About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Sunday, December 11, 2011


When you order coffee in a cafe in Vienna, it comes in a china cup on a small silver platter, along with a small glass of water. The water is to counteract the dehydration the coffee causes. During our week in Vienna, we drank quite a few cups of melange, coffee with foamy steamed milk. It's a much different experience than getting a latte at Starbucks!

We were in Vienna Thanksgiving week visiting our daughter Jamie, who is now finishing up a semester abroad, studying music in this very musical city. Our trip was filled with music, as well as great food and drink (including lots of coffee), and some art and shopping.

We arrived on Sunday. Jamie had bought tickets for all of us to a concert of the Concertgebouw Orchestra that evening at the Musikverein, so after checking in and changing into nicer clothes, we went off to have some strudel before the concert.The Musikverein is a beautiful hall. It is like stepping into the 18th century, with ornate gold decorations everywhere. It is a rectangular, or shoebox hall, and almost none of the seats is covered by higher floors. We sat on the second level, right above the orchestra. Unfortunately, we could only see half the orchestra and none of the horns, but the sound was incredible.   Quite a few musicians call it the best hall in the world. The program included a Saint-Saens Piano Concerto performed by Pierre Laurent Aimee and the Petrouchka Suite by Stravinsky. It was a great concert. The Concertgebouw is wonderful, it was musical and exciting. Another very cool thing about concerts at the Musikverein, and the opera house as well, we discovered, is that they have small meals available at intermission. Since we hadn't eaten dinner (only strudel!) we bought a couple of small, elegant sandwiches and drinks.
The Concertgebouw horn section!

Every morning we would take the U-Bahn from our hotel to Karlsplatz and come up by the Opera House. At the bottom of the stairs before you exit up to the street is the Opera Toilet, which plays the Blue Danube 24 hours a day.

Vienna's Naschmarkt
Monday we did some normal tourist things, like visiting the Albertina art museum and the naschmarkt, an outdoor market of mostly food. There are lots of falafels in Vienna, especially at the naschmarkt. There are also all kinds of fruits and vegetables that we don't have in Illinois. I saw fruits that I had only seen in China, such as dragon fruit, called pitahaya here.   That evening, Jamie and her friends Ross and Ryan took us via the U-Bahn to the 16th District to have dinner at a Turkish restaurant. Dinner was delicious and the conversation interesting, about music, living in Vienna, learning German, and future plans. All three-- Jamie, Ryan and Ross -- are students at Indiana University and all of them have their own blogs about their experiences in Vienna. You can find them at http://jamieinwien.blogspot.com/, http://rosswertjes.wordpress.com/, and http://diefstudiesabroad.wordpress.com/.

On Tuesday we were able to attend part of a Vienna Philharmonic rehearsal at the Concert House. It is not as beautiful as the Musikverein (or the Opera House) but was still an attractive building with sweeping staircases and lots of red velvet. The piece they were rehearsing was the premiere of a work for percussion soloist and orchestra. We were all sorry not hear something more familiar, but the soloist was really impressive.
Concert House

Did I mention that the entire week it was really cold in Vienna? We were outside for a significant part of every day, walking to get places and visiting outdoor markets. The Viennese walk everywhere and even with lots of beer, wine, schnitzel and pastries we saw almost no overweight people. We stopped at an Adventmarkt near the Opera House on Tuesday evening and the three of us ate delicious pancakes filled with chocolate and banana while browsing the stalls. 
At the Adventmarkt
Later that evening we stopped by Jamie's apartment and then went to dinner up the street at a vegan pub. I was very excited to have seitan schnitzel! I also had the smoothest beer I have ever tasted -- a dunkle, which is a dark beer. Later in the week I ordered another dunkle, an Ottakringer, which was also very good but not a smooth and almost sweet as the one this night. The pub itself was a small dark establishment decorated with old radios.

Wednesday was filled with exciting musical events. We visited the Stephansdom, an amazing Gothic church. It's the church where Wolfgang Mozart married Constanze.
Inside Stephansdom
Jamie went off to do some school-related thing, and we agreed to meet her at noon at the Opera House so we could meet her horn teacher and sit in on her lesson. We got there before her and went inside to sit in a small alcove. While we were sitting there and talking to each other, a tall, white-haired man came out from the backstage area and stopped to put on his gloves and scarf. Hearing us talk, he said, "Americans! I thought you were the usual autograph hounds who wait here." After we told him why we were there, he explained that he is a pianist with the Opera and has been living in Europe for 40 years. A very interesting person.

After Jamie and her teacher, Wolfgang Vlatar, met us, Wolfgang took us on a brief backstage tour of the hall. We went into the orchestra pit and looked out at the hall and up onto the stage. It is another absolutely beautiful building. We continued on to the horn locker room, where Jamie usually had her lessons. Viennese horn players all play a different kind of horn than horn players everywhere else play. It is called, logically enough, a Vienna horn, or Wiener horn. Here is Wolfgang's horn:

Jamie played her regular double horn while in Vienna, though she had a chance to try Wolfgang's, as did I! At the end of her lesson, he asked if I had ever played one (no) and would I like to (yes!). It is smaller than a standard double horn and is a single F horn, with the double piston valves you can see in the photo. It is not easy to play! Jamie said, "Play Heldenleben, it's so easy on this horn." Yikes! Not only hadn't I played in a week or so, but I hadn't played Heldenleben in years, and I'm playing in front of a member of the Vienna Philharmonic!
Opening of Ein Heldenleben, 1st horn
It was interesting. The horn doesn't respond the way a double horn does and Heldenleben is not easy on either horn. Wolfgang is an outstanding teacher; Jamie is so lucky to have had this opportunity. He is very musical, hears everything, and engaged with Jamie in a laid-back conversational manner, suggesting ideas, asking her to think about her choices.

