Meet Erik RalskeErik Ralske has played Principal Horn in the Met Opera orchestra since 2010, following 17 years in the NY Philharmonic. He is also on the faculty of The Juilliard School and Aspen Music Festival. In this 40-min episode, we’ll explore:
- How learning a passage at performance tempo from Day 1, can sometimes be better than working it up with with a metronome from slow to fast (6:11)
- What Erik means when he said that sometimes the solution to a technical problem is not technical, but musical (9:36)
- How giving himself permission to miss notes in auditions paradoxically helped him play more accurately and consistently (12:00)
- I ask Erik how he works on rhythm, and he describes two “attitudes” when it comes to working with a metronome – a passive approach (bad) and an active approach (good) (15:16)
- Erik explains how these same attitudes can affect ensemble performance too – and how conductors can be an easy target for ensemble issues (20:01)
- How subdividing helps Erik to play not just with more trust and courage on days when he isn’t feeling as bold or confident in his playing, but get into “the zone” as well (22:32)
Noa: Making the most of one’s practice time is challenging for any musician. But as I’ve gotten to know more brass players, my understanding is that’s even more so the case for brass players, given there being more clear physical limits to the amount of time you can spend with the instrument.
Noa: So on one hand, I’m curious to find out how you approach practicing and prioritizing what you do in the practice room in general, given how much music there is to prepare at the Met.
Erik: Yeah. True enough.
Noa: But even before we go there, I’m actually really curious about how you managed practice in the context of audition preparation, given I don’t know how many people outside the brass or horn world know of this, but you not only won your current position as principal horn at the Met, but you won the LA Phil principle job the same week.
Noa: So assuming that those are two very different lists, I’m curious as to how you manage to keep all those plates spinning as it were, at the highest possible level.
Erik: Yeah. Yeah. Well, in direct answer to my situation when I won both positions, in fairness, I should explain that the decision from LA came in the same week that I won the Met Audition, though the actual LA audition I took, the final one, was months before.
Noa: Oh, okay.
Erik: They just… one of those situations where they sat on a decision and all of a sudden, oh, he must be that good if somebody else wants him. I don’t know what their thinking was in all fairness. But I think for students preparing for audition, that’s what you’ve been doing the entire time you’ve been in college, and you can be more single-minded. You’re getting mock auditions. You’re getting lessons, rep classes. All that experience that you spend in school is designed towards that end of winning that job. And as a professional, the challenges are that you’ve got a day job.
Erik: And for most people, life gets a little bit more complicated when you leave school. You may not be eating in the cafeteria anymore. The mundane tasks of being responsible for yourself. Maybe you’ve got people in a family now that you’re in a situation, a significant other, children perhaps. So your time is really divided. So to prepare while you have a job is a really hard thing. And as you mentioned, brass players, because we have limited endurance and you’ve got to think about, if I spend four hours practicing for this audition this afternoon, am I going to have enough chops for tonight’s performance?
Erik: So I found myself going home and doing a lot of my preparation after concerts. At the time that I was preparing for the LA and the Met auditions, I was living in a condo at the time, and there was a clubhouse that, by the time I got home from a philharmonic concert, it would have been 10:30, 11 o’clock at night. Of course, nobody was in there.
Erik: And so I remember it was just a large room, cathedral ceiling, and it was my own little Carnegie Hall retreat. And I would play to the wee hours of the night. Not too many, you got to sleep. But I put in an hour to two hours after concerts. And for me, everybody’s different, I’m a little bit more of a night owl. I like the peace and quiet that you find after hours like that. So that and the acoustics of the room I was playing in, my little sanctuary knowing I wasn’t bothering anybody too. It was far from any of the other residences. It was a place where creativity, and allowed for a place to be focused.
Erik: And then when I’ve been more successful, I think I have been a little more organized in my practice and addressing the general question too, when you’ve got limited practice time, you get right to the heart of the matter. You know what you know, so why spend time doing that? You spend time on that which you don’t know. And that can be these two beats in this one long excerpt, where if you’re honest with yourself and you realize that has too high a percentage of times where it doesn’t go well, you spend your time on that and taking things out of context more and eventually putting back into context. In your practice, I think, one has to find that proper balance of taking things out of context, untangling those things technically or musically that need to be untangled and then putting it back into the whole a larger context.
Erik: Knowing how to analyze problems quickly I think is also key. Sometimes the solution to a technical problem is musical. Sometimes it’s the opposite, and then sometimes the answer to a technical problem is merely technical. So you have to understand what the key is. In my teaching and as well as my own work, I always say start from where you can succeed, which means to simplify it. Take it down to a place where in its most basic elements, what is the issue, and succeed at that level one, if you want to use a video game analogy, which that seems to work well, and then add the next layer of difficulty.
