How I Became a Horn Maker.
I’m often asked, when I give lectures or attend workshops, about the path to becoming a horn maker. Sometimes it’s out of curiosity, sometimes it’s a desire for a plan to get into the craft. I tell everyone the same thing; I have no idea how one becomes a horn maker, I can only tell you how I became one.
My story starts with a letter. A letter from Boston University informing me that I was not admitted to their Graduate Program. Having received four other similar letters, BU was my last hope for a place to go after four (rather rocky if all is told) years at the University of North Carolina. During the following anxiety filled months, I tried to figure out where to go and what to do. I even called local- music stores to see if I could apprentice in their repair department; I was told that they only wanted fully trained repair techs. I was stuck and looked like I would have to sit a year out and try again.
But, I caught a break. My chamber music coach and wife’s (future wife’s, but that’s later) clarinet professor Don Oehler put me in touch with his friend Kurt Kellan, the horn professor at the University of Victoria. Kurt was looking for graduate students and invited me to join his studio. I packed up a suitcase and got on a tiny plane and flew to Victoria, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever lived in. Kurt met me at the airport and drove me to a house. He said something like “here’s where you live, you have roommates but they won’t be here for another few weeks, school starts in September, see you later.” Without a car or any idea where I was (no internet or international cell phone), I managed to accidentally find a Wendy’s which I walked to for every meal for two weeks. But, I had a home, and I had a place.
In Victoria, two important things happened beyond the general slog of being a graduate student. First, I bought my first real horn; a Lewis which had been in a closet for many years. This will be important later, but at the time it gave me my first insight into what an instrument could add to my playing and practicing. Second and more importantly, Kurt left to take a semester sabbatical. I had not been aware that this was going to happen, but given that my four years at UNC had brought me together with five different teachers, this did not strike me as particularly troublesome. The man who filled in for Kurt was Brian G’froerer, the retired third horn of the Vancouver Symphony. Brian decided that I needed to make a change if I wanted a serious shot at an orchestral career and he reached out to his former colleague in the VSO, Jeff Nelsen at Indiana University. The details surrounding my audition at IU are a bit fuzzy, but it involved a marathon trip, flying to Pittsburgh to meet my wife (still future), going to Chuck Ward’s shop to have the valves on my Lewis rebuilt, and then driving to Bloomington over a crazy Super Bowl weekend. 2007, you’ll remember, was the last Colts SB win. I remember getting into Bloomington at around 6am, after driving all night, for a 9:30am audition and checking into a cheap hotel to sleep for a few hours before going to the school.
Obviously, not sleeping and having no warmup time was not a good recipe for success. I played horribly. In fact, in the middle of my Brahms 3 excerpt, Myron Bloom (yes, that legendary Myron Bloom) fell asleep and began to snore. The next day I met with Jeff, expecting to be told what I needed to do before the next time I auditioned. I don’t know really what happened next. One possibility is that Jeff was absolutely serious when he said that he “heard something that interested him” in my playing. Perhaps Brian had something to do with it. I don’t know and I guess it doesn’t matter because Jeff invited me to join the IU studio for the following year.
My very first day at IU was the pivot point for my career as a horn maker. My very first official action was to go to the music library and meet with my graduate advisor to plan my course work. That advisor was Rick Seraphinoff, the most well respected natural horn craftsman in the modern world. At the end of my meeting with him, I asked him if I could stop by his workshop and see his work. I know now how common a request this is to Rick. He handed me a piece of paper and said something like “I’ll be back by 5pm come on by.” I don’t know what prompted me to ask to visit, and know even less about what made me go there that day. Maybe it was because I didn’t have anything else to do (a story for another time involving a scramble to find a place to live due to toxic mold) and didn’t know anyone else. I went.
I kept going back, week after week. I don’t know why, it was actually very boring. Rick would let me sit next to his bench and watch him work while he explained what he was doing and told me stories. I was there every weekend, all weekend, while still taking a full course load at school and working part time as a music cataloger in the crypts below the music library. I was very interested in the hand skills, and as a fellow introvert, I enjoyed the quiet way Rick went about his work and his calm and comforting demeanor. Contrasted by the competitive hyper intensive atmosphere of a top music school, it was amazing to be in the shop in the middle of the woods and to focus on mastery of a hand craft.
