Sixth in a 10-part series
Philip Myers, French hornist:
In this story:
The 'five-year cycle'
'Simpatico with Mozart, simpatico
'19 hours a week'
RELATED STORIES, SITES
(CNN) -- This is the sixth entry in an exclusive 10-part series at CNN Career, on the working lives of musicians who play with the New York Philharmonic, one of the world's premiere symphony orchestras.
This week's player: Phil Myers, principal horn. Myers has played the horn, commonly called the French horn, in four orchestras over a 30-year career. He is in some ways like the instrument he plays: brassy, complex, distinctive. He has a soft voice and a ringing laugh that is inadequately described by the word "ringing" or any other adjective. He talks about fear of losing his "lip," losing his hearing, loving band music, and living large.
My father was a band director, so I got to play any instrument I wanted. I intended early on to play trombone, but then, at the last minute, I decided that I wanted to play French horn -- mainly because I liked the sound of the name. It wasn't really the sound of the instrument, I just liked the sound of the name -- "French horn." I thought it sounded cool. I was 9.
At that point, it was all about being in a group. I was always playing on a football team, a basketball team -- and I think this was sort of like another team to join, as opposed to "I want to express myself through the instrument." I don't think I had the ability to express much of anything until I was about 20.
I was sort of a late developer in that area. In my house, when we'd go to bed at night, my father would always put on a classical record, so I was getting (exposure to) the music. But my orchestral knowledge was elemental. When I went to college, if somebody had said "How many symphonies did Beethoven write?" -- I think I would have known that was nine. But if somebody had said "How many symphonies did Bruckner write?" -- no way would I have known that!
Once I got to college, and started feeling the competition of wanting to be better than the next guy, I started to think I wanted to (play) professionally. But it wasn't until the beginning of my senior year at Carnegie-Mellon (University, in Pittsburgh), that I started to think that maybe I was actually going to be able to do it.
At Carnegie-Mellon, you had to take a five-year course. That seemed to me an advantage, because the Vietnam War was going on, and it gave you one more year for the war to end, so you didn't have to go to Vietnam. I was in college when the first lottery draft took place. I remember one trumpet player, man, he got the number six and the next time I saw him, he was wearing a uniform.
My number was 356, I think. I really got lucky. Nonetheless, I went to Canada: my first job was (in the Atlantic Symphony) in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My parents were sort of embarrassed that that was where I was for my first job. I felt that my father absolutely minimized telling people where I was when I was in Canada, because they would think I was up there dodging the draft. But when you're coming out of college, the first job is the hardest one to get and you've got to take it wherever you can get it.
My instrument is the most difficult one there is -- every time I go in to talk about a raise. The rest of the time, it's no more difficult than any other instrument!
Actually, (playing horn) is a life of failure in a way, because quite often you can't technically do what you can imagine intellectually. You go out onstage and almost every night you fail, in effect: "Oh, damn, I had a better thought about that than I was able to produce -- I failed." And that, of course, makes you feel horrible. But you can never get tired of trying.
Myself, I seem to have a five-year cycle: for about two months every five years, I really feel like I lose my ability to play the horn. And it flabbergasts me! It happens in the '2s and the '7s -- like '82, '87, '92, '97. When things are flowing and you're able to play well, then it seems like the instrument's easy. But in those two-month periods, it seems like the instrument's impossible.
It's not a consistent picture from week to week. Over 52 weeks, my average for practicing is about 8 hours in a week. Compared to what others will tell you, that's pretty minimal -- but that's the facts.
You can over-practice. I'll tell you something my teacher told me about the French horn that has turned out to be very true: He said, "If you're having any kind of difficulty, it's probably because you're playing too much, not too little. Consider putting the horn down and playing as little as possible. Entertain that solution."
