Voices of the Festival: Interview with Catherine Turner, Principal Horn

May 21, 2020

Catherine Turner, Principal Horn, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra

The 19th Amendment celebrates its 100th birthday in 2020. In the spirit of this landmark anniversary, Executive Director Elizabeth McGuire begins a series of interviews featuring women of the Colorado Music Festival orchestra to explore their love of music, their education, their interests, and more.

PART 1: Education and Career Path

Elizabeth McGuire: It’s great to talk to you, Catherine! Let me jump right in: Why did you choose the horn? What did that path look like?

Catherine Turner: I started playing horn when I was ten, in my fifth grade band. I had never really thought about playing it before, but they brought in the junior high band to demonstrate all the instruments. They said, “These are the instruments you can choose.” All the sections played a little song, and there was only one horn player. They got to him and they said, “Why don’t you just play a note.” [laughs] He made this honk and I was like, “I want to play that one.”

My family actually had a horn. My grandfather played the horn in the Purdue Marching Band. I never actually met him. He passed away before I was born, so it’s not like I’d ever heard someone in my family play it, but I knew that there was one in our house. So when I chose the horn, all the band directors were like, “Oh, no, no. You shouldn’t start on horn. Everyone who starts on horn quits because it’s too hard.”

EM: Oh, were they trying to get you to start on trumpet?

CT: Yeah, the trumpet or the trombone. I was like, “But I don’t want to play the trumpet or the trombone,” and I had a horn, so they couldn’t really say no.

EM: Good for you. I’m always surprised when I hear that people don’t start students on horn because, “It’s too hard and you’ll quit.” If that’s the first message you receive as a horn player, then guess what? It will be too hard and you will quit!

CT: Exactly.

EM: Wow, so good for you. So you were already kind of a strong woman as a ten-year-old?

CT: Well, I don’t know. My mom said it was the first thing in my life I’d ever put my foot down about. I was a pretty shy kid, and I wasn’t one to stand up for myself in most situations. For some reason, that was the thing that I decided.

EM: We’re all happy that you were on this track, even then.

CT: Me too.

EM: I’m curious about your early education. As you progressed, what kind of lessons did you learn from your teachers? When did you start taking private lessons? What was that like?

CT: I stubbornly refused to take lessons for the first year that I played the horn. That was dumb. [laughs] I took lessons from the teacher who ended up being also my high school band director. He was the first teacher for three years. And then my freshman year of high school, I switched to one of the biggest horn teachers in the Cincinnati area. I studied with her for all of high school. Somewhere around mid-high school I realized that I wanted to pursue playing the horn, and I just never looked back. I never had a Plan B or anything.

EM: Was it an “a-ha!” moment? Or did the music bug just kind of slowly get to you?

CT: I just realized this is what I want to do, and I’m good at it. It’s funny, it’s not like I had some moment where I was like, “Yes, I must pursue this.” It was just like, “This is what I want.” It was more gradual. And then I auditioned for colleges and ended up going to Rice [University]. I did three years of my undergrad, and then I won my first job. So I actually don’t have a college degree.

EM: That’s incredible. It’s like being a professional athlete, it’s no different.

PART 2: Teaching Experience

EM: So, you also teach. What is it like teaching students? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you strike me as someone who is both just naturally talented, but who has also worked really, really hard. I think it’s because there’s such an amazing consistency from your low range all the way to your high range and your sound, and that’s something that somebody specifically develops over long periods of time with a lot of intention. Do you feel like that’s the case?

CT: I think so. There are certainly things that were easier for me to start with, and there were things I had to work a little harder at. Obviously, you still have to put in the time to make sure that their level rises with the rest of your playing, but I really had to work to have a good low range.

Certain soft, high playing was a struggle for me for a long time. So there were things that I’ve had to work harder on to get them to the level that they need to be at, and then there were things that have always come a little more naturally to me. It’s ironic that I had to work at playing low because technically I have a low horn job now. I spent a lot of time at Rice [University] just working on low horn.

EM: Wow. So what came naturally?

CT: Playing loud and high. [laughs] I’ve always felt very comfortable playing loud. It’s my favorite thing!

EM: You are playing the right instrument.

CT: Yes.

EM: Well, I’m curious then. I know it’s hard to narrow it down to one or two things, but what are the things that you learned being a student that you really still carry with you today? And what are the things that you like to teach? What are the typical things that you talk about during your lessons with your students?

CT: I think the number one thing I say to my students is that they need to use more air. You could ask them and they would say the same thing. That is the number one thing. It fixes so many problems. If you’re not using enough air, nothing else will work. That’s the foundation of everything. But so many people don’t realize they’re not really taking a full breath when they play. Even me, I have to consciously think about it a lot of the time.

