An Interview with Hornist Brian Brown

This is the first in a series of interviews with performers on what they expect from good band writing.  First up is Brian Brown an active freelance horn player in the DFW area. He recently joined the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse horn quartet, and serves as Principal Horn of the East Texas Symphony, and performs regularly with the Fort Worth, Plano, and Waco symphonies, the Dallas Opera, and the Dallas Wind Symphony. Additionally, he has performed in many productions with Dallas Summer Musicals and Casa Manana Theatre, and in numerous recording sessions and chamber ensembles. In addition to maintaining a diverse performing career, he also publishes custom brass arrangements as co-owner of BrownWood Publishing. Brian studied with Dr. William Scharnberg at the University of North Texas.

 1.       What is your biggest pet peeve about Horn writing in band?
  • It’s frustrating for horn players when composers don’t take advantage of the diverse range and capabilities of our instrument, especially with regard to the low register. The horn can do everything the trombone and euphonium can do in the low register, and color of the instrument provides a nice balance between the trombone and tuba sonorities. Too often, composers ignore this and simply fall back on the tired standard of doubling the horns entirely with the alto saxophone parts.
2.       Can you point to specific pieces in the band literature that show off great horn writing?
  • Several staples of the classic wind band literature feature excellent writing. A few noteworthy titles include American Overture for Band by Jenkins, Festival Variations by Claude T Smith, Eternal Father Strong to Save, also by Smith, La Fiesta Mexicana by H. Owen Reed, and Children’s March by Percy Grainger. In the modern wind repertoire, Terpsichore by Margolis, Wine Dark Sea and Kingfishers Catch Fire by John Mackey, A Movement for Rosa and Watchman, Tell Us of the Night by Mark Camphouse, and Maslanka’s Symphony No. 4 are particularly well written for the horn.
3.       We know that four Horns (plus bumper) is the common band arrangement, but do you know of any pieces that call for more than four parts?
  • It’s rare to see works specifically written for more than four parts outside of commercial settings, orchestral literature, or large brass ensembles. The only one I know of without doing extensive research is the optional fifth part in one of the movements of Terpsichore by Bob Margolis.
4.       What are some of the oddest things you’ve ever been called to do in the course of playing (band or otherwise)?
  • Aside from being asked to play notes that are specifically above or below the practical range of the instrument, the oddest technique I’ve had to employ is playing a half-valved, stopped horn glissando to emulate the calling of wolves in Corigliano’s Circus Maximus. Other than the occasional request for pitch bends, flutter tonguing, and quarter tone tuning, I haven’t had to do too much that’s “outside the box” as far as extended technique goes.
5.       What’s the highest and lowest you’ve ever been called on to play (band or otherwise)?
  • The highest note I’ve had to play is the D above high C (sounding concert G on top of the treble clef staff). The lowest I’ve had to play is our pedal D one step above the fundamental F (sounding concert G one octave below the bottom line of the bass clef).
6.       Have you ever been called on to play Wagner Tuba in a band setting?
  • No, but I think that idea has great potential.
7.       Do you see any need or use for other members of the horn family (Descant, Piccolo, Bass/Contrabass), and do you think composers should score for these instruments or let the player decide?
  • Players will end up deciding that issue on their own due to expense or a lack of availability of those instruments. Most horn players can only afford one instrument, but more and more players are starting to invest in triple horns, which provides the extra comfort of a descant without sacrificing the low F side of the instrument.
8.       What is one technique that you wish composers would use more often?
  • I’d like to see more experimental mute writing, and combinations of muted, stopped, and open simultaneously among different players in the section.
9.       What is one technique that you wish composers would stop using?
  • The overuse of rips can glissandi can quickly cause the effect to sound trite.
10.   Is the traditional score of 1, 3, 2, 4 of the horn section still relevant?
  • Nearly all professional horn players are orchestral players, and most university and conservatory players are also trained in that tradition. Players can easily handle both high and low parts, but we are accustomed to sitting in a configuration of alternating high and low players. However, it’s not a huge concern, and most players are versatile enough that it doesn’t really matter much.
11.   I’ve often thought that in today’s world, where Horn players only have to play one instrument and not worry about changing crooks, that we should abandon the F transposition and write all Horn parts at concert pitch.  Is there any credibility to this thought?
  • I’m completely in favor of that idea, but it would take such a long time to implement, and there would be a lot of resistance to it, not to mention the expense of printing all new literature. I’ve wanted to do that for years, though!
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