by Barbara Jöstlein Currie, hornist
This article originally appeared in The Horn Call and is reposted here with permission.
It’s a little-known fact that the best seat at the Metropolitan Opera house isn’t in the front row, or in the glamorous boxes. Rather, it’s the Fourth Horn chair, a position I have played for the past 18 years. From this seat, I hear the warm, rich sounds emanating from Michelle Baker’s bell, mingled with the beautiful phrasing and tones of the Principal and Third horns to my left. To hear Michelle play the opening solo from Das Rheingold so effortlessly and with that warm sound, full of so many colors, is something I wish every horn player could experience. With Michelle’s retirement from the Second Horn chair imminent, I asked to interview her.
That in itself was a challenge - having to persuade her that she should be interviewed, and that the horn community would find her experiences interesting! Michelle is one of the least assuming, most humble people I know, and in addition to her beautiful playing, it is her kind spirit that will be sorely missed.
Philip Farkas once said that “it is better to quit several years too soon than 10 minutes too late.” In Michelle’s case, she is retiring many years too early. My hope is that this interview is enlightening for the readers, and as inspirational to you as she is to us in the MET Orchestra.
Michelle grew up in a family with five older brothers in Pearland, Texas. The daughter of a professional baker and church secretary, she started piano lessons at age six, something she would eventually combine with the horn as a double major in college. She started playing the horn in the sixth grade, at the age of 12. Although Sue Gottschalk was her first band director, it was mostly because of the local high school band director, Jack Fariss, that Michelle decided to play the horn. He did this by tricking her. He tested her musical pitch-matching skills and she scored high. Michelle said she wanted to play the flute, but, since her small hands couldn’t reach the octave key, Mr. Fariss, a horn player, suggested the horn. He played it for her and showed her how light the horn was by giving her an empty horn case and having her pick it up. After that, she was hooked!
She then studied with Jay Andrus privately in high school and at the University of Houston. While at the University of Houston, she also studied with Nancy Goodearl and, for a year, with Julie Landsman. Later, she studied for a year with James Chambers at Juilliard. During her one year at Juilliard, she both received her master’s degree and prepared for the Fourth Horn audition with the New Jersey Symphony with the help of James Chambers and Julie Landsman. Before the audition, Chambers said, “She will win the audition.” She did.
Michelle played Fourth Horn in New Jersey for two years, as well as one year on Third Horn, and she spent two summers playing chamber music in the Marlboro Festival, where she learned about a temporary Second Horn audition at the Met. Michelle worked tirelessly to prepare for the audition. After six weeks, she won the audition and started working at the Met in the fall of 1990.
While that preparation was difficult, it was nothing compared to her preparation for the permanent Second Horn position the following year. Support from her husband, Charlie Baker, Principal Trombonist of the New Jersey Symphony, was essential. While preparing for the audition, she had four weeks of grand jury duty as well as playing her job at the Met. The audition happened during her fourth week of jury duty. “I never let myself think for a moment that I couldn’t win it. I had worked so hard on my preparation that I thought, ‘This was my job!’ I never had the thought that I wouldn’t get it.”
She even planned the after-audition celebration at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame restaurant in New York City with Charlie, and invited her “new section” where they dined on a Texas staple, Frito Pie.
Barbara Currie: When did you find time to practice with all of these responsibilities?
Michelle Baker: I would warm up in the morning, go to jury duty, then go to the Met and practice audition excerpts, perform that evening’s opera, go home and practice, and repeated that routine for four weeks. I was so busy practicing during this period that I felt like I was basically not married – I got no sleep!
BC: How did you prepare mentally for such a challenging audition?
MB: While I never formally called it visualizing, the fact that I planned on winning with a party was a form of visualization. My husband also wrote me notes to keep me positive. I still have one somewhere that says, “Be nice to Mrs. Baker today.” I have also learned how to quiet my mind through prayer, something I still do to this day. One book I like to read every morning is Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. I pray for peace, focus, and strength. It also helps that I was a little naive and very determined to win.
