By Jack Howell
One could be forgiven for thinking that it is easy. When Pittsburgh Symphony Principal Horn Bill Caballero picks an impossibly pure, liquid tone out of thin air to begin a solo like the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (purchase it here), it may seem that the only possible explanation is some accident of nature. He’s just lucky. But fifteen minutes into a discussion with him about air, a substance which he speaks about with as many shades of meaning as an Inuit might devote to snow, a different impression emerges.
The tone and quality of attack that has been a feature of PSO performances since Caballero joined in 1989 results from a practice regimen that runs almost around the clock, as it has done for years and years. “It’s a balance between work and recovery,” said Caballero. “You have to keep the muscles trained and flexible, but you also have to let them rest and rebuild. I’m a late night practicer; the 11pm to 1am window is just long enough after an afternoon rehearsal and just long enough before the 10am rehearsal the next day.”
Every day includes two practice sessions that last between 45 minutes and an hour and a half, in addition to rehearsals and concerts, but it’s not the time alone that Caballero considers important. “Probably 85% to 90% of my time is spent on fundamentals,” he said. “Long tones, scales, tonal centering exercises. I’ll play through the solos, and if we’re playing something like Mahler that stresses endurance I’ll prepare for that, but the most important thing is finding where to put the air in the note, finding the exact center where the tone is most stable and efficient. So I spend a lot of time making that as good as possible, and hopefully even better than that. There’s a lot of technique involved in playing a symphony, but it all happens much more easily when the fundamentals are where they need to be. And you can’t cram fundamentals, you have to work every day. Rust never sleeps.”
So, the listener should not be fooled by the effortless quality and seamless legato in Caballero’s playing; it gets made every day, like donuts, in the small hours. This is true for every PSO musician; although perhaps the schedule is a little different, every member of the PSO has built a personal mountain of practice and thought that the audience will never see and perhaps will never suspect. Only the peak should be visible. Speaking of peaks, it is perhaps the most telling praise for Caballero that in 2010 the Los Angeles Philharmonic tried to hire him as Principal Horn, and perhaps the most telling praise for the PSO that he turned the offer down. ”I don’t want to make a big deal of that,” said Caballero. “Los Angeles is a great orchestra, and a great compliment to be asked. But the PSO is in that same top level of orchestras, and there is no better horn section, these guys are that strong. Pittsburgh is such a great city and so supportive of the arts that the PSO punches far above its weight. It takes a pretty spectacular opportunity to get a musician to leave the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.”