Mizzou Horn Choir ends on a high note

The Choir has nine players ranging from freshmen to graduate students.

Professor Marcia Spence conducts the Horn Choir on Sunday afternoon at Whitmore Recital Hall. The performance included a full ensemble, as well as a quartet of horns.

From outside the Whitmore Recital Hall on Sunday, the average listener would have expected to open the doors to a full orchestra complete with the low roars of a tuba and the high melodies of a flute section. Upon entering the hall, one found nine performers playing a single instrument: the French horn.

The Mizzou Horn Choir, an ensemble composed of nine French horn players ranging from freshmen to graduate students, played its last concert of the year Sunday. The group has been among the university's ensembles for as long as anyone involved can remember.

The horn's unique four-octave range, 1 1/2 more octaves than the average instrument, allows for parts from every instrument to be transcribed while creating a full sound with several of the same instrument.

Marcia Spence, horn professor and brass and percussion area coordinator, leads the ensemble in weekly lessons. The group reads through dozens of pieces a year, including some of Spence's original arrangements.

"We were playing one of my arrangements, ‘Space Medley,’ that begins with the 'Star Trek' theme that everybody knows," Spence said. "And one of the horn players just lost it, playing notes all over the place."

As a horn player and conductor, this is something Spence has grown quite used to. The French horn, in the "Guinness Book of World Records" as the hardest instrument to play, is controlled entirely by the lips with small variations between the notes. Even in the most talented ensembles, a different performer might make a mistake in each measure.

"You just have to laugh it off," Spence said.

Despite the difficulties the instrument creates for its players, sophomore horn player Mike Hill considers the Horn Choir the "happiest of all the ensembles."

"It's the most diverse crowd and nobody is afraid to be themselves," Hill said.

Among Hill's fondest memories in his time with the Horn Choir is its 2009 trip to the International Horn Symposium in Macomb, Ill. The three-day retreat allowed the choir the opportunity to perform in front of horn players from around the world and, as Hill mentioned, the chance to grow closer as a group.

"It was five days eating together, going on Walmart adventures together, going to conventions together and hearing horn virtuosos of today play," Hill said.

The ensemble saw success at the symposium, playing through what Spence remembers as "a nearly flawless performance."

"There's nothing quite like a standing ovation from your own peer group," Spence said. "Afterward, everyone was thinking, 'Who knew a horn choir from Missouri could play so well?' "

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