After the lesson, Wolfgang took us to one of his favorite restaurants, Drei Hackers. Jamie, Dean and Wolfgang had schnitzel, while I had a vegetarian entree that Wolfgang said was typically Viennese. Here it is. It is spinach, potatoes and egg. You can also see the schnitzel!

We had a great time talking about music and musicians. We all had palatschinken, an Austrian pancake a little like a crepe, filled with apricot jam, for dessert. We kept on talking and finally ordered coffee. Dean and I had tickets for Tannhauser that evening, but Jamie did not buy a ticket for herself because she had a rehearsal at 6, when the performance started. Wolfgang offered to let her sit in the pit if she would change into all black, to fit in with the orchestra members. So after three hours we split up, Jamie going to her apartment to change, and we returning to our hotel, also to change.

It was very clear to us that the Viennese take their music seriously. Wolfgang told us there is a 12-year waiting list for subscriptions to the Vienna Philharmonic! The Staatsoper presents an opera about 363 days a year, and stages 50 to 60 different opera each year. Tannhauser, as well as the Concertgebouw, seemed to be completely sold out. At Tannhauser, when the overture began a woman behind us was still talking, pretty loudly. Six or eight other people immediately went "ssst!" to stop her. They are serious about music! The sets for Tannhauser were pretty minimal, which is possible because they mount so many opera and have so many in rotation at a time. The minimal sets were effective and maybe even highlighted the singing because you weren't distracted by elaborate backgrounds. It was a very good performance. Matthias Goerne, who we had heard at Ravinia in recital, had a leading role and was wonderful.

In the opera house, taken from our seats
Inside the opera house

After the opera, we met up with Jamie and Wolfgang again and went to the Sky Bar, at the top of a building on the Kärntner Straße. Kärntner Straße is a great street for shopping, sort of like Michigan avenue in Chicago. The Sky Bar overlooks Stephansdom, which is lit at night.
The view from the Sky Bar
A perfect day!

A highlight of Thursday was breakfast! Dean, Jamie and I hunted down a Georgian restaurant recommended by Wolfgang in the 2nd District, not too far from our hotel. We had delicious fruit and yogurt with muesli. A good portion of Thursday was spent being lost and not being able to find what we were looking for, a very tiring, frustrating experience. However, we ended with another dinner at Drei Hackers, which was a good way to end the day.

Our last musical experience of the trip was Friday morning, when Jamie had another lesson with Wolfgang. Again, we were so impressed with his musical ideas and the way he worked with Jamie. Then Jamie said good-bye and went to catch a train to go on a ski trip with her school group. Dean and I had wanted to visit the Zentralfriedhof, a cemetery where many illustrious musicians are buried. However, the streetcar system proved to be too confusing and we ended up visiting the Christkindlmarkt at the Rathaus instead. We had visited the cemetery the last time we were in Vienna, though it would have been nice to see it again. The Rathaus was entertaining, and the Christkindlmarkt was really large with lots of vendors.

The following day we flew back to Chicago. Jamie is now back in the States, but wants to go back to Vienna for more study someday. I can see why. It's a wonderful city.

The Musikverein

Monday, December 5, 2011

I knew them when...

Several years ago -- maybe eight? -- I had Kyle Jannak-Huang as a kindergarten student. Even then he and his brother were accomplished pianists. Now look!

Jannak-Huang (piano) / Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Stravinsky, Chopin, Liszt - InstantEncore

Sunday, October 9, 2011

High School Reunion with Special Guest Hurricane Irene

In the game Two truths and a Lie, the object is to come up with implausible truths or convincing lies to befuddle your audience. Here are mine:

  1. I was voted most musical in my high school class.
  2. I played (horn) with the Chicago Symphony.
  3. I toured with William Shatner.
And the lie is number 1! (Numbers 2 and 3 might be topics for another post.) I was not voted most musical in my high school class. I was part of an amazingly talented cohort. When I think of how many continued in music, it's remarkable. The Most Musical title went to my good friend Sue (double bass) and Jeff (trumpet, arranging and conducting, all while still in high school!).

High school reunions are meaningful and fun for some people. Others avoid them like the plague. I had never been to any of my high school reunions; I think I was a "lost classmate." However, thanks to Facebook, I was found this time around and received an invitation in June to my 40th reunion.

My first response was not to go. I didn't think high school was that much fun, and I hadn't kept in touch with more than a couple people. Then my friend Sue, one of the few I had kept up with, said she would really like to see me. So I started thinking about going. Through the new Facebook page for our class I found out what some of my former classmates had been doing. There are a number of published authors. One has won a Pulitzer. Another (the one who found me on FB) is a Grammy award winner. It was intimidating, so I thought I would stay home.

I went back and forth, but in the end I decided to go. I booked my flight and hotel and told my friends.

Several of my friends in Illinois asked if I had realized there was a hurricane heading for Connecticut when I flew off to the East Coast. Yes, I knew. I had been paying attention to the news, but I also heard plenty of New Englanders poo-pooing the forecasts, saying hurricanes almost always petered out before reaching New England. I looked at weather maps. I asked my husband. And I went.

If you've been to any high school reunion, you know what they're like: a get-together the first night (Friday) in the hotel bar, then a dinner party with DJ the next night. My reunion was also featuring a tour of the high school and a beach party on Sunday. I graduated from Greenwich High School. Greenwich is located on Long Island Sound.  Our Saturday night party was scheduled for a yacht club right on the water. Cue the ominous music, it's the perfect set-up for a disaster movie. You can imagine the shots of the yacht club on the water, the storm approaching, then the gigantic waves, breaking glass and screaming people... but no, it didn't happen.

