Prejudice and Bias in the Horn World

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As noted in prior posts, I have been reading A Devil to Play by Jasper Rees. I went back to it last night and read my way a bit further, and thought about the passage a good bit also today as I was driving on the way toward the IHS Symposium, on the part of the drive from home in Arizona to tonight in New Mexico. I have noted already his “borrowing” of materials I wrote on Franz Strauss. That still bothers me but in Chapter 4 I found several things right away that got me to thinking on a very different line, on the topic of prejudice and bias in the horn world.

Prejudice and Bias? We don’t all get along? Let’s start out with a quote to set the tone.

One day, after another lesson in the bomb site, Dave Lee and I repair to the pub, and he talks about the different sounds associated with different horn-playing regions. There’s the refined British sound, the butch American sound, the showy Czech sound, the Russian vibrato. In Germany, where the Iron Curtain no longer slices the country in half, there’s still a distinction between the stentorian sound of the western half and the thin, piping, trumpety playing from the old East Germany of the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. It’s not to Dave’s taste, this one.

“It’s the sound,” he opines over a pint, “made by a horn player who …..”

The last part of that quote I will leave out, look it up in the book if you wish, I don’t want to ruin the “G” rating of this website. It is a bit of a crude statement of a sort I would never put in print.

Read that quote again. “Butch” American sound??? What a bizarre description, one that I can’t say I even know what he means but it certainly sounds rather negatively biased.

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As another example I have a personal aside that illustrates the above. A few years ago I gave a copy of my Canto CD to a retired European player. He later wrote me a note of thanks, saying that I did not sound like an American horn player. I know that he meant it as a compliment, but it got me thinking about this whole topic of bias and prejudice between Europe and the United States. It is a reality; the horn community is fragmented around different choices of equipment and sound ideals.

One organization that has over the years tried hard to address this is the International Horn Society, of which I am very proud to currently serve on their Advisory Council. They have in over forty years held symposiums literally all over the globe including in France. [I hope Mr. Rees has that on his list of corrections, he states that the IHS has never had a symposium in France. I am also surprised that the review of the book in the most recent issue of The Horn Call does not mention this obvious error.] At every symposium the IHS goes to great pains to have players from all over the world to showcase different playing styles and to try to bring together our world community of hornists, and typically the symposium is held every other year outside the United States. Next year for example it will be held in Brisbane, Australia.

Yet, in A Devil to Play Mr. Rees goes out of his way to criticize the IHS. It is really puzzling to me. I don’t know what his axe to grind is but this quote gives you the flavor.

The IHS is a worldwide organization in the same way that the World Series opens its arms to baseball teams from all over the world. Every year the society convenes somewhere different for performances, workshops, lectures, and a massive fire sale of French horns of every known make and mark. … The year I take up the French horn, it’s in Tuscaloosa (Alabama). I decide I cannot afford to go. Or rather, I can afford not to go. It’s never been held in France.

As noted already, it has been held in France and certainly French players have been featured at a number of past symposiums, although none this year. I guess it made for a good story to say the things on these few pages cited (see pages 87-89) but I remain puzzled by this display of bias and prejudice, even if based on real quotes and perceptions.

Even within the United States there certainly are some strong biases for and against certain players or the players in certain areas due to the rather wide variety of equipment choices and playing styles seen. This is a fact but again that broad statement that American horn playing is “butch” becomes even more puzzling in the context of the reality we live in.

Go to an IHS symposium such as the one next week and decide for yourself, see what you see. I believe it is a great international organization for the horn and for those interested in breaking down prejudices and biases I would recommend that you get involved.

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