About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Horn Humor

 From Facebook:

“Then I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and behold four horns.” (Zechariah 1:18)
"And then God said, "Let's tune, shall we?"

I apologize to the poster -- I can't remember which horn player friend of mine posted this and I don't know the friend of a friend who posted the witty rejoinder, but I thought it was too good to disappear into the mists of FB. (If it's you, let me know!)

[The photo is of the New York Philharmonic horn section - I don't know what year.]

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Earlier this month Julia Keller wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune titled "Critics: Who needs 'em?" In the article she talked about the roles of a critic, from helping audiences decide what to see and read to acting as a link or portal between artists and audiences. I do use reviews to help me decide what movies I might like to see and what books I would read if only I had time. In fact, I read Julia Keller's literary column every week. But, as a musician and audience member for classical concerts, I disagree with her assessment of critics as the link between artists and audiences. I think if you asked most artists, you'd get a much different explanation of the relationship between critic and artist.

In explaining what she means by link or portal, Ms. Keller makes it clear that she is not saying that critics are here to promote or provide publicity, but that while critics love the arts, they will make sure "you'll get the truth, delivered quickly and fearlessly." The truth?

I have worked in the arts (not just in music) and I know that there is a whole lot going on that impacts a performance that critics have no idea about. For example, an acquaintance who is a theater directer explained to me that actors have quite a bit on input on many aspects of a performance. If an actor makes a suggestion about how the actors should stand and move in a particular scene, that would be part of blocking. When the play is reviewed, the director will get credit for the blocking if the critic mentions it. Similarly, a conductor may ask for a passage to be played in a certain way and the player may take the credit or blame.

People, whether critics or audience members, have their own perceptions and opinions. I have been to concerts and later read the review, wondering if the critic had been to the same concert as I. I trust my ears, and I did not hear what the critic heard.  The "truth" that critics deliver is really opinion, based on what they see, hear, and their prior knowledge. Music critics have extensive prior knowledge. A critic I know personally studied not only journalism, but musicology in graduate school. An experienced critic has also listened to hundreds of concerts.

However, sometimes opinion runs the show. I regularly read the music reviews in Chicago, and it has sometimes been very clear to me and my husband that a critic dislikes a particular conductor of the Chicago Symphony. When we read such a review we take into account that the reviewer is never going to give that conductor a good review and so we discount at least part of the review.

As a link between the audience and the artists, though, is it fair to give the audience a message based on such personal prejudices that the review may keep them away from a concert? We all know that classical music organizations are in trouble, with aging audiences and declining donations. A critic can't become a flack for an organization, but neither should critics want to criticize an organization to the point of damaging it. The New York Times reported a story about a critic in Cleveland who was so constantly critical of Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most that his paper reassigned him. The reassignment followed complaints to the newspaper from the orchestra. The editor stated that she had reassigned the critic after deciding he had a closed mind about Mr. Welser-Most. The critic argued in his lawsuit against the paper and the orchestra that the paper had discriminated against him (because of his age) and that the orchestra in complaining had defamed him. The orchestra argued for its first amendment rights to free speech. The jury found for the newspaper and orchestra. This incident got attention because of the lawsuit, but it is certainly not the only time a critic has singled out a musician for continued criticism.

Personally, I think critics would be a stronger link between artists and audiences if they spent more time talking to the artists. Perhaps critics believe that they need distance from the musicians to objectively review a concert, but it means there is a wall between critic and musician, obstructing the portal. Many orchestras are trying for more outreach to their audiences, including opportunities to meet artists. Maybe critics should also reach across the divide.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Be careful what you wish for ... or maybe not

In my first post here about horn playing, I wrote about meeting a fellow horn player while we were both traveling to the U.S. from China. While talking in the Hong Kong airport, he inspired me to find a group to play with by telling me his experience of joining one community orchestra only to have things snowball with more and more groups asking him to play until he had to turn some of them down. I wanted that to happen to me, too. And so, I joined a community band.

After three years when no one was knocking on my door yet, I contacted five community orchestras and got four auditions. As it turned out, I did not get in any of those orchestras, but that was the turning point. A horn player in one of those orchestras referred me to a chamber orchestra that needed a horn player for a concert. That led to more concerts with that group. The conductor of the band I play in recommended me to the community orchestra that he plays in and I joined that orchestra as 4th horn. The horn players in that orchestra invited me to join a horn choir. One of them recommended me to another orchestra that needed a substitute for a concert.

