Darcy Hamlin - French Horn

Horn Soloist – Darcy Hamlin

Darcy Hamlin is the French horn soloist for our next performance, playing Strauss: Horn Concerto no. 2.

We asked Darcy some questions about her musical background and the concerto she is playing.

Editor – Darcy was erroneously called “Darcy Susan” in the first release.

  1. How did you get involved in music? When did all start for you?
  2. When did you think that music could be your profession?
  3. How did get connected with our orchestra?
  4. Why the Strauss, Horn Concerto No. 2?
  5. You apparently love soloing. But you also play in a section, what would you tell a musician is the difference? Which one do you like more?

Kirkland Civic Orchestra: How did you get involved in music? When did all start for you?

Darcy Hamlin: Well, my mom was a general music teacher. She was a music educator. She had all these wonderful, classical music LP’s. Remember vinyl LP’s? This was a specific collection geared toward kids, so it was perfect. I had my little briefcase record player. They had oval handles. I would open it up and it would be a phonograph player. You would plug it in and it was portable.

I would raid this collection and I fell in love with, they had this narrated version of Till Eulenspiegel, which was outstanding. I just remember identifying with Till because he was such a troublemaker. I loved the horn and I loved Aaron Copland’s Hoedown from Rodeo. That was really great and just all these really great pieces inside. I just fell in love with the whole orchestral genre.

When it came time for me, we had a piano and I always just sit down and play the piano. I would just make up things and play by ear. I didn’t start official piano lessons until I was nine, but that was when I started playing an instrument.

I really loved playing the piano. Then it was time for me to pick a band instrument when I was ten. My mom was so brilliant, because she’s obviously a music teacher, and she was so smart. So I wanted to play the horn, the tuba, or the flute, and those were my choices. The reason I wanted to play the tuba is because of, I don’t if you know this with your kids, but there’s a series about Harry the dog and he goes on a quest to find low sounds because he lives next to the lady next door who sings really loudly and he finds a tuba and I thought that was really awesome.

KCO: I don’t know that story but I can identify with it.

D: It’s a fantastic book, I remember loving that book. But my mom said, “Well honey, the tuba and the horn are in the same family, and you know you’re going to have to carry this instrument to and from school,” so I thought that was really valid point and so I said, well okay, lets narrow it down to the horn and the flute.

All my friends were playing the flute and it seemed really easy to carry back and forth to school, and I thought it might give me some girl cred because I was a little bit of a tom boy, had short hair, and you know, not interested in girly things. This’ll be good, you know, flute.

My mom kind of knew that I was going to pick the horn because, in my spare play time I would go out in the backyard and play songs on the garden hose in the backyard, like I would just play songs on the hose. I’d be swinging on the swing and the neighbors would be calling, like what is that in your backyard? And my mom would look out the window and she’d say, “Okay, I think I have a brass player on my hands.”

My mom, being brilliant music educator, knew that I would be into trying the instruments. So with her connections, she was able to borrow a single horn from one of the local schools. And all of my babysitters played flute so we borrowed one from them.

We had a fun tryout session right in my living room and I got out the horn and oh it was so great! It was so much less painful than the garden hose, it didn’t dig into my face and I could play songs on it.

As a fellow brass player, you know the fingerings don’t really matter. You could pretty much play any notes by lipping it around, I thought that great!

I thought everybody says the flute is really easy so this is going to be even better cause everybody says the horn is hard. I’m going to nail the flute. I could not get out a sound out of it. The only way I could get a sound out of the flute was buzzing into the hole.

My mom, with reverse psychology, said, “well honey, if you really want to play the flute, we can find you a teacher who can show you how to play the flute,” and I said, well why? I can already play the horn so I made the right choice.

I think like a year later I started private lessons in sixth grade, and it was fantastic. AC Meyers was retired from the symphony, and he was just really low key and crazy. He would let me play whatever I wanted, so it was really the perfect first private teacher, so it was nice. I was the only horn player for a while, until I got into high school.

KCO: When did you think that music could be your profession?

D: Well this is another hilarious story because I got braces when I was a sophomore in high school. My horn teacher said, I was only going to have them on for a year, why don’t you just take the year off? It’s going to take you so long to get used to the braces and then when you get them off, you’ll have to get used to having them off. It’s just going to be a lot of grief.

He knew that I played piano, and I had gotten pretty serious about the piano, and I thought, okay. I’ll just spend the year working on piano. And this was great. I took a year break from the horn, and my band director, said, “oh, she reads music, she can read bass clef and she’s got strong fingers from the piano. Let’s have her play the bassoon.”

He found this bassoon in the band storage room that had just been rotting there for however many years, who knows. And this bassoon was just a nightmare. The pancake key would stick all the time and the whisper key was jerry-rigged with a rubber band.

KCO: I don’t know what that means, but it sounds bad.

D: Oh my gosh, it was just a really unfortunate bassoon. It was in need of serious work. No one told me that I had to soak the reeds so I couldn’t get sound out of them of course. I had to play on the plastic reed and we all know how wonderful those sound. It was the most horrible sounding thing you can imagine. We have home videos and you can hear me practicing in the background. I practiced that bassoon more than I had ever practiced the horn up until that point and I never got any better.

It made me angry that there were different fingerings for every single note and your ear just didn’t help you at all except to tell you boy, you sound bad on this thing you know.

