“Do music because you enjoy it – not to achieve an arbitrary goal”
We sat down (virtually) with Musician of the Month, Nivanthi Karunaratne to hear her thoughts on music, playing in an orchestra and the lockdown.
Aditi Bharatee (AB): Tell us a little bit about your early music education.
Nivanthi Karunaratne (NK): I grew up in Gurnee, Illinois. I started with piano lessons, and then I joined band in the 4th grade, when I was 10 years old. I started out on the trumpet and eventually switched to the horn. I began to play with an orchestra during my sophomore year in high school. I was part of the Merit School of Music in Chicago, where I got to play in chamber ensembles, band as well as orchestra. I was mesmerised, going into the big city and getting to create and listen to beautiful music. I had a lot of friends too, so it was a musical, social and extra-curricular experience.
AB: Can you tell us a little bit about the role of the horn in the orchestra and its history?
NK: The horn’s role in the orchestra has some variety. Sometimes the parts are lyrical and melodic, playing the flutes or clarinets, and at other times the horn can be very loud and powerful, holding its own with the low brass instruments. As for its history – valves are a relatively recent invention (19th century) – and so the horn parts were largely limited to the harmonic series. The crook of the horn (the coiled portion) would be of different lengths, depending on the key they were in and it allowed a certain amount of versatility. The F horn is much smaller and higher than a C horn, for instance. They sound quite different from each other too. In addition, before valves were integrated, horn players would place their hand inside the bell to sharpen the pitch, so it was possible to introduce some chromatic notes into the harmonic series.
AB: What was it like switching from the trumpet to the horn? Do you have any tips for new horn players out there?
NK: Typically in band, the teachers would start us out on more accessible instruments like the clarinet, trumpet, trombone, or percussion. One reason is that young players may develop bad habits in technique if the instrument is too large for them. As we’d get older, some of us would widen our range to include other instruments, and this is how I switched to playing the horn. For a while, I did try to play both horn and trumpet, but at some point, the techniques were starting to conflict with each other. On the trumpet, you play the keys with the right hand, and on the horn, you play with the left. In addition, the angle of playing is quite different on the two instruments.
For someone who is new to playing the horn, I would advise learning to play with the least amount of tension possible. Don’t force yourself to play high or low notes – it could lead to injury. Start with a lot of glissandos and take advantage of the length and breadth of the harmonic series.
Any tension you feel in your body will come out in your sound from the horn. In addition, I’d say practise as much as you can – and keep a log of what you’re working on. This will keep you honest with your progress. And of course, try to enjoy yourself and be consistent!
AB: What kind of musical activities have you been up to during the lockdown?
NK: I’ve been exploring some solos and etudes that I’ve never tried before. Because I studied in a university rather than a conservatoire, I never really did the systematic etude work that other students might have done. I’m working on some etudes by the composer Jacques-François Gallay, which are quite lyrical and operatic in style. I’m also working on some fundamentals like scales. In terms of solo pieces, I’m playing a fun piece called Tanguito, by Dante Yenque, and some pieces by Hindemith.
AB: Can you tell us about a music teacher who made a particular impression on you?
NK: I think that would be my piano teacher, Donna Fortney. I started piano lessons when I was pretty young but was often distracted by other interests – there were many times I wanted to quit. Miss Fortney was one of those people who had a lot of love for life and her students, and was very caring, flexible and easy-going. She was never punitive – she’d work with whatever you brought in. Even now, I think I do best with teachers like this – who aren’t very demanding, or the kind to put you down. Miss Fortney would always remind her students to do music because we enjoy it, not because we’re trying to achieve some arbitrary goal. She even flew out to Princeton to see one of my performances. She’s been one of my most influential teachers because her approach to music – and teaching – made a lasting impression on me.
AB: Finally, can you share with us some cherished memories from the Peace Notes concert of last October?
NK: I spent a lot of time with Meera (Gudipati) and Rohan (Ramanan) and the two of them are some of my best friends as a result of SASO. Rohan’s family is from the Bangalore area, and so we got to explore some things I’d never seen before. I was able to get a top stitched by a tailor! The other thing was that Rohan was rooming with Farhad (Billimoria) and we spent a lot of time with him, sometimes staying up till 4 am, laughing and talking about things. Rohan and I are at the beginning of our musical careers and Farhad is in the thick of his, so it was great to see his perspective on things.
Nivanthi currently lives in the New York area. She has a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from Princeton University, with a Certificate in Music, and a master’s degree in Music from the Yale School of Music. She has studied with Chris Komer, Principal Horn of the New Jersey Symphony and Erik Ralske, Principal Horn of the Metropolitan Opera. She currently studies with her teacher from Yale, William Purvis. She has performed at both SASO concerts.