Thoughts on perfection vs. excellence and the American Horn Quartet’s final year

For months now, I keep telling myself that it’s time to jumpstart this blog again after a hiatus of over a year, as the sheer act of bringing reflections and thoughts to (virtual) paper has always been a joy. Each time, the impulse died with the internal dialogue, “Too much has happened to write down” and, my all-time favourite murderer of creativity,”If you are going to write something, it needs to be spectacular.” (Read: perfect.) Perfectionism is dangerous game the ego plays to prevent us from giving birth to any creative endeavour. As a performer, I relearn every day the delicate skill of knowing when to let go and let a performance happen. The moments we divest ourselves of the need to steer the outcome are those where magic and miracles can happen. Yes, careful and considered preparation are a requisite for this letting go – it’s a balancing act. The fulcrum is different for each person and every situation, but what remains constant is the triumph of enthusiasm over anxiety, put simply, love over fear. I like the idea of striving for excellence rather than perfection. It’s just as much work, but without the automatic “doomed to fail” label attached. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

So…now to plunge in and share with you what’s on my mind today!

The American Horn Quartet, one of the greatest joys and blessings in my life these past several years, will give its last concert next August in Los Angeles at the International Horn Symposium. Due to a schedule conflict between orchestra and tour obligations, the AHQ has just completed a US tour without me. I was quite heartbroken at first not to be able to participate in what is the last major American tour of the quartet, as well as one I had the main share of organizing. Okay, I’m still sad about it. But 1) my part has been in the more than capable hands of Karl Pituch of the Detroit Symphony orchestra, for many years our go-to sub anytime we need reinforcements in North America. And 2) the reason I remained in Europe was to rehearse with the OPL for an upcoming tour including one of my favourite things to play, the 3rd horn part of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with my extremely talented colleagues. So, back to the AHQ. A lot of people have asked why we are throwing in the towel while still at the top of our game. That’s an answer unto itself, really – we would like to leave a legacy of fantastic concerts and conscientious artistry and go out before we outstay our welcome. It’s also become more difficult for all four of us to free ourselves from other (job) obligations at the same time. The quartet has been around for 30 years; I have had the pleasure of the last six. Once we pass the torch, I’m not sure what will take its place – certainly Kerry and I will resume the Virtuoso Horn Duo, put on hold as our priority went to the quartet, and I hope the Ni Ensemble will get going again. Aside from that, the extra time not spent answering and writing hundreds of emails organizing tours will go to other projects. I honestly have no idea what I’ll be doing in 5 years, and that’s okay. But I will miss the AHQ dearly. The four of us bring out the best in one another musically – I call it the Turbo button. When the music kicks into high gear, the combination of laser-like concentration and the power of the music feels like a clear, sharp wind, leaving no room for distracting thoughts. So even though the repertoire we play can be devilishly difficult, my mind is rarely more peaceful than in the middle of a performance. I truly feel emptied out, in the best possible way, after a recital.

Earlier I was talking about perfectionism, about knowing when to put in the nitpicky work and when to surrender to the flow. In our rehearsals, we sometimes go into ridiculous, microscopic detail, even on pieces we have performed dozens of times. The alchemical transformation comes about as a result of the absolute trust we have in each other on stage. Even if clams happen (for my non-musician friends and readers, that’s what we call the occasional splats that happen to every horn player!) or if a passage doesn’t come off the way we did it in the practice room, that trust remains. Recently, in London at the International Horn Society symposium, someone’s cell phone went off in the audience just as we had started the finale, throwing us off our rhythm, and we had to start the movement over. It’s the first time that had ever happened during my tenure with the quartet. But so what! We knew that we could sink straight back into the flow of the piece because of that trust. Also, we have fun.

We have a new CD coming out called En-COR! – yes, it’s a pun, and yes, the whole CD is made up of our favourite encore pieces. Release date should be the middle of December, just in time for Christmas stockings. We used the Kickstarter program to fund the project, with well over 100 supporters. Once it’s available (Albany Records,) I will share links to find it. During the recording sessions, the microphones were close to us, so the listener has the feeling of being right there. You can hear us breathing, hear our valves clicking, feel the organic current of the music. Our Grammy-award winning producer, Gregg Squires, did a brilliant job in capturing a very “live” feel. With two and a half days to record 20 pieces, the principle of knowing when to move on becomes pretty important.

Preparing to take our final bow...

