Why Phil Myers Plays an Engelbert Schmid Horn
An interview with New York Philharmonic Principal horn, Philip Myers.
"Why did you choose to switch to the Schmid horn?"
1) I was no longer able to get the clarity that I wanted on the Conn between written middle C and written third space C, a clarity I once felt I had been able to get.
2) I had never been able to produce a sound at a mezzo-forte dynamic level that I really liked, especially in the middle register.
In short, I liked all the extremes of the horn (high, low, loud, soft) but not so much the middle ground (middle range, mezzo-forte volume).
Now I'm talking about myself, not anyone else, especially because I felt it had changed for me. Maybe it s just me getting older and that aging having an effect on my playing. I'm forty-eight and maybe certain parts of my technique are changing for the worse as I get older. I don't know, but while I had always felt that I had to manipulate pretty heavily with my embouchure in the middle register to get the sound quality/intensity mix I wanted (not age specific), I felt I had to go looking for something new to help my new found weakness because-I didn't seem to be able to beat the problem in the practice room. I tried.
MORE ON SCHMID HORNS
Because I felt that this lack of clarity in the middle register was a recent development and therefore was probably me and not the horn, I tried going back to the (Giardinelli) B8 mouthpiece. But I felt that to get the balance of sound quality and intensity that I was looking for, I had to get all my tension from mouthpiece pressure, from jamming the thing into my mouth, and almost none from lip tension. So, of course, my flexibility and endurance went way down, my mouth hurt a lot and the middle register didn't get any better and about two months into the return to the B8 I crashed. I mean, I felt like I couldn't play at all. I was having trouble with everything and had to cancel a concerto outside of New York because I wouldn't have been able to get through it (Jacob concerto). So I thought "this B8 thing isn't working out for me at this time" (1992) and went back to the (Stork) M1. I basically recovered immediately. Two weeks later I was doing Strauss 2nd in my home town (Elkhart, Indiana) and a week after that with the Philharmonic. I felt fine and I decided at that moment that from then on, the horn might change but the mouthpiece would not (I reached this decision with the help of one of my teachers, William Slocum, with whom I still consult because he has known my playing for twenty-seven years). But still I couldn't get clarity in the middle register in a lot of situations. So maybe it was totally my problem and not the horn's, but I seemed to need some help to do something about it.
So I guess from 1992 onward I was looking for a horn. Now of course of horns but I had never found anything I liked better than the Conn, so at first I tried to go to the old pre-letter series Conn route. This just didn't pan out for me. I came to feel pretty quickly that I preferred the horns that Conn was making in Eastlake, so the last few years I played one of those, no modifications, and enjoyed myself very much, except for the above two problems.
In the summer of 1996 Howard Wall (the fourth horn player of the Philharmonic) and I went to the Bordeaux Festival. It was a great time and Joseph Horowitz was just the greatest host, making everyone feel relaxed, special, etc. The hotel was crummy and the shoes I bought in Paris were too small, but that festival was one of the most pleasant times I've ever had. The French are tremendous.
And here was Schmid. Now it was a little different then than now because he actually had maybe six or seven different models to play that he hadn't already sold, from doubles, descants, triples, gold brass, yellow brass, etc. Well, Howard and I went into his showroom by ourselves about our second day there and I started playing all these models and it was clarity, clarity, clarity with rich, rich, rich, to me. Man, I was so happy. Howard told me that I sounded best on the yellow brass triple so I thought, okay I'll buy that. So Schmid comes back and I say I want this one and he says sorry, just sold that a couple of hours ago. I couldn't believe it."Who?"
"A guy here in Bordeaux."
"Is he married?"
"Was she with him when he decided to spend $8,500 on this horn?"
Ahh, a ray of light I thought. I mean it seemed unbelievable to me that I was about to pay about six times what I'd been paying for a horn, maybe it would seem crazy to her too. I was right there hoping. The guy and his wife walk in, she goes over to Schmid and says "I'm so happy" and I walked right out of there.
That was June. I took delivery in November of a medium yellow brass FBb-high F full triple. Now for this first horn purchase I wanted to go over and see the whole operation (now I just order through Osmun in Boston). So I get on the plane and by the time I get there, I've got a cold so bad I can't hear Schmid when he says hello. Not only that but they have radar on the autobahn or whatever highway I was on. Bummer. Anyway, we go out to the workshop and I can't hear anything I'm playing. I feel bad, the horn feels bad, every different bell I try on it feels bad. I was depressed. All told worth the flight over there and getting three bells, I was out about $11,000 and I saw no happiness in that little German town. I got back to New York, couldn't sleep for two days and didn't go near that horn for two weeks. I was so afraid I had just tossed that money out the window. I was afraid to play the horn and find out I really didn't like it.