About six months into my chair-perching and Rick-watching, Rick injured his arm after spending an entire weekend hammering out a copper bowl. Rick also builds furniture and tons of other things, so spending time on unrelated maker projects was not unusual for Rick. It did, however, make certain tasks in the shop extremely painful. I remember that he looked at me skeptically one day told me that if I was going to hang around all the time, I might as well be useful. I started with the tasks that were the most painful for him, sanding bell tails and stepping mouth pipes in preparation for drawing over a mandrel. For weeks I came and sanded and stepped and loved every minute of it. It was my first taste of the addictive satisfaction of creating. Slowly, Rick began introducing me to more skills and more techniques. I couldn’t learn them fast enough. In one “event” Rick gave me a key to his workshop before going out of town for a week and I agreed to look after Katy Cat. At the time, I was not allowed to use the buffing machine, I had to finish all my work with either a traditional scraped finish or a hand rubbed pumice finish. The buffing machine was “too dangerous” according to Rick (he was right, but yet another story for later). While he was out of town, I buffed all the work I had done previously and laid it out on his side of the bench. He came back from his trip and pretended not to notice. When he tells the story, I look like a sheepish dog who didn’t know if I’d been good or bad. I was allowed to use the buffing machine from then on.
Rick gave me more involved tasks and arranged for me to rebuild some of the natural horns owned by the school and to make new crooks for them. In addition, he began working with me on studying my Lewis horn and experimenting with some limited parts fabrication. I started spending even more time in the shop, but I still didn’t see myself as a “horn maker”. I still had eyes towards my future career as the Principal Horn of the Chicago Symphony (because why not?). I was taking auditions and my playing was taking major leaps forward thanks to Jeff. But I felt like I belonged in the shop. Something was different there. While my horn playing relied on will power and hard work in the practice room, there was something natural about building. One day as I was sitting across from Rick at the bench, working on something or another, he looked up and said “I think you should quit school and have a go at this”. I shrugged it off at first, but as I sat with it, it started to excite me. So, I did. In 2008, I quit school, after accepting a semester’s worth of disbursement that I needed to buy my first valve section and eat food. I built two more natural horns and sold one of them to keep buying materials. I sold my Lewis horn for more bells and more valves. Rick oversaw the building of my first three horns in his shop. My hometown teacher Andrew McAfee arranged for some buyers for those original horns, risking his own reputation to help me sell them and continue working. A year later I was in my own shop a few miles away and worked from home except when I needed to use Rick's drawbench or other tools that I hadn’t built yet. Eventually, Rick's and my paths diverged and I went off on my own to focus on modern valved horns. I still hold dear Rick’s lessons on craftsmanship and hand skills, but I also followed his example of the quiet manner in which a craftsman goes about mastering a craft.
Ten years after that letter from Boston University, I have built over fifty horns and young men and women often ask me how they can become horn builders too. The events that led me to this are unfathomably serendipitous, I could never reconstruct this path if I tried. What if I had gotten into BU or CCM or any of the other schools I had applied to? What if Kurt hadn’t taken a sabbatical and introduced me to Brian, would I have made it to IU and met Rick? What if Rick hadn’t hurt his arm, would I have stayed interested enough to keep coming to the shop? The questions are unanswerable. My story is filled with generous people who gave me opportunities and networked me with the right people. All I did was to be ready when it was time to take the next step, and I took it boldly (not true, I was pretty terrified but that doesn’t sound as good.) As Jeff says, “Fearlessness is not the absence of fear, only the realization that there is something more important than fear.” I am very grateful, and work every day knowing that I’ll never truly be able to pay back the opportunities I was given. My only hope is that through my work and effort, I can enrich the legacy of those who supported me and add something to the horn community that is valuable.
December 24, 2017