Skip to main content /CAREER /CAREER


Seventh in a 10-part series

Tom Stacy, English hornist: 'Never gets old'

TESTNew York Philharmonic English horn player Tom Stacy joined us on Friday for a live chat. Click here to go to the transcript of our conversation.  

March 23, 2001
Web posted at: 11:37 a.m. EST (1637 GMT)

In this story:

'Always a mystery'

'The "fun" dressing room'


(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.

Player Profile

Thomas Stacy, English horn

Hometown: Augusta, Arkansas
Age: 62
Age at which he began to play English horn: 16 (first played clarinet and oboe)
Early music education: Public school bands for clarinet; self-taught on oboe, English horn
Formal music training: Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York
Professional resumé:
•   1960-'61 -- New Orleans Symphony
•   1961-'62 -- San Antonio Symphony
•   1962-'72 -- Minneapolis Symphony
•   1972 - joined the New York Philharmonic
•   1973 - joined The Juilliard School faculty
•   1998 - joined Mannes College of Music faculty
Number of years with New York Philharmonic: 29
Favorite pieces to play: Music of Dvorak, Shostakovich, Sibelius
•   "Thomas Stacy/Three Concerti"
•   "New York Legends"

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.

graphic Do you, like Tom Stacy, see yourself as something of a showoff in your career?

Yes, and like Stacy, I think a strong ego is an aid in work.
Sometimes, but a little ego goes a long way in business.
Never. it's unprofessional. The work is the point, not the worker.
View Results


The instruments in the oboe family are double-reed instruments and it's easier to get an acceptable sound on a single-reed instrument, such as a clarinet. To make a sound on a double reed, first of all, the reed must be wet -- which is part of the problem, because every time wood gets wet, it changes slightly. The humidity, as well as the sea level of various areas, changes the reeds. The New York Philharmonic travels quite a bit, and it is always a mystery, when you get to the concert hall at various places, to see what your instrument is going to sound like -- or if it's going to sound.

The sound depends on the embouchure, or the way you hold your mouth. The embouchure for oboe or English horn is kind of like a whistle turned wrong side out: you lay the reed on the bottom lip, and close (your mouth) tightly so no air comes out around the reed - and then you blow like the devil. There's a big resistance and the air pressure backs up in your head -- that's what supposedly makes oboists and English hornists crazy. Of course, it doesn't bother me, bother me, bother me. (laughs)

With so much air pressure behind every note, are less-than-perfect notes more obvious?

Oh, yes! The other night, playing a Bach piece in concert, I was trying to accent a sound hard, to make a point -- and a sound came out that was ungodly. It was like a loud "squeeeaak." I almost got the giggles -- it was the funniest sound you ever heard! I was thinking: "I played that?!" But it's hard to giggle and play, so I didn't.

How do you cope with that kind of highly noticeable mistake?

I'm an obsessive perfectionist, so I don't cope with it very well -- but I cope with it better than I used to. I tell my students that all any human can do is play the best they can for the moment. When you make a horrible mistake, if you start worrying about it and start thinking "why did I do that?" -- frequently you make another mistake.

Music is temporal - once a mistake is made, it's gone forever. We can never go back and correct it. You have to attempt to just let it go. But I really don't like it when I make a mistake.

Instrument Profile

Player's primary English horn

Made by: Laubin, Peekskill, New York
Made of: African grenadilla wood, with silver-plated keys
Purchased: New, in 1996
Cost: About $7,000

How many English horns do you own?

I own three. One is the one I always play and another one is an emergency instrument that is always kept at the (concert) hall here. In a job like this, you need a standby -- instruments do crack, and therefore leak (air). Parts of the metal key mechanisms can break or get bent.

Do you play a new or old instrument?

I play as new an instrument as I can get. The English horn I currently play most is about five years old. I play Laubin instruments, made in a very small shop in Peekskill, New York.

What's the price range for these instruments?

You'll be shocked at how low: $6500 to $7000.

What's required by way of maintenance?

When you're playing it, condensation collects inside, which can go into the holes that the notes come out of and make a funny sound. So while you're playing, you swab it. I use a piece of silk cloth that goes all the way through the instrument. Some people still use turkey feathers to do this -- that's traditional.

I drive over to Peekskill when something is awry that I can't fix. The main thing they'd have to do is replace a pad: at the end of a key there is something made of either cork or a felt, skin-covered pad that closes up the holes, airtight, to make different notes. Those can wear and get warped and change with the weather -- and the instrument has to be airtight. If you take the upper joint off an oboe or an English horn and do the old Coke bottle trick, of closing it up and seeing if it will cling to your lip if you suck the air out of it? That's what you have to have with the English horn.

