Sunday, 7 November 2010

About "bumping"

In the UK, the assistant 1st horn is colloquially called the "bumper". The origin of this usage is a mystery to me, but that is what we call it.

I was asked to bump for Brent Symphony Orchestra's concert last night: Dvorak's "The Noon Witch", Elgar's Enigma Variations, and Brahms 1st Symphony. I was returning a favour to the first horn there, who had come along to play at the Hillingdon Philharmonic's Russian concert last month. It gives me an occasion to talk about bumping and using a bumper.

First about bumping itself. You are there to make life easy for the first horn. That is your sole purpose. So you play whatever is required of you. If you regularly bump for the same player, then you will gradually develop an understanding of each other, and as bumper you will learn almost without verbal communication to know when you need to play. If working with a player you don't know, it's a good idea for the principal to mark in the part when he or she wants you to play. It will take 10 minutes or so before the rehearsal. If you are being brought in for just the last rehearsal, arrive early so that there is time to do this.

If you have been called in to bump, it is probably because it is a heavy programme for the principal. Therefore he may need to pace himself duriuing the rehearsal. That means you might be asked to play more in the rehearsal than in the concert itself. I understand this isn't unusual in a professional situation, but it's a bit hard on the bumper in an amateur setting. It's not unheard of but it is less common.

As bumper, you will find yourself playing tutti accompanying blending passages, so the principal saves his lip for the solos and more prominent parts. So you will find yourself mostly playing when some or all the other horns in the section are also playing. So for that time, you are leading the section. You are setting the tone and the style, and they should be matching you as they would if the principal were playing. That's what good ensemble playing is about.

But you have to remember also that the passages you have been given as bumper are almost all going to be where the horns aren't prominent, where they are accompanying and blending in. So you must do that as well.

And also, you have to adjust your playing to the style of the principal. listen out for his tone, for his style of doing dynamics and articulation, and you match that as far as possible. The idea is that unless he is actually looking in your direction, the conductor shouldn't be able to tell whether it is you or the principal playing.

I've both bumped and played principal when I'm making use of a bumper, and making use of a bumper has given me an insight into what I ought to do when bumping for somebody else.

When you are principal and have the luxury of a bumper, make effective use of him. In an amateur setting, you want the bumper to be willing to come and play for you again, so it is wise to be fairly generous with the number of notes you assign to the bumper. And that helps you save your lip for the solos, which is what your own performance will be judged on. You may have to adjust things a bit according to how experienced your bumper is and how much endurance he has. But as a general rule the idea is to err on the side of giving the bumper more ratther than less to do.

Broadly there are three main ways in which you can use a bumper.

First is for him to play less exposed passages so you can relax and prepare for later solos. A classic example of this is in the first movement of Shostakovich 5th Symphony. There's a major horn and flute duet about halfway through the first movement, where the horn part goes quite high, up to a high B, played piano. Not long before, there is a very loud tutti unison passage for just about the whole orchestra. The principal can easily drop out and leave that to the bumper.

The second way is for both the bumper and principal to play in a loud tutti passage, particularly if there is an accent at the start, or something else where the impact of an additional horn will heighten the effect.

The third way is where there is a long loud high tutti passage, and it's essentially impossible to get through without taking a break. Tchaikovsky and Siibelius symphonies are particularly notorious for this sort of thing. The approach here is to arrange to take alternate sections of 2 or 4 bars. Mark up the part accordingly. When you have a passage like this, it is good practice to play the two bars, plus just the first note of the other person's two bars. The aim here is to ensure that there is no gap between one person finishing and the other starting. A doubled note every 2 bars or so will not be noticed, whereas a gap will be noticed.

Bumping isn't so much fun as playing your own part, but if you are a young player starting out on your career, take every opportunity to bump that you are offered. It is great experience. You get to see (and play part of) principal horn parts. You get to see at close quarters how a more experienced player approaches the major solos in the repertoire. Watch and listen and learn from it, against the day when you will be required to play the same solos yourself.

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