I spend two weeks every summer on the faculty of the Kendall Betts Horn Camp in the wilds (sort of) of New Hampshire. It is wall to wall, dawn to beyond dusk horn: masterclasses, lessons, ensembles, presentations, concerts, and – at the end – ice cream and fireworks. The best of all this is
simply being around 50 or so passionate horn players of every stripe, novice to pro, young and old, from all corners of the country and sometimes the globe. It’s so much fun to talk horn and do horn ’round the clock for two intense weeks. This summer was perhaps the best ever (of course, it seems like that every summer). Although I wrote the book on it (Improv Games for Classical Musicians), my usual daily teaching life back home consists of solos, etudes, and orchestral excerpts. At KBHC I get to stretch out (3 hours every morning! Beats the heck out of the Procrustean 50 minute segments that school days are chopped up into) into topics of technique and musicianship, as well as to have some fun with improv. For faculty performance night, I usually try to come up with something unusual (i.e. improv-esque). This time I did three short improvisations with a little help from my friends.
#1: I opened by confessing that I was Irish, and had just found my long-lost twin brother Sean [retired lawyer Harris Wood from Virginia], and that Sean and I would like to present – in honor of our dear sainted departed mother – a horn duet of samples of the best of fake made-up Irish music. We started with a slow, lyrical tune. After a bit, we went into lively jig. We finished with (a last minute inspiration by Harris) a quote from Kopprasch #1 (etude), Kopprasch being the quasi-religion of this particular horn camp. It was great fun, enjoyed by all. What made it really special was that Harris had never done anything like it before. The weekend before (between camp sessions) I was at his [off-site] cabin doing my laundry, and we just started playing (since we had no sheet music duets). We drifted into some various folk music and spirituals that we knew, and at one point, started playing what sounded rather Celtic. The germ of an idea came to me and I proposed that we play a duet like this on the faculty concert. Harris, who was way out of his comfort zone on stuff like this, who should have answered with an immediate and resounding “Are you crazy?”, said, “OK.” We met every day for three or four days before the concert for 20 minutes or so and just played as we did the first time. Irishy stuff. Folk tunes. Spirituals. It was just a much fun every time. Harris really got into it. Came the concert, the O’Shaughnessy twins did their old mother proud. We had a ball, and I think it showed.
I got an email from Harris yesterday. Here’s part of it:
That was really an eye-opener for this elderly horn player, just approaching the end of my teens (in horn playing!). I had been taught the necessity of listening to try to match intonation, but I had never been exposed to the thought of conversing with the horn. I was most impressed with how listening – in silence as well as when actually playing together – could lead to meaningful musical conversation, or how one could noodle that way with another player to make some pretty good musical statements. I intend too try it with a couple of my horn playing buddies here in Northern VA. I look forward to horn camp next year, with the thought that we can take up where we left off this year.
We can’t wait until camp next year. We are going to be Dusty and Musty, the two horn-playing cowboys, treating the crowd to their unique interpretation of some old cowboy songs…
#2: This brings us up to improv number two on that concert. Gretchen Z. brought her beautiful carbon fiber alphorn to camp and graciously let me use it this week. I of course had to work it into the act. Here’s what happened. After Harris and I were done, I announced that I had to go backstage (behind the stage curtain) to make preparations for the next number. I disappeared. Out of the audience, Jesse McCormick (faculty member and 2nd horn in the Cleveland Orchestra) came up front with this horn. Didn’t say anything, just started playing this bluesy bass line (Jesse was way out of his comfort zone on this, but he yielded to my entreaties to help out, and did a great job on something new – sounding like a jazz pizz bass). The audience thought: Huh? Suddenly, the bottom of the curtain slowly lifted and out came…. the business end of an alphorn! (a confederate came forward and set it on the piano bench). I remained out of sight behind the curtain, and proceeded to play a bluesy solo using overtones over Jesse’s bass line. Great fun.
#3. For the last short improv (these take time to describe, but each was about 2-3 minutes long), I had Wayne Lu and Julie Gerhardt lay down a background ostinato on some makeshift percussion. I closed my eyes and started riffing over it. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, a player in the audience came up front and started played with me. Another surprise! Or not: earlier that day, I had an improv session, and U of North Carolina-Greensboro horn student Ian Mayton showed up. We jammed and jammed; he was the best college horn improviser I’ve met yet. And, of course, we had to work him into the act. So he was the surprise: an (ostensible) audience member “spontaneously” joining the jam in concert.
And that’s what I did on my summer vacation: I got to make some wonderful music with friends, old and new, novice and experienced. Improv is like what they wanted Esperanto to be – a universal language where everyone can talk to everyone else.