Tiers of Orchestras, levels of Hornists, and the “A” list


Back in the Orchestra 101 series a few years ago (UPDATE: Now published as a Kindle ePublication, info here) there was an article that touched on the professional levels of horn playing, an article titled “The Money Question.”

In the USA you could say generally that all the ICSOM* orchestras are major orchestras (the players are all full time and perform similar repertoire), but within that group of orchestras there are arguably three tiers, those divisions being driven by pay scales.

At this point I would interject a personal note to preface this commentary. Those that read Horn Matters really closely might have a vague memory of an article on this same general topic in 2014. It is actually the only article I ever pulled off the site in less than a day. As originally presented it touched on a raw nerve with a couple people in particular. This version is a second attempt, as I still think it is an important general topic for students of the horn to consider as they focus on their goals. The quotes I recently found below drew me back to the topic. and I hope they illustrate it more clearly than the illustrations I used back in 2014, with a more positive spin. And see my additional notes at the end.

Players who have won a job in any ICSOM orchestra are great players to be sure,** but in short, in terms of auditions, the top tier groups really expect to hire true “A list” players that can produce magic on their instrument.

The most recent (October, 2015) issue of The Horn Call contains a most interesting article that was drawn from a recent dissertation by Ashley Cumming, “Auditions in North America Today.” It is based on a large survey of current and former orchestral players (including me– my full survey responses are here, in a four part series of articles) and I was drawn to two quotes in the section “On Failed Auditions.” The key paragraph:

William VerMeulen believes that the level of playing is often much lower than the candidates’ assessments of their abilities. “Most of our audition candidates have no clue how good you have to be to play at the level of the major American orchestras. I think that most are really C level or worse candidates …. It’s very easy for them to say sour grapes.” Richard King knows for a top-level orchestra to stay at its peak game, they have to look beyond capability. “I hear grumbling, ‘Oh they don’t know what they’re looking for.’ Yeah, you do. You know when you hear a winner. And often you don’t have a runner up, because to find two people as qualified as you’d like, as magical — that’s pretty rare. We’re not dealing with who can do the job; a lot of people can do the job, certainly. We’re hoping for some absolute magic.”

And with that I think they get at defining what it is to actually be an A-list horn player. There is something special about any true A-list musician, something far beyond perfect accuracy, intonation, and rhythm.

So turning a corner, how do you become an A-list player with those special, unique qualities? Especially if you are a student? How do you obtain the X-factor?

One thing to remember is that those A-list players did not get there by accident. It was not just dumb luck and it was not just talent. It helps a lot to have a great ear, and of course some good decisions were made along the way. They got a good horn, studied with effective teachers, etc. But above all they worked hard, making the most of all the musical experiences they could have wherever they were.

My final note of encouragement to those that aspire to the A-list is to expand on that final point: work hard and make the most of the opportunities you have in front of you and around you. I know I personally have tried to do this throughout my career (I started out college at a small school as a music business major! Hard work trumps all), and this general attitude is something we are certainly happy to encourage and celebrate here at Horn Matters.

*ICSOM = International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. Website here.

**Of course I may come across as biased in placing a tier level here, as former Third Horn of The Nashville Symphony, an ICSOM orchestra. I would add that any hornist that has won a full time university faculty position in the United States also has clearly proven themselves in the very rigorous process of their hire to be a very solid, professional level player, as have also the members of the many military ensembles and orchestras below the level to have their members affiliated with ICSOM. “If they pay you to play, horn you are a professional!”

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