Now I suppose it shouldn't have come as a big surprise that except for the guys in the horn section who are very cool and open and supportive, I wasn't getting much of a good feeling around New York about me playing something other than a Conn. And I had always been happy as part of the Conn fraternity. I mean, it felt like family. And it felt like a family that I was letting down by even thinking of playing another horn even though I bought the Schmid thinking I was probably only going to use it as a descant.
So I take it into work and it feels weird, I mean I feel like I can't get any volume out of the thing. So I go out and buy two decibel meters (which I admit aren't going to tell you the whole story, but I figured the guy holding them would tell me the rest). Warren Deck, the Philharmonic tuba player went out into the twentieth row of Avery Fisher Hall.
THE TEST IN AVERY FISHER HALL
So I sat there and played as loud as I could with what I considered to be a good sound (this opinion of mine as to what constitutes an acceptable loud sound is, I realize, entirely subjective on my part and has been questioned by others) on both horns. Warren, without watching the meter says the Conn was simply the louder horn.
Then I did it again and this time he watches his meter. It came out one decibel apart. He was surprised. He said he felt that there was more strain in the sound of the Conn and it therefore felt/sounded like I was playing louder on the Conn. I imagine it's like listening to a record where they turn the horns down but you can tell from the kind of sound they're getting that they really must have been putting out. For Warren, the Conn had that quality, that edge. Would a nonbrass player had thought this, someone who doesn't empathize with the stress in the sound? I don't know. Then I took out the other meter and played notes of identical volume (according to the meter on the stand in front of me) back and forth on each horn, but this time not just loud, rather all different dynamics. It never came out more than a decibel apart between horns at any given volume level on the meter in the twentieth row of Avery Fisher.
Okay. You couldn't publish it in a scientific journal but it quieted my fears. I felt the Schmid put me back in charge of the "razz" quotient of the sound, that I was maybe going to have a chance to be in control of when to put brassiness into the sound, not have the horn inflict it on me at some given dynamic. Now any horn is going to have brassiness and edge show up in the sound at some point of increasingly loud playing, but for me this unavoidable nature of the horn comes in much later with a Schmid. It means that if I want to play something very loud, I can choose whether I want it to be brassy or not. As Charles Schlueter once told me, it is quite easy to have a lot of intensity, edge, brassiness in the sound at a loud volume - the challenge is to be able to play just as loud without much intensity, edge or brassiness. Then you are in control of how much you want to add or not add.
So I had to get used to not determining my volume by 'brassiness' or 'edge'. That took about two months. Meanwhile, something weird happened.
I started enjoying playing this horn so much that I began not to want to go back to the Conn. In fact I started to enjoy this horn so much, that I didn't care anymore what anyone thought. Maybe I shouldn't have cared in the first place, but like I said it was a family thing. I felt like I was turning my back on the family.
But at that time I was still caught up in the world I had grown up in which said that playing a triple is copping out. So I ordered a regular double yellow brass from Schmid and when it came I played it for about two months during which time I made a recital record on it. I liked that horn, but I just wasn't having as much fun playing it as I had the triple, it seemed to work better with the B8 than with the M1, a switch I had promised myself I would no longer make but did for the record, so a couple of months later I sold the double and went back to the triple. (Easy sale Howard, the fourth horn, wanted it and this is still what he plays.)
So actually I had made two changes, not just one. Yes, I changed from the Conn to the Schmid but I also went from a double to a triple. All of the above basically has to do with going from the Conn to the Schmid. But what about the change from the double to the triple?
But what about the change from the double to the triple?
My opinion. For me. No application to anyone else.
I was crazy, crazy, crazy, to play a double for twenty-five years. If I knew what I know now, I never would have done it.
1) Clarity -Wherever, whenever, no matter what the range, what the speed, what the volume, what the environment (brass, percussion, etc.)
I think back on all the times that I wanted the ultimate crispness and penetration in the middle register and I was trying to do it on the F horn, then when that didn't work, the Bb horn.
My experience has been that when the horns are playing a loud passage with the percussion section, the trombone section and the trumpet section, and our part should be heard, and especially if we're in the middle or low register, then anyone in the audience is not going to know whether we're on the "X, Y or Z" horn. We'll probably be lucky if they hear the part at all. And I think I can come through in moments like that clearer and less trashy on the high F horn than I can on the Bb or low F side. Of course I'm sure this depends on the orchestra and on the hall, but from playing in Avery Fisher and hearing really fine orchestras with great horn sections play in Avery Fisher, I would say that this is the case in this hall.
