Austin Larson joined the Singapore Symphony Orchestra as Principal Horn in 2023 having previously held positions with the Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Colorado Symphonies. A regular guest with the Philadelphia Orchestra while living in the United States, Austin also performed as a guest with several other notable ensembles, including the National Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony, and as Guest Principal Horn with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, Iceland Symphony Orchestra in Reykjavik, and São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil.
Austin also compiled a substantial competitive record, notably as one of only two people to ever win First Prizes in both the University and Professional Divisions of the International Horn Competition of America. In 2017, Austin became the first American to win a prize in the International Brass Instruments Competition in Gdansk, Poland and the Jeju International Brass Competition Horn Division in South Korea, finishing with the Second Prize in both. Austin has also previously won the International Horn Society Premier Soloist Competition, Yamaha Young Performing Artists Competition, Wisconsin Public Radio Young Artists Competition, and the International Music Competition “Citta di Chieri” in Italy. Austin has also appeared as a soloist at the Music for All Symposium, International Horn Symposium, Jeju International Wind Ensemble Festival, Wisconsin Public Radio, and with orchestras in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
A native of Neenah, Wisconsin in the mid-western USA, Austin holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and the Curtis Institute of Music and his teachers include Randy Gardner, Jennifer Montone, Julie Landsman, Jeffrey Lang, Duane Dugger, Elizabeth Freimuth, Richard Deane, Douglas Hill, Bruce Atwell, and Donald Krause. A strong believer in music education, Austin taught with the Baltimore Symphony OrchKids program for inner-city youth and has raised funds for music scholarships both at the University of Cincinnati in addition to musicians’ relief funds during the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information, visit www.austin-larson.com.
The Band Post speaks to Austin Larson as he joins the Resound Collective this Sunday for WhirlWIND!
Congratulations for becoming Principal Horn of SSO, what are your thoughts on this new appointment?
Thank you, I’m glad to be here! I’ve enjoyed my time in SSO so far. Like many SSO musicians my route to get here was quite unpredictable. Orchestra auditions, especially for principal positions, are extremely competitive and often end without anyone being offered the job, so you take what you can get as long as it’s better than what you previously had, circumstances permitting. I took over 15 auditions since COVID and made the final round or better in about half of them. This was the one that worked out and I’m quite happy so far even though it’s very far from home. I lived my whole life in the US before coming here but aside from the humidity Singapore is very easy to get used to. The city is user-friendly in every way – accessibility, functionality, safety, cleanliness, variety of cultures and food, everyone speaking English, overall quality of life, the list goes on. My colleagues in the orchestra have been super supportive and welcoming too so that’s really made it easier.
What is it like rehearsing with the Resound Collective?
We had our first rehearsal yesterday, it was intense but very productive. We had a lot of details to work out but Concordia Quartet has good chemistry and picks up on everything quickly. Concordia’s usual cellist Lin Juan is out with COVID so Theophilus Tan is stepping in and doing well on such short notice. I think it will be a good concert so join us if you can!
Tell us about the music you will be doing with Resound Collective.
I’m playing the Mozart Quintet for Horn and Strings. Like Mozart’s horn concertos, it was written for his friend Josef Leutgeb who was the premier horn player of his day. Originally written for natural horn before valves were invented it features both technical virtuosity and operatic lyricism for the horn. The string orchestration is a bit unusual, 1 violin 2 violas and cello instead of the usual string quartet of 2 violins and 1 viola and cello. This accommodates the horn’s lower range and more mellow sound than the violin. It’s a fun piece and one of horn players’ mainstays for chamber music.
What was learning the horn like for you back when you were still in school?
That varied significantly over the years. The first few years I was only playing for fun in the school band program. I only started taking lessons when I was 14 and only started taking horn seriously at 16. I grew up in a fairly small city and was usually the only horn player in school so had very little to compare myself to. I didn’t get into almost half the colleges I auditioned at and when I went to college I was very obviously behind a lot of players so knew I had to work extra to make up the difference if I wanted to make a living with music. I had the same experience of having to make up ground in grad school at the Curtis Institute and have kept that work ethic since.
