Jamie Hersch: Announcing the Horn Player
You may have heard his voice at the start of SSO concerts – reminding us to turn off our mobile phones and welcoming young people on their first trips to a concert.
We talk to SSO Associate Principal Horn, Jamie Hersch, who will be celebrating his 22nd year with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra next month.
Professional since high school
Born in the US in Northern Virginia, Jamie has established his artistry and command of the craft, having played professionally since his junior year in high school.
“We had the chance to learn music in elementary school and we were shown large flash cards of what we could play. I was like, ‘Oh, that one looks complicated.’ I guess I picked the most difficult one!”
At the time, the horn was too big for him and Jamie was forced to learn the trumpet, which he totally disliked and therefore never ever practised. It was not until he reached 7th grade (Editor’s note: about 13 years old) that he finally got to learn to play the horn.
Within a few years, while he was still in high school, he had recorded and performed with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in Washington DC, under the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. He remains the only high-school brass musician to have ever recorded with the NSO.
The horn is the soul of the orchestra.
The most difficult instrument to master?
As far as orchestral instruments go, the horn is often said to be notoriously unforgiving. Jamie explains that the instrument has the biggest harmonic series, and with an open fingering one could play more notes on a key than any other instrument. “With the horn, it is very easy to miss pitch because the notes are very close to each other,” he says.
But he’s not sold on the “difficulty” claim.
“I like to dispel that myth when people say, oh the horn is the hardest instrument. It’s like Usain Bolt. What makes him so amazing? Almost everybody can run, but he’s the fastest runner in the world. The margin of competition at that upper echelon is in the milliseconds, literally. So even if you're playing the ukulele, to play it at the highest level will be that much harder.”
To date, Jamie has performed as a soloist around the globe with many ensembles, such as Boston Pops, the George Enescu Philharmonic, the ACE ensemble, Network for New Music and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
His most recent soloist appearance was at the 32nd edition of the Wien Modern Festival in Vienna, Austria in November. There, he performed Last Autumn, a seminal piece which his brother Michael had specially composed for him, and which he had premiered in 2009.
“He said he wanted to write a piece for me. His idea was a piece for horn and cello.” Jamie adds,“And it’s only going to be two hours long.”
Jamie recollects how he had to commission world-renowned horn maker James Patterson to make him a special horn for the piece to get the correct sound he had in his mind. (For those technically inclined, a descant horn is a double horn that has a B-flat side and a high-F side, standard for a normal descant horn but this one used an extra-large bell and a variant on a traditional design.)
He explains how it was new territory. “There had been attempts to make a large bore descant horn but it’s very hard. The problem is when you make a bigger bore; it goes horribly out of tune.” Other than his specially commissioned horn, Jamie plays on two other horns – a double horn and a triple horn, all from the same maker.
Teaching and representing musicians
Outside performing, Jamie started teaching more than 20 years ago and has been teaching at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music since 2013. Today he instructs about 10 students a week. Most of his former students are playing professionally around the world, and some are principals in orchestras such as the Flanders Philharmonic, Shanghai Opera, Sichuan Symphony, and the Sun Symphony.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to change things. Previously, Singaporean students that came to me very often felt defeated before they even started because they felt that Singapore was not even on the map of the musical world. Now there are Singaporeans shining in many different parts of the world over, and this has given them confidence.”
Jamie is a member of the SSO Musicians’ Committee, where he has served almost every year since it started. The Committee gathers feedback and comments from the orchestra on their concerns. “Contractual matters, health and safety of musicians, their welfare,” he cites as examples. “Essentially, the job of the committee is to make the working atmosphere more productive and happier for the musicians.”
Here, he gets real about a musician’s life – being on tour, the judgement from the audience, the self-doubt, and being self-motivated. He finds some helpful insight from The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. While it is incredibly fun, performing is also very stressful, especially before a performance. He likens it to baring his soul very time he plays, and there is the added pressure of maintaining a world class standard. “What the audiences see musicians do is a very tiny part of something they do all the time, the mental game can be 24/7.”
A lot of practice goes into every performance. For example, he spoke about preparing to perform his brother’s work for the recent concert in Vienna, “I spent a year on that piece. That one piece – and still worked on everything else I’m doing.”
He wants the audience not to worry for the musicians performing on stage but to relax and enjoy the performance. When he gets on stage to do a solo, he makes sure to smile and make eye contact with the audience so that they feel comfortable and they can focus on the performance instead.
His toughest crowd? Children. Jamie has many stories about different audiences but playing for children ranks high up, because, as he puts it, "Keeping their attention for more than five minutes means you are doing pretty darn good."
A few favourite things
If he were not a musician, Jamie reckons he would be a variety of things: a mineralogist, a radio announcer, a voice actor, or even a storm chaser. He wistfully relates how he has not been able to chase storms since leaving the US and so he settles for thunderstorms in Singapore instead.
In my last apartment, there was a balcony and when it would rain, I would go out there and sleep during the night. I just love being in the elements, and I am a sucker for inclement weather.
Jamie’s favourite sound is … a mixed choir. His “desert island disc” would be Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vespers by the Russian Glinka Choir.
Jamie ponders the future. “Some people say [classical music] is a disappearing art form.” He believes that it is a fine balance between maintaining the traditions of classical music while also embracing mainstream tastes as audiences change.
He cites the example of the SSO Pops: The Music of Star Wars concert as a kind of concert that brings in new blood. “There are diverse tastes among attending audiences, and in many places around the world, the age demographic is primarily older audiences. However, in Singapore, they are increasingly becoming much younger. So it’s exciting. After all these years, I am still very optimistic, and I am really looking forward to the future. I see great progress being made here especially in Singapore. It is a blessing, as many artists around the globe don’t have the opportunity and support that we do.”
Before you catch Jamie smiling at you on stage, listen closely to our concert announcements for his voice. If you are attending the Star Wars concert, don’t miss his Yoda impression!
Catch Jamie in action in our January 2020 concerts: