Orchestra 101 Special Edition: What Conductors Think About Horn Players

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Horn players think a lot of things about conductors. They are our bosses, make a lot more money, and can generally make life hard for us if they choose. But what do conductors think about us? At an unguarded moment?

Kenneth Woods is a British conductor with a fine blog. We at Horn Matters do follow a variety of blogs and noted with interest his very recent post simply titled “Terrorists.” [UPDATE: I missed however in his bio that he is a Wisconsin native and please also read his comments below for more on the background of this post.] He opens with an explanation of the term in relation to orchestral players and conductors.

“The piccolo player seemed to be having a rough night. I might even go so far as to call her a terrorist.”

With this remark from a colleague in one of my orchestras to a recording of one of our recent performances, a new term entered my musical lexicon.

I’d never heard a player described as a terrorist before, but in a tragic way, the metaphor can work. In geopolitics, and terrorist is someone who, though individual action, is able to undermine the efforts of whole nations. In music, a terrorist is a musician who can undermine the efforts of entire orchestras.

And lest you think I am being cruel, and accusing others of evil doings, I must remind you that, as in politics, today’ terrorist is tomorrow’s freedom fighter. Few every play badly because they want to ruin a concert- that terrorist piccolo player really did think that long C# needed to be that high- they thought they were doing the right thing. Perhaps she thought the whole orchestra had gone flat, and it was up to her to bring it back up to 440?

The piccolo is a fine weapon with which to practice terrorism because the terrorist can make themselves heard at all times, but even the most inconspicuous player can be a terrorist. It’s all in the timing.

He goes through a whole list of ways different individuals and sections can ruin a concert. For us on horn, this is the money quote:

We now come to the elite orchestral terrorists- the brass and percussion. … of all brass instruments, I think readers will agree that the best terrorists are the horns- somehow, they’ve convinced the world that a certain number of terrorist acts are all but unavoidable on their instruments. Audience members can never understand why a trumpet player fraks- they expect perfection having grown up with Bud Herseth and Maurice Murphy. But they tend to think the poor hornist is less a terrorist than a victim of something worse than terrorism- the horn itself. The 2nd most effective terrorist I ever worked with was a horn player.

Chip a few notes, play out of tune, play in the wrong place, etc., and you too could be a terrorist!

There is an element of truth to this. I have heard of situations where for example Principal players became convinced that their second was trying to play out of tune or out of balance with them. That would be terrorism, and also very unprofessional, but perhaps an element of orchestra politics to be aware of.

Back to Maestro Woods, you may be wondering if the horns are not the top terrorists in the orchestra then who is?

A timpanist, of course. I love the timpani, and I absolutely love working with a great timp player- they can transform a performance, creating atmosphere and making the big arrivals happen. Most timpanists are incredible musicians- they’re the ones you can always count on to have a score and to actually know what’s going on harmonically. They’re unique placed and equipped to resolve a rhythmic wobble with a single stroke.

But in the wrong hands, the tools of a timpanist can become terrible weapons. The very instrument that can solve any rhythmic problem can also undermine the most secure groove. A poorly tuned drum can send a whole band’s pitch into chaos. And when they mis-count? Heaven help us.

This whole post by Maestro Woods is one to ponder. If nothing else it gives a clear insight into what many conductors must think about horn players deep down [UPDATE: But do check comment number 1 below from Woods for clarification on where he was coming from in this post]. Hornists as terrorists! We have it in our amazing power to ruin their concert! And they it should be noted have it in their powers to set us up to fail too. Hopefully the performing situations our readers find themselves in are all ones where everyone is simply trying to do their best with no hidden agendas. At the very least make it your policy to not be a part of the problem but instead to be a part of the solution.

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