Why I Love the French Horn
By Lauren Manuel
Queensland Symphony Orchestra French Horn player Lauren Manuel takes us into the world of one of the most fascinating and unique sounding instruments in the Orchestra.
Sometimes I think there is an expectation that when you’re a classical musician you must be part historian – remembering many important dates such as when Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered to a shocked audience; part technician – comparing mouth piece sizes and their merits; part social commentator – having an opinion on who’s the best conductor of a Mahler/Bruckner/Mozart/Bartok Symphony; as well as being a master of your chosen instrument.
The truth is, I guess I am a little of all those things but mostly I just really love playing the horn. Physically, it feels satisfying to deeply inhale whilst engaging my core, controlling a steady stream of air through a tiny piece of metal, creating whatever tone I’ve imagined in my head. Well, that’s the plan anyway. It doesn’t always work out perfectly and that’s also okay too. At the end of the day my job is to blow raspberries into a curly piece of metal and create some pretty nice sounds. How cool is that?
Which brings me to another thing I love about playing the horn; I’m always continually learning. I still have those ‘a-hah!’ moments when something finally clicks into place, like I’ve solved a riddle. It’s shameful to admit it, but a lot of the time those ‘riddles’ were things my very first teacher tried his hardest to explain to me twenty or so years ago. Maybe I was just too naive, too clueless, a slow learner or maybe I thought I knew it all already. Either way, I hope he’s not reading this now because there’s still plenty of learning for me to do!
I can’t possibly talk about playing the horn without mentioning how it’s EVERYONE’S favourite instrument. Am I right or am I right? Incredibly versatile with a huge range and capacity for expression we can paint sounds in a myriad of colours. Is it any wonder that composers from Bach to John Williams feature the horn? Us horn players feel equally excited about belting out the Main Theme in Star Wars with our colleagues in the brass section, as we do trading eerie solos in a Debussy symphonic poem with our friends in the woodwind section. It’s such a versatile instrument and I’ve often thought of the horn as the chameleon of the orchestra: friend to all the various families of instruments with the ability to blend with just about anything.
The best part of playing the horn is playing with people and in normal circumstances that means playing in Queensland Symphony Orchestra. I love being able to read the mind of my principal horn or colleagues. Using my intuition to determine where they’re going to place a note, how they’re going to place it, at what pitch and what kind of articulation they’re going to use. Watching for subtle body cues and trying my best to compliment and blend with their sounds. It’s a skill not often spoken of but an essential part of playing in a group. To me it’s the most fun too! I’ve had the incredible privilege to play with some of the world’s greatest players and I get kick out of ‘working them out’, deciphering their unique cues and styles of playing.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention things I don’t like about playing the horn like PRACTICE. I’ve never loved sitting in a room for hours on end beating my face and brain into submission, but it’s a means to an end. Once I get myself settled and picture the long game it’s not so bad. Not to mention if I wasn’t playing the horn I’d have to get a real job!