Erik: So take a passage. If you’ve got a few beats of running 16th notes, but you can try the old tried and true method, old fashioned way of putting the metronome at 20 and then a year later you’ve got it worked up to 160 whatever. And that does work. But I find that I might take it close to performance tempo right away and just practice the first two notes and then add the third note.
Erik: And I can really focus at speed when I’m simplifying it like that of, oh, anybody can play the first two notes of a run. I might not be perfect the first few times out of the gate even, but perfect in every way rhythmically, technically. And then when you see at full speed, note one to two and it doesn’t seem fast anymore, then you add the third note and then you add the fourth note. It may seem like that could take you a hundred years to get there but actually it comes more quickly. And then of course by the time you’re working on the second to last note to the last note, of course you’ve played all the other notes in that run a few hundred times. So I do find that that’s really helpful because the slow practice is great and I do believe in that, but this seems to compliment it well the other way of working, because slow practice, you need to feel what it’s like to move with precision slowly where you can succeed.
Erik: But by the time you work it up to full performance speed, it can seem like a blur because you haven’t really seen a performance speed logging the number of hours you would when you practice and learn it at full speed. So I always say like a race car driver, if you’re used to moving 250 miles an hour, to that person, it’s just another day at work. But to you or I, that would probably induce some vertigo or something. So yeah, starting where you can succeed. Maybe in fact sometimes just to get specific for the musician, maybe the issue, is that in a fast passage, you have a certain amount of it might be diatonic, and then you’ve got some awkward leap there.
Erik: And so let’s say the fourth 16th going to the next group of 16s is a leap. I might play one, four one, four one, four one, four one, and just practice going through not playing the first and fourth note of each group, add another one, mix it around like that. I mean most people have probably heard those kinds of practice tips from their teachers. But it does come down to no one wants to sit there, bang their head against the wall and failing at a passage, that doesn’t do anything good for your confidence. So getting right to the heart of it is the essence. Saves time in the end.
Noa: And you said something really intriguing that I want to follow up on, because I’ve heard this from a couple of different folks in different places, but I’ve never heard anyone expand on it to clarify it, because I think it makes sense when we hear it, but then when we start thinking about, well wait a minute, how do I actually apply that? Sometimes we get a little stuck. And that was when you said sometimes the solution to a technical problem is musical in nature. And I’d love for you to maybe share an example if one comes to mind or-
Noa: … say a little bit more about that.
Erik: Sure. Well, technically speaking as a horn player and a wind player, but I’m sure every instrument has its own version of this, but sometimes when you’re faced with a technical passage, you only see it as that. But great composers don’t write necessarily technical passages just for the sake of showing off skill. Their writing because it has musical value. And so if you attach it, what is the direction? What is the shape of this phrase, these 16th notes or whatever the technical challenges is of a given passage. When you think what is the direction for a wind player or for at least a horn player, speaking as one, it’s easy when you’re looking at it technically to bear down, and so to blow at each note, where when you see it as it’s music value and think, well what does the shape of the phrase? Automatically, you blow through a series of notes rather than bare down and freeze up and lock up a little bit.
Erik: Suddenly that sense of flow, these notes now connect in a way and you’re sitting on, approaching it actually with better technique because on wind instruments I think, and especially on the horn, cause we hang by a very fragile thread in terms of hitting the right note or not. We stand on firmer ground technically when we blow through things. When you chop things up with your air to have to restart for a given note, all bets are off again. You have nothing, you’ve cut off any connection, you have to reengage and you’re dealing with a blank slate.
Erik: So if you’re blowing through things, you just are on better ground. And that’s where, when you face a technical passage and you don’t see it for its musical value, your skill, your technique may slip back into something that’s really not desirable and more prone to accidents. So that’s a short version of a passage that might improve just for thinking musically. The tactical part will improve as a result.
Noa: Speaking of accidents. The last time we spoke, you said something that remains one of the favorite things I’ve ever heard anyone say. And that was something along the lines of how when you were starting to have more success in auditions, you said you would, I think this might’ve coincided with you getting more into meditation and mindfulness and so forth and you said that you had given yourself permission to miss notes in an audition and that you had even given yourself permission to miss every note if it came to that so long as you miss them in time. And I think I have a sense of what you meant by that in terms of presence and mindfulness. But I’d love for you to expand on that too and explain.
