Seven Questions for Hannah Culbreth, French Hornist

I was recently at an artist residency where I met Hannah Culbreth. I got to see her play and spent time in her studio, where our conversation often turned to matters of practice and craft.  From her, I learned some new ways to think about how I teach writing. I especially loved hearing her talk about how she stays motivated, how she deals with artistic challenges, and how she teaches herself new skills.

 Here’s her bio: Hannah Culbreth is a 22 year old French Horn player from Atlanta, GA. She grew up in a rather musical family, but didn’t begin playing Horn until age 13. Hannah has recently completed undergraduate studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA. Hannah thoroughly enjoys playing in chamber music ensembles and has a passion for new music collaborations. This year, in her professional career, Hannah has served as a chamber musician with the Maui Pops Orchestra in Hawaii, as a member of the New York String Orchestra, and as a substitute with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. One can often find Hannah obsessing over Brahms, reading books, or dog watching. 

I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I have.

Hannah plays the French Horn next to other ensemble players
Hannah, center
Photo courtesy of Hannah Culbreth

I loved hearing you talk about working on your pianos—playing softly—for a year. What exactly was that process and how did you come up with it?

I started to think about auditions and what would allow me to stand out from the other applicants behind a screen. This, for me, began by recognizing what other brass players had trouble doing. The universal obstacle seemed to be soft playing. To make myself stand out in this way, I created a simple plan—15 minutes a day of playing soft for one year. Fifteen minutes is a very non-intimidating amount of time, and I knew that I would have that amount of time to spare every single day. In this 15 minute block of time, I set a timer and put all of my focus and energy into expanding my limits- playing as soft as I physically could with a beautiful sound. Each day, I measured how soft I was getting with a tuning app on my phone and a recording device. I mainly used the tuning app as a visual aid, trying to push the line that measures sound as close as I could get it to zero (no sound). It was a good and non-intimidating way to measure my progress! 

This simple focus led to a more explorative and consistent form of practice and improvement. The structured plan (the amount of time) and freedom (experimentation) completely eliminated the anxiety I would get from approaching a session without a plan. I’ve managed to exceed my expectations by simply being consistent! 

I’ve heard that if you miss one day of practice you notice; two days, your friends notice; and three days of missed practice and the audience will notice.   

I have definitely heard this from teachers and performers! I think it is extremely accurate. Days off are certainly important, but remaining consistent is equally as vital to maintaining high performance standards. 

Another good phrase I’ve heard, as a horn player, is “The audience does not care that this is difficult to play. They are here to enjoy your art.” This truly puts everything into perspective and gets me out of a negative approach to performing. I often get caught up in the difficulties of the music and how I am representing myself, but Art is for people by people. This phrase stresses the importance of preparation to deliver a moving product, and equally reminds us that our audience is here to be moved! 

What motivates you to practice every day?

Practicing is the highlight of a lot of my days. It not only gives me the space to improve as a musician, but also as a human being. I’ve learned so much about myself through practicing: how my brain functions when I’m exhausted, intuitiveness, trust in myself, how to live with something that is simultaneously challenging and rewarding—the list goes on and on. I believe that nothing can be truly mastered, and being able to learn something new about my craft every single day is such a motivating force.

How do you structure your practice sessions?

The structure actually has changed over time and will hopefully continue to be malleable. I love experimenting with practice regimes that are able to function around my ever-changing workload. The structure I currently follow is in preparation for the upcoming audition season, and it is actually less meticulous than most of my past routines. Auditions are stressful, so to eliminate a bit of the stress, I divide my practicing into three blocks—a morning, afternoon, and evening session. 

In the morning session, I focus on warming up and discovering how I’m feeling with the instrument. In this session, I use my body and state of mind to determine how I will plan the other two sessions. If I am abnormally tired (physically), I will plan to practice repertoire that is less demanding. 

The second session is focused on fundamental concepts—the “tools” that I sharpen to put in my musical toolbox. For me, this “toolbox” is ideally filled with fundamental concepts of playing that will come in handy during hard passages in the repertoire. 

I practice my actual repertoire for solos, orchestra, and auditions during my evening session. I usually set a timer for 20 minutes for each piece. 20 minutes seems to be a really productive and fulfilling amount of time for me. I like the idea of leaving it wherever I am when the timer goes off. It really makes me value the practice time, and it requires me to set goals beforehand. I usually take short, 5 minute breaks in between pieces. These mini-breaks are just as important to me as the actual practice time. 

Hannah's music on a white table
Photograph courtesy of Hannah Culbreth

You have a technique for working on the most difficult parts of your craft.  

I tackle the most challenging aspects of a piece in the evening session, so it is usually at the very end of my day. This seems to be more productive for me after working on fundamental concepts that I can apply to the hardest parts. In the 20 minutes sessions, instead of planning to play an entire piece, I plan to work on only 3 or so measures of each piece. Approaching practice with an “I will work on this piece now” is daunting and vague. I like to point out the one or two specific things in each piece that makes the entire piece seem overwhelming. Then, I work on the specific “problem areas” slowly and confidently. After doing this, I find that my approach to practicing the whole piece through is much more positive and rewarding.

I know you make your bed every day.  Are there other rituals that support your musical practice?

Yes! I love reading daily, as this exercises my brain and even inspires some musical ideas. It is usually my “reward” for a busy day of practice and work. Just like going home to a made up bed, reading is also something that brings me solace and comfort after a day of hard work. 

How did you learn how to practice? 

Mainly trial and error. My first music teachers suggested regimented routines that worked for them, but I think that the “right” way to practice is so personal. I became better at practicing when I realized it is simple—set small goals, specifically identify how to achieve them, and remain consistent in hard work. Persistence is always key!