2) Much more control of brassiness. Taking a horn that already doesn't inflict much brassiness on you, on a Schmid triple of any make, if I want a lot of edge or brassiness at a low dynamic level, I will use the low F horn. If I want none, I will use the high F horn, somewhere in between the Bb side of the horn. This may not be the way it works for all horns or all players, but this works for me on the Schmid. I mean, some triple horns of other manufacturers had sounds on the high F side that I couldn't really relate to, so I would be limited to mainly using the high F side for the upper register, but for me on the Schmid I can use the high F horn in any range because I can get a sound that I like and I'm not running into weird intonation that you can get on some brands of triples. This has been my subjective experience. At this point my general procedure is to change onto the high F horn at fourth line written D with thumb, 1, & 3. 1 also tend to use the high F horn from middle written C down a fourth because after years of playing high horn this is no longer my strongest range (my teacher, Forest Standley, also Clevenger's, thought I should be a fourth horn player because I had a strong low register but that is long since gone). And yes,
3) Accuracy. Man, I was so tired of floating through the solo of Tchaikovsky 5th and then a few measures later missing some accompaniment note between third space C and G. Maybe I simply have more of a problem with accuracy than others, but I was tired of not being able to get through a concert clean, usually of some soft attack on an accompaniment note. I remember Clevenger telling me "we're the first generation accurate enough that we're not sitting on stage worrying about whether we're going to miss something or not", but I told him right then, "No, not me, I'm worried plenty." (I don't know if he would remember this conversation, it was 1978 and you see, he is that accurate, but I never was.)
But now, twenty years later, with the triple, I finally feel like part of the generation that Clevenger was talking about - I don't worry about missing stuff, I can just think about what I'm trying to do musically. On the double I couldn't take that approach. So if for me, that takes the triple, I think I've got to accept that about myself.
Here endeth the answer to your first question. At least for now May 10, 1998.
Ooops, one more thing. On the Conn I feel that most of my manipulation of tone color took place at the bottom of the slot of the center of the note. This is not the case with the Schmid, in fact it's counter-productive. Any manipulation I do takes place smack in the center of the slot. It took a while to get used to this difference. This is my feeling anyway. Other players may have a totally different experience.
Why did you have the entire section switch?
First of all, not everyone on the section plays a Schmid. It stands as follows (May 10, 1998):
|Asst 1st||William Kuyper||Schmid standard double|
|Assoc. 1st||Jerome Ashby||Schmid triple and Conn 8D|
|1st||Philip Myers||Schmid triple|
|2nd||Allen Spanjer||Conn 8D|
|3rd||Eric Ralske||Schmid triple|
|4th||Howard Wall||Schmid standard double|
Not one person in this section would say that I asked them to change. First of all, this is 1998. A member of a symphony orchestra is usually hired by the conductor. Fortunately for everyone, including (in my opinion) the first horn, any new member for the orchestra comes owing no one but the conductor for their having been hired. So no one else in the horn section owes me anything that would allow me to dictate to them. They won their job. On their own. Without me or anyone else but the conductor.
That said, we have been extremely fortunate in the brass section of the New York Philharmonic. At least since 1980, when I joined the orchestra, in every single of hiring, that conductor has shared the view of the majority of the brass committee as to whom should be hired in the brass section. For this we are all grateful to Zubin Mehta and to Kurt Masur.
But not only have these conductors been good to the brass section, they have been good to the horn section. For one example, both have expressed, in front of the orchestra, that they would rather have the horn section try for something extraordinary and miss, than be consistent. Who could ask for more support than this? Not all horn players are lucky enough to have conductors that truly think this way. I tell you that in seventeen years in New York, we have been very lucky.
Therefore, if I had walked in one day and said to the section "The Schmid is the right horn for me and therefore it is right for you" I think they either would have laughed at me or killed me. First, remember that for me the change from the Conn to the Schmid took on at least four stages:
1) two months,
a) no more manipulation at the bottom of the slot.
2) six months,
a) integration of air flow as it relates to intensity (too big a discussion to deal with in this article),
b) valve change speed as relates to different goals of slurring.
3) 1 year,
a) learning the basic fingerings of the triple horn (do you know how weird it is to think about fingerings for the first time in twenty-five years?)
4) 2 years,
a) further understanding of fingerings, especially in alternate fluidity situations.
So it's taken me two years to get it together (sometime I play part of a piece and actually don't think about fingerings), then how in the world was I supposed to come into the section of the New York Philharmonic and tell them what they should do? IMPOSSIBLE! and wrong.
In my opinion, you are better off sifting in a section of six individuals that are happy with their own personal choices than a section of people that are unhappy with some choice, not theirs, that has been stuffed down their throat. I think many horn players might say this, I don't know. This has been my experience. I love the guys in this section and as friends. I don't want them doing anything they don't want to do.
