An Interview with Daren Robbins, Creator of hornexcerpts.org (Part 1)

Over the last few years, Daren Robbins has built a name for himself in the horn playing world.  His website hornexcerpts.org has provided a much-needed resource for students and professionals alike, and he is rapidly acquiring an international reputation as a teacher and performer through his position as Head of the Brass and Percussion Division in the College of Music at Mahidol University in Thailand (the above-left image is linked from his faculty bio page).  Daren is a fellow alum of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I recently contacted him to see if he would be willing to do an interview for this blog.  Daren generously agreed, and provided some great material!  Part 1 of his interview is included below, and I’ll follow up with Part 2 in my next post.

James Boldin: Could you talk about your background and education, and how you arrived in your current position at Mahidol University?

Daren Robbins: Well, like you, I did my DMA at University of Wisconsin-Madison with Doug Hill. I did my Masters at University of North Texas with Bill Scharnberg and Bachelors at University of Iowa with Kristin Thelander. There was certainly no lack of excellent teachers in my musical upbringing. For a few years after I finished my DMA I had a series of adjunct and interim teaching jobs. I was looking and applying for anything that would allow me to stay put for a while. When I saw the ad for this job in Thailand I applied for it, not too seriously at first but I figured it couldn’t hurt to throw my hat in the ring. I’d heard of Mahidol through acquaintances and because they had hosted an ITG (trumpet) Conference, but I knew almost nothing about Thailand–I probably couldn’t have pointed to it on a map.

After I applied, one thing led to another and eventually they offered me the job. My first thought was “Yikes, what do I do now??” I’d never pictured myself living outside the U.S. After a few weeks of emails and handwringing I decided to take the job. It was a leap of faith, putting 95 percent of my possessions in my parent’s basement and taking only what I could fit in two suitcases, and it took a good six or seven months of being here before I became convinced that it was the right move. I’ve been here three years now though, and I can definitely say it’s been a good thing.

JB: Most serious horn players are familiar with your website, hornexcerpts.org.  How did this project get started?

DR: The website grew out of my doctoral dissertation, although it’s not part of the dissertation. The actual dissertation had two parts: an excerpt book where the excerpts are taken from the actual parts, and an accompanying set of CDs which had three to five performances of each except by various orchestras.

The ideas for this came from several different places. I think the idea for the book came sometime during my masters degree. I had always used the Mel Bay and Labar books but of course they look nothing like the actual parts. I remember taking an audition where I had practiced from a book but in the audition was required to read from a part. The visual discrepancies threw me. Of course, I should have practiced from the part, but I thought “Why doesn’t someone compile a book of excerpts and, instead of re-engraving them, use the actual parts?” That’s when I began collecting photocopies of parts which were largely replaced by David Thompson’s collection when it came out a few years later.

The idea for the CDs came from a set of cassette tapes that had been compiled by a former UW-Madison horn student (Kendall Grey, I think). The idea behind the cassette tapes was to be able to quickly listen to three or four performances of an excerpt without the hassle of finding that many different LPs–this was before YouTube and iTunes and CDs. The problem with cassette tapes was that it was difficult to find the excerpt you wanted to hear because there were no track markers or anything that allowed you to jump to the beginning of a certain excerpt. It was inconvenient and the sound quality was sub-par. Early in my days at Madison Doug and I talked about transferring the cassettes to CDs, but rather than do that I decided it better to start from scratch. So I started plugging away at that project, which took several years. The music library had an audio preservation lab that I was allowed to use for just two hours a week. It was a tedious process of finding the CD or LP recordings, taking them into the lab and transferring the excerpts to DAT and then finally transferring the DATs to CD, all the while keeping careful track of which excerpt came from which CD performed by which orchestra. In the end it was nine CDs worth of excerpts.

About the time I was finishing that project it was time for me to be thinking seriously about starting my dissertation project. I hadn’t decided on a topic, but I knew that I wanted to do something practical, something that would be of some regular use. Spending so much time researching and writing something that would only sit on a shelf didn’t appeal much to me. I sifted through several ideas before I came upon the idea of combining the CD project with the excerpt book project that had now been in the back of my mind for several years.

So, that was the dissertation. The idea for the website wasn’t conceived until the summer following its completion. I had some time on my hands that summer and I got to thinking about how some of my colleagues had successfully turned their research into websites. Not to be outdone, I started thinking about how I might put my dissertation on the web. The more I thought about it the more I could picture the potential and the more excited I got. I’d never done any website design before but I got a copy of Dreamweaver and a how-to book and dove in.

After I put the site up I was a little startled by how fast it caught on. Within a week it was getting 75-100 visits a day and it just kept on growing. For the past few years it’s leveled out at about 800 unique visits a day. The website instantly made the CDs obsolete but the book still exists. I sold it through the website for a few years but when I moved to Thailand Dave Weiner at Brass Arts Unlimited agreed to take it over and apparently it’s still doing pretty well.

The feedback I’ve gotten from the site has been fun. I won’t drop any names here, but I’ve been emailed by principal players in several of the “Top Five” orchestras suggesting that I include their recording of this-or-that excerpt. Of course I’ve happily obliged! Another thing that’s been fun to watch is the other excerpt websites that have come along. Seth Vatt at Arizona State has really outdone me with his tromboneexcerpts.org. I have three to five recordings of each excerpt whereas he as ten to twenty! There’s a bassoonexcerpts.info and my bassoon colleague at Mahidol, Chris Schaub, is working on a similar bassoon excerpts site. There’s a doctoral student at University of Illinois working on a trumpet excerpts site, and of course there’s your Guide to the Brass Quintet which has excerpts and much more.

JB: Do you currently have any projects, web-based or otherwise, in the works?

DR: Sure, I have several. I’ve been working for a while now on the Horn Society’s new Online Music Library. The Advisory Council made a decision a few years ago to create this as a replacement and expansion of the IHS Manuscript Press. I was fortunate to be appointed the editor. With lots of help from my students I’ve digitized all of the compositions that had been sold through the Manuscript Press so those are still available, but online now. The next step has been to solicit new compositions that will appeal to a broader swath of horn players. Most of the pieces that were published under the Manuscript Press are IHS Composition Contest winners and as such are quite difficult. We’ve already had lots of great submissions that are slowly making their way through the approval process. Hopefully they’ll be on the site soon. I should point out that Dan Phillips did a great job creating the actual web pages that the store exists on. The store is on the IHS website, a little hard to find right now because it’s several levels deep (I think this will change in the near future), but it’s worth taking a look at.

Another project that’s keeping me busy right now is preparing for our next Thailand Brass and Percussion Conference that’s coming up in June.This is something we do every two years. It’s a four-day event with concerts, master classes and clinics, and includes all of the brass and percussion instruments. This year will include some concerto performances with the Thailand Philharmonic and we’ve even commissioned a new marimba concerto by the Japanese composer Kazunori Miyake. Our big-name artists this year are Ronald Barron who was principal trombone in the Boston Symphony for 33 years, Momoko Kamiya, who is an international marimba soloist and recording artist, and the composer Eric Ewazen.

One final project that I’ve just begun to undertake with one of my grad students is writing a new horn method book in the Thai language. We were fortunate to get a generous research grant from my university to do this. There are no method books for horn written in Thai. That’s a problem in the more rural parts of Thailand where qualified music teachers are sparse and English isn’t widely understood. We’re going to model the new book on existing horn methods but the text will be in Thai and we’ll incorporate traditional Thai melodies that kids in Thailand will have more of a connection with.

Check back soon for Part 2 of Daren’s interview!

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2 Comments

Hi! I’ve been reading your weblog for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the great work!

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