A Classical Tale or "Who's on Fourth?"

The pinnacle of my classical music career was landing the spot of Fourth French Horn in The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra the spring semester of 1972. I was not, by any means, the fourth best French Horn player in the Horn Department. I think I was chosen because I was the youngest French Horn major, a sophomore, and they wanted to groom me for the future. That future would possibly be moving up to First French Horn my senior year, followed by a bachelor's in French Horn Performance, followed by sporadic employment for the rest of my life.

In professional orchestras, the Fourth French Horn is not the fourth best horn player. He/she/it is the player who is best at playing the Fourth Horn part, which usually involves playing the lowest note of a horn chord. This is really hard to do, because you are playing in the tuba range with a mouthpiece that is smaller than a trumpet's.

My teacher in high school was a Fourth Horn specialist. He was the father of my friend, Steve Smith, who was the First French Horn in the Maine West High School Orchestra.* I liked Mr. Smith; he was a good teacher, and he was a lot of fun, like Steve. He had, like, ten kids, so when I came for a lesson, he would chase them out of one of the bedrooms and set up a couple of chairs and music stands. Halfway through the lesson, a kid or two would often pop up from under a bed and run out the door.

He never said as much, but I also learned from Mr. Smith not to expect to earn a living as a French Horn player. He often played in The Chicago Symphony, The Chicago Opera, and The Chicago Ballet, but never as a regular. His steady income was a vending machine business that he ran from their garage.

So my sophomore year of college, I majored in French Horn, because you had to major in something. You couldn't just say, "Avoiding The Draft". And there were some really cute girls in the Violin Department. I had no plans to be a professional French Hornist. In fact, when I got my chance to play in the University Symphony, I had already planned on quitting school at the end of the semester, because the draft had just ended.

But a chance to play in a really fine orchestra under the direction of the great Maestro James Dixon? Yeah! I jumped at it! I practiced my low notes for hours every day.

But when I entered my first rehearsal, I'd say my success rate for accurately hitting those notes was maybe 90%. Maybe 80... But I found that, like magic, when Dixon pointed his baton at the horn section and fixed his icy stare on us, I could hit that bottom note every time. After a few sessions, I learned to ride with the magic, so I did not get canned. They never found out that I was an imposter. I was not a serious classical musician. I was just a goofy kid who got a chance to play in a really good orchestra.

So I was actually there, on stage in The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra, wearing my tuxedo from Goodwill, during the Final Spring Concert. We were playing a Mahler symphony. I don't remember which one - that's not important. What's important is that I was there, counting measures during the slow movement, when......

Oh yeah. Another thing about being the Fourth French Horn is that you have to be really good at counting measures. Because a lot of the time, you are not playing. Even when the other horns are playing, they often don't need you just yet. Your job is to play that lowest B-flat note on the third beat of measure #264. And you'd better be there! Pay no attention to the tympany player behind you, who is poking you with a drumstick because he doesn't have to play at all until the next movement.

But that was high school. This was The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra. We were serious musicians. We wore tuxedos. And we did not poke each other on stage. And we were under the spell of Maestro James Dixon.

......So I was facing the conductor, counting measures, during the slow movement. The violins were shimmering lightly, and one oboe was playing a haunting melody. So I didn't see it happen, but behind me one of the percussionists knocked over a cymbal stand. Not only did the cymbal make a loud CRASH; but then it rolled down the risers, like in a cartoon - WUACK, WUACK, WUACK-WUACK, WUACK-WUACK, WUACK WUACK WUACK WUACKWUACKWUACKWUACK wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa - while our conductor, the Maestro James Dixon, held up his arms, and the orchestra, and the audience, until the final cartoonish wawawawawawawawawa died away. I don't think smoke came out of his ears, but that's the way I remember it.

I don't know what ever happened to that percussionist. But for me, that was the last time I ever played classical music in a symphony orchestra. I knew it would never get any finer than this.

*Whenever I tell people where I went to high school, they always think that it's really cool that there's a high school in the Chicago area named after Mae West. Fun Fact: Hillary Clinton went to Maine East. We never dated.