Erik: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it was an important moment because again, as a horn player, I mean in any instrument, we all fear, I think missing notes, smudging passages, whatever. But no instrument is more associated with obvious missing than the horn and giving yourself permission to miss everything but miss it in time was important for me in that, first of all, your rhythm of course is essential. An audition, especially as an orchestral player, instruments that are more associated with solo playing, there might be more license to use rubato and be more individualistic, soloistic about things.
Erik: But as an orchestral player, rhythm I’ve always heard, and it’s true, I understand it is one of the first things that eliminates people on an audition. You can play a note, perfect audition, but you’re joining an ensemble of a hundred people and if they can’t trust you to represent what’s on the page accurately, you’re not going to get anywhere. And you analyze a committee is made up of people who not don’t necessarily play your instrument and they don’t necessarily, therefore understand what’s hard and what’s not or they don’t understand what standard you may be held to. But anybody can judge as a musician, whether somebody’s basic rhythmic sense is strong or not. So it’s an easy one for a committee to unify around a sense of whether somebody is solid or not. So yes, addressing my own sense of rhythm in that point, saying I’m just going to focus on playing in time, but also attaching to that that I don’t care if I miss every note as long as I do it in time. I was going to put all my energy in on rhythm, but it’s also a little bit of removing the fear and the focus of missing. So I don’t think about it.
Erik: What I found out was I did miss less. It’s like saying don’t think of pink elephants right now. Of course you’re going to think about it right? And you’re going right to letting your fear resonate in a negative way if you attach so much about missing. So I just said I was going to allow myself to miss everything, but focus on something that would help me. Because thinking about not missing isn’t really going to help you. That brings tension into your playing. You’re probably more likely to miss if you’re tense and then it might, if you are successful, not missing, it’s probably led to some very careful playing and then it’s also taken up so much of your focus that other things important, more basic like rhythm is going to slip through the cracks. So yeah, permission to miss everything was really helpful to me because then your mind was free to think about other things, like I said, and I actually found I was a more accurate player once I sort of let go of that attachment, so that was good.
Noa: In terms of rhythm, this might seem like an obvious question, but how did you work on rhythm? I mean I assume there’s a metronome involved at some point, but when you say rhythm, I also assume you’re not talking about like metronomic precision per se, but something that’s more musically resonant with whatever it is that you’re playing. How do you work on that?
Erik: I’m glad you asked that question because in all honesty it was not my strong suit. I’m not even going to say today whether it is or not because I don’t want to be my own judge here, but I know that when I was a student, it wasn’t high on my list of priorities. I was so focused on acquiring skills as a horn player and developing the sound that I related to as being beautiful. So when I would play something, in my college career with those things being my goal, I was always let down when somebody said, you really need to subdivide more because my reactions to that was, well that completely negates everything that I just did. Didn’t you hear how I’ve got this incredible high register and I’ve got this beautiful sound and strength or power or whatever that I thought you would find exciting.
Erik: I mean, I never articulated that, but that’s how I was feeling the hurt inside of like all the good stuff that I was focusing on was negated. And then I thought to myself, any idiot can count. I was just like a mathematical exercise that you could teach a chimp to do or something. But I was the idiot in the room who wasn’t counting or wasn’t subdividing. So then the next frustration was I spent a lot more time having to metronome on my stand and working with it. But when I turned it off, like at an audition or playing something from a teacher, the comment would come back still, you need to subdivide more. And I thought that I did all this work with the metronome. So what I realized then was that you can have two attitudes when you practice with a metronome.
Erik: And the attitude I took was I put it on, I follow it, which is very passive and you would just literally follow the metronome. But instead, at some point, and I don’t know why this clicked to me, but I had this epiphany one day of like I’m following it, but I could take a role of leadership with the metronome where if you hear two clicks, in your mind, of course if you subdivide, you can get one and two. And so then I thought, well, okay, and now I can accurately predict where the next click is going to be for the next hundred hours if I can stay awake and focused. So, and one and now and now and now and now and now. And so the metronome then just became like a way of making sure that my prediction of the next beat was coming accurately and then I wasn’t deviating from that.
Erik: And then I did something that I teach, I tell my students to do, but never outside a practice room, which is like if you have a long note to do, it’s a real sin in wind playing. But instead of playing let’s say a half note for a beat of going dum, I felt for me what I had realized was at some point the metronome that was sitting on the stand, I needed to do a, what I call the metronome transplant. How would I get that to live inside me? And certainly that idea of listening to just a two or three clicks and getting a subdivision going and working with the metronome to predict each beat accurately. But I also felt like it was really a good thing to play that half note and actually pulse with your air. Instead of just, because long notes is where most of us decide to take vacation mentally.
