Monday, December 21, 2015

Report from the 5th Catacoustic scholarship winner: Nelson Velez

In May 2015 Catacoustic awarded its 5th annual Early Music Scholarship to Nelson Velez, a Cincinnati resident who wanted to resume his avocation on the Early Horn. Here's his report on his award year: 

I had studied Natural Horn at IU Bloomington’s Early Music Institute from 1996-1999, but my career took me away from music.  My passion has never left me, though, and the Catacoustic Scholarship has helped push me forward again.

 The Natural Horn is a very hard instrument to master. It is the precursor to what most people know today as a French Horn. The horn started as an animal horn used to make sounds for religious practices or war signals. Later, it was made of brass and formed into a ring, so that a hunter could wear it on horseback and play signals announcing different parts of the hunt.

Early valveless horns such as hunting horns have a very limited number of notes available to them. The tonalities of the instruments depend on the length of their tubing. Regardless of the size of the tube, all horns have a set number of notes that can be played and a lot of notes that just do not exist on the instrument. This is the Harmonic Series, showing which notes exist on the tube (in black) and which need to be modified (in blue).:

In the early Baroque era hunting horns were used in operas or plays as props. But slowly horn players started experimenting with placing a hand inside the bell of the horn, thus making the instrument play notes that are not naturally available. This drastically changed the sound of the instrument Obviously the sounds of those notes are very different from the naturally occurring open notes played without being “stopped”.
The Baroque era saw an explosion of repertoire that added more and more of the notes not found in the harmonic series. Early baroque music mostly used open notes, but as musicians became more proficient at playing other notes with their hands in the bells the repertoire was expanded.

Composers in the classical period knew which notes would sound muffled, which notes would sound bright and which notes would sound brassy because of the hand movements. Composers used this variation of colors in the orchestra. To the modern listener, at first the sound of a natural horn may seem strange, since some notes have a different color or “body” than others. But once they realize and accept that the instrument is meant to sound that way, they can learn to appreciate the variety of sounds. This is a part of my passion—to help today’s listener appreciate the beauty of early music.

I think the Natural Horn is an amazing instrument. It is hard to master, but full of character and musical color. It can sound sweet and small or big and broad.

As an early Music Natural performance major one must learn how to play the different variations of the horn starting with a Hunting Horn, Baroque Horn, Classical Horn, Romantic Horn, Piston Horn to a Valve Horn.
Hunting Horn

Baroque Horn

Classical Horn
Because of the Catacoustic Consort Early Music scholarship I was able to attend the 2015 IU Natural horn workshop followed by a Natural Trumpet making course.

Both courses were very educational and entertaining. During the Natural Horn workshop I was able to play on a classical horn as well as 2 versions of baroque horns (with and without vent holes). I played some solo pieces ranging from easy to quite complex, as well as playing in small ensembles. It was a great experience to play with people who had never seen or heard a natural horn as well as with people who are professionals. Playing with the various levels of musicians helped a lot.

The Natural Trumpet making class gave me a whole new appreciation for the workmanship, time and effort that goes into making an instrument which looks so simple but in reality is extremely complex. It was a week of sweat and aching muscles. I highly recommend both courses for anyone interested in early brass instruments. Richard Seraphinoff is a great teacher, mentor, and friend. Both courses resulted in great early music networking and new friends.

I have recently ordered a natural horn. My former professor Richard Seraphinoff is not only a professor at IU’s Historical Music Institute, but he is also one of the world’s most renowned makers of historical horn replicas. The body of my Halari Replica Natural Horn has been completed and is in the process of having the bell painted by an artist. The painting of the bell is not just a decoration; it also protects the inside of the bell of the horn from the sweat, oil and dirt that will accumulate when the hand is placed inside the bell. The
The finished horn
crooks should be completed in late December or early January and I am eager to have the instrument so that I can get back to work. I know it will take some time to rebuild the musical career I had left behind. I am looking forward to collaborating with Cincinnati’s early music ensembles and musicians as well as other around the nation.

Cincinnati has a growing number of early music groups with a lot of talented and eager musicians. I hope to become a part of the growing Early Music movement in this great city. I hope to see Cincinnati become well known for its early music as well as its current classical music and artistic scene. Early music is my passion. For me, it is the best way to “travel in time” and hear music as it would have sounded when it was premiered and to hear what the composer and public of the era would have heard.  I want to share this love and appreciation.

Thanks Catacoustic Consort.