Ten Things I Learned From Verne Reynolds


Those that follow Horn Matters on Facebook already know that Verne Reynolds, Professor Emeritus at the Eastman School of Music, passed away last week. His obituary may be found here, very worth reading for the quotes and insights from several former students; this photo is linked from the Eastman article. He was 84.

Regular Horn Matters readers know as well that site co-author Bruce Hembd and I both count Reynolds among our teachers. That study left its mark in many ways on our teaching and playing and lives.

I studied with Reynolds as a Master’s degree student, having attended a small school in Kansas (Emporia State) as an undergrad. The below are among the ten things from my studies that I reference the most often in my teaching and playing to this day.

1. A balanced approach between etudes, excerpts, and solos. He was looking I believe, before the term became popular, to cross train our technique. More on that below.

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2. Ability to play very literally. Reynolds was also a composer and he spent a lot of time putting all those markings in the music! He really wanted you to be able to play music from the 20th century exactly as printed. MP and MF and F are all different dynamics; tempo markings needed to be exactly followed. This insight is a big key into how to play his music. In music from earlier eras, where the markings are more editorial in nature, he would tell you exactly how he wanted it played and it was your job to do it.

3. Short Staccatos. You have to have the ability to play very short staccatos and really every flavor of articulation distinctly in every register. More on why in a moment.

4. Extremely soft dynamics must be mastered. PPP is softer than PP! “That was a nice mezzo-piano” was not a phase offered by Reynolds in praise of your playing.

5. Extremely loud dynamics must also be mastered. FFF is louder than FF! Mezzo-something was not OK with Reynolds; you needed to be capable of playing exactly the printed dynamics in a very academic way.

6. Developing an attitude about conductors. This related to working on the extremes above, because as he would say, “You never know how loud/soft/short/fast some idiot, I mean conductor, will ask you to play.” Another classic, related line: “Does it seem a little warm in here today? Somebody must have thrown another conductor on the fire.”

7. Perfect rhythm. “Even my dog can hear it if the rhythm is wrong.”

8. Punching out the sixteenth notes. “Can hardly hear the sixteenth notes.” Especially in dotted figures, there was a way he really wanted them to sound and to master the skill of playing them that way had a purpose, the ultimate goal and result being:

9. Total technical control. Even if students did not have it all down they still certainly sounded very much the same in ensembles due to the elements drilled above, which I think was what he was looking for. He clearly aimed to be tough on us and pushed us hard technically with a final point being,

10. Are you up to the standard? This is where being an old school/conservatory teacher as he was he could push an envelope further than most teachers would ever do today. Which was probably why, in retrospect, the horn studio actually had a Chaplin assigned to the studio to befriend younger students in our era there, Canon Roberts. In my teaching I have tried to find more positive ways to push that envelope but still be honest with students. Honest feedback is the key. There are many ways to express what needs worked on and how to fix what needs fixed, an ongoing topic for any teacher to evaluate carefully. I know I will reevaluate this with his passing.

Some of the ten points above may seem to those who did not study with Reynolds to contrast with the points made in his later publication, The Horn Handbook. I am told that in his later teaching he mellowed somewhat. Ultimately any study experience with any teacher will be individual and perceived differently by different people.

For those who own The Horn Handbook, I would suggest that the Verne Reynolds I studied with comes through the most strongly in the two page appendix at the back where he has tips that are effectively quotes of himself. Two favorites of mine:

“In the catalog of musical sins, boring is on the same page as lazy.”

“No attack may be considered successful if it is not accurate.”

In many ways Reynolds was and remains an enigmatic figure. He was brilliant but also difficult to know even if you studied with him. One bottom line for me though was I learned a lot while working with him and certainly never worked harder on horn playing than I did in lessons for him. While not a totally accurate old saying, an old saying states that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It was a tough two years for me but elements of the study experience certainly prepared me for the real world of playing and teaching and influence what I do on practically a daily basis.

An era has ended. RIP Mr. Reynolds.

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