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Humans of St. Louis: Victoria Knudtson and Denim Browder

In the 2022/2023 season, the SLSO is collaborating with the storytelling nonprofit Humans of St. Louis to share stories about musicians and friends of the orchestra. The series has included Stéphane Denève, IN UNISON Chorus members Michelle Byrd & Vivian Fox, and SLSO and YO violinists Angie Smart and Celia Alexander. It concludes with SLSO horn Victoria Knudtson and her student, Denim Browder.


Story and Photos by Lindy Drew


Multi-Instrumentalist


Denim: I didn’t like music that much until I came to a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Extra Credit concert. It was so fun to listen to. I had music class before, but our band was horrible. When I heard the musicians play, I just fell in love with orchestra music. I didn’t know which instrument I wanted to play though and there were a lot of choices. So I chose the French horn without knowing what it looked like. We didn’t get our instruments for a long time, but when the day finally came, I got mine and it was so small with this tiny mouthpiece. Then I moved to a new school and our orchestra teacher said he needed more people to play the cello for the school performances. I asked him what the cello looked like, he showed it to me, and the next thing I knew I began playing the cello. Then I started playing Garage Band and started asking my mom for a piano. I think she got really annoyed. When I got off the bus one Friday, she blindfolded me and said she had a surprise. We went to the garage and there was a piano.


I tried soccer and tennis and track before playing the French horn, but then I quit. I like the sound the French horn makes. And the warmth. And the heaviness.



Teacher & Student


Victoria: I joined the orchestra in January 2020. I had about two months of regular work and then the pandemic hit. A lot of our work moved online and there was this educational outreach program the SLSO does called Peer to Peer where Youth Orchestra students who maybe haven’t had opportunities to have one-on-one lessons with teachers are paired with a member of the orchestra and a member of a school. Denim was in a band program but now gets to specialize and receive individual lessons with me. Until 2020, that program had only existed for strings. There was no brass, winds, or percussion. But the director of the program met Denim at an Extra Credit concert and thought it would be great to get him involved back when he started playing the horn. They reached out to me and a couple of other members in my section to see who had the availability, time, and interest, and I said I’d love to meet Denim. We met online over Zoom, which presented some challenges. The iPad would fall to the ground. We’d have to take breaks because it’s hard to sit in your bedroom in front of a computer for so long. So in between lessons, we started talking about life and school and stuff. Denim had a lot of good questions about how the orchestra works, why we tune to the note A, why the conductor comes out separately, and why everyone claps.


Horn Camp & Frogs


Victoria: We were doing weekly lessons over Zoom leading up to summer when I was planning to teach at a horn camp. My first private horn teacher in high school used to take me to this camp in the mountains of New Hampshire. When the founder died, my teacher decided to build his own horn camp in Iowa and asked me to teach there. I knew I had to bring Denim, so I invited him. He talked it over with his mom and let me know, "We’re good to go. Let’s do this!" It was his first sleep-away camp, too.


Denim: I thought I was gonna be sleeping outside. There were cabins, but there were a bunch of frogs. One time during bed checks, there was this one whitish-greenish frog that was huge. I stepped towards it, he jumped toward me, and I ran.


Victoria: Did you know you were a talented frog catcher before horn camp?


Denim: 😏


Victoria: Being in-person at horn camp made up for all that time we had been practicing over Zoom. Every day, all day, we were able to meet up. There were six full days of instruction and three teachers for 11 students.


Denim: The students were fun there and very nice. None of them got kicked out of class or went to the office or got in trouble. While I was there, I learned how to oil my French horn and let the spit out. I learned a lot of weird stuff, too. First off, if you play a double horn, you’d think you can pull all the slides out, but you can’t. Also, when I came back from horn camp, I was oiling my horn, I put the valve back in, pressed it, and the slide just kept coming out and making noise. But I remembered from camp that all I had to do was hold the valve down and it went right back in. I want to go back next year.



Finding the Right Instrument


Victoria: Denim had a single horn from his school. Single horns have one length of tubing and there’s a certain limitation to the valve combinations you can do. It’s a lot lighter. It’s what a lot of students start on. And then there’s the double horn which is the most common. Most of us play the double horn. It makes things a little easier to advance in playing. So at horn camp, all the other horn students had double horns and Denim had a single horn. One of the teachers suggested we get Denim on a double horn, so he loaned it to Denim for the week. I loaned Denim this horn. It was the first instrument I got and that teacher helped me pick it out, too.


Denim: Before I met Victoria, I tried to play "Ode to Joy" on the double horn, but it was confusing. So I just put the horn back in its case.


Victoria: The extra valve on the double horn is the thumb valve. It changes the length of tubing from one length to two and gives you some extra notes and more accuracy, color, pitch, and intonation. You have to learn different fingerings going from the single horn to the double, so that’s what we’re working on now.


Denim: And now we’re working on "Ode to Joy" together.


Playing by Ear


Denim: I can’t read music that well, so I kind of play by ear. At my new school, I didn’t know my music teacher knew other instruments besides the piano. I brought my French horn in and she asked what it sounded like. I played her a song and she opened up this book about the French horn. She started making me play all these different notes, so I kept bringing it to school.