Indian Harbor Yacht Club, Greenwich, CT
When I woke up Saturday morning, my flight had been cancelled because all transportation was being shut down at noon on Sunday. The reunion party had been relocated to a hotel in downtown Stamford, next door to Greenwich, and the tour of the high school was cancelled for safety reasons. The beach party was moved to a club and then finally cancelled when the caterer shut down.

Before dealing with the approaching hurricane,  eight of us, three music teachers and five former students, met for a music reunion. Except for Sue, this was the first time I had seen any of these people since the 1970s. There was Chris, who was a friend a year older than me, who still plays violin. Tom and Jeff, both trumpet players in high school, with whom I had spent a lot of time in rehearsals. Our band director, Carmel Signa, and our theory teacher, Anne Modugno, both now retired, but looking pretty much the same as they had in the 70s.  There were lots of hugs and reminiscences. It was difficult to switch to calling my high school teachers by their first names, but very interesting to hear about our high school years from the perspective of the teachers. We, the students, all agreed that the music faculty at Greenwich High had been outstanding. We talked for three hours, and exchanged contact information and possibilities of getting together in other cities. Chris, Tom, Jeff and Carmel, I expect to hear from you if you come to Chicago!  I felt that coming to Connecticut and braving the hurricane was totally worth it to have been at this mini-reunion.

In the time between brunch and the big dinner party, I was able to get through to the airline and find out they had put me on the "first available flight," which was Tuesday morning, call my supervisor and partner teacher to tell them I wouldn't be at school until Wednesday, and call the hotel desk to try to extend my reservation. The hotel clerk informed me that they were booked and would let me know if there was a cancellation. Yikes! I had images of myself sitting in the lobby with my suitcase for two days.

The class of 1971 had a somewhat reduced reunion that night, as many classmates cancelled or were unable to get to Connecticut. As I ate and chatted I still didn't know what would happen on Sunday. Sue had come with her close friend Christine and Christine's husband Jud, and I sat with the three of them. When they all decided to leave, Jud and Christine turned to me and said, "We think you should come home with us. We'll take you to your hotel to get your things." I was overwhelmed with their generosity and immediately saw the good sense in their invitation.

Christine and Jud have a beautiful house nestled in a hilly section and right on a small pond. When I woke up Sunday morning, after sleeping soundly without worries, the power was out along with the water, branches were falling and it was raining.  We spent the morning doing the New York Times crossword and watching the storm outside through the picture window. After the hurricane passed, we took a ride through town. There were a lot of trees down and quite a few streets blocked or partly blocked by trees. Sue was able to drive home to the Philadelphia area that evening.

Cos Cob with high water

Christine and Jud were wonderful hosts. They grilled food from their defrosting freezer to make delicious meals. On Monday, Christine needed to visit her school, which is the junior high that both of us attended. In a bit of serendipity, both Christine and I teach gifted children, so we spent considerable time discussing curriculum (and I told my head of school, once I was back in Illinois, that I really had done professional development while stranded!). Because I was still in Connecticut, I was able to go to a second music reunion Monday evening, with additional former students. My other friend Chris, the violinist, picked me up and on the way to the restaurant she suggested we could drive by my family's former house in Cos Cob.  Though a number of the houses in my old neighborhood have been torn down in order to build McMansions, our old house is still there and looking good. Our second reunion was again wonderful. I got to see more old music comrades and catch up. We closed the restaurant that night.

So I have two strands to my high school reunion story. One is the hurricane story, the main theme of which is the generosity of so many people in offering me a place to stay, rides, meals, and most of all friendship. I feel very fortunate to have new friends because of Hurricane Irene. The other strand is the music. When I thought of my high school years, I mostly thought of the negative. Revisiting the music part of high school has reminded me of how much fun I had during those years.

Lastly, it was a rather Proustian experience. No madeleines or other food, but driving down roads that I hadn't been on in over 25 years, recognizing buildings that I hadn't thought about, brought up exactly the kind of memories Proust was talking about.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Flanders & Swann

For years I would occasionally hear a comedy version of the Rondo of Mozart's 4th horn concerto on WFMT. Someone had put words to the horn solo, words that told a story about a lost horn. This was my introduction to Flanders & Swann, a British comedy and music duo in the 1950s. If you are a horn player, there is an excellent chance you know Flanders & Swann, only because of this piece.

When my daughter was in high school and starting to get serious about horn, I told her about this version of the Mozart that I had heard on the radio, though the telling fell far short of explaining what was so funny. So I went on a search (amazon.com) and ordered a CD, "A Transport of Delight," because it included "An Ill Wind," the song set to the Mozart 4th horn concerto, so I could play it for people whenever I wanted.

I also listened to the rest of the album, which today is a sort of window into another decade. Michael Flanders wrote the words to the songs While Donald Swann wrote the music and played piano. Both sang, though Flanders did most of the talking part of their shows. Some of the humor, being political, is now dated and some of the act is very unpolitically correct. Other parts are absolutely delightful. They were known for their animal songs, and both the Hippopotamus Song and the Gnu Song are charming, standing the test of time well. The album includes a version on the Hippopotamus Song with a verse in Russian and a joke about cultural relations. Remembering the time when we worked on our cultural relations with the Soviet Union and the oftentimes nonsensical restrictions placed on musicians visiting the USSR, I laughed out loud. Other of their songs have spurred me to learn more about the historical background of the political comment they are making. For example, "All Gall," is about Charles DeGaulle's career, set to "This Old Man." And then, some of the comments and lyrics are stunningly prescient. This bit got a big laugh on the recording: "We had to look outside during the interval, see if our car's all right. It's getting a bit old, it'll have to be tested soon. You know they started these tests for 10-year-old cars, they brought it down to six, now five, they'll bring it down to three. There's even been some talk of having them tested before they leave the factories." Hmm.

Here are the words to "An Ill Wind," thanks to Flanders & Swann Online:

I once had a whim and I had to obey it
To buy a French Horn in a second-hand shop;
I polished it up and I started to play it
In spite of the neighbours who begged me to stop.

