The Other Side of Glamour
Have you ever wondered what life as an English horn player is like? Have you ever heard of an English horn? Meet Julie Ann Giacobassi, principal English horn player for the San Francisco Symphony.
“It’s not English and it’s not a horn. That’s what makes it so confusing,” says Julie, “Most of the time when I say English horn people think French horn.”
We are seated at Julie’s dining room table. There is art on the walls, a fireplace, a barbed-wire cow in the corner.
The English horn is a tenor oboe, Julie tells me, a reed instrument. Two hundred years ago the English horn was called an ‘angels horn’ because the bell was flared, making it look like the image of what an angel might play. Today the instrument has a bulb-shaped bell. The German word for ‘angel’ and ‘English’ is very similar, so that’s how they think the name evolved.
I had heard that top reed players make their own reeds.
“Why not just buy them from the store?” I ask.
Julie laughs,”You mean like the 7th grade band, where the teacher hands out reeds from a pile on his desk?”
I was never in band. Maybe that’s what they did.
Suddenly I see Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor for the San Francisco Symphony, passing out reeds from his podium. Not likely. Not for those ticket prices.
Julie spends about two hours a day manufacturing and perfecting her reeds. Reeds are made from bamboo cane grown for this purpose, mainly in France and California. First Julie cuts the bamboo to the exact shape and thickness using very precise reed cutting machines. The reeds-to-be are then soaked in water over night. Next she binds the cane with thread and bees wax to a thin tube which attaches to the instrument, and then she trims the ends. Finally, she plays each reed, fine tuning it by scraping it with a tiny sharp knife. These adjustments continue for the life of the reed (about a week). Approximately one in ten reeds will be acceptable for use in performance.
“Do you like making reeds?”
“I hate it,” she says with a smile. ”I’d rather be making music.”
Each reed has a distinct feel and tone. While one might sound great on a section with high notes, another might be needed for an especially boisterous part. Occasionally Julie will switch reeds several times during a performance.
“Rehearsal (with the symphony) is to figure out what the reeds are going to do, not to learn the piece,” says Julie.
Here’s what a typical day for Julie looks like:
7 A.M. — Wake up
8:30–9:00 A.M. — Work on reeds
10 A.M.–12:30 P.M. — Symphony rehearsal
1 P.M. — Home for lunch.
Afternoon — Set aside 1–2 hours to work on reeds and practice
4–5 P.M. — Exercise at gym
7:30 P.M. — Arrive Davies Hall to test reeds, make adjustments.
8 P.M. — Concert begins
10:30 P.M. — Arrive home
Saturday morning and all day Tuesday the symphony rehearses for the next weeks’ performances. Wednesday morning is dress rehearsal. The symphony performs Wednesday to Saturday for that program and then rehearses a whole new program for the next week. The symphony plays forty-five weeks of the year up to four of them on the road.
Julie prepares about thirty reeds for a typical tour. Some musicians fashion reeds in their hotel rooms, but Julie prefers to make them in advance.
Touring is one of her least favorite parts of the job, mainly because of the reeds. Humidity and altitude variations alter the reeds drastically. Julie does not know until she arrives in the concert hall how they will respond. She brings a reed kit with her to make corrections on the spot.
Julie Ann Giacobassi did not intend to become a world-class English horn player. She began playing her mother’s clarinet at the age of ten because her mother, active in her church music program, wanted her children to have an activity. When Julie was fourteen, her junior high band instructor asked if anyone would like to switch to oboe. Julie switched.
She went on to graduate from the University of Michigan with a teaching degree. There happened to be a glut of music teachers on the market at the time; so she decided to audition for an orchestra job. She was hired as the principal oboe player in Shreveport, Louisiana. After a year she relocated to Washington, D.C., where she free-lanced. It was there that she fell in love with the English horn. And a performing career.
Because there is usually one English horn player per orchestra, there are very few openings. After eight years and four auditions, Julie landed her present job at the San Francisco Symphony. She loves it.
“Great town, great orchestra, great audience!” she exclaims.
During the eighties, after many years of playing, Julie developed a repetitive stress injury similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. Rather than stop playing, she studied the Alexander Technique and now uses a peg to support her instrument, taking the pressure off her thumbs and arms. She encourages young players to be aware of their health and to be alert to early symptoms of repetitive stress injury.
Management is much more responsive to helping musicians overcome physical problems. Julie credits the Musicians Union and an enlightened management for the change.
“One doesn’t have to feel threatened, ‘Oh dear, if I go and tell them I’m hurt, then maybe they’ll push me out,’”says Julie. “Those are the old days.”
Similar to the viola and cello, the English horn has a limited repertoire. Because of this Julie keeps up her chops on both the oboe and oboe d’amour, filling out the oboe section when needed.
In her time away from performing Julie has a small publishing business to encourage
composers to write for the English horn, something she is very excited about. She also likes to read, cook, and go hiking. She and her husband have a house in Wyoming where she produces a very different kind of sound. She says, “I’m a whiz with the chain saw.”
AFM Local 6 Musical News, Aug 2002