Oberlin Blogs

New Things, Old Things, and Loving What I Do

February 5, 2018

Megan McLaughlin ’22

If I were to summarize my whole winter term project into one word, I would say that it was all about perspective. I had the great pleasure of spending my first winter term in Oberlin pursuing a group project in historical horn performance with three other students, which taught me something new while encouraging me to reflect on what I’ve been doing for a while. 

Let me start by explaining what is a natural horn. The very short way I like to explain it is that it’s like a valved horn, but with all the insides taken out. In reality, it’s a horn without valves, where you have to use your hand or your throat to change pitches. Different tubes, or crooks, can be changed to pitch the natural horn into different keys, which makes hand positioning easier. The modern valved horn is almost always pitched in F, and doesn’t deviate from that very much because hand position is rendered nearly obsolete with the invention of valves. 


Not only do horns sound lovely, but they also make stylish hats.


During our five three-hour-long classes, we learned about performers, pedagogues, and other major figures relevant to the plotline of the horn. I often find myself amused and astounded by how much music history can resemble the kind of television drama that is unrealistic and outrageous and makes you love and loathe the characters in spite of and because of how wild they are. They’re all intermingled and have distinct relationships with each other, and all seem to have extremely strong opinions on music. Fun fact: Johannes Brahms called the valved horn the “tin viola” when it was first invented, which is a wonderfully immortal roast to both violas and valved horns. 

This project has reminded me how lucky I am that I play an instrument with such historical roots, and that learning how to play the natural horn helps me become a better musician on the valved horn. Beginning around when the valved horn came into regular use in orchestras, some pedagogues preached the philosophy that once you can play the natural horn with ease, playing the valved horn becomes much easier. And now, that’s what I’m doing. For the past two weeks, at least. It’s like learning from the bottom up, but in the wrong order, and starting a few years later. 

I also had no idea how much the horn has evolved up to the modern day before this course, and along with that how much the practice of performing horn music has changed. A lot of big name composers (Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) wrote for the natural horn, but their music today is not often performed as such. I got to learn how to play their music in the way it was intended, and getting a basis in natural horn has helped round out some loose ends of why things are the way they are for horn and in horn music.

Which is exactly how I came up with the title of this blog post. Valved horn is relatively new in the grand scheme of things (it was invented ~around~ 1800), but I’ve been playing it for going on eight years now, whereas I’ve been playing natural horn for all of two weeks, and it can be traced all the way back to when horsemen blew into rams' horns to send each other signals while hunting. A lot of my premonitions on horn have been flipped upside down in these past weeks, but in a good way– a lightbulb-over-the-head-in-a-cartoon way, more than an everything-I-ever-believed-was-a-lie way.

I love falling in love with this instrument. It’s not the same kind of affection as I have for my valved horn, but, once again, it’s a fresh kind of different. Natural horn isn’t really what I expected, but now that I’m trying to put it into words, I’m not sure what I expected. Practicing natural horn has given me perspective on how much I like practicing the valved horn, and why. I got a new etude book over the holidays, and I found a solo that makes me excited to go practice every day. I had the wonderful epiphany before I got back to campus for winter term that I will like practicing so much more when I start liking the things I hear, and now here we are. I get to practice more without very much stress, and now I basically have two instruments, which is new and exciting.


Photo courtesy of Nora Rodriquez


And now comes the part in this blog post where I shamelessly brag about how cool my school is, because, in fact, I do think that my school is pretty darn neat. I am so lucky to get to explore natural horn for my winter term at a school with such a prestigious reputation for historical performance. The Conservatory brought in a guest professor for this winter term project; Oberlin does not offer classes in historical horn performance, but they still want to encourage students to explore historical performance, which is going above and beyond for just a few people. Oberlin’s strength in historical performance was not something I considered when looking at colleges; I didn’t even know Oberlin offered historical performance until I got here, because it was so off my radar. I play the modern valved horn– what business of mine was historical performance?

But winter term exists to give Oberlin students the opportunity to explore and try things they wouldn’t ordinarily do during the regular term. I probably wouldn’t have tried out natural horn during the regular semester, given all of classes I already want to take and how little time I have (or so it feels) before I graduate. But winter term is only a month-long commitment, and my project happened to be only half of that. Coupled with the fact that my studio professor glowed about what a fantastic opportunity this was made it hard to refuse. So, for two weeks, I had five three-hour-long classes, three one-hour-long lessons, and I learned a whole lot, including that I really enjoy natural horn.

I also got to spend time for myself over winter term, in a way I’m not always able to during the semester. I visited Cleveland for the first time, and wow do they have a lovely art museum. I learned how to cook tofu, and made my own meals with some friends for two weeks. And Oberlin is lovely in winter. I’m used to snow, but I’m mainly used to snow that gets grey and icky from cars after a few days, which is not the kind that Oberlin has to offer. Campus is also not nearly as populated as it is during the semester, which means that I can write my blog posts alone in Peters, which is just how I like to, and practice in Bibbins multiple times a day (okay but actually I only practiced in Robertson once because Bibbins was always available and that is going to hit me hard once the semester starts again).

My first winter term, in short, was wonderful. I had time to relax and focus while reflecting on how I feel about my instrument and why. I look forward to my second semester of college and future winter terms, as well as pursuing natural horn further.

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