To sound my Horn, I had to develop my embouchure;
I found my Horn was a bit of a devil to play.

So artfully wound
To give you a sound,
A beautiful sound so rich and round.

Oh, the hours I had to spend
Before I mastered it in the end.

But that was yesterday and just today I looked in the usual place-
There was the case but the Horn itself was missing.

Oh, where can it have gone?
Haven't you-hasn't anyone seen my Horn?
Oh, where can it have gone?
What a blow! Now I know
I'm unable to play my Allegro.

Who swiped that Horn?
I'll bet you a quid
Somebody did,
Knowing I'd found a concerto and wanted to play it,
Afraid of my talent at playing the Horn.
For early today to my utter dismay
it had vanished away like the dew in the mom.

I've lost that Horn-I know I was using it yesterday.
I've lost that Horn, lost that Horn, found that Horn ... gorn.
There's not much hope of getting it back though I'd willingly pay a reward.

I know some Hearty Folk whose party joke's
Pretending to hunt with the Quorn,
Gone away! Gone away! Was it one of them took it away?
Will you kindly return that Horn? Where is the devil who pinched my Horn?

I shall tell the Police I want that French Horn back.
I miss its music more and more and more.
Without that Horn I'm feeling sad and so forlorn.

I found a concerto, I wanted to play it,
Displaying my talent at playing the Horn,
But early today to my utter dismay it had totally vanished away.
I practised the Horn, and I wanted to play it but somebody took it away.
I practised the Horn and was longing to play it but somebody took it away.

My neighbour's asleep in his bed.
I'll soon make him wish he were dead.
I'll take up the Tuba instead!

And here you can listen to Flanders and Swann performing An Ill Wind.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Devil to Play

I love summer for many reasons. I like hot weather, being outside, having a garden, having time off from work.  One of the best parts of summer is catching up on my reading. One of the books I read this summer I had on my reading list for quite awhile. A Devil to Play, by Jasper Rees, is subtitled  "One man's year-long quest to master the orchestra's most difficult instrument," which is, of course, the horn.  It is a very enjoyable book. Jasper Rees is a British journalist who had played horn as a boy, but quit. When he decides to take it up again at age 40, he sets himself the ridiculous goal of playing a solo at the British Horn Society annual conference in a year. Farfetched as it seems, he pursued his goal using his journalist skills to interview every professional horn player he could find. His well-written book includes stories of his horn lessons as a boy, historical anecdotes about the horn and player players, and his descriptions of his own performances. These descriptions made me wonder how he could possibly reach his goal, and sometimes why he was persisting with reach that goal. I felt for him as he continued to plow through less-than-optimal performances. However, he has a great sense of humor, which comes through throughout the book. As I was reading the book I kept interrupting other people, saying, "Listen to this!" to share funny and fascinating bits.

Quite a few famous horn players and other musicians make an appearance in the book, and I learned the back stories about, for example, the horn player for whom Mozart wrote his concertos, and Dennis Brain's family. I learned quite a lot about horn playing in Britain, too.
As a horn player, I really enjoyed this book. I think other musicians might also find it interesting, as well as music lovers in general. The title comes from a line in a "song" by Flanders and Swan. The tune for the "song" is the Rondo of Mozart's 4th horn concerto. The British title of the book is "I Found My Horn," another line in the "song." I think Flanders and Swan deserve their own post, so stay tuned!

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Dave Brubeck
On Fathers' Day, we went to Ravinia to see and hear Dave Brubeck and his four sons perform. I don't listen to much jazz, but this was clearly an extraordinary, inspiring concert. And Dave Brubeck is 90 years old! The Chicago Tribune review by Howard Reich has all the information. (Dave Brubeck riffs with his sons on Father's Day)

Like many superb artists, Brubeck draws on many different musical sources, including Darius Milhaud, with whom he studied, and Disney. As someone not conversant with jazz, I wondered how much of the music was improvised and how much was planned. His sons live all over the world, so there was little time for extensive planning, but every piece made perfect sense. So I asked my husband, who has more jazz experience than I. He explained that jazz musicians relay on patterns, but the best jazz musicians use them only as a structure, not the meat of the improvisation.

All this led me to thinking about improvisation in my own playing. I will never need to do any jazz improvisation, but many teachers strongly recommend including improv as part of one's practice. In particular, Jeffery Agrell, who blogs at Horn Insights, frequently writes about the importance of improvising. According to him, the benefits include avoiding routine and encouraging flexibility by having to think rather than play off the page, gaining a deeper understanding of music by creating music as opposed to only interpreting, and weakening one's reliance on the written page. I found these posts to be especially interesting and helpful: Spicing up the Routine, mainly about incorporating improv into warm-ups; 10 Step Program for getting off the Ink, about how memorization deepens the performer's connection to and understanding of a piece;  and  Start your Day with a Daily D.A., a strong argument for including improvisation in all musician's education. 

Improvisation is scary if you've never done it. Just recently the parents of a fine young trumpet player commented to us that their son would never play jazz because of the improv. He needs to know what's coming next, which of course doesn't happen when you're improvising, especially with other people.

A few years ago I decided to sign up for the beginner's Improv Program at Second City. This had nothing to do with music - I wasn't even playing horn at the time. It felt scary, but I thought it might improve my teaching and communicating. This program is five courses, which take a year to finish. Graduation is performing a show with your class on the mainstage at Second City. Taking the classes was scary, but it was also amazingly good fun. I never became anywhere near adept at it, but I had a blast. Most of the folks in my class, including me, reported being able to talk to people more easily. We also worked on thinking on our feet, responding positively to our partners, and getting past our fears. It also gave me a heart-felt appreciation for what the actors at Second City and other improvisational theaters do.