Erik: So I would, I did that myself. I got the long notes, I would pulse my air with the subdivision and then it became a very physical thing. It sort of lives inside you. Yeah, mentally you have to sort of have that subdivision awareness but then you can make it physical in a way. It became more real and then I didn’t really need the metronome so much anymore. I mean, yes you still use the metronome to this day, but it was finally where the subdivision lived inside me and I was no longer took that passive role with it. So it was an attitude shift in working with a metronome. Developing that idea of one step further if I could add, is that when you join a large orchestra, I think the life of an orchestral musician, it becomes, I found, because I’ve seen every rung on the ladder and the difference between the more regional orchestras to the top orchestras that I’ve played with, everyone likes to complain about conductors.
Erik: We blame them for ensemble problems cause they’re an easy target. And certainly the lesser orchestras that that I’ve played in, there was more grumbling about it and more blame after concert when something wasn’t together. It was conductor’s fault. But I think as my career moved along and I found that more advanced, more successful players tend to find a way of… they take the responsibility themselves and we find a way of playing together regardless of how clear or unclear. I mean, that’s why I think some of the greatest conductors sometimes don’t really necessarily have the best pair of hands. They may be great musical personalities, great musical minds, great inspiring, creative people to work with. But if they’re lucky enough to have risen to the ranks where they’re leading the top orchestras in the world, those top orchestras, this unspoken agreement that we’re going to listen to each other and find a way.
Erik: So what happens is you listen at every moment of where’s the engine, where’s it coming from? What group of in the orchestra here has got the fast moving notes, that is the subdivision at all times. So that if the big beat coming from the conductor isn’t a metronomically or visually mechanically accurate like a Swiss clock or something, the music is the engine and we’re all tuned hopefully into listening to that flow and you play with it. So even if a cue comes late, if you listen to the 16th notes that lead to your entrance and you play it on time, based on that, that’s more accurate than anything you can see visually.
Noa: It seems like a more organic way of maintaining a connection with what’s going on and reminds me actually what you’re saying earlier with leading the metronome versus following the metronome. It seems like it applies…
Erik: Exactly. That’s the thing. A good point, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but people who follow conductors are always going to be disappointed. Even with great conductors, there’s only so much visually, everyone can have a slightly different interpretation of where at the bottom of the beat. And so instead of following, you’ve got to lead it based on what the flow of music is. It’s chamber music on a huge scale. That’s what it is.
Noa: There’s one last thing that I wanted to just ask about that went by kind of quickly and you alluded earlier to the tendency for careful playing sometimes to happen and my understanding again with brass players is that that’s not as much of an option for brass players as it would be for a string player or pianist or something where you kind of get away with being tentative or a little bit timid. But with brass players, from what I hear, you’re either going to play a note or you’re not. And I wonder are there ways that you work on playing more courageously or less carefully? Like how does one develop that kind of trust in your own playing?
Erik: Yeah, good point. Well in the near term everyday we’re different, as human beings, and some days you know you feel more outgoing and more confident, more bold and you could look at it this way for a brass player, since we make so much noise and we have individual parts that you know every time you come in it’s a little bit like stepping off a cliff and with the trust that your parachute will open, that it’s not going to be a disaster. So the days you feel more confident are easy. But there are days to where you feel less so.
Erik: And the near answer to that for me is, well, if it’s just my change in feeling today, I don’t feel as bold, I feel a little more uptight. I really try to find the inspiration in the music that’s being performed and my colleagues. Because I feel music is always your friend in terms of if you’re in a rut, bad day or just a bad slump, you know you’re going through a rough patch for a few months, weeks, whatever. It happens. Your love of music and the passion will see you through it so that if you can get on board of the expressiveness that you really do envision rather than feeling uptight about your own ability to pull that off, you can take that leap of faith more easily and just get out of your own negative head, I would say. How do you develop it in the first place?
Erik: Number one, preparation. Because preparation does… everyone’s going to feel more confident the more you feel prepared about something. So preparation first, but secondly, really just say, I’m going to take a chance and just like giving yourself permission to fail and audition, but play in time. I would say, take your chances in the rehearsals and find out how much is too much, where you’ve gone beyond and so that when you get to the concert you have a good sense of what works and what maybe didn’t. The other thing that ties into what we were talking about in rhythm, is I have my own feeling as others do. This is not necessarily an original thought. But when you sort of discover it for yourself, it feels original in a way. That the importance of rhythm. Because as orchestral players, we sometimes have to play metronomically but very expressively and we can’t expect the whole orchestra to bend rhythmically with our own whim.
