Ella Cliffe: UoN’s talented French horn and piano star!

What’s the best part about being principal French horn in the university orchestra?

Being a part of an orchestra is a big responsibility as you have to rehearse for concerts and you’ve got to put in the time and effort, but outside of that it is very sociable!  A lot of the students in the orchestras don’t do music as their degree so it gives you a chance to meet people from other departments.  Becoming principal has been great because leading a section – myself plus three other French horn players - has given me a lot of leadership skills.  The role invites respect as the other players can learn from my direction.  It was quite an intimidating interview process though, as you prepare a piece for a panel and then have to do some sight reading for them.  They also asked me about my previous orchestral experience to see if I was suitable and ready for the role as, at the time, I was only a first year student!

Has it been difficult instructing people who are your own age?

It’s about trying to find the right balance because obviously if they are the same age as you it becomes an issue of status and you don’t want to look like you are ordering them about.  At the end of the day, however, you’ve got to take that responsibility.  I hope the other players would say I haven’t been too controlling!

How often do you practice Piano and French horn? Being honest…

For my examined recitals I have chosen to do piano and the performances are far from easy! When you start having instrumental lessons at university, it becomes apparent very quickly that you are going above and beyond the demands of sixth form.  I try to do two hours of piano each day and for French horn, I only play it in the ensembles so if a big concert is coming up that is particularly difficult then obviously I will take it away and practice.  However, it isn’t the same level of demand as it is for piano.

You talk about preparing for a concert as if you were preparing for a race! How important would you say keeping fit is when you’re playing a brass instrument?

In first year I did rowing and it really helped my endurance.  I don’t row this year but I have tried to maintain that level of fitness by going to the gym two or three times a week.  In November, I was involved in a concert where we were playing a very difficult piece by Benjamin Britten and the part for the French horn is really high so going to the gym and working on my stamina meant that it was easier to control my breathing in preparation for the performance. I can really notice the difference in my playing when I am keeping fit and healthy.

What has been the most challenging piece you have had to play?

I would probably say the Benjamin Britten piece! Last year, we also did Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and in the third movement there is a really exposed trio of French horns who play largely unaccompanied by the rest of the orchestra for about three minutes.  While the notes aren’t that difficult, it was scary being that exposed!  It was also nice because before I came to uni, they didn’t have a full French horn section so they couldn’t do the Eroica.  Then I came along and the problem was solved!

Would you say you prefer playing in orchestras or as a soloist?

I knew from about sixteen I wanted to do solo piano performances and play the French horn within an orchestra.  Personally, that is how it makes sense to me and it’s lucky I prefer it that way because pianos don’t feature in a typical orchestra.

How difficult is it to learn scores by heart for your examined performances?

I feel more comfortable playing from memory because, for me, there is nothing worse than someone sitting next to me when I’m playing a really atmospheric piece and they’re scrappily turning the pages.  It completely ruins the nature of the performance.  If you practice a lot it normally goes in.

Are you intimidated by the leap from second to third year as the performance requirements become more demanding?

Definitely! In first year, our recital was fifteen to twenty minutes, then in second year you have performances in January and May so it is double the amount of practice within the same space of time!  And then in third year, the standard is even higher as the difficulty of the pieces increases as well as their length.

The French horn is quite an unusual instrument. Do you find that appealing?

Yeah, I’m definitely attracted to some of the more obscure instruments in the orchestra! It’s really rare to find a famous female French horn player because most musicians who play French horn in the country are actually male.  The brass section tends to be quite male dominated.  I’m here to hopefully change that!  Piano, on the other hand, is a bit more balanced!

Who is your favourite composer: Beethoven, Bach or Chopin?

Definitely Chopin because my favourite genre for piano is the Romantic era which is what Chopin is known for. 

What is the biggest sacrifice you have made for your art?

I cannot stand having really short nails but for piano I don’t really have a choice.  So, unfortunately, no French manicure and no shellac for Ella!  You also have to be careful about other societies you join as I did rowing last year which blistered my hands and I started water polo this year which is really vicious and I was worried because if I broke my finger that would make it impossible to do my degree!

I have heard of other musicians getting their hands insured, maybe you should consider it!

That might be a good idea! In the meantime, I will just try and be careful.

Any aspirations of taking on another instrument?

Maybe the cello or the bassoon – I did say I was into the rare ones!