In previous posts, I’ve mentioned Milan Yancich‘s memoir An Orchestra Musician’s Odyssey. It is a fantastic book, full of honest, thoughtful, and at times humorous recollections from Mr. Yancich’s long career as an orchestral horn player. There are accounts of personal conversations and interactions with many of the world’s famous conductors, soloists, and orchestral players. Needless to say, it’s a great read for anyone interested in orchestral playing, horn performance, or teaching. Yancich mentions Philip Farkas several times during the course of his memoir: He studied with him, performed beside him in the Chicago Symphony, and eventually partnered with him to found Wind Music Publications. As someone who knew Philip Farkas only through his former students, publications, and recorded performances and interviews, I was especially interested in Mr. Yancich’s stories of their time together in the Chicago Symphony. One story in particular stands out to me because of its depiction of Mr. Farkas as a real life human being, with the same worries and fears as many other horn players.
Farkas was blessed with a strong physical constitution. Despite his asthmatic condition his endurance in playing was remarkable. Sitting next to him was both a learning and at the same time a nail-biting experience, for he sometimes became quite jittery during the course of a performance. However, it was not evident in his playing. There were times when his hands shook. He commented to me once after playing an important solo, “I almost blacked out.” It was my responsibility to constantly check the count of the rest bars. Nothing was ever taken for granted, nothing left to chance. He touched the first note of a solo time and time again before the actual entrance. Some might sneer at the tactic; for him the system worked. The results were highly successful. [p.111]
Yancich later goes on to relate one instance in which this technique didn’t quite work as planned.
Farkas’s technique of touching notes was not always a fool-proof system. One of the most ominous, portentous solos facing a horn player is Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon Overture, with its opening horn solo. It is the bane of countless players over the years throughout its many performances. The Chicago Orchestra was on a concert tour, and we happened to be in Appleton, Wisconsin for one of our concerts. Farkas must have touched the opening note of the Oberon solo a hundred times. It is second space A in the staff. When Tauno Hannikanen’s baton downbeat stroked the air, Farkas missed the note completely. It was a newly born note that defied description and duplication. At that instant the thought rushed through my brain that I could not pursue a lifetime of nervous tension over the attack of a note – there must be another way. That solo entrance has challenged some of the greatest horn players in the world. [p. 111]
In my opinion, this anecdote in no way takes away from Farkas’s legendary status as a performer and teacher; rather it makes his accomplishments that much more incredible because of his struggle with performance anxiety. As Yancich points out, these mental and physical symptoms didn’t manifest themselves in Farkas’s playing – in spite of them, he was still able to produce. And I would imagine that experiencing and dealing with those issues made him a more effective teacher as well. Towards the end of his story Yancich also mentions that facing those kinds of pressures as a performer can make for a difficult life, and that “there must be another way.” I agree completely with this statement. Pressures and anxiety are realities of life, especially for performers, but we can always strive to find less stressful, more efficient, and easier ways of doing and being.
Mr. Yancich used to tell me of Farkas’ preference for counting measures rest backwards. Farkas wanted to know how many rests were left, over how many had passed.
Yancich mentioned that it took a while to get used to counting measures rest that way 🙂
I’ve heard about principal players who expect their assistants to be completely responsible for counting all of the measures of rest. I just don’t think I could 1) put that much pressure on someone else to be responsible for my entrances, and 2) sit there and not count – counting rests is I would assume a pretty automatic thing for most orchestral players.
Please forgive my ignorance here, but would you mind explaining exactly what is meant by “touching notes” prior to playing them? Is there any sound at all?
Also, was fascinated he missed that second space A, as it seems easy enough, but can be really hard to hit out of nowhere and I’ve wondered if its being right there in the middle of the usual playing range that makes it so, as opposed to higher and lower pitches requiring a more specialized embouchure shape, which from my beginner’s perspective seems to make them easier to hit out of nowhere.
Sure. Touching a note is faintly articulating the pitch, almost a ghost articulation. Done correctly, it is barely audible to nearby players, inaudible to the audience, and can help set up the embouchure and air for an entrance. The tricky thing about Oberon is not the note itself but rather the way conductors often want the note to begin, as if out of nowhere, with no discernible articulation.
James, thanks for that info. Seems like something to try to learn to do, but then again, if Farkas missed the note anyway, maybe not!
Still trying to process that his hands shook sometimes. I thought the whole point of working hard to get to a high level was to leave those kinds of anxieties behind so as to be freed up to focus on musicality. That he could come close to blacking out is mind boggling.