Stefan Dohr is a German horn player and currently the principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Berliner Philharmoniker). Apart from being a sought-after masterclass teacher, he teaches the horn at the Herbert von Karajan Academy.
(This interview was conducted in October 2010)
Tell us about your current equipment.
For some years I’ve been playing horns by Gebrueder Alexander. Since last year I’m the owner of an Alexander 103 HG in Yellow Brass. This instrument with its new ‘Hand hammered’ part (HG stands for ‘Hand gehaemmert’) offers even more stability in the medium range. The mouthpiece I use is a silver plated W-2EM 4.2 by Josef Klier. Currently I’m developing a new mouthpiece with Scott Laskey.
You are known as the ‘king’ of your instrument, the horn player with the most polished techniques. What contributed to that title and where do you get your inspiration from?
Every piece of good music I hear – including some of the Pop-music my daughters favour, can serve as an inspiration. Particularly inspiring for me are new pieces. It’s fascinating to see in which directions the language of music is developing. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the chance of playing at least one world premiere of a new horn concerto every year for quite some time now and I hope to be able to keep up this ‘tradition’.
The next one is on October 28th with a project called “Solo-Universe I-V”, which will line up 5 solo-concertos for different wind instruments. And of course I’m absolutely excited about the upcoming horn concerto Toshio Hosokawa is writing for me which will premiere next February in Berlin with ‘my orchestra’ and Simon Rattle.
It’s been said that the horn is the hardest instrument to play, any comments on that?
Never heard of that … (hahaha)
Choosing the right mouthpiece has always been an issue for new and existing horn players; any advice for that?
I think every horn player is always looking for the perfect sound. You’ve got an idea of that in your head and you want to make the actual sound accordingly. My advice is: don’t try too hard. And don’t try too many different wild and crazy things. That might lead rather to distraction than help. Follow your instinct. Once you found a mouthpiece that’s basically suits you can gradually go on to make adjustments and try similar ones.
What exercises would you recommend a beginner horn player focus on?
Play long notes with nice attacks on the F-Horn – again and again and again. Be flexible, stay curious, always listen open minded to yourself and to others.
What is the ideal tone on the horn like? How do achieve a good tone quality?
For me the ideal tone is chosen from a vast variety to be the one that fits the individual moment best. It’s – once again – to do with the highest possible range of flexibility. There is no such thing as one ideal tone. The horn player should be able become a connector between the different groups of instruments – therefore ‘sound wise’ being flexible with the woods the strings and the brass players is essential. The better you succeed with that the closer you’ll come to the ideal tone.
Stopped horn is one of the techniques most horn players here have difficulty with. Can you share the technicalities of it?
Practice! Have a very firm lip and lots of air with a tightly closed hand in the bell … and practice!
Flexibility on a horn is very important, how do we train it?
Training flexibility particularly for playing the horn is useless since it’s less an issue for making good music but a general question of attitude. Being flexible must be part of your state of being in general as a human being and than it will come as a natural part of your music making as well.
And then, of course, it has to be cultivated constantly, for example by making music with lots of different musicians, by listening closely to the way the sound of the horn is interacting with other sounds.
And with the sound of other horns as well. I remember recording the CD “Opera!” with my colleagues from the philharmonic horn section. We’ve known each other for so long and had given many concerts over the years. But paying and immediately listening to how it sounded, was a new and interesting experience and once again a good training.
What is your daily warm up routine like?
I enjoy a cup of tea, walk the dog for at least an hour and go to the Philharmonie in time to warm up properly, starting with some easy exercises in the medium range in a nice mezzopiano to warm up my lips carefully, then expanding range and dynamic.
Are there any practice materials you swear by?
There are reams of exercises and I’ve learned that everyone is best advised to look out and find his personally best fitting ones. It’s worth the effort. Actually I’ve been thinking of publishing a book of exercises myself, which has remained an untouched project so far due to a lack of time. But I do recommend Frøydis Ree Wekre’s “Thoughts on Playing the Horn Well“. It contains helpful exercises, but start with the easy ones! And another advice I give to all my students is: invent your own personal exercises by transposing difficult passages in all keys.
If you could describe music with a sentence, what would it be?
A world without music would hardly be worth living in.