COLUMBIA — What has 150 fingers, 30 feet and a huge sound?
That would be the 15 members of the MU horn choir.
The group could have its own baseball team. In the words of its director, Marcia Spence: “You know how treacherous playing French horn can be? Well, multiply that by 15.”
The choir consists of current MU French horn players, recent MU graduates, incoming MU freshmen and a few adult players from around the area.
Spence, who has taught French horn at MU for 14 years, is taking the group to the International Horn Society’s 41st Annual Horn Symposium this week at Western Illinois University. The symposium, held in a different location each year, serves as a convention for horn players from around the world.
Because of the French horn’s unique four-octave range, a group of horns can cover all the parts needed in an ensemble piece, Spence said. Not many instruments can do the same.
“You don’t see many flute choirs,” she said.
Few other ensembles have just one instrument, she said, barring clarinet choirs, which include other variations on the clarinet such as bass clarinet and e-flat clarinet.
“It’s difficult to hear yourself; you have to be very independent, more independent than in band or orchestra,” Spence said.
“It’s definitely harder than band or orchestra because each of us has to be the flute section, the saxes, the trumpets,” said Laura Mudge, who graduated from MU with a degree in music education.
“I think it’s the most challenging music we play,” said Molly White of Jefferson City. “It pushes us.”
At the conference Wednesday, Spence will present a lecture and perform solo for her colleagues before directing her ensemble later that night.
“This is quite an honor — several horn choirs will be performing noon concerts where, due to people scrambling to get lunch, they may not have much of an audience," she said. "Performing just prior to an evening concert pretty much guarantees a full house."
The MU horn choir is performing five pieces: “Mars — Bringer of War” from Holst’s “The Planets”; “Anthem” by David Baptist; “Amazing Grace”; and two pieces arranged by Spence: “Quick March” from “Sea Songs” by Ralph Vaughan-Williams and “A John Williams Sampler.”
“Most of the horn players (at the conference) will be playing the same old stuff, and we’ll play something new,” Spence said.
“John Williams is fun because it’s familiar and people know it. It’s also challenging because people know it, so we have to sound good since people know what it’s supposed to sound like,” said player Eric Dundon.
Spence arranged the John Williams piece, which features themes from the “Olympic Fanfare,” “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars,” “ET” and “Jaws,” with her group in mind.
“It’s my little Frankenstein project, arranging for them,” Spence said. “(In the John Williams piece) I arranged the high and low parts to the extreme.”
Spence took into account the strength of her players at the end of the spectrum, who can play notes much higher and much lower than most players can.
Mudge appreciates the fact that Spence takes the time to tailor pieces to the group.
“She arranges music to challenge us and that fits us,” Mudge said.
Spence said she is pleased with the growth she’s seen in the group. Since some out-of-state members will not be able to perform at the conference, she brought in high school graduates and private-lesson students who have only rehearsed five times with the entire ensemble.
“To inspire them to practice, I recorded our last rehearsal and made CDs for them and made them listen to it as punishment,” Spence said good-naturedly. “We sound much better today.”
“It’s exciting to see growth. As a teacher, that’s what you want to see,” she said.
Although attending horn conferences is common for horn performance majors, the players are excited about this week’s opportunities.
“It will be good for them to go somewhere where everyone has a horn case. It’s like a planet where everyone is just like you. There will be some people up practicing until 2 a.m. until the police come to get them,” Spence said.
Lindsey Tevebaugh*, who is working on her master's in music education, said she looks forward to seeing guest artists and meeting horn faculty from other universities.
Conferences can be a good time to network with graduate school faculties and work with highly skilled musicians in master's classes said Jaron Lester, a junior and a music education student.
Spence sent in a tape of the group last fall and was in turn invited to perform this week. The location is as close to MU as it may be for a long time.
“Next year it’s in Australia. I’d love to take (the horn choir) there, but I just don’t think we can manage that,” she said.