Preparing to take our final bow…

Hey, blog written! Now I just have to press “send.” How hard can it be? 🙂

Passion and Precision – the joy of chamber music

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It’s been ages – again – since my last blog posting.  Since then, I have been on two chamber music tours, played Mendelssohn and Bruckner, Shostakovitch, Mahler and many other composers, celebrated holidays with family far away, had 2 x-rays for separated ribs (ouch!), joined a new chamber music group, done a 21-day inner retreat, and so much else, too much to write…

First of all, let me say that as far as performing goes, in my opinion nothing beats chamber music for emotional involvement and satisfaction.  It’s the intimacy of bringing a piece to life with a small group of (mostly, but not always) like-minded individuals with common purpose, creativity, and my own personal motto of what I strive for in music, “passion and precision.”  It is the marriage of these two factors that make the magic happen.  I have the great good fortune of counting truly world-class musicians among my chamber music partners, and they are all the finest of human beings as well.  In the last 2 weeks of October, the Virtuoso Horn Duo and Friends (Kerry and me as the VHD, tuba player and brother-in-law extraordinaire Kyle Turner with magnificent pianist and dear friend Lauretta Bloomer on piano, the Friends) embarked upon a 2-week US tour, giving master classes, ensemble coaching, and concerts at the Manhattan School of Music, Penn State University, Malone University in Ohio, Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, the University of Missouri, the Cincinnati Conservatory, and the University of Western Michigan at Kalamazoo.  It was sheer pleasure to play together with Kerry, Laurie, and Kyle, all beautifully intuitive musicians with gorgeous sounds and totally professional stage presence.  It was also such a gift to listen to so many fine students in every location where we taught, not to mention the generosity of our hosts.

After our last engagement in Michigan, I flew from Detroit to London to play concerts and give master classes with the Ni Ensemble, my brass quintet.  It was the first tour for our newest member, trumpeter Bob Koertshuis (from Arnhem, Netherlands).  Bob, Heather, Leon, Dave, and I had a truly lovely week together, mixing hard work with lots of laughter, running the musical gamut between Berio at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester to Frank Sinatra at a very cold outdoor barbecue charity benefit concert near Cambridge!  We also made a repeat appearance at the Royal Welsh Academy of Music and Dance in Cardiff, followed by the best Thai meal I have ever eaten. In contrast to the breakneck pace of the Virtuoso Horn Duo tour, our schedule allowed us plenty of time to relax, go for walks in the country (one high point, literally and figuratively, was a hike up a hill in the Malverns, revealing a breathtaking view at the top), and of course a few pints here and there.  I treasure the sense of adventure, both musically and personally, in my Ni Ensemble partners, their love of experimentation, brilliant technique combined with great artistry, and the attention to detail carried along by a constant musical flow.  There are moments when we play together that I just want to jump up and shout, “Whohooooo” out of sheer exuberance!  We just had a photo shoot last week and will have our website ready to roll in the next few weeks.

The latest addition to my chamber music groups happened quite recently.  David Johnson retired from the American Horn Quartet, and the other members invited me to join them in his place.  I had been performing with them since last April, when health issues prevented David from taking part in the European tour, but becoming a member of the AHQ is a big thrill.  The quartet has a worldwide reputation and has been around since 1982.  I was only 12 years old in 1982!  Talk about stepping into a legacy…

The AHQ concerts are thrilling from the standpoint of the audience, but I can tell you after experiencing them from both sides of the podium, it’s a constant 10,000 volts on stage.  Before my first full-length concert with them last spring, I was a little nervous, but from the very first downbeat, there wasn’t a single second to think about anything other than the present moment.  The concentration doesn’t let down, ever, during or even in between the pieces – I felt myself constantly aware of everyone else’s parts, how I would articulate this note here, tune that minor 3rd there, breathe in the next phrase, fingers flying, pacing for the high notes, pulling out the stops for the climactic moments and soaring on the lyrical passages, mentally preparing for the next piece while taking bows for the one just completed…

Something I treasure from a fine chamber music performance is the instantaneous, almost telepathic communication between the members of each of my groups, which of course also has a lot to do with thorough preparation and rehearsal.  You have to put in the work to make it sound effortless!  Take huge risks, but only when hugely prepared for them.  The reward at the end of the performance is the ability to share the current of the music with the audience, and at the same time to experience that priceless feeling of emptiness and purity, like a huge wind just blew through my brain and left stillness in its wake.  For me, chamber music is a spiritual experience.  I love it.

