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Hearing French horn changed Spokane Symphony principal horn Katie Upton’s life forever

Katie Upton is principal horn for the Spokane Symphony. Before the French horn, she played the piano.  (Hamilton Studio)
Katie Upton is principal horn for the Spokane Symphony. Before the French horn, she played the piano. (Hamilton Studio)

When it comes to choosing an instrument, Spokane Symphony principal horn Katie Upton explained, the deciding factor is often the sound. As a child, Upton considered sticking with piano, her first instrument, and later the trumpet. But hearing just a few notes from a French horn changed her mind forever.

“It was an ‘aha!’ moment when I heard it for the first time,” she said. In fifth grade, she remembered, her teachers spent a day alternating between playing various instruments so that students could hear each before making their choice. “And when I heard the French horn, I was done for,” she said. “It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard, and I needed to play it.”

Upton went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in horn performance from Indiana University and her master’s in horn performance from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

Halfway through the second year of her master’s program, Upton won a position with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Boca del Río. She left school to take the job, returning in the summer to finish her degree.

Two years with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Boca del Río taught her a great deal, but homesickness had started to kick in. Moving home meant finding a new orchestra job, so she started looking for orchestral positions back in the U.S. and landed an audition with the Spokane Symphony.

Soon after, she won her first position with the symphony as assistant principal horn. And in September 2019, she advanced to the role of principal horn. Every position, she said, especially in the horn section has different responsibilities and a different role.

“As the principal horn, I am leading the section, establishing style decisions,” she said. “The assistant horn is helping with the bulk of the very loud playing … so that I can save stamina for more delicate passages or solo passages.

“The second horn and the fourth horn are our low horns, so they tend to play in the lower range, and they each act as a team member to the chair above them. So, second horn and first horn are a team, and third horn and fourth horn are a team, each paired high-low.

“So everybody has different roles, and it’s not organized the way that a high school band is where first chair is the best, second chair is the second best. Everybody’s doing a different job, and everybody has trained specifically for the job that they hold.”

The kind of camaraderie that comes with playing so closely with a section of musicians, she said, was one of the most difficult things to lose over the past year. “My colleagues are all absolutely incredible, really fantastic musicians,” she said.

“And I really missed the energy onstage when you get 70 professionals together all doing the same thing at once communicating without speaking. It’s really indescribable. I feel a lot more grateful for the work that I get to do. It’s a stressful profession. But I think … my love of it has been refreshed and renewed.”

To aspiring musicians, Upton offered the following advice: “Work your hardest and be as prepared as you can, so that when an opportunity presents itself, you can jump on it.”

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