How much time do you spend making reeds?

I'm better off if I do some work on reeds every day. Reeds are fragile, so you have to have some spares -- as you play, you keep a spare reed on the (music) stand, just in case. Just two weeks ago, I thought I had two reeds that were going to be perfect for a Bach oratorio, and they both cracked.

fisher hall
The New York Philharmonic's performance home is Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York  

I do them in batches, keep them coming along all the time, at various stages. You start off with a piece of cane -- actually bamboo -- that we get from a dealer who gets it from southern France. For some reason, the best cane is grown in southern France. It looks like one section of a fishing pole. That's what you start with.

You split that into three or four pieces, and you have a machine called a gouging machine that thins out the inside part to a certain thickness. That's very important to how the reed will sound. Then you bend it over something called a "shaper" that puts it in the shape of a reed; you tie it on a metal tube, and then cut off the end of the reed and you have two reeds, a double reed. Then you scrape them down with a razor-like knife until they vibrate enough to make the sound that you want to play with.

Your life's work and career depend on your hands -- and you're handling "gouging machines" and "razor-like" knives?

I don't think about that. Well, I used not to: One day a friend was at my house, and I was shaping cane with a very sharp sheet rock knife, and I was coming very close to my hand with the blade. He was wincing and saying "Oooohh! Watch out!"

I see a long scar on your right hand - did you cut yourself, or is that a surgical scar?

I had something called Dupuytren's Contracture: the fingers start to curve over a bit. As far as I know, it doesn't have anything to do with playing an instrument -- it's just blond men of northern European extraction who, for some reason, get this.

The English horn's name seems to have come from a German term -- and the instrument was associated with Italian opera in the late 18th Century. Here, from, are details on the development of this instrument.

It was bothering me, so about a year and a half ago, I worked my way through the specialists, and was told I needed surgery. I went to one doctor and he said, "The problem is, when they (operate on) this finger, sometimes there's nerve damage. I thought, aaaayyyy! That's no good! I can't tell you how scared I was!

I finally went to a well-known surgeon in New York, a virtuoso of this kind of correction. He said, "If there's any nerve damage, you can shoot me." I said, "Where?" (laughs) He cut into my little finger and straightened it. He came to hear me play Bach a couple of weeks ago -- I told him "I want you to hear what that finger can do!"

How long did physical rehabilitation take, after surgery?

Longer than I thought: I was out at least eight weeks. And I was in therapy -- that's physical therapy, although the other kind probably wouldn't hurt -- for months. To bend that finger back in a normal range of motion - yeoowww!

Have you had any problems with repetitive stress, playing this instrument?

The English horn is about two-and-a-half feet long, and it's made of an African hardwood; that's quite a bit of weight, and it's mostly on the right thumb, to be precise. But so far, I'm fortunate -- that doesn't bother me.

Any other occupational hazards? Has sitting in the middle of the orchestra for almost 30 years affected your hearing?

The English horn sits with other woodwinds in the orchestra on stage. Click here to see where Tom Stacy sits when the New York Philharmonic is in performance.

What? What? (laughs) Sometimes the brass is kind of loud; certain percussion sounds are awfully loud, too. But I don't wear earplugs -- with my earplugs in, I can't stand the sound of my own playing, or the sounds around me.

Part of the joy of playing in an orchestra is listening to it play around you. I have the best seat in the world: I sit at the end of the woodwind row, in front of the contrabassoon; to my left are the basses and directly in front of me is cellos. When I sit out front in an audience seat, it's suddenly like instant coffee when you're used to fresh-brewed: the sound is not surround-sound.


'The "fun" dressing room'

What is the role of the English horn in most orchestral music?

In the orchestra, the English horn is one of the most soloistic instruments of the orchestra. We play the big solo parts -- often lugubrious, sad, soulful solos.

"The most "soloistic" instrument" -- are you at heart a show-off?


See other installments in the series

Week 1:
Flute, Mindy Kaufman
Week 2:
Cello, Carter Brey
Week 3:
Trumpet, Phil Smith
Week 4:
Bassoon, Judy LeClair
Week 5:
Bass, David Grossman
Week 6:
Horn, Philip Myers
Week 7:
English Horn, Tom Stacy
Week 8:
Violin, Glenn Dicterow
Week 9:
Trombone, Jim Markey
Week 10:
Percussion, Joe Pereira

Yes, when it comes to playing. I don't think most English horn players are the show-off type, but I think they should be. There's only one English horn -- it's not quite the same as being a player in a larger section. I think perhaps you have to have a strong ego to perform. But there are people who can turn (ego) on and turn it off at certain times. I try to be one of those.