I had never tried improvisation in music, though. In thinking about  summer when I have more time to practice, I decided I wanted to set a few goals to stretch my playing. I decided it was time to try improv, so I purchased Agrell's book, Improv Games for One Player. The book is filled with suggestions that are easy to try, and you can make many of them part of your warm-up. I have created improvised long tone pieces on various intervals and made up tunes using the pentatonic scale. It is not so scary to try these in your practice room and they sound pretty good! It is a very different way of thinking about music than I have been doing for years. I expect it will enrich my playing; it's already fun.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Sweltering" in Central Park

Though I would be delighted to find myself in NYC, I'm still here in Illinois. However, as a displaced Yankee from Connecticut, I subscribe to the New York Times. Today as I pulled out the Arts section, there was an eye-catching photo of a horn player perched on a boulder, playing out over Central Park Lake! The occasion was the performance of a new piece by Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste and Janet McKay titled "Swelter." You can find Anthony Tommasini's review in today's paper. The performance was part of Make Music New York and consisted of 30 brass players stationed around the lake with much of  the audience in boats on the lake! Tommasini describes the piece as sounding contemplative. It sounds like a very cool piece in a beautiful setting, in spite of the hot, humid weather. I wish I could have been there.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Playing 4th horn is not like playing 2nd banana

I love to play horn, and I'm happy to play any part anytime, but at heart I am a low horn player. A 4th horn player.

Every orchestral instrument section has its quirkiness. For horn players, one of the quirks is the division between low and high playing. As the horn evolved as an orchestral instrument, composers wrote for it in pairs. The standard section of 4 players, then, consists of two pairs -- 1st and 2nd play together as a pair and 3rd and 4th play together. First and 3rd are high parts, 2nd and 4th are low parts. Of course, the whole section plays together a lot of the time, too, and there are various permutations of the horn section. Mozart usually wrote for a section of two horns, Beethoven's Eroica uses three, and Strauss and Mahler often wrote for large sections of seven or eight horns.

We recently heard the Chicago Symphony play Brahms's 4th Symphony. It is easy to see when you're at a concert that Brahms wrote for the two pairs of horn players. The horn parts move back and forth from the first two to the second two and back again, throughout the work. In fact, 3rd and 4th have more to play in that symphony than 1st and 2nd, though the 1st part has some lovely solos.  Another clear example of writing in pairs is the overture to William Tell, where the pairs alternate the "Lone Ranger" theme.

On the other hand, Mozart used a pair of horns like no other composer I have seen. In the 40th Symphony, 1st and 2nd are written in two different keys. He wrote before the invention of valves, so parts are in keys, which today horn players transpose. Oftentimes the horn parts are in the key of the piece, but Mozart expanded his options for pitches and harmonies by writing each part in a different key. The two parts in this symphony are quite independent. Sometimes the 2nd horn plays pretty high and sometimes the 1st horn has a phrase that seems like it belongs in a 2nd horn part. It is inventive, beautiful writing for the early horn.

The best part of playing in a horn section, though, is that every part can be interesting or even exciting. Though the 1st horn gets most of the solos in the standard orchestral literature, there are also many 3rd horn solos. Second and 4th horn also have solos. The most famous 4th horn solo is in the slow movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It is a beautiful, lyrical solo encompassing a very large range:

In the ascending and descending scale in the third line, marked "Solo,"  the 4th horn is all alone -- the rest of the orchestra is not playing! The range, the technical passages, and the phrasing of the entire excerpt make this a challenge for the player. (It's also in Eb, so you must transpose it down a step, not a big deal for horn players.) However, when you play it in concert, by the time the symphony is over, with the soloists, chorus, and full orchestra finishing with the triumphant Ode to Joy, everyone has forgotten about the beautiful horn solo. Years ago, 1st horn players used to take this solo, but nowadays the 4th horn players usually get to keep it. Why did Beethoven write this solo for the 4th horn? No one really knows. Possible the 4th was the only horn player in the section with a valved horn, though the solo can be played on a natural horn.

Serious horn players must be able to play high and low parts, of course. It doesn't make sense to specialize in low or high to the exclusion of the other.  Sarah Willis, 4th horn of the Berlin Philharmonic, and David Griffin, 4th horn of the Chicago Symphony, have both recorded impressive solo albums. They are both amazing low horn players, but are equally at home in the high range.

Why do I like playing low horn? For me, one of the most fun parts of horn playing is playing the very low notes. I love the sound of them and the power those notes have. I love the way the low and high parts combine to make a beautiful ensemble, with each part contributing an important piece of the whole.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Every Tuesday the New York Times includes the Science Times section. A recurring column is "Really?" in which a Claim is stated, the Facts examined and then we get the Bottom Line. This week the Claim was "Playing a wind instrument causes respiratory infection." Yikes! The facts state that wind and brass players apparently get more respiratory ailments than others. A recent study from Tufts tested a number of flutes, clarinets, saxophones and trumpets for bacteria and other nasty things. All the instruments had live bacteria and mold. Yuck!

The two examples in the article -- a trombonist and a saxophone player -- both had respiratory problems for long periods of time. These problems went away after the players began either disinfecting, in the case of the trombone, or washing the mouthpiece, in the saxophonist's case. The Bottom Line tells us we should routinely clean our instruments or run the risk of getting sick. It seems pretty obvious, but it's easy to let a lot of time pass before giving the horn a thorough cleaning. I took my horn to our wonderful brass repairman for a cleaning and adjustments. When i picked it up he suggested mildly that it would be good if I rinsed it out now and then. Oops.

For a hilarious story about cleaning a horn, read this blog post by Pip Eastop, a horn player with various groups in London, titled "How not to clean your horn ... "

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Value of Music Lessons

It's the end of the school year and I have been extraordinarily busy between all the end-of-the-year school stuff and a flurry of concerts to play. Hence, the lack of posts.

