In the mid 1980’s I had the privilege of working with someone who is widely regarded as the best living hornist of our time. I say “working with” because I did not study with him privately in the way that we mean when we say we studied with someone. Francis Orval was the conductor of a brass ensemble that I was a member of and I think I worked with him in that capacity for two years.
If you would like to learn more about Francis Orval, I found a decent biography about him that you can read here.
Looking back at my musical career, Francis Orval was the first musician I ever worked with who didn’t come up through the American music education system. His ideas were different and seemingly revolutionary at the time. He challenged me to reevaluate my musical thoughts and priorities and in that way helped shape who I am as a player today.
This Life Builders series is an ongoing effort to recognize those people who have contributed to my success in life. I haven’t spoken to Mr. Orval since I left El Paso in 1987, but the impact he had on my career was significant enough to last a life time.
Sing It, Don’t Play It
There isn’t a lot about Francis Orval online, but when you do find comments about his musicianship, it is not uncommon for people to say that he is not JUST a great horn player. Francis Orval makes music. He doesn’t just play notes. To hear some of his beautiful playing, I encourage you to visit this site where you can listen to some clips of his recordings of the Bach cello suites.
I remember when we were rehearsing a work by Henri Tomasi (I believe it was his Fanfare Liturgiques) and I had a very exposed, lyrical solo. Francis Orval spent a good deal of time in the rehearsal working with me to play the music correctly. I had the notes down. That wasn’t the problem. What he wanted was for me to sing through my instrument. He told me to put my horn down and sing the melody instead of playing it.
Now, most educators do this to check your pitch. But this was different. Mr. Orval wanted me to put my heart into the singing. He wasn’t checking my pitch. He was genuinely trying to get me to pour some feeling into the music.
When I finally sang it to his satisfaction, Mr. Orval instructed me to then do the same thing on my trumpet. The difference the singing concept made in my performance was instant and drastic. All of a sudden I sounded like I was actually communicating something through the instrument.
Later that day, I met Mr. Orval in his office where he showed me a paper he co-authored that discusses the link between the human voice and brass performance. This was the formalized expression of what he was explaining to me in the rehearsal. Reading that paper in the context of what I had just experienced in the earlier rehearsal changed my life.
It is not a coincidence that this is one of the things I am most complimented for in my career today. One of my students likes to say that I caress every note. Darryl Bayer often says that the reason he likes to hire me is because I can make even the simplest brass quintet arrangements sound like something musical. The most common compliments I get as a lead player in the big bands are for my “feel” and sense of swing. All of these compliments can be traced back to that original idea communicated to me by Francis Orval.
This is what these Life Builders posts are for. It is an ongoing effort to demonstrate and acknowledge how people have contributed to my success in life. So what I’m saying here is that the things I am complimented most for in my musical career are all related to what I learned from Francis Orval. This ability to sing through the instrument transcends all physical and technical barriers we have as musicians.
Francis Orval is able to teach this way because he performs this way. Listen to his music and you will hear what I’m talking about. When you sing through your instrument, everything changes. It’s no longer a mechanical process. By connecting your performance to your voice, you expose your listeners to the very deepest parts of your being (how’s that for overly poetic drivel??? He he he…). This is how we transcend the physical limitations of our instruments.
Here is a famous recording of Francis Orval playing the Brahms trio for piano, violin and horn. I have this on LP and have been listening to it for years:
As I said earlier, I haven’t spoken to Mr. Orval in many years. I don’t know where he is now. I know he taught in Dover Delaware for a while after he left El Paso. I see online that he has since taught in Germany. Other than that, I have no idea what he is doing today. So it’s fitting that I thank him on my website where he may eventually find it himself.
Thank you, Mr. Orval. I am not an orchestral player like I thought I would be when we were working together, but I have taken what you taught me and applied it to my career. In that way, you have been a wonderful blessing to me and my students. Thank you.
Note: (2/28/13) I have recently received an email from Mr. Orval, as I hoped I would. He says he is recently retired in Belgium but that he still presents master classes in Europe and Japan. I am very glad to be able to hear from him again after all these years.