What's your average workweek like?

In addition to the orchestra rehearsals, I try to practice an hour a day. In the beginning of the practice period, I practice without any music on the stand. You want to get to playing the notes, playing the good stuff -- but common sense tells you: you can't play a whole concerto of notes and make them sound good if you can't play one note and make it sound good. So you have to back up, and reinforce the foundations, the techniques of playing, before you can move on to the real repertoire.

I try not to practice, ever, on Sunday. I think it's very good to take a day off, because you come back with fresh ears. I also take a vacation in the summer, and don't play for two or three weeks. For me, I need a vacation where I sit on the beach and don't worry about reeds.

Is there much opportunity for at-work socializing? For "watercooler" camaraderie?

There's a lot of time before rehearsals and before concerts, because many (orchestra members) live so far away, and with all the traffic and commuting problems that can happen, they tend to get to concerts very early. Many times, we're all in the dressing rooms an hour before the concert.

There are a several small dressing rooms -- I'm in the "fun" dressing room: we act silly and laugh a lot. We enjoy each other. There are about 18, 20 of us in our dressing room and there's a huge age range -- the oldest is 72, I believe, and the youngest is about 30. I don't think we think about age very much in the arts. We think about ability and musical personality and musicality, but not so much age.

That said, have you thought about when you might retire?

Over the last two years, I would say that there's not a day that I haven't thought about retirement. There's not a mandatory retirement here, but after next season, I can retire if I want to, at full pension -- which is none too much.

But because I can retire, I'm thinking "should I?" One can stay too long. Someone once said that they'd rather stop five years too early than five minutes too late.

TEST Here are two excerpts from New York Philharmonic Special Editions recordings. They demonstrate the sounds of the English horn in music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). First, "New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948-1982," Gustav Mahler, from Symphony No. 6 in A-minor, the "Tragic," CD 6 And also from "New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts, 1948-1982," Gustav Mahler, a passage from Symphony No. 9 in D Major, CD 10

432K WAV sound

288K WAV sound


What about teaching?

I teach now, at Juilliard and the Mannes College of Music. My students are very high-level. Technically, they're better than I think students have ever been -- but musically, they're not. In my teaching, I'm trying to expose them to thinking beyond technique. I sometimes say outrageous things, like "that phrase should be cantilevered like a Frank Lloyd Wright house." And they look at me oddly -- and I can see them think, "this teacher is loony." But I'm trying to get them away from just playing the notes.

I teach for two reasons: It reinforces my own technique; and -- a less selfish reason -- I was always blessed by having caring teachers and compassionate teachers, so I try to repay that a bit to the world.

The "product" manufactured by the company of players at the New York Philharmonic is classical music. How confident are you of continued consumer demand for this product?

I'm not confident at all that this will go on forever. I think we have to be very shrewd and savvy and streetwise, to guarantee audiences for the future. Our reason for being is playing concerts -- and a concert is only a concert if an audience is present.

Do you see a change in concert audiences now, compared to 10 or 20 years ago?

They were better dressed then! (laughs) There are empty seats sometimes -- you definitely see them from the stage. It's kind of disheartening if there are too many of them. There aren't too many empty seats too often -- usually it's because there's a lesser-known conductor, or a program people view as modern, strange music.

I feel very fortunate. When I get in the car in the morning to drive into rehearsal, I'm so thankful that I'm going off to deal with beauty-making all day. I do wonder sometimes: has the definition of "beauty" changed? As you watch some shows on television, you might think it has. Still, it's like a game for me, a challenge within myself: to see if I can create a moment of beauty for someone -- and that never gets old.

Next week: Glenn Dicterow, Concertmaster (Violin)



Philip Myers, French hornist: 'Practice attacks'
March 15, 2001
Bassist David Grossman: 'Not a 9-to-5 job'
March 8, 2001
Bassoonist Judy LeClair: 'A family was my answer'
March 2, 2001
Phil Smith, trumpet: 'It's a blessing'
February 23, 2001
Cellist Carter Brey: 'Renaissance lumber'
February 15, 2001
Flutist Mindy Kaufman: 'Music is language'
February 8, 2001
That old, sweet sound: 'Jazz' writer brings life passion to viewers, readers
January 9, 2001
St. Louis Symphony receives $40 million gift
December 6, 2000
President of San Francisco Symphony to step down
December 5, 2000

The New York Philharmonic
Selmer, a subsidiary of Steinway Musical Instruments

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.


4:30pm ET, 4/16

Back to the top