BC: Did anything else stand out about the audition?
MB: The finals were around 45 minutes of playing and the other horn player was Peter Reit. While the committee was deliberating for what seemed like a very long time, Peter and I walked arm in arm down the hall, laughing and supporting each other. It was unusual but therapeutic!
BC: [I was curious about her thoughts on being a second horn player, and what the role of second horn means to her. It seems like no matter who is playing next to Michelle, she is in tune and "in tone" with them, blending seamlessly.] Was there any influence in the early years at the Met that helped you learn how to be such an effective second horn player?
MB: Julie Landsman and I fit together easily because she made me feel so comfortable that I wasn’t nervous with her. She taught me to listen left and to fit inside her sound. I learned along the way how to lose my ego so we were a unit. Since the first time I heard Julie play, I knew I wanted to sound like her – that warm, gorgeous sound! Plus, she plays with so much of her heart. Getting to sit next to her for 20 years was a privilege and a thrill. I strive to sound like her every day.
BC: I agree, the two of you sounded like one horn! Do you have any other influences in regard to second horn playing?
MB: Besides Julie Landsman, James Levine comes to mind. He encouraged me to play much softer than I ever imagined possible, as well as to play shorter notes in general. To play any Mozart with him was the best.
BC: You and Julie were the only women in the brass section at that time. Was that an issue for you? There are now four women horn players, out of nine, and at one point there were five.
MB: I grew up with five brothers, so it had no effect on me at all!
BC: At the Met, we often have situations that can make us uncomfortable or nervous. For example, when we play the Live in HD movie performances that are broadcast to millions around the world live, or when we play international radio broadcasts and the microphone is a few feet from your bell. How do you deal with these stressful situations so well?
MB: As I talked about earlier, I do my daily devotions, which take about a half hour in the morning, and they help me focus. Musically, while it’s basically internalized at this point, I do always subdivide. I also practice important solos a lot. I do my homework. For Fidelio, I will have practiced the opening solo about 50 times, often while watching TV! For Rheingold, it’s about 100 times. A few years ago, in preparation for our season opening night’s performance of Das Rheingold, I practiced the opening solo at home with subdivisions. When we actually played the opera, I would count the opening 16 bars loudly in my head with the eighth note subdivisions, and increase the volume of the subdivisions as the solo neared. Some conductors don’t give a strong upbeat before I play the solo, so I’ve learned to never expect a strong upbeat and to only rely on myself. I also have a plan for the bar before I play the solo, which is “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, set, play.” I practice this plan and do that no matter how nervous I am. And I remind myself to breathe. And pray! [It’s a long-standing tradition at the Met that the Second Horn player starts Rheingold, not the Eighth Horn, as is marked in the score.]
BC: Do you take it easy on big days?
MB: I usually try to have as normal a day as possible, so I’ll warm up in the morning, and I’ll try and take a nap in the afternoon if possible. On two of the upcoming Fidelio days, I was supposed to babysit my grandson all day, and now I’ll only babysit until 1:30 so I can rest a bit.
BC: I’m reminded of something that we all say to each other before we start something big, like the Ring cycle operas. Former MET Orchestra Principal Clarinetist and current Principal Clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ricardo Morales, used to say, “As long as we’re here, we may as well kick some a**!”
MB: Having a supportive section is crucial, and those sayings remind me that it is a team effort! Before Erik Ralske won the Principal Horn position, I was very nervous about who would be our new section leader. And then we got one of the nicest guys to lead us. Although he no longer plays a Conn, Erik had played one for his whole career until about five years after joining the New York Philharmonic, so his concept of sound was very similar to ours at the Met. He was clearly the best player at the audition. And he’s doing a fantastic job. He’s fearless and fabulous.
BC: I have to agree with you there! Are there any singers who particularly inspire you?
