The perspective of a Millennial horn player

FSSA’s James Picarello with Sarah Willis, the 4th horn of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The young musician spoke with passion in his voice as the individual sounds of a busy classroom gradually meshed into background noise. He described how an orchestra works together and expressed his immense respect and admiration for musicians.

To him, a musician is the most noble job you can have and unlike many of his peers, his idols are principal horns and composers, as opposed to pop icons and athletes. Instead of mixtapes, he listens to concertos on his way to school and hums the catchy melodies as he walks the hallways. Most teens probably don’t know the difference between Beethoven and Mozart, but this musician is not most teenagers.

James Picarello, a 17-year-old French horn player, is one of the most talented and dedicated students in his music program at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA) in Astoria, Queens. Almost every day after school, James either takes horn lessons or plays in one of the many orchestras he’s a part of. Regardless of his schedule, James practices playing French horn for over an hour every day and has been doing so since the third grade. On Friday nights when most teenagers are hanging out with their friends or at home relaxing, James sees the New York Philharmonic play at Lincoln Center.

James knew he wanted to be play French horn professionally when he heard the New York Philharmonic for the first time.

“The experience of being there overwhelmed and astounded me in a way that nothing else had. Listening to them showed me the potential of live music,” James said.

Even though the world of classical music is shrinking, James still has many players he admires, and for different reasons.

“The French horn community is pretty small. Some players people look up to based on their achievements and prestige, and others people want to sound like. Basically, there are two schools of thinking when it comes to the French horn. There is the European School, essentially the German School and then there’s the American School,” he said.

According to James, the German school has more creativity, vibrato and lyricism and the American School is more about not harsher playing, but the articulations are a little bit more punchier and louder.

As a player, James speaks to the balance of being focused on the sound of one’s single instrument, while staying focused on the orchestra as a whole.

“We play on different instruments, rather than one, so there’s less room for that lyrical virtuoso. Once you have a grasp on your instrument it’s easy to play the notes, but there’s a lot of thinking that has to go into not only how you’re playing,” James adds.

He says that as a player gets more advanced, the section has to be more solid, so the horns can sound like a unit. He also says that the orchestra depends on the conductor.

“When one hears the orchestra play it looks like the conductor’s doing all the work and they are just sitting there, but there is actually a lot of communication and phrasing going on behind the scenes that happens in rehearsal,” he said.

James hopes to one day play in his very own city’s Philharmonic and be a figure of his own for kids like himself to look up to.

“Many of these horn Players are my idols and heroes. The New York Philharmonic were the closest thing I had to a home team as a kid,” he said.

– by Henry Klapper ’19