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"What does Associate Principal really mean, anyway?"*

by Thomas Bacon

A general description of common titles assigned to the various positions in an orchestral horn section. The exact duties of each of these positions is slightly different in every orchestra, and is defined by the orchestra management, the conductor and the players involved.
Principal Horn (in some orchestras, especially in Europe, often called Solo Horn) -- Basically this means first chair. This player makes the most money, plays all the first horn solos, is the section leader, etc. The implied responsibilties can go way beyond just playing first chair in the orchestra though. This player is also often the one who gets the best students in the area, the best outside work - recording sessions and other gigs - sometimes is asked to perform as soloist with the orchestra, and often is called upon by the orchestra management to perform duties like performing a lecture demonstration for the symphony guild (a club made up of symphony patrons who do volunteer work for the orchestra and give money). Principal is also, by far, the most stressful horn position.
Co-Principal -- If an orchestra has one, then usually there will be two co-principals, although sometimes there will be one principal and one co-principal. Basically they are both first chair, and split the duties fairly equally. It invariably happens in such a situation though, that one of the two principals becomes "slightly more equal" than the other. Sometimes co-principals will split a concert, one playing the first half, the other playing the second half of the concert. At other times they will alternate concerts, one plays the whole concert while the other has the night off, then the next week, vice-versa. Almost never will the two players be playing on the same piece, exceptions would be large works like Strauss, Mahler, etc., which require an expanded horn section. Then one player plays first, and the other probably plays fifth horn (or for Bruckner and Wagner, they might play first Wagner Tuba).
Associate Principal -- Something like a co-principal, but where co-principals will split the first chair fairly equally, in this case the principal will usually get to play all the cool horn pieces, and the associate will play the ones with less prominent horn parts. As with co-principals, seldom will the two players play on the same piece (except in large works, as mentioned). Associate Principals also frequently perform the student concerts and pops concerts while the principal gets the time off.
Assistant Principal -- Assists the principal player. On works with strenuous horn parts, the assistant will sit next to the principal, and play in loud passages, or help to hold out long notes.  This is to give the principal a rest so that he/she can be fresh to play the solos and exposed passages. The assistant (and sometimes the associate) is often also a "utility" player, meaning that if someone else in the section gets sick or takes time off, the assistant is the first one asked to fill in the vacant seat. In some orchestras where there is no Associate Principal, the Assistant also takes on more of the character of an Associate, by being asked to perform as first horn on some of the concerts to let the principal have some time off.
Utility -- Utility Horn can be called upon to play any part.  It is a title usually designated in conjunction with another title. Many players in professional orchestras have in their contract that their position is "2nd Horn and Utility Horn," or "Assistant Principal and Utility Horn." It simply means that their main duty will be the assigned part (like 2nd or Assistant), but the conductor, personnel manager, or Principal Horn can also ask the player to play any other part that is required.
2nd, 3rd, or 4th Horn -- A designation such as one of these means that the player is assigned to play that particular horn part. Some orchestras also add the phrase "Utility Horn" to the player's contract, to anticipate a situation of having to move players around in a section due to illness, vacation, sabbatical replacement, etc.
As mentioned above, the real definition of duties for each of these positions is determined in each individual situation. Every Principal has his or her way of utilizing the Assistant Principal. The relationship between Principals, Associates and Co-Principals depends as much on personalties and egos, as it does on musical abilities and title designation. And both the conductor and manager in each orchestra usually have a big say in how things are run. Each situation is different.
One particular incident involving seating comes to mind. When I was playing Principal Horn in the Houston Symphony a few years ago, Beethoven's 9th Symphony ("The Choral") was on the schedule to be performed one season. Weeks before rehearsals began for it, I noticed the fourth horn player backstage during his warmup, was practicing the fourth horn solo passage from the Beethoven. On the morning of the first rehearsal for the piece, I was called into the conductor's room just before rehearsal began. He asked me if I would please be so kind as to play the fourth horn solo, and would I please inform the fourth horn player not to play it.
I told him that I would play the solo beautifully for him, if that was what he wanted. "However," I added, "I will not tell Mr. ****** (the fourth horn player) not to play it, you must tell him that yourself. He has been practicing that part for weeks, sounds very good on the solo, and would also play it beautifully. I will not be the one to take that opportunity away from him." Nothing further was said about it, the fourth horn player played the solo beautifully, and an unpleasant moment in horn seating history was avoided.
Remember, seating and the meaning of these titles is always defined by the individuals involved. If you are one of the individuals, it is your responsibilty to help define it so that it works out in everybody's best interests.
*Thanks to hornist Matt B. Smith for asking the question that inspired this article.

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