Meet our players: Mervyn Stephens, French Horn

Meet Mervyn, French horn player par excellence, thwarted artist and long-suffering but now retired (and missed!) NWSO committee member.

Can you tell us a bit about your musical career up to now?

I was thrown out of art in my O-level year (GCSE for younger readers). I was told I was “a waste of paint” and should “join the other two doing music”. Best thing that happened to me, as I found that I really enjoyed music, and the teacher persuaded me to try the French horn. My parents funded some lessons, but we moved to Sussex a few months later where there were no horn tutors. I joined bands and orchestras where the other horn players supported me and shared their advice. It led to playing in the County Youth Orchestra and local orchestras of a good standard. Now I play whenever and wherever I get the opportunity.

What do you like about the French horn and what is the most difficult thing about learning how to play it?

I love the sound, or rather the range of sounds. No one tells you how difficult it is when you start. The basic exercises to develop one’s playing are a lifelong necessity – sadly for your family who have to hear it. Pitching is difficult especially up high where the notes sit next to each other on the same fingering. And then there is transposition – best not start that discussion!

How did you become involved in the NWSO and what do you enjoy most about playing in an orchestra?

I took up playing after a long layoff due to a change in personal circumstances. NWSO was the first orchestra I found and they were very welcoming. I enjoy everything about being part of an orchestra, from rehearsing through to improving pieces for the concerts and being with people of like minds.

Do you have any highlight concerts that you’ve been part of over the years?

There are many. One stand-out concert was when the NWSO horn section performed the Schumann Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra. It was great working on that together.

Has there ever been a catastrophic concert – either with the NWSO or any other orchestras/ groups you are part of?

There are probably many of these as well. I recall once in Arundel, where a stand-in conductor (he wasn’t good) managed to stick the baton behind his specs and sent them flying over the violas. He literally stopped to get them back, so we had to carry on without him.

Do you have a bucket list of pieces that you would like to play – and if so, what are the top three?

Ignoring the fact they may be beyond my capabilities, it would be any of the tone poems by Richard Strauss, Mahler’s 5th Symphony and Haydn’s Mother Therese Symphony.

If you could learn to play any other instrument, what would it be?

It would be the cello. I tried it when I was 11 but it didn’t work out. It would force me to learn bass clef properly as it often crops up in low horn parts.

What music do you like to listen to (apart from classical)?

I don’t like modern jazz as I am never sure when they have stopped tuning and have started to play!  Radio 1 is no longer for me. Apart from that I will listen to anything.

Who would you say has inspired you most as a musician?

No one person—it is all the horn players who have helped in the past and now, the teacher I have been to more recently, and all the other musicians I work with.

Any top tips for aspiring musicians (in particular horn players…)?

Unless they are musicians, do not let your parents buy your first instrument! Mine was rubbish! Instead, find the teacher first and let them point you in the right direction. An old second-hand horn will most likely be better than the new shiny one just in from China!

And a few quick-fire questions:

Favourite piece of music? Mozart’s Clarinet concerto, especially the slow movement. I’ll bet you didn’t see that one coming.

Most disliked instrument? The one that is out of tune!

Beer or wine? Both, but not in the same glass.

Starter or dessert? Starter

Famous person you’d most like to meet? There is no one that I can think of, but it might be nice to meet that art teacher to say what a difference he made to my life, albeit unintentionally on his part.