Erik: And that’s the idea that subdivision is what propels the energy through a phrase. So that long notes, there’s a life within. So again you have that half note. And most wind players, it’s the human condition. You go on vacation, you play the note, and you lose energy. But the idea that the phrase moves on, I’ll give you a better example. We all know the famous horn solo in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony … I hear that very sort of choppy rendition sometimes, but if you think about the long notes, the life within and the subdivision is on a trajectory. The upbeat … into the downbeat well and what happens beyond that? …
Erik: So if you take each of those subdivisions as little points, much like the analogy I often use is a those connect the dot books we have when we were little. One through 97 you connect them and look, there’s a firetruck. So these dots, if you plot out as like graph on graph paper, what is the shape and the contour within a note and how it connects to the next note. That’s something that if I plot out what I’m trying to do expressively in the practice room, they become like stepping stones up and down the hills of the phrase and I can latch onto that and into a concert because that provides me with many good things, good rhythm, like what you’re talking about. But I’ve attached the emotional content of the phrase with each subdivision I’m moving in the direction I want to and it’s controlled.
Erik: It’s like having your hands on the steering wheel at every moment. If you want them to take the a little bit of a right hand turn, how far? Is it a sharp turn? Is it a gradual turn? And I can steer it back in the direction. And with that comes the better technique we were talking about earlier. In order to connect dot one to dot two, it has to be moving through it, instead of vertically at each moment it goes through in a linear fashion. So it’s better technique, more expressive, perfect rhythm. And the last thing addresses the mental, which is if you’re really concentrating on rhythm, it’s what brings you into the zone. That moment of focused on the present tense only. It’s like saying …
Erik: And past and future disappear. That’s where anxiety lives, but keeps you moving really just right in this moment. So hopefully in a performance, I’m some successful at focusing on that, and that’s work you do in the practice room. You’re only following the blueprint you’ve laid out. And you have to just trust it and then fear. It might still be there and on some level, but you know that it works and you just have to reach for it, follow your own blueprint. It really is like sort of sculpting in sound because when you do work on at every moment the true trajectory of where the next stepping stone, the next particle of the subdivision is going emotionally, intensity-wise. If you are focused on doing that, you really are in the moment and you can, in the practice room, you can, like this great sculptor.
Erik: You can say, I’ll take a little bit off here. It’s a little too much or it’s not enough. I’ve got to build this up to make really the shape that I want. It may seem highly analytical but in reality, great art, sometimes it can be improvisatory and just live in the moment too, but the great works are worth spending the time to digest and making the most of those moments.
Noa: It sounds like a more engaging way to be present in a performance and also more compelling purpose then, try not to miss.
Erik: Well, yeah. I try not to go with the negative, try not to miss, but it rather think about the positive, what’s going to help you. I sing my song the way I think it should be sung and that in order to do that successfully, I have to be engaged on an organic level of subdivision and living in the moment and then I can spontaneously decide, oh I’m going to, rather than the next step being downwards, I’m going to continue this trajectory of maybe intensifying if I want to.
Erik: At least I’m in control because I’ve got my hands on that steering wheel at every moment and technically as a horn player, I’m backing it up with that flow of air in that forward fashion. So accidents can still happen, but at least it always… there’s nothing worse than I think those performances where you feel like just kind of, I’m not feeling really confident. I’m just going to try to bang out the notes and even if you do, you’ve kind of phoned in that time. So it’s always better to feel like you went for it and something went awry. It is true, it may seem harder to accept as the performer, but people are, I think, more willing to accept that. But the more you go for it, then hopefully the more confidence you get and fewer mistakes happen.
 I reference Erik’s having been offered the principal position at LA and with the Met in the same week – here’s more about that from the NY Times: Pit vs. Stage: Longer Nights and More Rubato (1:58)
 Erik alludes to how wind players, and horn players in particular “hang by a very fragile thread in terms of hitting the right note.” There’s an interesting Quora discussion about why this is – with a great graphic near the bottom that illustrates what playing the piano would be like, if the keyboard were rearranged to represent where a horn’s pitches are: Why does everyone say the French horn is hard to learn and master? (10:53)
 If you want to hear the entirety of the horn solo from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, here’s a link to the 2nd movement (Karajan, Berlin, 1971) – the horn solo begins about a half a minute in: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 (Karajan, Berlin, 1971) (26:20)
 Subdividing as a tool for greater rhythmic integrity, technical accuracy, and more musical playing has come up with artists in previous episodes too:
- Julie Landsman: On Getting into the Zone and Developing Trust in Your Playing
- Catherine Cho: On Developing Great Rhythm (and Why Old-School Metronomes Are the Way to Go)
More interviews with Erik
Here’s another written interview where Erik describes some of the differences between a symphonic job and opera job. Like the need for a “cast-iron bladder.”