What is your daily or weekly routine like? Are there any books that you would swear by?
I don’t have anything shocking in my routine, I always set aside about an hour before morning rehearsals to warm up and get some fundamental work in and often do some extra fundamentals later in the day. I cook mostly for myself and don’t do alcohol, caffeine, or red meat. Staying hydrated is also crucial especially in Singapore’s heat so I make sure to drink a lot of water throughout the day. I also make sure to get at least an hour of walking or biking in every day for physical and mental health. I used to weigh about 17-18kg more before adopting a healthier lifestyle when I started playing professionally and will do anything to avoid going back to how I was before. I’m not much of a reader but all of Don Greene’s books are excellent for performance under pressure and have helped me a lot.
How do you keep yourself calm when you play major solos?
There’s no silver bullet to peak performance when it matters most. Countless research is dedicated to this topic and dozens of books are available about it. I do a lot of visualisation, imagining myself on stage in a state of calm focus despite the pressure. Preparation and knowing what is happening in the music before, during, and after is essential to optimal performance. Self-care is also critical, giving oneself room to make mistakes without harsh self-judgement is important for avoiding perfectionism and being able to recover quickly for when mistakes occur. Music is by nature imperfect so one should strive for optimal performance instead of perfection. Interestingly the less we think about playing perfectly the fewer mistakes we make. Every musician struggles with over-analysis and being able to switch between detail-oriented practice and the flow of performance is necessary to avoid overthinking. Most high-level musicians have a multi-faceted approach to peak performance, it’s not something that comes naturally for many!
What do you think are some of the biggest problems horn players face and how do you solve them?
Probably the biggest issue on the horn is accuracy. We’re known for missing notes, so much that the New York Times wrote an article calling the horn the “Wildcard of the Orchestra”. Ouch! Two things help accuracy above all else, mental training that I talked about in the last question and ear training in the next question.
What is often the best way to develop inner hearing and horn perfect pitch?
As mentioned before ear training is paramount. The saying goes “if it’s in your ear it’s out the bell”. There’s some debate as to whether people can develop perfect pitch past childhood but regardless one can develop very strong relative pitch with ear training, specifically through singing. All music schools have aural skills classes but one should pursue development of these skills as long as they play. I still use singing all the time and it fixes a lot of problems without even having to play anything.
Are there any exercises and repertoire that you would recommend for young horn players and beginners?
I honestly have little experience teaching young and beginner students but find singing and ear training mentioned in the last question important and often neglected for beginners. A great way to teach ear training for beginners once the student can form an embouchure and move between notes is to have them sing, buzz, and play some of their favourite songs. This keeps them engaged and is a fun way to develop the connection between ear and instrument.
Any advice for future musicians?
This is a tough profession and making a living as a musician takes enormous dedication, patience, and resilience. The music world is also tragically not always a healthy place to work. However it can be immensely rewarding if you’re able to find a positive work environment doing what you love for a living. On the flip side there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing music on the side for fun! It’s a skill that never leaves you and can be resumed at any time with a bit of practice. My advice is go as far as you want with music and keep it a part of you life in some way, even if only on the side.
Celebrating Chamber Music in conjunction with the Singapore Chamber Music Festival 2024!
Leading up to SCMF2024, we’d like to give our fans a treat to watch WhirlWIND!, a concert by the winds of re:Sound. It features the music Poulenc-Françaix, W.A. Mozart & Sergei Prokofiev, and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s newly appointed Principal Horn, Austin Larson, also joins re:Sound in this fun-filled evening, featuring the best of chamber music with winds.
WhirlWIND! A Musical Adventure
Sunday, 12 November 2023
8:15pm, Victoria Concert Hall
Tickets $38/28 – Purchase your SISTIC tickets and apply promo code ‘WHIRLWIND25‘ for our special discount at: https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/whirlwind0723