Checking back in, and notes on the AHQ tour

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It has been months since I last offered a blog posting on this website – writing has always been a balance of activity and introspection for me.  The fact that nothing has appeared here since March probably shows an overdose of the former, and lack of the latter.  Now that a friend of mine, Bruce Richards (principal horn in the Liège Philharmonic Orchestra), has started blogging at my urging (check out his worthy musings here,) I feel inspired to take up (virtual) pen to (cyber) paper once again.

So many projects have come and gone since March, but for me, by far, the highlight was the American Horn Quartet’s European tour, where I filled in for David Johnson (recovering from a broken eardrum.)  We played 10 concerts and offered master classes and coaching in various locations in Germany, Luxembourg, France, and England.  It was on rather short notice that I received the entire 3rd horn book for the tour, many notes to learn, with a Luxembourg Philharmonic tour to northern Italy and Prague in the middle of it all.  Even though I have been a guest of the AHQ on several other occasions (mostly on Kerry’s popular The Casbah of Tetouan, but also a few other multiple horn performances here and there on various continents), it’s truly a different animal playing as part of this magnificent quartet, à 4.  We hastily put together a program for a gig for the German Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association near Bonn, and shortly afterwards met again in Bonn for two days of intense rehearsal.  One of the secrets of the AHQ’s success is that very little, if anything, is left to chance in the performances.  Pieces and passages are rehearsed into the smallest detail, including metering crescendos and diminuendos exactly by beat, arrows indicating when to change the intonation of a held note according to the chord changes, ornaments and lengths of articulations, etc.  You wouldn’t believe how many fingerings I wrote in for the fast passages in the Turner Quartet #3, for instance.  Luckily, I was playing from copies of David’s music, and the fingerings he wrote in for stopped passages and tricky bits were absolutely brilliant.  I even bought a cheap (and yes, pretty nerdy) pair of reading glasses to aid me in the rehearsals.  

The first official concert on the tour was at the Stumm’sche Reithalle in Neunkirchen, near Saarbrücken, Germany.  This photo, used for later publicity on the tour, was taken just outside the concert locale.  Even though I felt extremely prepared, the program was taxing to the limit of endurance, as well as one requiring constant concentration.  Playing at this level is like driving a race car, in that one moment of inattention can cause a crash.  I was also concerned with showing that their trust in me was warranted!  Then, as we walked together on stage to warm applause and began the first piece, “America-Tonight” from Walt Perkins’ arrangement of West Side Story, there was no time to think about anything other than the task at hand, the next bar, the turn of this phrase, the tuning of that chord, the mapping of energy to get to the high C at the end of the piece… and this continued throughout the concert.  On the one hand, the absolute devotion to the moment and the mental focus and clarity required to carry off such a task blot out everything but the performance itself; on the other hand, I felt throughout the tour that this state of mind was the most natural thing in the world.  There is room for bold musicality and gorgeous emotional phrasing, but always in a calculated and intelligent way.  The first concert went off without a hitch, as did the following nine.  Each evening we were faced with a different acoustic.  For instance, the chamber music hall in the Luxembourg Philharmonie was quite live with the sound bouncing off in an unexpected direction; in Saint-Nazaire, the acoustic was dry as a bone while we were all glistening with sweat in the heat; the cavernous American Cathedral on the Avenue Georges V in Paris caused us to alter our program to fit the church’s resonance; and so on.  

We traveled from venue to venue in a rented Renault Trafic minibus, in which Kerry had posted homemade signs in the back window.  Nearly 5,000 km passed under the odometer as we drove from place to place.  Waiting for the ferry in Calais to take us to Dover for our weekend at the Tonbridge School, we pulled out our horns and practiced on the quay (to the amusement?? of the other ferry passengers.)

You can see a few videos on YouTube from performances on this tour, 2 with students from the class of Xiaoming Han at the Hochschule in Saarbrücken: Take 9 Fanfare and Farewell to Red Castle, as well as a video of our encore in Versailles, Bach’s Air on the G String.   

It was an absolute, unadulterated joy for me to be a part of this project.  Geof, Charlie, Kerry, and Sherry (Geof’s significant other, who took care of the merchandise sales on the tour, as well as helping with the driving and providing me with some female companionship!) were ideal travel cohorts, and were in high spirits for the duration of the tour.  They made it very easy for me to “drop in” to this world-class ensemble, and I am grateful for that.  The problem with being on a 3-week high with this sort of gig is, well, coming back to the real world!  Though I also love orchestral playing, returning to the rank and file felt like being a steeplechase horse who had just been harnessed to a plow.  That plow pays the rent though, and the yoke is relatively light…