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August 17, 2008


If you've attended a concert of orchestral music, what's the thing you remember most? Let me guess. It was the mistakes in the horn section.

I'm a former hornist, though I was never close to becoming a professional. I was pretty good in high school -- selected for the All-State Band in New York (yes, there is such a thing) -- and played briefly with my college symphony orchestra. So I say this lovingly: Horn splats are a fact of life, even at the professional level.

Now, someone who doesn't say this with any particular love is Allan Kozinn, who's written "The French Horn, That Wild Card of the Orchestra" in the New York Times. This article is essentially a defense of his criticism of horn players, and he's pretty unsympathetic. I don't blame him; I just report.

Now, I know what's going on here. When you attend a professional orchestra concert, you don't want your evening to be marred by some professional hornist who doesn't hit the right notes. Personally, as a hornist, I always loved to hear splattery from the horn section, because it made the musicians seem more human and made me feel somewhat less imperfect than I was. But I'm in the minority.

Consider a comparison to baseball. You go to a game played by your favorite team, which is losing by a run in the bottom of the ninth. The bases are loaded with one out, putting the tying and winning runs in scoring position, and the team's leading hitter comes to bat. He's hitting .333 on the season, which is fantastic, in the top 10 of the league. (Remember, in baseball you're a hero if you make an out only 2 out of every 3 at bats.) The batter hits a hard grounder directly to the shortstop, who turns an easy double play, and the game is over. Naturally, you boo the hitter.

Why should you be upset with the hitter? He's done a great job all season, and you know that he's going to fail two-thirds of the time he comes to bat. But still, you expect more.

The difference between a baseball team a professional orchestra is that with an orchestra you expect perfection. There's a brilliant Peter Schickele spoof in which he announces the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as if it were a sporting event. It's been described this way:

On Peter Schickele's album P.D.Q. Bach On the Air (Vanguard CD-79268 LP-79268) two broadcasters provide a running commentary on a performance of the first movement, as if it were a sports event. In this recording the commentary is simply dubbed over a recording of the music. When Schickele performs the Beethoven's Fifth Sportscast on tour the music is played by a live orchestra. The act includes a referee as well as commentators and the music stops for instant replays, player substitutions and penalties.
For me, the highlight of the routine is a loud mistake from one of the horn players, which Schickele and his colleague discuss as if it were the shortshop booting a ground ball.

This routine illustrates my point. With an orchestra, you don't tolerate mistakes the way you might on the ball field. As Kozinn says:
Composers write, and have always written, music that pushes the limits of technique. And if you’re onstage in a professional capacity, you’re expected to be able to negotiate it. That’s the least audiences expect, and it’s a precondition for what they buy tickets for: to be moved by an interpretation; to savor its nuances and to hear something revelatory, whether the work is new or familiar.
In other words, that damned hornist splattered the note again and ruined my experience. And it isn't just with "period" instruments -- horns without valves -- which Kozinn spends a good deal of time discussing.

So what's the excuse for this? Kozinn says he's heard from hornists with all sorts of excuses, all the way down to conspiracy theories. But the only technical reason he gives is this: "a bit of condensation from a player's breath adhering to the inside of a coil can lead to cracked notes, or 'clams.'"

Let me offer another perspective -- another excuse, if you will -- and any serious horn players who should happen to stumble on this post can weigh in.

All brass instruments depend on the harmonic series. The technical explanation is here, but as a generalization, all of these notes can be played with the same fingering (or for a trombone, the same position). If you click the link I gave you and look at the notes, you'll notice that the first interval is an octave, followed by a fifth, getting progressively smaller as you get higher in the series. If you play a brass instrument other than a French horn, your normal range is at the lower end of the harmonic series. So when you try to hit a note, you're probably going to hit that note. Different notes with the same fingering are hit by changing your embouchure, your muscle contraction and lip placement. At the low end of the harmonic series, the nearest note with the same fingering is far enough away that you won't miss it through an embouchure that's slightly off.

With the French horn, it's different. The normal range of the horn is at the mid- and upper-ranges of the harmonic series. (A good hornist can reach two full octaves below that normal range.) And when you're higher up in the harmonic series for your usual range, the notes that are played with the same fingerings are quite close together. If your embouchure is only slightly off, you can easily hit the wrong note.

I realize this is only one portion of the explanation. It doesn't explain why a hornist would splat a note toward the bottom of the normal range. But I think it may explain as well as anything why the horn section in a professional orchestra will give you lots of runs and hits but also more than a few errors.

UPDATE (8/24): Hornist Bruce Hembd, who writes at Horndogblog, agrees that the harmonic series is a bigger issue than condensation.