The Waukegan Symphony is giving the last of its season on May 22. We are playing Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis, Shostakovich's 2nd Piano Concerto, Overture to Prometheus, and Mozart Symphony #40. This is my first time playing the Hindemith and I'm having a blast. The piano concerto is very interesting; my daughter (who is also playing) says that one of the movements is in Fantasia 2000. I love the Mozart, though I'm not playing on it.

In addition, I'm playing with another community orchestra, the North Suburban Symphony on May 15 in a program of opera and musicals featuring two singers. It's a fun program, too, with Carmen, Fledermaus, Barber of Seville, and a selection of popular musicals. Plus, my woodwind quintet is playing at a local event to raise money for charity by selling artwork by local artists. My son has a piece in the sale, a very cool looking mirror depicting some Nordic mythology.

Since I haven't written a post in awhile, I thought I would re-post an article I read in the enjoyable blog Julia's Horn Page. Here it is:

More proof of music’s educational value

I just read the following on Orchestra-L, and I was so happy to read it I decided to post it again here.  The readers’ comments following the article are also particularly insightful:
Hearing the Music, Honing the Mind
Music produces profound and lasting changes in the brain. Schools should add classes, not cut them
By The Editors | October 26, 2010 |
Scientific American Magazine- November 2010 issue
Nearly 20 years ago a small study advanced the notion that listening to Mozart’s *Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major* could boost mental functioning. It was not long before trademarked “Mozart effect” products appealed to neurotic parents aiming to put toddlers on the fast track to the Ivy League. Georgia’s governor even proposed giving every newborn there a classical CD or cassette.
The evidence for Mozart therapy turned out to be flimsy, perhaps nonexistent, although the original study never claimed anything more than a temporary and limited effect. In recent years, however, neuroscientists have examined the benefits of a concerted effort to study and practice music, as opposed to playing a Mozart CD or a computer-based “brain fitness” game once in a while. Advanced monitoring techniques have enabled scientists to see what happens inside your head when you listen to your mother and actually practice the violin for an hour every afternoon. And they have found that music lessons can produce profound and lasting changes that enhance the general ability to learn. These results should disabuse public officials of the idea that music classes are a mere frill, ripe for discarding in the budget crises that constantly beset public schools.
Studies have shown that assiduous instrument training from an early age can help the brain to process sounds better, making it easier to stay focused when absorbing other subjects, from literature to tensor calculus. The musically adept are better able to concentrate on a biology lesson despite the racket in the classroom or, a few years later, to finish a call with a client when a colleague in the next cubicle starts screaming at an underling. They can attend to several things at once in the mental scratch pad called working memory, an essential skill in this era of multitasking.
Discerning subtleties in pitch and timing can also help children or adults in learning a new language. The current craze for high school Mandarin classes furnishes an ideal example. The difference between *m¯a* (a high, level tone) and *mà* (falling tone) represents the difference between “mother” and “scold.” Musicians, studies show, are better than nonmusicians at picking out easily when your *m¯a* is *mà*ing you to practice. These skills may also help the learning disabled improve speech comprehension.
Sadly, fewer schools are giving students an opportunity to learn an instrument. In *Nature Reviews Neuroscience* this summer, Nina Kraus of Northwestern University and Bha­rath Chandrasekaran of the University of Texas at Austin, who research how music affects the brain, point to a disturbing trend of a decline of music education as part of the standard curriculum. A report by the advocacy organization Music for All Foundation found that from 1999 to 2004 the number of students taking music programs in California public schools dropped by 50 percent.
Research of our brains on music leads to the conclusion that music education needs to be preserved—and revamped, as needed, when further insights demonstrate, say, how the concentration mustered to play the clarinet or the oboe can help a problem student focus better in math class. The main reason for playing an instrument, of course, will always be the sheer joy of blowing a horn or banging out chords. But we should also be working to incorporate into the curriculum our new knowledge of music’s beneficial effect on the developing brain. Sustained involvement with an instrument from an early age is an achievable goal even with tight budgets. Music is not just an “extra.”

Sunday, March 27, 2011


I'm always interested in seeing how different musicians react to applause. Some of them stand and just soak it up, while others radiate delight (think Yo-Yo Ma). Some bow deeply (especially Michiko Uchida) and others nod their heads. Practically everyone is generous in including colleagues in applause.

We take applauding at concerts for granted; however, one of the things I learned at Fearless Camp last summer is how difficult it is to accept applause.  One of our ongoing exercises at the camp was graciously accepting applause whenever it was offered. Jeff instructed us to stand up, look at the audience, smile, and bow. No fiddling with music, no leaving the stage before the audience finished applauding. It sounds simple and straightforward, but it is very difficult.

Most musicians are naturally very hard on themselves when it comes to critiquing their own playing, so smiling and bowing while thinking about all the mistakes you made feels like a sham. We think we don't deserve this acclaim. Jeff stressed that it's about the performer's connection to the audience. The people who came to hear you want to thank you for the performance and express their delight in the experience of hearing this concert. To respond with words or body language that shows you don't agree, is churlish and ungrateful.

Since everyone did a lot of performing that week, we all had many opportunities to get better. Our fellow Fearless campers also made sure that the applause was long and sustained, so you really got to practice being gracious when it was your turn!

I don't have a lot of opportunities to take bows in my life away from Fearless Camp, but when I do, I find it's easier now. I like feeling that connection with the audience. Now I guess I need to spread the idea to others. I was caught by surprise at a performance with a musician I didn't know well when she swept off the stage after only a few seconds of applause. The rest of us felt we had to follow her. It was a low-key performance and several people came up to talk with each of us, but after Fearless Camp, I felt like the performance wasn't as complete as it could have been. Perhaps she was not happy with the performance or maybe that's the way she was taught.

