The benefits of the back row

In high school, I was a dedicated French horn player. I considered become professional, but determined that I wasn’t quite good enough at the high notes to make it through an audition and job-search process that, from what my teachers told me then, remains as rigorous, possibly capricious, and challenging as the academic one. At least I listened to those advisors, and didn’t choose that route (although it may indicate an early predilection to choose interests that are nearly impossible to employ in a neat or tidy way!)

I loved playing the French horn. I still occasionally bring it out and practice, though I haven’t been part of a group for about a decade. French horns are usually placed near the back of the orchestra, behind the strings and the woodwinds, but next to or in front of the other brass (trumpets, trombones, etc.), and almost always in front of the percussion as well.

Layout of the orchestra

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Just to be clear, this isn’t the back row of the classroom, baseball caps pulled down over eyes that nearly close in boredom or barely concealed text-messaging.  (Even if we did tend to associate such back-row shenanigans with what we saw as our less refined fellow brass players, the trumpets and trombones. And given that these people were almost entirely high school boys in those sections, the usual back-row characteristics could sometimes be found amongst our fellow brass.)

French horns and other brass

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In classical music, the French horn is rarely the solo instrument carrying the tune.  We’re not the violins, or even the woodwinds. Rather, the timbre or tone of the horn lends itself well to deepening the sound of the orchestra. Usually the horn section will be given a key melodic line only in a moment when the composer wishes to convey associations of heroism, hunting, or glamorized pastoral life. Otherwise, though, we’re in the background. Counting out fifty measures of silence while the strings and woodwinds churn away is not unusual. It requires patience, dedication, and no small amount of concentration to play the horn successfully in an orchestra. I well remember ticking off which measure we were in, glancing to my fellow players to make sure we were both on measure 68 and not, say 66, which would have thrown off the all-important entry coming after 71 measures of waiting.

I played both first horn and third horn, in two different orchestras, and I liked both roles equally. First horn had more solos, but third horn had just enough solo material to keep life interesting, often in harmonic conjunction with the first horn. First horn usually meant being last line of defense against getting lost in counting measures, as well as making sure one’s section was up to speed during rehearsal breaks, if the conductor had been too busy spending time on an (interminable) string passage to remember to work with the back.

As much as I enjoyed practicing and then — I hoped — successfully delivering a softer solo or blasting out a particularly heroic line, I found the times when I contributed to the overall tone of the piece almost as enjoyable as the others. Take, for example, a Beethoven piano concerto. Not exactly renowned horn literature, if you count the number of measures resting, but the horn section had several drone-like moments when we provided unbeatable background tension, color, and timbre for the overall piece.  A certain pleasure came from being just pianissimo enough, just quiet enough, to add that tone quality without being too quiet or too loud.

The horn suited my personality perfectly, I now realize. Mellow in tone, rarely brassy, brazen, or obnoxious, but plenty loud and forceful when it needs to be, if ever a young person almost randomly chose the right instrument at a 5th-grade band night, that was the perfect choice for me.

As a guide for what I like to do work-wise, it’s interesting to note that being part of the back row, behind the scenes if you will, except for the occasional welcomed and necessary solo appearance, is something that suits me.  My desire for work that contributes meaningfully to some enterprise can also be clearly seen in the musical lines of the orchestral French horn literature: no piece meant for a full orchestra would sound the same without us there, providing essential color and tone and vibrancy.

I think I will go get my horn out and practice now, in a fit of nostalgia. Here’s to choosing and avoiding impossible careers!

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2 thoughts on “The benefits of the back row

  1. Emily – this was beautifully written as well as expressing very creative insights into your experience as a musician. Barbara W

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