I got my braces off and I ran back to the horn. I had never really appreciated it or that I had some talent on it. I didn’t really know what talent was but I discovered emphatically that I did not have it on the bassoon. I guess I needed that sort of Ebenezer Scrooge experience to have me really appreciate what I had on the horn. I finally got my braces off and I started practicing again the end of my sophomore year. I was really motivated and that’s when I joined the youth orchestra and started to get really passionate about practicing. I got serious about my lessons and about auditioning for various regional orchestras and all-state orchestras. Things like that.

And then my parents, when I got into Oberlin, were very insistent that I would get a marketable degree. A performance degree obviously doesn’t guarantee work anywhere so they pushed me to do music education. The nice thing about Oberlin was that they don’t care what your major is. If you can play really well, you can get into the orchestras. It’s a small enough college that there’s no politics about being a performance major so you’re going to get in, or this other person isn’t. I know a lot of bigger universities are like that.

Oberlin was great. I performed a ton and I don’t have an undergraduate in performance. I just got the music ed degree. But it became really clear, the longer I was at Oberlin, that I wasn’t going to pursue music education. I was going to go into performance and that was what I was going to pursue. Then I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music and I got a master’s in performance.

KCO: How did get connected with our orchestra? I take it you know Matt Stoecker.

D: That’s how I got this gig actually. I knew Matt very well at Oberlin. We attended Oberlin together. Matt and I keep in touch with each other regularly on Facebook. He really beats me a lot in scrabble online so that’s always nice.

He asked me if I would be interested in soloing and I said absolutely. I’d love that. And he said I could play whatever I wanted to. And I thought that was a really fun idea. It was far enough in advance that I can secure the time off and I can think about what I want to play.

KCO: Why the Strauss, Horn Concerto No. 2?

I chose the Strauss second concerto because it’s one of the lesser known Strauss concertos.

The first one is the one that opens with the big fanfare, that’s the one that most people know. The second is not performed as often. It’s a more complex piece. it’s a very elegant piece. I believe that it was written later in his life.

It’s very elegant. It’s very playful. It’s also significantly more difficult than the first. It’s very technical. It’s very noodly, and it’s got a lot of very almost “woodwind-y kinds of motives and lots of fast scales and lots of jumpy arpeggios and things like that.

But it’s really fun to play. I’ve never actually performed it with an orchestra. I’ve played it on recitals before but, and it’s been a while since I’ve worked on it. I thought, you know, why don’t I make this a good challenge for myself. I always feel like when I am working toward something difficult it makes me better as a musician.

It’s also the juxtaposition of the very typical hunting horn call, very traditional types of playing bugle calls. And then there’s this beautiful lyrical sweeping melody just soaring. It’s just gorgeous. The whole first exposition is really good at demonstrating that.

It’s a really fun piece for the orchestra too, I think. It’s got some really neat stuff. And in fact, there’s some really great sections for me and the whole horns section so it’s super fun for that. It’ll be a really neat piece to experience.

KCO: What else are you looking forward to experiencing?

D: Well I really am excited about the master class. I love teaching, even though my calling wasn’t to teach in a public school setting, I do adore educating and instructing privately. And also, in a more specialized setting, more just horn and more just brass. And I love doing master classes and I love teaching, I’m on the faculty of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music here and I also have a home studio of students who come study with me at my home.

I really am excited about getting to know some of the musicians and to just work with them and to just share some things with the musicians, that’s going to be super fun for me because I really think that that’s part of what makes music enjoyable for me, is connecting with people, connecting not only with the audience, but also with the musicians that I get to perform with. It’s a very intimate experience, to get to share, you’re on stage and you’re recreating this amazing work that you’re bringing it back to life. You know, it was written hundreds of years ago but it’s still alive because we get to bring it back to life and that’s just so exciting to me and I love engaging in that kind of connection with other musicians.

KCO: You apparently love soloing. But you also play in a section, what would you tell a musician is the difference? Which one do you like more?

D: That’s a great question. If you think about a group project at work, where you have to collaborate and really work with other people and you’ve got to really just work together on a really difficult project where you have to work really intimately with other people, that’s kind of like playing in a section or as part of the orchestra.

Playing a concerto solo is more like you get to be the featured guest speaker. You get a podium. You just speak and everyone listens to you. You’re definitely more in the hot seat. You’re at the front of the orchestra instead of the back, which is sometimes a little bit more nerve wracking. You’re certainly more exposed, and so it’s definitely more challenging.

I would say that they’re such different processes, it’s difficult to say which one I like better. One is certainly easier to make a living with. There are very few people making a living as concerto soloists. There are full time jobs available in orchestral performance which is what I do.

There are things that are really exciting about both. I really love collaborating with other musicians. I love the end product that can be achieved by connecting with other musicians in that very intimate way to recreate another piece of music.

But I think what I’m really looking forward to with the concerto soloing is that it is unfamiliar to me. I don’t often do it. The last time I played a concerto solo was with the Milwaukee Symphony on tour. That was before I had kids, that was 2006 so about twelve years ago. I’m really looking forward to this challenge. I think it’s been really good for me, I’ve been getting so much out of my practicing, and just learning a lot about endurance, I mean it’s an extremely difficult piece endurance-wise, I hope I make it through.

We just did two performances of Prokoviev 5 this weekend, and this afternoon we’re doing an all John Williams concert. If it doesn’t kill me, I should have a decent face to be running it this week before I see you on Saturday. I think it’ll be fun. I’m going to experiment with some different things. I still don’t know if I’m going to sit or stand. I still don’t know if I’m going to play by memory or use the music. I don’t know, I might sit and use the music. I have no idea, but we’ll figure that out.

Interview on March 11, 2018

by Francis X. Langlois – tuba player in the KCO