Seventh in a 10-part series
Tom Stacy, English hornist: 'Never gets old'
(CNN) -- This is the seventh 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: Tom Stacy, English horn.
In the orchestra world, he is one of the most recognized players of the English horn - one of the least recognized instruments outside the orchestra world.
There isn't really anything "English" about the English horn: The instrument, a tenor oboe, takes its name from a Middle German word that meant both "English" and "angelic" - the predecessor of the English horn was thought to resemble the horns played by angels in medieval religious images.
The English horn can sound decidedly less than angelic: it is a double-reed instrument, and the reeds, made laboriously by hand, are fickle and fragile. The reeds can crack; notes can crack. But Stacy's consistent virtuoso playing prompted Leonard Bernstein to call him "a poet among craftsmen."
What is an English horn?
An English horn is a lower-pitched oboe. In today's orchestra, there are usually two or three oboes, and one English horn. Most people don't know what an English horn is - they get it confused with the French horn. Once I was soloist in Greenwich, (Connecticut), and even the newspaper said I was a French horn player. So at the concert, I came out carrying a French horn - and I played the French horn, then the English horn, so the audience could hear the difference.
Did you start off playing the English horn, or the oboe?
I started playing piano when I was really young -- in grade school -- studying with my mother. My mother was a musician - she came as a public school music teacher to Augusta, Arkansas, a town of 3,000 people where I grew up.
My mother played piano at home, and we went to concerts in Memphis and Little Rock - I had exposure to good music. I listened to the New York Philharmonic play on Sunday afternoons on the radio -- that's if it was raining; if it was sunny, I had to caddy for my father. But the rest of the time, I listened -- and I thought, "That would be something really fun to do!"
Then in junior high school, a band started in Augusta -- some of the parents got together and underwrote the band director's salary, so they could have a band. I played the clarinet. But then I heard an oboe on a Rossini recording that my mother had, and I was intoxicated by that sound -- it was something magical. So I got a second-hand oboe.
I was in the marching band by that time, playing a variety of things -- clarinet, saxophone, cymbals -- but not the oboe: One does not march with the oboe. I played the oboe outside of school.
Then in junior high school, I heard an English horn -- and I liked the sound of that even better. So I sold my motorcycle, and bought an English horn.
If you weren't playing oboe and English horn in school bands, how did you learn to play these instruments?
I was almost all self-taught. The first real classes I had were when I went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester (New York), when I was 18. I had to start over in some ways, technically, on the oboe. I had never thought about how I started the notes, or about breath support -- I just kind of did it. I didn't know what I was doing, but I caught on.
My senior year (at Eastman), I auditioned for the New Orleans Symphony, and I got the job as English horn (player). I went there, played one year in New Orleans, then made kind of a lateral move to San Antonio for one year, then to Minneapolis -- in those days it was called the Minneapolis Symphony, and now it's called the Minnesota Orchestra. After Minnesota, I auditioned for the New York Philharmonic and came here, in '72.
'Always a mystery'
How hard is the English horn to play?
The challenge is making a beautiful sound as opposed to a nasal sound -- like the instrument has a cold, or like the reeds are made out of two razor blades instead of two pieces of cane.