One of the things I love about my job is the opportunity to work with talented colleagues in two faculty ensembles: Black Bayou Brass, a brass trio, and Trio Mélange, a voice, horn, and piano trio. I’ve written extensively about performances with the former, but haven’t posted nearly as much about the latter. However, Trio Mélange is quite active, having performed at the 45th and 48th International Horn Symposiums, and at various other venues in Louisiana and surrounding states. This summer, we’ll be engaged in two major projects: performing at the New Music on the Bayou Summer Festival, and recording a CD of music by Eurico Carrapatoso. We’ve been rehearsing intensively in preparation for both of these projects, and I thought this might be a good opportunity to put down a few thoughts about collaborating with vocalists. Of course, the basic principles of chamber music still apply; collegiality, communication, putting the ensemble first, etc., but this article is geared towards horn players who may not have worked with singers before. Working with a great singer and collaborative pianist is very rewarding, and as horn players we are lucky to have some really wonderful repertoire by composers old and new. See the end of this post for my short list of recommended voice, horn, and piano works. And now, here are some considerations for the horn player working with a vocalist.
- Know the Text: As instrumentalists, we sometimes get preoccupied with notes and forget to consider the text. You don’t need to have every word memorized, but you should definitely have a good idea of the basic structure and content. In addition, pay attention to the differences in sound of the various common languages (German, French, Italian, and English). They each have their own idiosyncrasies, which can help inform our approach to sound and articulation.
- Balance: Achieving the right balance between the voice, horn, and piano will depend on several factors, but in general it pays for the horn player to be sensitive to what register the singer is in. For example, a soprano or tenor’s high range projects extremely well, and in those instances balance with the horn will be less of an issue than when the singer is in the low range. Depending on the repertoire and other factors, there will be times when you will need to play extremely softly (think woodwind quintet) for the voice to be heard clearly (remember, the audience needs to hear the words!) In other situations, you will be able to play at a full forte or even fortissimo and not worry about covering the voice.
- Read from the Score if Possible, or Write in Cues: I like to have copies of both the full score and my own part in rehearsals, but for most performances I use a horn part with lots of vocal and piano cues written into it. Singers are used to rehearsing and performing from a piano-vocal score, and having your own copy of the score will help rehearsals run more smoothly.
- Rhythm is Flexible: Good singers have excellent rhythm, but in my experience their training prepares them to be much less rigid than instrumentalists when it comes to rhythm and phrasing. This is a good thing! Learn everything you can from the fluid, expressive way singers approach phrasing, and learn to anticipate and follow in the same way a great collaborative pianist or opera conductor does.
- Differences in Response: The voice is a different instrument than the horn, and is subject to its own peculiarities. Depending on the tessitura, sometimes it can take a little time for the singer’s note to sound, but in other instances a note can begin more or less instantaneously. The timing of entrances and releases together will take some conscientious practice in rehearsals, but it can be done.
- Breathing, Watching: Related to the above point, ensemble will be vastly improved through good communication – namely breathing together and watching each other. I’ve found that watching the vocalist’s mouth is a reliable indicator for entrances. It can even be helpful for the singer to “conduct” a little when working through challenging passages for the ensemble.
Hopefully these tips will be of use the next time you collaborate with a vocalist. Above all, listen intently, and follow your musical instincts. To close out this post, here is a short list of recommended works for voice, horn, and piano. Some of them are in the public domain, and available on IMSLP (links provided) Feel free to add to this list in the comments.
- Hector Berlioz, Le jeune Pâtre breton, H 65 (soprano or tenor)
- Benjamin Britten, Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain (tenor)
- Benjamin Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (available with a piano reduction)
- Gina Gillie, To the Seasons (soprano)
- Franz Schubert, Auf dem Strom, D.943 (Usually with soprano voice, but also with tenor)
- Richard Strauss, Alphorn, TrV 64 (mezzo soprano)
For more details on repertoire, check out the following dissertations, which are available through the International Horn Society’s Thesis Lending Library.
- Burroughs, Mary. “An Annotated Bibliography of the Works for Horn, Voice and Piano from 1830-1850 with an Analysis of Selected Works from 1830-1986.” D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois, 1990. UMI# 90-26150
- Lewis, Gail. “Benjamin Britten’s Writing for Horn with Tenor Voice: Serenade Op. 31, ‘The Heart of the Matter,’ Nocturne Op. 60.” D.M.A. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1995. UMI# 95-26717.
- Ulmer, Marissa L. “Bibliography of Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century Chamber Works for Voice, Horn, and Piano with Selected Annotations.” D.M.A. dissertation, West Virginia University, 2006.