How I Got Here


Victoria: I’m from a rural area of Southern Minnesota and went to high school in Iowa. It was through my teacher that I started taking the French horn seriously and taking lessons. He lived two hours away from me and met him serendipitously. He was judging chair placement auditions for an honor band. I played the lick he asked us to play and after, when I set my horn down, he asked, "Who’s your private teacher? You sound really good." I said, "I don’t have one. I don’t study horn. I just kind of play it." He laughed at me and said, "You’re joking. You’ve got to try." He emailed me and my band teacher, encouraging me to take private lessons. I couldn’t make it work every week with my schedule, so I visited him when I had time and we’d do these three-hour lessons working on every little thing. Then we’d take breaks to listen to recordings of his favorite artists, horn players, and symphonies to inspire me. He’d burn CDs between each visit and send me home with stacks of great works and great principal horn players of all time. I wouldn’t be a horn player if it wasn’t for him and his inspiration. He helped me get into college at Indiana University where I studied music and was a horn major. Then I went to Philadelphia and went to the Curtis Institute of Music. I studied with the principal horn in The Philadelphia Orchestra. And then in my second year there, I won the job here. I was 23.


A Long History


Victoria: The horn has a really long history, but the original horn was used to announce battle or the post coming in. It sounded very open, very raw. Then when it was used as a musical instrument, it was just lengths of tubing. So you’d use your hand as the valves. But the hand stays in there for quality of sound. At one point, I didn’t know this was a career path. Growing up in a rural area, we don’t hear orchestra music around that much. It was two hours from where I lived to hear the nearest orchestra. And once I started studying horn, I was dreaming of my life as a professional musician. I knew this is what I wanted to do and I poured everything into it.


Natural Leaders


Victoria: I was scared to teach. I think it’s because I came into this job at SLSO without any teaching experience. Finding my teaching voice was interesting. My teachers were always big proponents of sound first—making a beautiful sound before everything. Also, basic fundamentals before anything. So, diligence and routines. I adapted and rewrote my own routines based on how Denim learns and how we had to pivot while I taught him online. Sometimes we’d get really into detailed things and then I’d see his eyes glaze over. So I started telling him, "If you need a break, just give me a hand." About once a lesson we would put our horns down to do some stretching and breathing exercises. Also, Denim really wants to be a conductor. I don’t think he’s mentioned that yet. But since he’s a natural leader, I’ll have him walk me through what he does for his warmups. And once he got some things down, I had him lead us through breathing exercises.


The Conductor



Is Stéphane Denève the first conductor you’ve met?


Denim: He’s the only conductor I’ve met. He invited me to a concert and I was so excited. My mom was at work and I kept telling her, "Hurry up and finish," because I couldn’t wait to go and I didn’t want to be late. Then after the concert, he came out of a door from backstage and surprised all of us. We took pictures together and that’s when I said I wanted to be a conductor. Why? So I can stand up the whole time. And I want to be a part of the orchestra a little more than sitting there the whole time.”


What do you think will be the easiest part of being a conductor?


Denim: That I can play the instruments I already know how to play.


And the hardest part?


Denim: Everybody looking at me.


Road Trip Playlist


When you listen to music in your free time, what do you listen to?


Denim: I listen to classical. But when I’m in school, our science teacher makes us listen to old-school songs. That’s when I ask him if I can go to the bathroom until it’s time for us to go to the next period. It’s horrible. I can’t stand it. And then he just starts singing and laughing.


Victoria: What did we listen to on the way home from horn camp?


Denim: Oh! Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.


Victoria: We listened to the whole thing and sang along to the entire thing. It’s like 45 minutes. We practiced conducting along with it, too.


It Was Given to Me


What makes you want to continue mentoring younger musicians?


Victoria: I love to see the growth and excitement of getting something we’ve been working hard on. That shift between something that was hard and is now simple is really cool to see.


Do you see parts of yourself in Denim?


Victoria: I think we came to horn in a similar way. I didn’t dream of playing the horn. It was given to me.


"When I have my conductor suite..."


Do you think about what it would be like to perform on stage at Powell Hall?


Denim: When I first walked into Powell Hall, I had to go to the bathroom to calm myself down. I took three breaths, tried to stay calm, and came back out.


Is there a part of Powell Hall you’d like to see that you haven’t?


Denim: Backstage. And Stéphane’s suite. I need to explore to see if he has a bed in the back or a bathroom. It’s like a hotel room. When I have my conductor suite, I’m gonna need snacks. All my instruments are gonna be in there. And I’m gonna add a couch that pulls out into a bed. I’m gonna add a TV. Oh, and slushies!


Victoria: What did Stéphane give you when you met him?


Denim: A baton and the score of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Each character in the story is represented by an instrument. It was important to Stéphane because it was the first piece he played when he was 14. I practice it at school.


Set for a very long time


Victoria: This orchestra has a reputation for being the friendliest in the world. It can be really hard to break in, especially as a young person. But I felt so welcomed and supported when I got here, which was important because this is my first job and there was a lot I needed to learn. I didn’t know anyone before I moved here. One of my teachers was principal horn here when she was about my age. I remember getting ready for my audition and her saying that this orchestra really values individual and collective musical expression. Some orchestras are super accurate and play with a beautiful sound, but they might not risk a musical moment for the sake of clarity and cleanliness. This orchestra really goes for the colors and poeticism of whatever we’re playing. That includes contemporary works, too. We take any music, put it on our stands, and treat it like it’s our favorite piece in the world. It’s really fulfilling. Once you win the job, there’s a tenure process to go through. There’s an anonymous panel that hears you and gives feedback to the music director. Then the music director gives you feedback. If you don’t get tenure, you leave. If you do, you’re set until you want a change of scenery.


Denim, how long are you going to keep practicing together?


Denim: A very long time I hope.

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