MB: Dmitri Hvorostovsky is someone who comes to mind for his singing as well as the fact that he breathes very loudly, which gave me the OK to breathe loudly and take in as much air as possible. Debbie Voigt phrases beautifully. René Pape’s tone quality and smoothness is amazing, especially in his recent Met Parsifal. Also, I love Peter Mattei and the way he adds character to certain notes – he adds a little shimmer on important notes that makes his phrasing interesting and beautiful.
BC: The Met, under Levine, had a chamber music series at Carnegie Hall. Are there any chamber music pieces that speak to you?
MB: Playing Auf dem Strom at Carnegie’s Weill Hall with Levine on piano was a highlight of my career. I also love playing the Mozart Piano and Wind Quintet, and I loved playing Bach trios with Julie Landsman and current Co-Principal Horn of the Met, Joe Anderer, in Japan many years ago.
BC: In all of your spare time, you somehow find the time to teach! You are currently on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, Assistant Horn Professor at Juilliard, and recently became Horn Professor at Montclair State University. You also teach and play at the Round Top Festival Institute in Texas during the summers. Could you describe your warmup routine, and the routine that you might prescribe to your students?
MB: If I have a lot of time, my warmup will take around 35-40 minutes. If I don’t have that much time, or if I’m still warmed up from a late night the night before, I’ll spend less time warming up. If it is a short warmup, I will free buzz while blow-drying my hair and buzz on my mouthpiece in the car on the way to rehearsal! For my optimal warm up, I will play something like the following, mostly on the F horn side. Playing on the F horn side has two advantages: developing your tone as well as the fact that it acts like a batting donut, so that when you do use the B-Flat side, it will offer less resistance, making the notes easier to play.
- Caruso: Lips, mouthpiece, horn
- Emory Remington’s Lip Slurs: I got these from my husband, Charlie, who was a student of Remington’s at Eastman.
- Low lip slurs from middle c’ to pedal F, three notes in a row: C, G, E etc.
- Octave slurs starting on third space c”
- Caruso 6 notes starting on middle c’ to third space c”
- Lip slurs from C to E, and then G to E and repeat
- Slurred three-octave harmonic series and gliss. harmonics
- Arpeggios: slurred and tongued
- Caruso note-tasting, noodles, and spiders
- Kopprasch etudes: my students will work on only the first four during their first semester. I want them to know where their air support comes from and strive to be in charge of their fundamentals.
- Martin Hackleman low studies
- Ward O. Fearn studies
- Pares scales
BC: What are your plans after you retire from the Met?
MB: I will continue teaching a lot, and hopefully freelance a bit. I will also play in the Montclair Orchestra, which is being led by the MET Orchestra's concertmaster, David Chan. And I will spend a lot of time with my family and grandchildren. I would also like to continue doing work through my church for social issues, such as homelessness and poverty, as well as teaching Sunday School and playing piano!
- All-time favorite opera to perform? It changes every year. This year it was Massenet’s Werther.
- Favorite opera to listen to? Any Puccini opera
- Favorite composers? Wagner and Strauss
- Favorite chamber music piece? Mozart Wind and Piano Quintet
- Favorite conductors? James Levine (any Mozart), Daniele Gatti (Parsifal), Valery Gergiev (Dvořák Symphony No. 9), Gianandrea Noseda, Fabio Luisi, Daniel Barenboim (Tristan und Isolde), Simon Rattle (Pélleas et Mélisande)
- Favorite Second Horn opera solo? Anything but the first page of Rheingold
- Scariest Second Horn moment? Rheingold
- Horn make? Conn 8D E series
- Mouthpiece? A bored-out Horner 6. I’ve played it since high school.
- Funniest moments at the Met? Many times getting the giggles with Julie Landsman
- If you weren’t a horn player, what would you be doing? Social work
- What will you miss most about the Met? People in the orchestra, especially my section. Also sitting in the middle of that sound!