These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Nov 1, 2022

Meet the Musicians

Daniel Hawkins

San Francisco Symphony member since 2017
Hometown: Chandler, Texas
Photo by David Kim.

In August you won first prize in the International Horn Competition of America, held at the University of Alabama. What did you play, and what was the experience like? 
The competition was very fun, exciting, thought provoking, and rewarding. For the preliminary round, I performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Fourth Horn Concerto and Jane Vignery’s Sonata for Horn and Piano. For the semifinal round, I performed Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Concert Étude for solo horn. I played it for Esa-Pekka himself in preparation, because how often do we get to perform prominent works for living composers, especially when they conduct your own orchestra?! It was a highlight of my career to be able to share my interpretation of his piece with him at our hall. In the final round, I performed Richard Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto. After several hours of waiting and packing up my hotel room, we attend the awards ceremony, and I find out that I won first place. I was overwhelmed with joy, and I am so happy to be able to bring this title back home to the San Francisco Symphony.

In the Symphony, your position is utility horn. What does that mean? How do you fit within the horn section?
This question gets asked pretty often in my life since I joined the orchestra. You can compare it to an understudy, where the utility horn has to learn one or more of their section members’ parts every week in case they need to replace them in an emergency. Also, the utility allows other members within the section to take certain pieces off so they can rest before a more challenging piece. And usually on the last piece of a concert, you will find me sitting to the left of the principal horn, assisting them on their part. Whenever the principal has a big solo coming up, they usually give me parts to play that lead up to the solo so they can mentally adjust and focus in to play their big moment. It’s a challenging role but I really enjoy being able to wear several different hats within the section. 

How did you get started on the horn, and when did you realize you wanted to play professionally?
I started playing the horn in sixth grade at age 11. I was one of the only ones in my school to be able to buzz on the smaller mouthpiece and so they put me on the horn. I found out that I wanted to play professionally when my first private horn instructor, Dr. Charles Gavin at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, introduced me to a recording of Gustavo Dudamel conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. That moment has stuck with me, and that same, indescribable feeling I had when I was 15 years old in high school has never left. 

What are the unique differences and challenges of horn compared to other instruments? How do you actually make a sound, and what do all those metal pipes and valves do?
This is a tough question to ask because I start to get nervous just thinking about it! I would say that the main challenge for horn players is that when we miss a note it is far more obvious than when one of our string or wind colleagues misses a note. I make a sound by buzzing on the mouthpiece, which is connected to the horn via the leadpipe. Without pressing any valves, the horn can play several beautiful notes. By pressing the valves individually or in combinations with each other, the horn is transferred into a different key which allows it to play a fully chromatic scale. Originally, the horn did not have valves, so the amount of notes was limited. But with the development of the valves and slides, the horn became a chromatic instrument capable of creating a whole new musical vocabulary for itself within the orchestra and solo repertoire. The valves are not automatically going to give us the note we want to play. We have to visualize and hear the pitch and sound right before we make a sound into the horn. It is quite thrilling! 

What is a normal week like for you during the season? How do you balance practicing, rehearsing, concerts, and free time?
A normal week during the season for me is pretty different than most people would assume a regular “job” would be like. We usually have rehearsals starting on Tuesdays and going through Thursday mornings. Then concerts Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings, and sometimes Sunday afternoons. I am luckily able to balance my time pretty efficiently. I love hiking on mornings off, snowboarding on long weekends during the late fall and winter, and going to the gym on all of the rehearsal days. I am starting to learn how to surf, so I am doing that usually in the mornings when there are no rehearsals. I really enjoy my schedule! I love living in San Francisco. It has so much to offer and is such a special place that I have been able to call home.

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