Playing in a Section
By David Lesser, principal horn Dallas Wind Symphony
A key element to being a good musician is knowing how to play in a section. This article will focus on a horn section but is applicable to non-hornists as well.
Section playing skills are often lacking in the young musician. In my experience as a professional horn player and teacher, these skills are generally not taught in high school and only to a minimal degree in college. The vast majority of players hone these skills through experience and “on-the-job” training. I do believe, however, that it is not only possible but imperative that this topic be addressed with young players. Below you will find some insights I have acquired over the years.
Playing principal horn is very different than playing in the section. (“in the section” refers to any non-principal position.) As a principal player, you ARE the leader of the section. In the professional world, this includes not only artistic leadership but some managerial responsibilities as well (i.e. rostering, approving time off requests for section members, constructing audition lists, etc). As an artistic leader, you are responsible for musical leadership that entail: Exaggerating the dynamics so as to inspire your section to do the same, captivating everyone around you with exquisitely played solos, and most importantly, providing an atmosphere of confidence and calm-assertive leadership. Many players find principal horn to be the most stressful horn position but also the most gratifying. This is a very exposed job often open to harsh criticism either by oneself or by the conductor. Some conductors who expect perfection 100% of the time can have a significant ill affect on a principal player’s mental state, often undermining one’s confidence. If you are playing principal horn, it is important to always believe in yourself and to have a healthy amount of narcissism necessary to get you through the job.
As a second horn player, you are the “chameleon” of the section. This is not a fitting role for a player with even the slightest ego. A second hornist’s number one job is to complement the principal player. How do you do this? The answer is twofold: matching articulation, pitch, dynamics, and tone quality are a few concrete ways to be a good second horn player. The less tangible part of this answer is that a talented second horn player has a sort of E.S.P. for the principal player. This second player can predict what the principal player is going to do dynamically, rhythmically, articulation-wise, musically, etc. This comes with years of experience and dedication to the job. A good principal/second horn duo is analogous to that of a mutualistic symbiotic relationship in which both parties benefit from each other.
Second hornists need to have 100% command of the entire register of the horn. While it is more common for a second horn part to be a “low horn part” (by that I mean either low or mid range) it is not uncommon to be confronted by works that encompass the entire range of the horn. Mahler and R. Strauss immediately come to mind as composers whose second horn parts cover three or more octaves. Additionally, second horn players are often the workhorses of the section. They usually play the most pieces per concert season so it is imperative they play efficiently and smartly so as to avoid injury.
Colloquially speaking, a third horn player needs to have a bit of an ego and an affinity for being in the “hot seat” but not to the same degree as the principal player. Third horn parts are typically high horn parts, often doubling the principal player on melodic phrases. These parts are the second most soloistic (next to principal horn). In fact, composers such as Brahms, Berlioz, Saint-Saens, and Dvorak, tend to write more conspicuously for third horn than for principal horn. Third hornists need to have an impeccable high register and be able to match the principal horn even in the extreme high register. In an orchestra or band where this is no associate principal player, the third horn will often be next in line to cover principal horn when the principal player is absent.
Finally we make our way down to the end of the section. In a nutshell, the job of the fourth horn is to serve as the bass voice of the section. In divisi section playing, fourth horns often play the root of the chord. Therefore, they must have exceptional intonation. Playing the root pitch in tune and in tone allows the second, third, and principal players to play their pitches with correct just intonation. Furthermore, fourth players must have a broad dynamic range in the extreme low register. They need to be able to play with the same bravura as a bass trombone in its meat-and-potatoes register and with the finesse and sophistication of a woodwind player in the mid/upper register (see Beethoven Symphony No. 9, 3rd mvmt, 4th horn).
Like second horn players, fourth hornists need to have full command of the horn’s range. Although it is slightly less often that a fourth player’s part extends into the extreme high register, composers such as Mahler, R. Strauss, and John Williams (to name just few) write for soaring horn lines in which all four horns play in unison.
Playing in a section and doing it well can be a very rewarding experience, both musically and interpersonally. If we learn to play with intuitive passion and reverence for our respective roles, we will be noticed; not just for our playing abilities but for the soul we breathe into the music and into our section.