I practice attacks -- the beginnings of notes -- every day. See, the casualty rate among brass players is extremely high: You have a lot of people who are able to play for ten years, and then they "lose their lip," as it's sometimes called -- they lose their ability to play. I'd say 90 percent of that would be tied to problems making attacks: players get afraid to make them. I can't tell you how many horn players I've talked to over the years who have said, "If I can just get that first note out, then I'm alright after that" -- and they're not talking about hitting the right note, they're talking about beginning it successfully, cleanly. It's very audible when that effort is a failure.
Brass players come up with a lot of terms -- "I nicked it," "I clipped it." I don't use those terms. I didn't "sort of miss it" or "almost get it." I either got it or I missed it!
Oh no, no, no. Because I think if any of us were perfectionists, we would have committed suicide by now.
Absolutely -- I just don't feel like playing it! If we've been sitting here playing for 37 weeks or so, and we've got nine weeks off, I'm probably not going to play that horn for the first eight weeks. I usually start to play again about a week before the Philharmonic comes back. But other than that, not a note.
The problem is that everything requires thought. You have to actually go through your checklist of "how do I do stuff." And because you're focused so much on your own stuff, you don't hear around you as well -- you're not as good an ensemble player for a while. If you were to say an orchestra doesn't sound as good in the first week of the season as it does in the eighth week, that's why.
The principal horn is showcased a lot, in short phrases -- more than the concertmaster, more than the principal cello, I'd say.
But for every time you've got any wind instrument as the soloist in front of the orchestra, you've already had 10 violinists, 5 cellists and 55 pianists.
That's not important to me. I don't govern my feelings about music by how it's related to the French horn. One of my favorite pieces is Bartok's "Divertimento for Strings." There's no horn in that -- I just think it's a great piece. Believe you me, to view music through the megaphone of your own instrument, I would think that would be very limiting. Now, in terms of composers who communicate the most to me? I feel simpatico with Mozart; I feel simpatico with Brahms.
My real pleasure, frankly, comes from looking at music, not playing it. I spend four or five hours a day looking at music, analyzing music. For me, that's joy. Last week, I was looking at a piece by Benjamin Britten and, as I saw what he was trying to communicate and how he did it, my respect went waaaay up for this guy!
If you say to me: "What piece have you played 'til you can't see straight?" Beethoven's Seventh. We've played Beethoven's Seventh here so much that I just can't imagine they're ever going to program it again.
But if you ask me "Have you ever played Beethoven's Seventh the way you want to play Beethoven's Seventh?" No, I haven't. I never have. And so I still want to play it, to keep trying to play it the way I imagine playing it.
I used to have 17 -- every time I saw a horn I liked, I got it. See, with a brass instrument, what you're looking for is something that, when (played) soft, rings and glows -- but when it's loud, it's not abrasive. It's very hard to find those two things in one instrument. Those 17 instruments all had either one or the other of those two qualities, but not both.
Finally one day, I walked in this room, and I couldn't walk in the room because it was full of horns! And so, I sold off a dozen. I think I'm down to five horns.
Yes, I do. For the last six years, I've played a German instrument, called a Schmid, made of yellow brass. Before that, I'd been playing the same instrument for 25 years -- a nickel silver trumpet, a Conn 8D. When I first came into this orchestra, you simply played that horn or you didn't come.
Every instrument has certain limitations -- certain things you can do on it, certain things you can't. And I was tired of the things I couldn't do on that instrument. I just had 25 years of fighting to do those things and I wanted an instrument that allowed me to do them. Because I knew I could do them, and I could.
Almost nothing. Clean it. Oil it. If I wanted to leave it in the trunk (in the cold), no problem -- it's not temperature-sensitive at all.
We all lose hearing -- it's so loud back there, you can't believe it! I'm one of those who notices it the most in terms of going into a restaurant. If there's a lot of background noise, I just can't hear the person across the table the way I used to. I'm afraid, in the future of orchestras, that the groundwork is already being laid for (law)suits along that line. We're going to have someone say, "Now wait a minute, when I came into this orchestra, I had 100-percent hearing and now it's gone down 30 percent and I hold the orchestra responsible." For my own interests, I wish I had measured (my hearing) when I was 25 or 30, but I didn't.