It makes me think of something I read a couple of years ago. I can't remember who the writer was, but he said "It never occurs to me that anyone should agree with what 1 am thinking now, because I don't agree with most of what I was thinking a couple of years ago."
All that said, there is one other aspect that might somewhat influence any situation. To a certain degree, nobody in the section wants to be the champ when it comes to missing. When one of the high horn players changes from a descant to a triple, it perhaps puts a certain amount of pressure on the other high horn players in the section (asst. 1st, assoc. 1st, 1st, 3rd) because as a triple horn or descant player, you're simply not going to miss as much. To a certain degree, they are still walking a tightrope that you're no longer on.
So let me say it very directly:
1.) I DID NOT AND HAVE NOT TOLD ANYONE IN THE SECTION THAT THEY MUST CHANGE WHAT THEY ARE PLAYING. I KNOW IN EACH CASE WHY THOSE WHO CHANGED DID BECAUSE WE ARE FRIENDS AND WE TALK, BUT THEY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES.
2.) THE MUSIC DIRECTOR HAD NOTHING TO SAY ABOUT THIS SUBJECT. HE IN NO WAY WAS NEGATIVE TOWARD THE CONN AND NEVER SUGGESTED TO ME THAT I OR WE CHANGE ANYTHING.
3.) NO HORN PLAYER THAT PLAYS EXTRA OR SUBSTITUTE WITH US HAS BEEN TOLD THAT THEY SHOULD PLAY OR BUY A SCHMID, NOT BY ME OR ANYONE ELSE IN THE SECTION. WE DON'T THINK LIKE THAT, WE DON'T WORK LIKE THAT.
Quite often while talking to horn players around the country I'm asked questions about changes that have taken place in New York and elsewhere. Quite often there seems to be an assumption that some kind of power play has taken place, somebody told somebody else what they must do. Other player's experiences may be quite different from mine, but in my twenty-seven years playing for money I've rarely seen it. Four of those years was as third horn. Saw it once there. Previn in Pittsburgh wanted us to change to a different brand of horn. I left for Minnesota before it happened but it didn't happen, at least not for long. When I heard a concert of the Pittsburgh Orchestra two years later, no one was playing those horns, at least from what I could make out from the audience. I've always wanted to know what happened there but I've never had a chance to find out. I think the orchestra still owns those horns that nobody is using.
1) When one valve was invented, the hand horn players thought that playing a valved horn was wrong.
When two valves came in, the one valve and hand horn players thought that it was wrong.
When three valves came in, many thought that this was a total sellout. (Even today I can read on the computer horn list that one should use the (low) F horn as much as possible. Well, I think if anyone feels that way and can do it, why not, but I can't bring it off )
When the descant or triple horn came in, I thought, the only people using those descants are people that are afraid of missing. Maybe so, but if that is the bottom line, then I'm one of those scared people. But now for the first time in my career I can play the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth without cringing at the lack of clarity I'm getting or I can play those repeated B's on the second page of Beethoven's Seventh (this Beethoven was such a troublemaker for me) loudly and clearly without trash. This kind of result makes me very happy.
2) My horn and my mouthpiece work for me. Both John Stork and Engelbert Schmid have been great to work with.
3) 1 think that in the New York Philharmonic brass section that we have been extremely fortunate in our hirings. You never can really be quite sure how someone is going to work out in an orchestra just because they've won an audition. We've been very fortunate.
4) As long as you're not hurting anyone else, every person has the right to pursue what is going to make them happy, including me. Hopefully if you are part of a section you realize that part of your life is a mutual experience, that you must go through it together and that edicts don't really make much sense, whether coming from the 1st or the 4th, or anybody in between. Everyone must be willing to compromise.
Clint "Dirty Harry" Eastwood: "Hey punk, you've gotta ask yourself, do you feel lucky?"
Phil Myers: "Yes. Real lucky. I still can't believe it."
All this aside, we still took the time to get Phil's answers to the really important questions. Like...
Book: Travel, books, computer "how to" books
Food: Cinnamon-raisin bagel
Piece of Music: Impossible for classical. For all else- "Long Train Running"., Doobie Brothers.
Pastime: Computers, tennis, snorkel, scuba
Conductor: Active: Sinopoli, Gergiev (they hear colors and phrases)
Recording: Rossini Overtures, and Mozart Divertimento #2. K1 31, Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell.
Performing artist: Active- Midori
Sport: Tennis, golf and scuba
Favorite quote: "I am that I am".
Favorite movie: I probably watched War Games more than any other movie in my life.
What is the hardest thing about your job? Remembering that I'm the one causing the problems.
What is the best thing about your job? Playing with this horn section.