In thinking about why we often feel we don't deserve praise and admiration, I thought about one of my favorite quotes, from Nelson Mandela:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our Light, not our darkness that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, talented and fabulous?"
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us. It's in everyone
And as we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Schubertiade Chicago!

Schubert at the piano
The Schubertiade Chicago will be held this Saturday, January 29, at the historic Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. You can get more information and the schedule here. I'm very excited to be playing not only the 5 Duets for horns that I wrote about in an earlier post, but Auf dem Strom, the song for soprano, horn and piano.

Alexis Magarò, soprano, and Helen Raymaker, piano, and I will be performing Auf dem Strom at 8 pm in Curtis Hall.This will be the first time I have done this song with a soprano. It is different than performing it with a tenor. I believe the horn and tenor blend more, being in the same range, but the soprano and horn contrast each other well.

Earlier, at 4:45, Nancy Orbison and I will be playing the 5 Duets. Because they are also songs, the pieces being written for voices or horns, there are words. We thought it would be helpful to us in interpreting the duets and interesting for our audience to know something of what the songs were about. I wrote something about the songs previously on this blog, but the two final songs were puzzling to both Nancy and me. I had taken the lyrics and tossed them into Google translator, which translates quite literally. Some of the results were pretty strange. I don't know German, so I went to someone who does, Ben Hebebrand. Ben (who is my boss) was born in Germany and was able to interpret the expressions in the two hunting songs. Lützow's wilde Jagd was especially puzzling. It was obviously about a heroic figure, but also included mysterious references to "black fellows, black riders, black fallen." He did some research and found that both hunting songs were written about the Napoleonic wars, which were happening at the time Schubert wrote the songs. In response to Napoleon invasions, the countries that would eventually become Germany began to band together to fight back. The two songs have a strong nationalistic theme. This was so interesting that I did a little research myself. I found a reference to the poet Theodor Körner, who wrote the lyrics to both hunting songs and Morgenstern, in a biography of Schubert written by Elizabeth Norman McKay. Schubert met Körner one time only, in 1813 after an opera performance. They had a memorable conversation, but shortly after Körner joined the Lützow corps to fight France. He was killed a few months later.

Next I googled Lützow and found Adolf, baron von Lützow. He formed a calvary "free corps" of volunteers to fight behind French lines. Though he is described as largely ineffectual, he and his troops are clearly the bold heroes of Lützow's wilde Jagd. Lützow's corps was also known as "the Schwarze Schar (“Black Band”) after its uniform, which was a symbol of mourning for enslaved Germany." This explains the mysterious references in each verse to the "black fellows," "black riders," "black swimmers," and so on. It is a brash, heroic poem. Here is a sample:

What shines from the forest there in the sunshine?
Hear it roaring closer and closer.
it runs down in dark rows,
And shrill horns sound in it.
... And if you ask the black fellows:
Who is,
This is Lützow's wild, reckless hunting.

What draws up quickly thorugh the dark forest
And stripped from mountain to mountain?
It lies in night ambush
The Hurra rejoice, and fires the rifle,
...And if you ask the black hunters:
Who is,
This is Lützow's wild, reckless hunting.

I did not expect to learn so much history when I went in search of some Schubert to play!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Gong Show

The conductor of the Waukegan Symphony is always finding unusual, interesting pieces for us to play. For example, we played Reve Angelique by Anton Rubenstein and Overture to Struensee by Meyerbeer, two pieces I had never heard of, on our fall concert. (We also play standard repertoire.) Last night was a first for me as 4th horn. As you can see in the photo above, the 4th horn part to Berceuse elegiaque by Busoni is for Horn IV and Gong! Talk about unusual doublings!

Thanks to our 2nd horn, who ran into the percussion room to find a gong, I played the gong part after a brief lesson by my husband (a school band director who plays tuba in the orchestra). Gong is not easy. You have warm it up by hitting it gently so that it doesn't make a sound but starts to vibrate. Then you have to hit it in the right spot or you don't get much of a sound. Then there was the roll with crescendo-decrescendo at the end of the piece. Once you get the gong to crescendo, it's like a runaway train; very difficult to stop. So there wasn't much of a decrescendo last night.

The real percussionists will play the gong on the concert, but it was fun!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

VOTE! for the Top 10 Composers

Anthony Tommasini started an interesting project earlier this month. In this Sunday article, he announced he was going to determine his Top 10 Classical Composers list. He would not only choose 10 from the hundreds of possibilities, but he would rank them. He did narrow things down somewhat by beginning with the Baroque period and excluding any living composer from the list, the reason being that we are too close to these composers' works to accurately judge them. The Renaissance was eliminated because hardly anyone plays it or listens to it anymore. If you haven't read the article, I recommend it.

Mr. Tommasini also discusses criteria for the list, which was my first mental question when I heard about it. It's not a favorite composers list, so one would need other parameters. Do you choose by how much influence a composer had on music after him? Then Arnold Schoenberg would have to be on the list, even though his music gets played only slightly more than Josquin du Pres (a leading Rennaisance composer). Do you look at the body of work the composer left? This eliminates the "one-hit wonders," Gustav Holst, for example. (Even though Holst has been called a one-hit wonder, The Planets being the hit, he did in fact compose other works, notably the First and Second Suites for Band, that are frequently played. By bands, not orchestras.) And what about composers who died young? Do they get penalized? And then, some composers wrote mainly orchestral music, others wrote operas almost exclusively. Is it fair to lump them altogether in competing for a spot on the Top 10 List?

Mr.Tommasini wrote a series of articles and made several videos in which he discusses the composers he is considering, their work, and their importance.  These are excellent discussions. He clearly explains his reasoning about each of the composers he discusses and plays excerpts on the videos. He also talks about why no women are on the list. Anyone who is interested in learning more about classical music would enjoy these articles and videos.

