed as the conductor
Getting behind or ahead of the beat is far more noticeable than playing a few wrong notes, or even missing a few. Getting out of place like this fosters uncertainty among everyone else – do they follow you or the conductor?

3. Don’t be late
Being late to rehearsal is far more noticeable than merely not playing all that well. It is also very unprofessional. Being late to a concert is even more so! If you are a student, get into a good habit on this right from the start - it will be noticed if you don't, and that can end a career even before it has properly started. If you are an amateur, it is a courtesy to your fellow-players to be on time for all rehearsals.

Occasionally circumstances make it impossible to get there on time. If you know ahead of time that you will be unavoidably late, then try and let somebody know. If you are a student or professional, don't just try, make very sure that you succeed. Make sure you have your mobile phone with you when travelling to a gig, and make sure you have a note of the relevant numbers so that you can call ahead in emergency.

2. Don’t argue with the conductor
Especially if you are right and he is wrong. He will hold it against you for ever more.

1. Don’t play in the rests
Playing when you should be silent (such as in a general pause) is far more noticeable than being silent when you should be playing. There is absolutely no hiding who is responsible when this happens!

And yes, I have broken all these rules myself at one time or another, and have learned from bitter experience how important they are. I try very hard not to do it again.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

On "cheating" when you play the horn

Not all horn parts are actually playable. Not all composers have enough of an understanding of the horn in order to write horn parts that are practical in terms of the effort and the technique required to achieve the desired effect.

Among the composers and arrangers I have spoken to, they are mostly only too happy to have you make minor adjustments to the part if it achieves a fairly close approximation to their intended effect and enables security to be enhanced.

So you shouldn't hesitate to do the same if you come across a part from a composer who is dead or otherwise unavailable for consultation. You do what is necessary. You find a workaround. You cheat.

A typical example is from "Limoges", the 7th movement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (orch Ravel). The passage I mean is available at the Horn Excerpts website.

At this point, the whole orchestra is playing demisemiquavers (32nd notes). The horns aren't particularly prominent. If your double-tonguing isn't good enough to keep up, it doesn't matter all that much, you really don't need to play the demisemiquavers.

Many many years ago, I was playing the piece in the Norfolk County Youth Orchestra. We were all trying our best to do the double-tonguing but falling a bit behind. The conductor Lawrence Leonard called out to us "Horns! You're late! Do something about it!"

I leaned across to the first horn and said "Let's just play semiquavers - he will never be able to hear the difference." So that is what we did next time round.

Lawrence's response was "Horns, that was marvellous! What did you do?"
I called out "We're not telling you!"

Other cheats you can do:

Change the slurring as appropriate to make the passage more secure.
My teacher Douglas Moore was very keen on the technique of "soft-tonguing", tonguing a note for security, but so gently that nobody in the audience would particularly notice that the note wasn't legato. This works particularly well for wide slurs of a sixth or more.

Shorten a note in order to take a breath.
This is such standard practice that it almost doesn't count as a cheat.

In rapid tongued passages, slur an occasional pair of notes, especially at the start of a bar.
You may be astonished at how much easier this can make a passage. And the conductor would far prefer an occasional note pair to be slurred than for you to get behind the beat because you can't tongue fast enough.

If the passage is covered by other players, simply leave one or more notes out!
This is a perfectly valid approach. A few years ago, I did a short course with the Rehearsal Orchestra, we did Mahler 6 over a weekend with an informal performance at the end. I was playing 1st and had no assistant. I knew that my lips would never make it to the end unless I rested as much as practicable. So for much of the weekend, I listened out for passages where I was doubled by one of the other horns (usually 3rd or 5th), and I marked my part indicating notes that I could safely leave out.

The conductor congratulated me over a drink in the bar after the performance and asked how my lips had managed to last the weekend. I explained what I had done, and how even with notes left out, I had been running pretty much on empty by the end of the performance. He hadn't noticed anything missed out, and said that I had been extremely sensible to conserve my energy.

Take notes up or down an octave.
This won't do for solos or exposed passages of course, but if you are in the middle of the texture, nobody is likely to notice. But only do this as a last resort if no other measure will serve.

Use alternative fingerings in rapid passages.
You can do this even if it results in an occasional note using a harmonic that is somewhat out of tune. The note will flash past so quickly that nobody will hear the tuning.

Hand over a note or two to another player
If you are principal and have an assistant, then you can freely do this as much as you want. But even without an assistant, don't hesitate to hand over some notes to another part if that for instance gives you time to negotiate an awkward page turn, or grab a vital two bars rest to give your lips a break and to catch your breath.