In the past few weeks I have been asked to played in five orchestra concerts with three different groups, plus an opera and a chamber concert. These are in addition to concerts I had previously committed to with the band, the orchestra, and the horn choir. I don't have enough time! I have had to turn most of these opportunities down. Maybe it won't last, but for now, its seems I have people knocking on my door. As a friend said, it's bittersweet; it's sad to turn opportunities down, but it feels good to be in demand.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Morris Secon: A Remembrance

Morris Secon passed away last week. Though I only studied with him briefly, he had a large and lasting impact on my playing.

I met Mr. Secon when I was a freshman at the Eastman School of Music. He was then principal horn of the Rochester Philharmonic. Even as a freshman I recognized what a beautiful horn sound he had and the musicality of his playing. Over time I also came to know that he was a caring person who always expected the best from people. My teacher, Milan Yancich, used to say that Mr. Secon saw the world through rose-colored glasses, and it was true. He was sometimes hurt and disappointed when other people didn't live up to his expectations, but he never gave up his high expectations.

At the end of my senior year at Eastman, Mr. Yancich became quite ill and had to take a leave. The school appointed a graduate student to teach his studio. A number of us approached Mr. Secon, who graciously gave our studio master classes and a few lessons. I clearly remember about a dozen horn students sitting in a circle in his house as Mr. Secon talked about phrasing, tone, being musical, and life in general.

I also spent time with Mr. Secon at some of the Horn Symposiums. Again, he was very generous with his time and knowledge and oftentimes ended up holding late night talk sessions with a crowd of young horn players. He was a pied piper, attracting those young musicians and enthralling them with stories. My two favorite Secon stories came from either the Symposiums or the master classes. The first is about an audition he went to. The audition committee had found a nightmare of a selection for sight-reading in B natural horn. (For non-horn players this means the player must play a diminished 5th lower than what is written.) Horn player after horn player mangled the sight-reading and came out shaking their heads. Finally it was Mr. Secon's turn. When it was time to do the sight-reading, he decided to take a chance that none of the audition committee had perfect pitch, took a deep breath, and played it perfectly -- in Bb horn! (For non-horn players, this means reading a perfect 5th lower than the written notes, a much easier transposition.) He won that audition.

Story number two: At one point in his career, Mr. Secon developed some problems with his playing that he felt were quite serious. He flew to Chicago to consult with Arnold Jacobs, who gave him some remedies. Mr. Secon wanted to apply them immediately -- he had concerts coming up and he wanted to fix the problems as soon as possible. So flying back home, he took his horn out and began to practice! A sewardess told him he would have to stop and to put the horn away. His response: "How are you going to stop me?" And he kept on practicing. That wouldn't work today.

Mr. Secon also made it possible for me to study with Dale Clevenger.  I had been accepted into the Master's program at Northwestern, where Mr. Clevenger taught, along with Richard Oldberg and Norm Schweikert. At my audition Dale had asked me who I wanted to study with, and I, of course, said, "Well, you." He replied that he would see. In the meantime I went back to Eastman and graduated.

I next saw Dale at the Horn Symposium at Jeunesse Musicale in Quebec province in June 1975. The application for this symposium had included a line where you could volunteer to play in a public master class. I said yes, I would like to and that if chosen, I would play the Gordon Jacobs concerto. I didn't really expect to get picked, but, probably due to the unusual piece I selected, I did get chosen! Then, one of the master teachers (Alan Civil) had to cancel because of illness and his replacement declined to do a master class, so Morris Secon volunteered, and to his surprise, he was assigned me. Mr. Secon told me this when I ran into him and Dale during the symposium. Mr. Secon said if I wanted a different master teacher, he would be happy to switch, since maybe working with someone I already knew wouldn't be so exciting. This kind of thoughtfulness was so typical of him, but I would not have switched to anyone else and I told him so. He was pleased and said he would explain that we had already worked together, which could make the master class interesting in a new way. Dale was listening closely to all of this, and then asked me, "Who do you want to study with in the fall?" And I said, "Well, you." He replied that he was awfully busy and his schedule was pretty much filled. However, he didn't really say no, so I didn't give up hope.

I had worked on the first movement of the Jacobs with Milan Yancich. I started the movement, with its repeated eighth notes aggressively, crescendoing through the phrase. Mr. Secon had a different view of the piece, a lighter, more playful way of approaching it. As he talked, sang, and demonstrated, I adapted this entirely new idea into my performance, playing softer and bouncing the eighth notes. It opened up a window for me into that piece and into interpretation in general. Right after the master class, Dale came up to me and said, "I guess I can get up an hour earlier. I'll take you as a student." Yay!!! I ended up studying with him for three or four years and learning an incredible amount from him. Was it my wonderful playing that convinced him? No, there were plenty of players better than me. It was the evidence that I could listen to a different idea and change so completely and quickly. Isn't that what every teacher wants? Thank you, Morris Secon. I miss you.