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Me and My Horn: Nicola Baker

The horn has come a long way since its humble beginnings.

A descendant of the ancient hunting horn, it was originally introduced into the orchestra to add an element of the outdoors and chivalry associated with the instrument. As the horn evolved, it became a more permanent part of the orchestra, gaining popularity during the late- Classical and early-Romantic periods.

“The horn as an instrument was evolving and becoming more chromatic in ability. Certainly by the Romantic period, the time of Brahms and Schumann, horns were very much part of the orchestral sound,” says Principal Horn Nicola Baker. Nicola started out playing the piano until high school, when her music teacher needed someone to play the mellophone in the school orchestra.

“Within a month or two I was playing in the school orchestra, within a year or two I was playing in the Wellington Youth Orchestra,” explains Nicola. “I figured out pretty quickly that I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of a big number of people making music together. For a number of years I played both the horn and piano, but when it came down to choosing, my mind was very much made up.”

After high school, Nicola studied a Bachelor of Music in Performance at Victoria University of Wellington while freelancing for orchestras in the city. Following her studies, she travelled to the United States to continue her learning at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She lived in the US for five years until the role of Principal Horn at APO came up in 1992, and she has been with the orchestra since.

“The horn has a reputation of being a difficult instrument. I don’t think that it helps me, or any horn player for that matter, to think of it that way. You just have to think of it as a medium with which you play the music,” says Nicola, who plays an Engelbert Schmid horn.

At its most basic, the horn is a piece of brass tubing through which air is blown into a mouthpiece and amplified out of the end, called the bell. It has four valves. Three enable the player to lengthen the tubing to create different pitches. A fourth thumb valve ‘shortens’ the instrument to change its pitch entirely.

“I essentially have two different horns in the same instrument that I switch between using the thumb valve, something that the other brass instruments don’t have.” She describes the horn section as having a unique role in the orchestra, in that it crosses over the territory between the brass and woodwind instruments.

“Our sound is less direct than the trumpets and the trombones who face forwards and outwards; we face sideways and back, which means that by the time our sound reaches the hall, it’s less direct. And when it comes to the warm, lyrical solo melodic lines, we get to do that a lot more than the other brass instruments do.”

This isn’t the only multi-tasking that horn players do. Due to the similarities with the horn, they often also play the Wagner tuba (named after the composer) when needed, something Nicola and the other APO horns will have the opportunity to do at this year’s The Trusts Community Foundation Opera in Concert – Britten’s Peter Grimes.

“Wagner really liked the sound of the tuba but its tone is too heavy to play the melody, so he conceived of a hybrid instrument halfway between the horn and tuba. Its resonant timbre can be heard in his musical drama The Ring of the Nibelung,” Nicola explains. “The name includes the word ‘tuba’, but the timbre and style of playing is similar to the horn so in modern orchestras the horn players are tasked with playing this instrument.”

Watch Nicola Baker's Meet the Principal video:

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