Alternatively (and this works particularly well if you are playing on music that has two parts on the stave) you can have 1st and 2nd swap parts for a few bars to give yourself a bit of a break by playing the lower part. For instance, in Strauss waltzes, I'll frequently suggest that the horns swap parts for the repeats. It gives me a break and gives the 2nd horn a more interesting time. It's important that these swaps are marked in to the part so you don't find yourselves accidentally playing in unison!

You may notice that all of these tricks or cheats have the same sort of effect - they sacrifice some degree of rigid adherence to the written music in order to maintain the spirit of how it should sound. The score is not intended to be a work of art in its own right, it is intended to be a set of instructions or guidelines for the performance which is the work of art. Don't confuse the two.

And if you think this is not proper horn playing, fine. Get your technique good enough that you don't have to cheat. But no matter how good you get, I can guarantee that you will one day come across a passage that just doesn't work as written, and you will have to make some adaptation. Better that you know ahead of time what sorts of things will work. Everybody cheats to some extent. Think of it as exercising musicality.

Friday, 11 September 2009

A bit more on musicality

It seems that I can never be satisfied with just one post on a topic, I always have to go back for another bite at it.

I found that my inability to describe how to achieve musicality was a bit troubling - surely I can do better than that!

And I've concluded that there is one concept I mentioned in almost throwaway fashion which holds the key.


There are lots of definitions of "mimic", but I'll just take this one from the Free Dictionary

To copy or imitate closely, especially in speech, expression, and gesture.

A lot of music and dance is mimicry. Country dances where everyone is in step with each other, jazz jamming, little children learning nursery songs and all clapping their hands together at the same time. They are all forms of mimicry.

Paul McCartney hearing a skiffle band and wanting to take up guitar. Karaoke, people playing air guitar, professional orchestral musicians following the gestures of a conductor. Me hearing a recording of Dennis Brain playing the Mozart concertos and wishing I could do that. All mimicry in their own different ways.

Mothers and babies smiling and giggling at each other are a very important kind of mimicry. Not for nothing do we call such activities "getting in tune".

And music lessons. You are learning how to play what the teacher tells you, but more importantly shows you. You are learning to mimic your teacher. Not just in technique, but also (if your teacher knows his business) in style, in musicality.

Of course, musicality isn't quite just mimicry. Once you develop beyond a certain level, you learn not merely to imitate from one source, but to borrow from several, so that you develop your own unique and personal synthesis in your style of playing. You develop beyond merely doing what your teacher tells you to do and decide for yourself what will make a good shape to the next phrase you play.

But those decisions aren't based on the kind of rational thinking that enables you to calculate your monthly budget. The information you process is too extensive and amorphous for that. In essence, you are drawing on the experience of all the music you have ever heard or played in your life before (whether you consciously remember it or not) and as a result you decide that a phrase should be shaped in just this way, with the emphasis just there.

And you know, without quite knowing how or why, that doing it just that way will cause sadness, joy, excitement, calmness and a whole range of other emotions to be experienced by the audience. You induce them to mimic the emotions you express.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


Some time back Lyle Sanford asked in passing if I might write a bit about what I understand of this topic.

And I’ve thought and thought, and it is difficult. Musicality is one of those things that is very hard to describe and very easy to recognise. It is the ability to entrance an audience with your playing, to perform in a way that brings out all the best of the composer’s intentions, that blends sensitively and apparently effortlessly with the other players in the group, that knows when to drop into the background and when to come to the fore, and adds that little personal touch all of your own that makes the performance unique.

But how on earth do you go about describing how to do it? And still more to the point, how do you go about acquiring it? Anybody who wishes to become a professional player is going to have to be able to display abundant musicality – orchestras aren’t in the least bit interested in automata who can reliably hit a top C every time but can’t put feeling into the solo from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony.

So I decided to do a websearch and see what others have said on the subject. There is surprisingly little. I came across a contribution by Hans Pizka. It is about the only thing I found on the web that was concerned with expressing musicality in performance, which is curious given how important it is.

Some of this abilities can be acquired by hard work or simple experience: rhythmical training, ear training, recognizing forms knowing the works very well. Exact memory for music is a good tool also, but requires some analytic memory. Feeling for forms & the interaction between forms can be developed by great experience in the arts, in all arts, which can be acquired by visiting museums, reading encyclopaedias, specially about the classical arts from Egyptian arts to Greece & Rome. So one gets a feeling about esthetic.

That’s a good start. It describes the kinds of things you should be looking to do. Hans of course also described various pre-requisites – a good ear, mastery of the instrument etc. Hans also has the poetic effect well described.

If you listen to certain chords, and it starts running down your back icecold, and your flesh begins to creep, that's where musicality starts. If you listen to music, and you feel like flying in outer space, that's where musicality starts. If you listen to music, and you become angry or sad, that's where musicality starts. And if you are able, to bring others into the moods said above by your playing, well, then you are a musical musician.

