'The Black Horn': Blowing Past Classical Music's Color Barriers

Robert Lee Watt Courtesy of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Robert Lee Watt fell in love with the French horn at an early age. He met a lot of resistance from people who thought his background and his race made a career with the instrument unlikely — but he went on to become the first African-American French hornist hired by a major symphony in the United States.

He became the assistant first French horn for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1970, and stayed with the orchestra for 37 years. His memoir, The Black Horn, tells how he got there.

Watt grew up in New Jersey with a mother who played piano by ear and a father who played the trumpet. His dad was keen to have Watt follow in his footsteps and play popular music and jazz on the trumpet.

But then Watt discovered a French horn in the basement of the local community center, and asked his father what it was.

"He says, 'French horn — that's a middle instrument, it never gets the melody. And besides, it's for thin-lipped white boys. Your lips are too thick,' " Watt remembers.

Despite his father's dismissal of the French horn, Watt was drawn to the instrument.

"It gives me chills," Watt says. "It just really touched me."

Today, symphony auditions are "blind," featuring screens between musicians and the committee judging them. That wasn't the case back when Watt started his career, and he wasn't sure that, given his race, he'd even have a chance in auditions.

He tells NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates how one teacher encouraged him to audition anyway, and how he overcame skepticism within and outside the world of classical music.

Interview Highlights

On continuing his French horn career after attending the elite New England Conservatory of Music

I think it was toward the end of the third year, my teacher came to me and said "I think it's time for you to start looking for a job." And I said, "Doing what?" And he says, "Playing your horn, dummy." And so my teacher — who just passed away a few months ago, by the way, at age 100 — was very paternal for me.
Robert Lee Watt was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than three decades. i

On racial tensions he faced in the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Most people were fine. They just — there were things that [were] what James Baldwin would call ignorant and innocent at the same time. ... I do remember meeting a concert pianist and he says he almost fainted when he saw me sitting there. He says, "You're so starkly black [against all the orchestra's white faces], there you were in the LA Philharmonic." ...

I had a nickname ... Boston Blackie. No one had ever called me that personally but many people came to tell me that that's how I was referred to.

And then there was a Chinese guy, very young, came up to me and he said, "Welcome. Bob, now that you're here, try and get as many black people where you are." He says, "That's how things change." And he became my first friend in the orchestra.

On what he wants people to take away from the book

One of the things that I think ... we're not honest enough about is, we tell young people that, "You can do anything you want, just put your mind to it." But that lofty paradigm defaults to: "You can do anything if we're comfortable with it."

In my hometown people would say things like, "You wanna play French horn, I see. Have you seen anyone else doing it?" I said, "No." ... That was the mentality in my hometown. If it's different, right away, you're going to get resistance.

Or, in the case of my father, it was fear. Because my father, I found out just before I went to conservatory, that he actually auditioned for Juilliard. He bolted out of the audition because he ... could play bands, he could read Sousa marches and he could play in the jazz band, but ... he wasn't classically trained trumpet. So it created a fear and a stigma, so when I come along a generation later saying, "I want to play French horn," he thought, "You think they're gonna take you? You'll see."

Music Choices Can Predict Personality

In a study of couples who spent time getting to know each other, looking at each other’s top 10 favorite songs actually provided fairly reliable predictions as to the listener’s personality traits.

The study used five personality traits for the test: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability.

Interestingly, some traits were more accurately predicted based on the person’s listening habits than others. For instance, openness to experience, extraversion, and emotional stability were the easiest to guess correctly. Conscientiousness, on the other hand, wasn’t obvious based on musical taste.

Here is also a break-down of how the different genres correspond to our personality, according to a study conducted at Heriot-Watt University:

To break it down, here is the connection they have found:

    Blues fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease
    Jazz fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease
    Classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introvert and at ease
    Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing
    Opera fans have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle
    Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing
    Reggae fans have high self-esteem, are creative, not hardworking, outgoing, gentle and at ease
    Dance fans are creative and outgoing but not gentle
    Indie fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard working, and not gentle
    Bollywood fans are creative and outgoing
    Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease
    Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease
    Soul fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle, and at ease

Of course, generalizing based on this study is very hard. However looking at the science of introverts and extroverts, there is some clear overlap.

Read more at Fast Company

The Surprising Science Behind What Music Does To Our Brains

Whether you are powering through your to-do list or brainstorming creative ideas, here is how the tunes you are playing affect how your brain works. Music affects many different areas of the brain, as you can see in the image below.

Happy/sad music affects how we see neutral faces:

We can usually pick if a piece of music is particularly happy or sad, but this isn’t just a subjective idea that comes from how it makes us feel. In fact, our brains actually respond differently to happy and sad music.

Even short pieces of happy or sad music can affect us. One study showed that after hearing a short piece of music, participants were more likely to interpret a neutral expression as happy or sad, to match the tone of the music they heard. This also happened with other facial expressions, but was most notable for those that were close to neutral.

Something else that’s really interesting about how our emotions are affected by music is that there are two kind of emotions related to music: perceived emotions and felt emotions.

This means that sometimes we can understand the emotions of a piece of music without actually feeling them, which explains why some of us find listening to sad music enjoyable, rather than depressing.

Unlike in real life situations, we don’t feel any real threat or danger when listening to music, so we can perceive the related emotions without truly feeling them—almost like vicarious emotions.

Ambient noise can improve creativity

We all like to pump up the tunes when we’re powering through our to-do lists, right? But when it comes to creative work, loud music may not be the best option.

It turns out that a moderate noise level is the sweet spot for creativity. Even more than low noise levels, ambient noise apparently gets our creative juices flowing, and doesn’t put us off the way high levels of noise do.

The way this works is that moderate noise levels increase processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. In other words, when we struggle (just enough) to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches.

In high noise levels, however, our creative thinking is impaired because we’re overwhelmed and struggle to process information efficiently.

This is very similar to how temperature and lighting can affect our productivity, where paradoxically a slightly more crowded place can be beneficial.

Read more at Fast Company

Musical Moments with Anthony Tommasini: Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms

"It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing." --- Igor Stravinsky

The Symphony of Psalms is a three-movement choral symphony and was composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1930 during his neoclassical period. The work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The symphony derives its name from the use of Psalm texts in the choral parts.

The work represented Stravinsky's need to express his faith and desire to do homage to God. However, the fact that he was a devout believer did not mean that the work ought to be looked upon as a personal confession of faith. It can be understood as a projection of Stravinsky's own faith through the imagined faith of an anonymous congregation. It remains a highly dramatic work nevertheless.

Anthony Tommasini, classical music critic of The New York Times, performs some of his favorite classical musicmoments on piano.