Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra Blog


4 Bars in Sardinia
March 26, 2013, 11:48 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

“Isn’t the horn the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play?” French horn players like it when people say this. But despite the ego-massage, I have no idea where this concept came from, or whether it is true. I cannot conceive of ever being able to play the violin or the piano. It is very hard to play any instrument well. Indeed, of all the things I have attempted to do in a very full life, playing the horn is undoubtedly the hardest. Despite hours of practice, it is a constant and frustrating struggle.

hornThe difficulty of the horn lies in its length. At 12 ft, if I unraveled my instrument I could tickle my wife’s neck in the second violins. It needs a lot of wind to make the wretched thing work. Even worse, in its normal range the harmonics available for any fingering are closely spaced, so anything can (and does) come out. So playing the horn is essentially an exercise in risk management, followed closely by an exercise in damage limitation (manifest by accusing looks at neighboring players, examination of the instrument’s bell with an expression of incredulity and incomprehensible mutterings about transposition).

Which brings me to Sardinia, where our orchestra played two utterly enjoyable concerts three years ago. I had been practicing hard and the small, but intrepid, group had made good progress under the baton of Robin McEwan, despite the oppressive heat of the rehearsal venue. Towards the end of the week, we got ourselves bussed out to a prison that had been converted to a National Park centre where we were to perform, al fresco, that evening. In the courtyard, accompanied by a chorus of cicadas, we set about rehearsing Mozart’s clarinet concerto with soloist Roberto Meoni. It was in the lovely slow movement that the moment occurred. For four bars I hit every note dead centre and absolutely in tune. My tone was warm and strong and technique faultless. I swear no professional player could have played those four bars any better. Nobody noticed; it was an orchestral tutti, but that is not the point. To be completely at one with your instrument is something to hang onto and remember in difficult future times.

And why do I recount this trivial event? First because I believe others will have had similar experiences and will recognize what a special thing it is to play an instrument well, even if it is only for a brief time. Secondly, it gets to the heart of why I go on playing and why I love the SPO so much.

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