Spot on. But Hans doesn’t describe in any great detail how you go about improving your musicality. He’s been a professional player for so many years that it doubtless is entirely natural to him by now. But us lesser mortals do need to think about it a bit more.

So, let me see what I can contribute that might hopefully be of some use.

Unless you are playing entirely solo and unaccompanied (rare for a horn player), you must listen to what is going on around you. Whatever you are playing, in whatever kind of ensemble, you have to fit in. You can’t fit in if you can’t hear or don’t listen to what else is happening. You need a certain amount of ego in order to have the nerve to get up in front of an audience and play, but ultimately that ego has to be dedicated to the music. You are there to serve the music, the music isn’t there to make you look good.

You have to have enough familiarity with the music (and mastery of the instrument) that you aren’t worrying merely about the notes. You need to have mental effort available to think about how you will play a passage, not merely which notes come one after the other.

You have to have an idea in your mind of what you want to achieve. You must have a picture in your mind of how the phrase would sound if all your technical limitations were suddenly to vanish away. Depending on the style of the piece, you may decide that the climax of a crescendo will happen just there, or that those staccato notes will be just so long and accented by that much.

Then there is mimicry. When playing, it will often happen that you repeat a phrase played a few seconds before on another instrument. Match the playing style as best you can.

You can plan for musicality a bit beforehand, (I’ve described examples of that in the articles on the Eroica.) You can mark in breath marks to ensure you don’t run out of air at the vital moment. If you are principal horn of your orchestra and you have the luxury of an assistant, you can pass off passages to the assistant to play alone so that you are rested and ready for the key solos. You can practice slurring and fingerings so that technical limitations don’t get in the way of the music. You can mark in planned crescendos or rubatos, or additional accents or tenutos you intend making.

But all these markings should be regarded as general guidance rather than fixed instruction, because ultimately it is down to the inspiration of the moment and the conditions at the time. Even between an afternoon rehearsal and the evening concert conditions can change. The temperature of the hall may have risen, the acoustic will be different because of all the extra bodies present, and the conductor in his excitement may take the piece at a somewhat different tempo. So you have to instantly adjust how you take a phrase to fit the circumstances.

But how do you decide what adjustments you should make to tempo, dynamics and phrasing in order to sound musical? There I can help less, certainly very little in an article like this which isn’t looking at a specific piece of music. Sit me next to another player who wants help with a passage, and I can make suggestions. Put me in charge of an amateur orchestral horn section and I will get them playing musically together. But I’m not quite sure how I do it. I know what to say in any particular circumstance, but I have no idea specifically where it comes from in any particular case.

But I think it is more general than that. I come from a musical family. My parents were both musical, my father a keen amateur clarinettist, my mother a teacher of violin and piano. All four children of the family learned musical instruments, and my younger sister has gone on to become a professional violinist. I started learning the piano when I was five and the horn when I was eight or nine, and continued with regular lessons until I was 23. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing or listening to music of one kind or another. I’ve absorbed it through my pores and it is deeply ingrained in me now. And I suspect that this is ultimately the secret to musicianship. You have to love the music and immerse yourself in it, and eventually you just know how a piece should be played.

And that learning never ceases. When I was a student, my teacher made me learn the Richard Strauss 2nd Horn Concerto. Technically it is extremely demanding, pushing most students to the limits of their abilities – I know it pushed me to the limits of mine. But its musical idiom is a bit strange and it takes some getting used to, especially the first movement where the horn part appears to wander aimlessly about without ever quite managing to break into an actual tune. As a student, I just didn’t like the piece. I didn’t get it. Of course, my teacher marked in various crescendos and decrescendos and rubatos, and I dutifully got louder and softer and slower in the indicated places. But if I have to be honest, I was faking musicality, I didn’t actually have any kind of conception as to what I was trying to achieve overall.

But since then, I have been exposed to much more music than I had known at the time as a student. I’ve performed in Mahler and Bruckner and Shostakovich symphonies, I’ve played through Wagner operas, Tchaikovsky ballets, Dvorak and Richard Strauss tone poems. All of these are part of the musical landscape into which Strauss placed his concerto, and understanding them helped me to understand it. Relatively recently I played both the Strauss Sonatinas for Wind, which he wrote at around the same time as the second horn concerto. The first horn parts of the Strauss Sonatinas are at least as technically challenging as the solo part in the 2nd horn concerto. But playing the pieces in a group, and seeing how the horn part fitted with everything else, I finally began to piece together how the concerto is built, since it is in a similar style. Looking again at the solo horn part, my teacher’s pencil markings make sense to me at last. Now, in the unlikely event that anybody would ask me to, with adequate preparation I think I could put on quite a musical performance of the piece. It’s only taken 30 years since I first looked at the music.

Musicality matures, like a fine wine.