My Rehearsal Room: Isaac Shieh

My Rehearsal Room: Isaac Shieh

Taking chances, and finding your feet. 

Isaac Shieh
Melbourne, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Isaac Shieh

Taking chances, and finding your feet. 

Part One: Finding My Own Sound in the Classical Realm

My parents taught me to always follow my heart and passion. As cliché as that sounds, I think it is often easy to forget to dream, whether that dream is big or small. After all, we, as artists, are dreamers of the World.

What does this have to do with me choosing the natural horn? Nothing.

I never really chose the horn to begin with. I simply wanted to wear the handsome band uniform in my primary school, and the music teacher gave me a horn. I didn’t even think about the natural horn until my teacher persuaded me to play it for my second-year recital at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

So, as cheesy as this sounds, the natural horn chose me.

Horn is often regarded as the most difficult orchestral instrument. So why would I want to make my life harder by taking the valves out of horn and blow into an instrument that is as unpredictable as Melbourne’s weather?

Initially, I saw it as a challenge, playing difficult pieces on the natural horn by using only my lips and hand-stopping techniques. Without going into too many technical details, hand-stopping is a technique whereby the hornist can change an open partial pitch by inserting a cupped hand into the bell. As limiting as this sounds, the natural horn was used extensively until the 19th century, and many great composers wrote for this instrument. What strikes me even now is the beauty that lies within such an ‘imperfect’ instrument. Hand-stopping changes not only the pitch, but also the timbre. This enables me to create various tone colours, allowing me to express emotions a modern instrument arguably cannot.

For me, this new perspective of seeing and hearing music is exciting and satisfying, both intellectually and emotionally. It highlights the tension and release within the structure of the music that dramatises fantasies and dreams. Yes, it is extremely hard work; natural horn is a volatile instrument that many deemed inferior to the more stable and ‘advanced’ modern horn. There is also the additional challenge of meeting the expectations of audiences who are accustomed to listening to the ‘perfect’ playing of modern horn, in recordings and live performance. The natural horn is so difficult to play that even the great Mozart wrote to his friend Joseph Leutgeb (to whom Mozart dedicated his four horn concerti):

“Are you finishing? Thank heavens! – enough, enough!”

Luckily, I have yet to experience this. While the probability of the sounds of disappointment and regret coming out of my bell is high, when I do the instrument and the compositions justice, it is the most rewarding experience.

As musicians, it is important that we are open to new approaches and ideas, and take risks. If we train ourselves to be risk adverse, we are practicing to be reward challenged. I have a lot of friends who think that if they train themselves to be orchestral musicians or teachers, as competitive as those occupations are, they would have relatively stable lives ahead of them. I must admit it always feel good to have a sense of security and stability in life. But for me, I know I will never be satisfied with being a part of the mass. As much as I don’t want to blow my own horn, I want to find my own sound in the crowd. I want to share my own fantasies and dreams, through a unique perspective that is both passionately beautiful and poignantly tender.

As I mature as a professional musician, I learn more about the process of music making. As Sir Simon Rattle once remarked,

“You never eyeball a horn player. That’s one of the real rules. You just don’t. They’re stuntmen. You don’t eyeball stuntmen when they’re about the dice with death.”

The horn is difficult enough as an instrument, the natural horn more difficult still. You don’t want to work against it or force your way out; making your life harder isn’t going to work. Instead, I think it is often important to remember to work with the instrument I have. Without it, I am just a dreamer without a voice. Together, it is possible to create beautiful music that is beyond my imagination. In many ways, the horn is not a part of me. I am a part of the horn, a continuation of history from its previous owners and leaving a legacy for the future generations. 

Banner photo by David Ng for Melbourne Philharmonia Project