Oh, I share that fear of losing my job. Tenure doesn't mean anything if you lose your ability to play, and on a brass instrument, that's a real possibility. If I'm doing well, I will not lose my job. But I fear a time coming when I can't do well, and then I would rightly be replaced.
I hope to retire, like everybody else. And I think there should be a mandatory retirement age -- I'm just thinking that guys that are 21, 22 years old deserve their chance. I do have a teaching degree. I always wanted to direct a band -- I love band music. I would enjoy that.
None, and I'll tell you why: Because I didn't want to drive home and think about "Why isn't this guy getting it?" If I'm teaching -- and some kid that should be getting it, isn't -- I can't shut that out of my mind. And I didn't want to live with that, at least not now.
Nahh. C'mon! It's easy! We're here 19 hours a week! That's what makes strikes around here impossible -- every time we have any kind of labor dispute, it's a public relations nightmare. Go out into the United States and say to most people "I want you to work 19 hours a week, and make no less than $100,000." If anybody doesn't think that's a gravy train, then you're talking to some spoiled people, as far as I'm concerned!
It may be harder for people with children -- I've never had children, so I don't know. And I guess I don't know what it's like to be in relationships with non-musicians -- I've always been with musicians. That's a function of the fact that I'm very large. By and large, if I go out on the street or go into a bar, I don't think there's going to be a lot of interest in me, 'cause I'm a fat guy, ya' know? So my relationships tend to grow out of people getting to know me because we're trapped in the same place. My girlfriend now, she's a cellist with the Philharmonic.
Up until the time I left college, I never weighed over 240, and that's too heavy for my size; I'm 5 feet 10. I went to the first job (in Canada) at 240 and came out three years later at 290. I went to Pittsburgh at 290 and came out four years later at 330. I went to Minnesota at 330 and came out a year and a half later at 360. I came here, and right now I weigh somewhere in the 430s. For sure, I'm one of those people that food puts into nirvana -- food is peace.
It does in this regard: over about 360, I don't feel comfortable standing to play. So if I'm going to play a solo, I'll probably sit. And I really don't feel comfortable playing unaccompanied pieces much, over the weight of 390. At 430, I simply get winded.
But your ordinary French horn phrase doesn't last very long. In an orchestra piece, maybe I'd be playing for 20 seconds, then have time off, then play for 20 seconds again. Even if I was going to play a concerto, the average horn concerto lasts about 15, 16 minutes -- there aren't 45-minute horn concertos.
There is one other concern: you've got to make sure you got shirts your size with you, 'cause that's not something you're going to be able to run out and buy at 7:30 before an 8 o'clock concert! And if that happens, and it has, what I have to do is take an ordinary shirt and I split it down the back, and just wear it covering my front. And I get by that way.
It's not a professional issue for me. I've tried to figure out all my life what kind of personal issue it is (laughs) -- that remains unresolved!
I don't think of there being any class structure in the orchestra. It's more that there are certain cliques. But how much of that do you have to let into your life? Zippo. Oddly enough, for a workplace where there are 100 or so people who have to work together as a team, you don't have to talk to anybody on this job. You can come in here for years and not say a word to anybody. I know, for instance, who irritates me. I don't make a point of telling them they irritate me -- I just try to stay out their way. And I spend my time with the people that I enjoy.
Still, you really make an effort to get along with your fellow worker in this orchestra. I mean, in an orchestra like Pittsburgh or Minnesota, if you didn't get along with someone, big deal! Because chances are, they were going to be moving on, or trying to. But when you get here (to the Philharmonic), you're with people that you're going to be living with for the rest of your life. And everybody knows that.
That if I play the music purely enough, the thought and feeling that the composer had as he wrote the music is going to be communicated to the audience. To have somebody come up afterward and say, "You played beautifully," well, of course that's nice. But that's not what I think I'm there for. It would be wonderful for me if somebody came up after a concert and said, "I can't tell you how that made me feel."
Next week's Player: Thomas Stacy, English horn
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4:30pm ET, 4/16
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