And, we can also vote for our own Top 10 composers! Click on the Vote link on either of the other pages and you will be able to pick from a list of composers. (I don't know how long this will be open, as Mr. Tommasini revealed his Top 10 on January 21.) I voted for Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Strauss, Brahms, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. I admit to being influenced by what kind of horn parts each composer wrote, perhaps because I know those works on a deeper level because I have played many of them, but I also thought about the influence each had on other composers and music in general. Some, there was no question about: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky. I was swayed by Mr. Tommasini's articles to vote for Verdi. I decided to vote for Schubert because even though he died at 31 and wrote mostly songs and piano solos, his output was amazing for such a short life and his influence continues to this day. He songs and other works are not only frequently programmed, but musicians are adapting and re-creating with them. Example: Sting used one of the songs from Schubert's Winterreise on his album If on a Winter's Night

Who's number 1? You can read about Anthony Tommasini's choices here. My number one is Mozart.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Schubertiade 2011!

The Pianoforte Foundation's annual Schubertiade Chicago will be on Saturday, January 29 at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago. There will be three stages on the 8th floor with simultaneous performances from 2:00 to 8:00 p.m. I am happy to say that Nancy Orbison and I will be presenting the the set of five duets that I found on imslp.org.

Schubert wrote these five little duets for either two singers or two horns, and in fact, two of them have a phrase for horns at the end -- no words. These are not challenging, like the Mozart duets, but they are tuneful and charming. I have never heard of horn players performing these, and I suspect they aren't performed much by singers. After all, there are so many Schubert songs to choose from.

So, we have two Mailied, or May Songs to begin. The first relating to love and the second to enjoying our time on Earth, since we don't know how long it will last. Then Morgenstern, a hymn to the morning star, ending with a plea to flee "this earthly torment" by joining the morning star. The fourth and fifth are hunting songs. Jagerlied could be a Klingon war song, brothers battling joyfully against the tyrants. The last is Lutzow's wilde jagt, more battling against the tyrants but this time with Lutzow, apparently a hero. The refrain is "This is Lutzow's wild, reckless hunting." I hope to do some additional research on the songs. Though the title page describes them as Five Duets, the Deutsch numbers are not consecutive. I also wonder if Schubert wrote them for a particular occasion.

We will be performing these delightful duets at around 4:40 in Suite 801. If you are in the Chicago area, I encourage you to come to the Schubertiade, not just because I'm playing, but it is a fun time. The atmosphere is upbeat, there is the Schubert Cafe where you can have a little snack, and it's in the historic Fine Arts Building, such a cool place! And, of course there's lots of Schubert!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Schubert, Winterreise, and a boisterously good time?

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
If I were in New York, I would definitely go see the show "Three Pianos." It is described as being difficult to describe. Anything that uses Franz Schubert's "Winterreise," usually described as a bleak song cycle about lost love, to create a rollicking, wacky event would be difficult to describe. The New York Times published both an article and a review of the show, which gives an idea of what the evening would be like. There are three pianists, who play both modern characters as well as Schubert and friends. They do indeed perform the whole song cycle, though not always in the original. It has been called a kind of Schubertiade, the name Schubert's friends gave to the evenings they played and sang Schubert with Schubert. All audience members get a glass of wine and refills. There is apparently an accordion in the performance.

I was thinking about why the idea appeals to me. As performers, we are creative in our interpretation of composers' musical creations. I love listening to different interpretations and working out my own interpretation of a piece. A creation like "Three Pianos" goes in a different direction, interpreting, but also changing and adding things to the original.If it's successful it can add to the audience's experience of a piece or help them take a fresh look at something familiar.

Jeremy Denk, concert pianist, wrote a blogpost about program notes in which he said, "I’ve never been a big fan of the 'imagine how revolutionary this piece was when it was written' school of inspiration. For my money, it should be revolutionary now. (And it is.) Whatever else the composer might have intended, he or she didn’t want you to think “boy that must have been cool back then.” The most basic compositional intent, the absolute ur-intent, is that you play it NOW, you make it happen NOW." I agree, and, having sat through many sleepy performances of famous works, I know it doesn't always happen. The times when that NOW happens are magical, electric. They are the concerts you remember forever.

But, I also like the reinvention of familiar pieces through alteration. No, it doesn't always work. No, not everyone is going to like it. But it makes people think and feel. Three Pianos is apparently closing in a few days. Since I'm in Chicago, I won't be seeing it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The King's Speech

King George VI
The four of us went to see the movie "The King's Speech" last night. It is a wonderful movie and I highly recommend it -- we all loved it.

Quasi-spoiler alert! I'm not going to divulge any plot points here. All plot elements that I will refer to have already appeared in reviews and previews. However, if you don't want to know anything about this movie, then stop reading and go see it!!

Like most movie-goers, I'm very often not aware of the background music. I pay attention to the opening music during the titles and the music during the credits, but during the movie, I'm engrossed in the story and the characters. However, in the King's Speech, when we got to the climax, when he begins the speech to his nation on the eve of World War II, the use of music created a dynamic symbiosis that heightened the emotion of the scene. King George VI, who has worked with Lionel Logue to conquer his stammer, needs to give a radio address to the nation. As he stands before the microphone trying to begin, seconds of silence fill the airwaves. As he finally begins to speak, the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony also begins. The music and the speech twine together, both equally important. The music gradually becomes louder but complements the moment perfectly, inexorably moving forward while we feel each word with Bertie. It is a powerful scene.

The music over the credits is the beautiful Beethoven 5th Piano Concerto, the "Emperor". The London Symphony performs the Beethoven, but I was not able to catch the pianist during the credits, partly because my family was arguing about whether the Winston Churchill in the film looked like the real Churchill. Why is it so difficult to find musical performer credits on the Internet?
Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech