I find my interviews here a joy to write, covering many aspects of music-related topics, from angry guitar amps to ukuleles, bagpipes and brass instruments. Here then, an interesting talk with American born Diane Eaton, a long-standing member and French horn player in the Basel Symphony Orchestra, one of Switzerland’s oldest and innovative orchestras.
“I’ve been with this orchestra now for 33 years”, says Diane “And still enjoy every rehearsal and performance. I was born and raised in Seattle on the west coast of the United States and have acquired my Bachelor's degree in music performance in North Western University, in Chicago, moved to Europe when I was 22 years old and went on to finish my studies in Berlin. Both these cities are known for their music colleges, especially for teaching brass.
During my studies in Berlin, I auditioned and secured the position as an academist in the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra, which is like an intern where I played and studied with musicians within the orchestra.
I was technically still a student, but I was taking auditions all over Germany. The first job I got was a year’s contract in the Cologne opera orchestra, but the fixed position came with the Basel orchestra which at the time was known as the Basel Radio Orchestra and later became the Basle Symphony orchestra.
Was the French horn your first choice from day one?
No not at all, I was about 9 in the third grade at elementary school in the US, I was very fortunate as we had a music program where we could pick out an instrument and get group lessons for free.
Looking back now it’s quite an amusing tale, I was really excited as we had a nice music teacher who played the violin herself. She asked us what instrument we’d like to learn. I had a list, in third place was the violin, the clarinet was second, but I really wanted to play the trumpet, that was my dream. To this day, I still have no idea why.
We all had an interview with the teacher who looked at the size of our hands and how our teeth were developing, and I said that I would like to play the trumpet.
I went home and told my mum about it and she said that’s great, but I think the French horn would suit you much better. Needless to say, I was confused and I’d never heard of this instrument, so I said I’d try it. I took lessons and pretty soon I was playing in the school orchestra. Over the years it all became really serious and I took private lessons and became a musician.
But it all came out when I was 30, my mum said she had a confession to make. On that day, back when I was 9 the music teacher called and said there were 5 children who wanted to play the trumpet, so she couldn’t give me a trumpet to learn with. My mum would have had to rent one from a music store, which was expensive. But if my mum could convince me to play the French horn, the teacher would give her one for free!”
You were so young then when you first handled what must have been at the time, a strange-looking instrument, as you progressed did you follow brass players for inspirations within technique and style?
“During those early years, I just enjoyed playing in ensembles, orchestras and bands, it was more like a cool activity with friends. Then when the lessons started to get serious when I was about 14, my tutor introduced me to recordings of famous horn players. The first one I bought was a vinyl album called The Art of Dennis Brain. At that time, he was regarded as the world’s finest horn player in the first part of the 20th Century. I played that album over and over again, it clued me into how much potential this instrument has and the abilities within the sound it can produce.”
How many French horn players are there in The Sinfonieorchester Basel?
“There are six of us at the back, a lot of the sound from a French horn radiates behind us, I’m pretty sure that’s why we are always at the back, no one wants to sit behind us,” she laughs.
“The section which has the most melody is the first violin, whilst the French horns most of the time are adding filler and support. Within the repertoire, there are many famous horn section solos which are very integral to the compositions. The romantic era is among my favourite periods when the horn came into its own in the 2nd half of the 19th century up until the beginning of the 20th century.
I’m very lucky because I just love the whole spectrum of what we play, The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart, Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, all the romantic pieces by Strauss and Richard Wagner.
The first horns date way back hundreds of years when only kings and royalty had orchestras for entertainment. They’d have flutes, strings and horns, then added horns that were used to communicate with a whole vocabulary of sounds during a hunt. The court composers of the Kings and other nobility recognised this and asked for compositions to feature simple parts for the horns, rather like fanfares
These early horns didn’t, of course, have valves, that happened by accident when a German brass instrument maker had a beer sometime back in the mid 19th Century. He noticed how by just opening a spigot in the barrel, the beer would flow, he had the brilliant idea of developing different musical keys for brass instruments by installing spigots which in reality became the valves which gave birth to the French horn.
The older models called natural horns without valves were tuned to keys by changing several brass tubing sections within a big tangle of brass tubing, so when this guy went out for a beer one day he revolutionised the French horn. The natural horn is trendy again, I use mine when I play Mozart for example.
It took a long time to develop the French horn with valves and even longer for players to accept this new horn. If we fast forward over a hundred and fifty years, we have the modern double French horn with four valves which is basically two horns built into one.
It’s that fourth valve, the thumb valve that allows me to change between the two horns of a double horn and have a fully chromatic range with four octaves, I can go low and high, but most of the time we are in that middle range, a bit like a bassoon.
It’s vital that the valves are kept in good working order, I make sure mine are regularly lubricated with a thick oil on the outside and a thinner grade inside. If the instrument isn’t played for a few months, they’ll seize up and that can be expensive. I play all the time, but I have another horn that wasn’t required for a while and the valves got stuck.
My number one is made by the very famous Bavarian horn maker Englebert Schmid who is regarded as one of the world’s finest brass instrument maker. His double French horn can typically cost upward of 10,000 euro.”
There’s a lot of brass involved in the design of a modern French horn, I ask Diane if this metal alloy is susceptible to temperature and recurring tuning problems.
“No, not really, you have to know your instrument and you have to compensate. It’s easier for us as we play with our right hand in the opening of the bell which is leftover from the natural horn days, where they also would change the pitch by stopping and shaping the note with their hand in the bell. I’m thinking ahead all the time as I know what notes I have to adjust to pitch.
There’s not so much resistance with a French horn as say a trumpet, which is smaller of course but needs more output from your lungs, the same with a trombone which has a bigger mouthpiece and a bigger bore and of course, a bigger tube needs a lot of air. The French horn is in the middle, but personally I need a lot of air, more than some of my colleagues who are taller than me. Your lung capacity depends on how tall you are, and I’m not…she laughs, although I am pretty fit as I cycle a lot.”
And cycle she does, every day over the Wettstein Bridge which spans the river Rhine into Gross-Basel for rehearsals with The Sinfonieorchester Basel, as she explains,
“I cycle every day over that bridge into Gross-Basel for rehearsals and concerts with the orchestra. My horn is nice and safe in my Fusion Bag which fits perfectly strapped in the basket on the back of my bike. It depends on my mood, sometimes I’ll alternate and wear it backpack style which is so comfy with the padded straps. I know the horn is well protected and it’s encouraging to know, thanks to the reflective panels, I can be seen a long way off when cycling in the dark.
I’ve had this gig bag over ten years now, so I can say I’ve cycled literally hundreds and hundreds of miles and travelled thousands with it in that time, and it’s still as good as day one. That’s an amazing age for a gig bag which highlights the quality of materials used in the construction. It’s also the perfect size for the overhead when I fly with the orchestra. I wouldn’t say we are as much a touring orchestra as some others, although we do tour every year which takes in most of Europe, Germany, Italy and France and we occasional head out towards Asia, the likes of China, Korea and Japan for example.
Needless to say, there’s plenty of room in this gig bag, I can carry everything I need for a performance or rehearsal, including sheet music and my all-important glasses specifically designed to read the music, which is always about a yard away, too far for reading glasses and too close for long-distance.”
We are of course in a digital world, but there’s something attractive and refreshing about the analogue approach of brass instruments that seems a million miles away from anything to do with Bluetooth or wireless operated.
“Oh sure, we are all pretty much an analogue bunch and really, an orchestra is like a museum...a live museum. Just as an art museum displays the art of all eras, we perform the music of all eras.”
Music plays a big part in Diane Eaton’s busy life, what does she do to relax?
“I listen to music,” she laughs. “I love all kinds, pop, jazz, blues and especially rock. But as an educated classical musician, classical music reaches the deepest part of my emotions, it’s just something I enjoy.
It’s called classical because you can listen to it over and over again and discover something new every time. So all I can say is, listen to more classical music!”
Interview by Lars Mullen
About the Author
With over 30 years in the music business, Lars Mullen does indeed wear many hats, as a writer, journalist, photographer, press person for his own company Music Media Announcements. As an extensive traveller, he's a familiar figure reporting from music trade shows around the world. Spending many years touring as a professional guitarist, Lars has also interviewed a host of top bands and artists, continues to write articles for magazines globally and still finds time to track down Fusion artists for our Artist Spotlight column.