About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Friday, June 9, 2017

Treacherous High Cs

I'm very excited to be playing Mahler's Symphony #2 this Sunday with the Evanston Symphony. This symphony call for a lot of extra players beyond the normal orchestra roster. The horn section is eight onstage horns and 4 offstage horns.

I am one of the offstage horns, who play only in the fifth movement. Playing this symphony is a blast, literally and figuratively. There's lots of very loud playing, especially for the offstage players, who include four trumpeters and a percussionist in addition to the horns. And it's also so much fun to play this incredible music with a fine orchestra and conductor. Unlike other offstage parts in other orchestral works, Mahler wrote these horn parts starting offstage, then the four of us go onstage, wind our way through the bass section to get to our seats, and play for a bit, walk offstage to play more horn calls from a distance, then come onstage again for the end of the symphony.

I am playing 8th horn. In the horn universe, the odd number parts are high parts and the even numbers are low. 8th should be a low part. However, all four offstage horns end one of our horn calls with a high C! Not only that, but it's held for ten counts, in 4/4 time at a moderately slow tempo. (Note: though there are a few pieces that go higher than high C, it is generally considered to be the top of the horn's range.)

I am a low player, though I have been playing quite a lot of high parts lately, but that high C has become kind of a mental block for me. High B flat, high B, no problem. So how is the C different? I thought it was the way I was thinking about it, as a place beyond my normal horn world. What would be the solution? Practice, of course. And complaining to my horn-player friends.

Complaining to your friends inevitably leads to advice, which I am thankful for! There are a number of tricks for getting that high C. One friend told me he had heard that depressing the first valve halfway and playing it on the F side (no trigger) would make it easier. I tried it and it seems to work sometimes. Another friend told me that horn players since the 1700s have been using another trick: keeping your hand in position in the bell, have your middle finger braced against the opposite side of the bell. The evidence for this method is antique horns with a worn spot where the third finger pressed for many high Cs. This trick also seems to help.

I still have a couple days to decide. At this point I'm planning to use the third finger trick and play the C on the F horn. And practice, practice, practice.