EM: So that’s something that you definitely carried on from your teachers … and I think that having been a horn player myself, the really good teachers were all talking about air stream. And some of them had strange contraptions and strange methods. I remember someone putting pieces of paper up on a wall and making me blow my mouthpiece against it so that it wouldn’t move, and that is really hard to do.

CT: I very clearly remember someone making me do that. [laughs]

PART 3: Choosing a Path: Professional Musician, Administrator, or Both?

EM: My background is that I started as a horn player, and then I very quickly went into administration. I did both for a while, and then at some point I decided I was not putting enough time into this instrument to make it to the next level. I felt guilty taking gigs while there were so many people around me that were working really hard and didn’t have other jobs.

So I said, “All right, I’ve got to pick a path, and I can’t do both at a level that I want to do both.” Obviously I chose arts administration, and now I think that was such a natural choice for me. I can’t imagine being a horn player because I look at how hard you all work, and I think about my personality. I really enjoy being out and about, I like talking to people, I’m a social animal, and the time in the practice room felt really confining to me.

CT: That’s funny because I’m totally the opposite.

EM: Yeah! I think people that do what you do at the level you do it are generally the opposite of me.

CT: If I had to do what you have to do, and go out and talk to people and all the parts of your job that are like that, I would die. [laughs]

EM: I get it. Sometimes I feel differently, it’s not always black and white. But for the most part, I felt very isolated [as a musician].

CT: Yeah. There are days where it feels like that.

EM: I’m grateful for that path, because what it has done is made me the type of arts administrator that deeply appreciates and respects musicians because I was at that crossroads myself, and I thought, “This is too hard. I can’t do that. I’m not built for this. These people are maniacs.”

CT: True. [laughs]

EM: I also remember being for many years, off and on, the only female in the brass section or in the horn section. There were times when I really felt the impact of being the only woman in the section. Now, it looks like things have changed a lot. I see a lot of women musicians in high ranking positions, and I think that’s fabulous. But I wonder if you experienced that, and if you have any stories to share?

CT: It has been kind of mixed my entire career. I think it has been shifting, especially in schools. It’s shifting to much more evenly balanced, especially in the brass section.

But yes, the experiences I’ve had in the professional world have been mixed. When I started in [the Montreal Orchestra], there was one other woman in the brass section; she plays the trombone. Now there are three of us. But in all of the winds, brass, and percussion, there are four of us.

EM: Wow. That is an interesting dynamic.

CT: Yeah, it is. It’s interesting just to think about when I look around. Our orchestra is pretty evenly balanced on the whole [when you count the strings].

PART 4: Being a Part of the Colorado Music Festival

EM: So what do you really love about being at Colorado Music Festival?

CT: It’s my happy place. I love it so much. There are so many things about it. I love Colorado, first of all. I love being outdoors and hiking, and all the things I get to do in my free time when I’m there.

My most time-consuming hobby is triathlons, so it’s kind of a dream to be able to train there all summer, and ride my bike out there, and hike in the mountains. It’s so beautiful. Plus all the other musicians who are there — to get to spend that much time with those people who are incredible musicians and also good friends. It’s great to be around everyone for those six weeks.

It’s such a positive environment, both personally and musically. It makes me incredibly happy to be there, and to get to play all the great repertoire, and for me to get to play principal — that’s the thing that makes me happiest in my life. It’s all of my favorite things all in one place. It’s so wonderful. I look forward to it all year.

EM: Are there things that you bring back with you that enhance your life in Montreal and with the Montreal Symphony?

CT: Yes, I think so. It’s that positive energy I try to hold onto when I leave Boulder. I’ve gained a lot of confidence from playing at the Festival. Before I started playing here, I hadn’t played principal in a really long time.

And then when I got to play principal here, I was like, “Oh, right. This is the thing that I love the most, and I am now 100% sure that this is what I want to do.” It opened up all kinds of doors for me in my professional life, both through the connections I’ve made there and through just gaining the confidence that not only I believe I can do this, but that I know for sure that I want to.

EM: It has galvanized something in you.

CT: It really has. I look at that summer that I started playing at CMF as a major turning point for me. Professionally and personally. It was like, “Oh, this is what I want for my life.” I’m incredibly grateful for that.

The Festival continues to celebrate the landmark achievements of women in music over the course of several seasons. Read more about the Festival’s multi-year “Three Generations of Women Composers” initiative here. Enjoy an interview between Elizabeth McGuire and Festival Principal Flute Viviana Cumplido Wilson here.)

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