I am not playing assistant but I am playing in the section of the Phoenix Symphony again this week. The post below is from the original HTML Horn Notes Blog, dated 5/12/06. I will leave it as it is (with the original “tip of the day”) but have some new comments at the end.
As stated elsewhere in this site, I occasionally play with the Phoenix Symphony, almost always 7th or 8th horn on large works. People sometimes ask me if I am a member of the Phoenix Symphony horn section, the answer is no, I have a full-time job already at ASU, but as time allows I do enjoy playing big works with them.
This week they are playing Mahler 1, and with ASU out I have the time to play. I was surprised some weeks after agreeing to perform to find out that I was engaged to perform assistant first. This year the Phoenix Symphony has no principal horn, so the central and unusual thing that happened this week is that two of the candidates for principal horn were in the horn section for the Mahler, one on principal and one on seventh, so I was bumped down.
There is [was] an article in my main site on Assistant Playing that is a version of my Horn Call article on the same topic. Nothing against the guest principal who did a fine job or against playing assistant in general, but it is the first time since roughly 1989 that I have played assistant on a series concert (the last time was with the Indianapolis Symphony when I was a Doctoral student) and it was at first anyway a bit of a shock to the system. I was third horn in Nashville for six seasons during which I often moved up to principal, and I play principal horn every summer at Brevard, so having used an assistant player quite often the shoe was certainly on the other foot, especially in a work like Mahler 1 on which I have played principal horn twice recently and will again this summer.
I believe that I have done my job this week as well as any assistant first out there. The experience did fuel the fire a bit on a couple topics I am writing about for future publication elsewhere, so I will save those thoughts for now, but in short, playing big works like Mahler is enjoyable on any part, and as a frequent principal hornist I can assure you that I appreciate the role and help of a strong assistant horn player, they make it possible to play your best on principal.
TIP OF THE DAY: I have also said in a very recent post that conductors in general have a preconceived notion that horn players drag. Not to take anything away from the conductor in Phoenix, but he played right into my theory and his comments would indicate to me that he believes the horns drag. Beyond that, he is correct to a point, much of the orchestra, at least how I saw his beat, was dragging at times. He kind of compounded the problem, too, as I believe that he may actually be trying to conduct slightly in front of what people are playing, not really expecting that these same people will actually play right on top of his beat. What to do as a player? My advice would be to play right on top of the beat the conductor is giving, on the whole this will lead to the least amount of comments from the podium to the horns. They think you will drag; it is better to be slightly ahead than slightly behind.
This week I am playing with the Phoenix Symphony as second horn on Corigliano, Pied Piper Fantasy (I was principal horn on the recording just linked–Bruce played on it too) and Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (featured in my dissertation, a favorite work), with rehearsals starting today. It is a week off from ASU (it is hard to sub with the symphony on a teaching week) and I am really looking forward to playing in a professional section again. I do enjoy orchestral playing. The one element I am not looking forward to, but will be able to manage, is getting used again to what I perceive anyway to be a slightly delayed beat from the conductor. I am sure I will be in the groove with it pretty quickly again, it is not unclear and the orchestra seems totally used to it, but it is different than what I have mostly seen in my career. I really prefer to play on top of the beat but in this case my goal is to play exactly with the first horn.