We’re joined by Dylan Hart, one of the top French Horn players in Hollywood today. He has played on many well-known soundtracks including Moana, Frozen, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Baywatch, The Good Place, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
You’re about to hear Dylan’s unlikely journey to becoming a highly-successful session player, concert performer, and French horn teacher.
In this conversation Dylan shares:
- The importance of “getting out of your own way” when playing – and how to do that.
- His unexpected advice on how to sight read at the extremely high level required of session players.
- Why we must look for the root cause of problems rather than just treating symptoms – and how that applies to practicing off your instrument, sight-reading, and performing at your best under pressure.
In everything he does and teaches, Dylan has a focus on the inner instinct for music and a deep connection with your instrument. You’re going to love this inspiring conversation packed with thought-provoking ideas.
Watch the episode:
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Dylan: Hi, this is Dylan Hart, recording musician, amateur chef and father of one so far, and you’re listening to Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Dylan. Thank you for joining us today.
Dylan: It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate you inviting me on.
Christopher: You have a really fascinating career these days, but I know only the littlest bit of your backstory, so I’d love if we could begin right at the beginning of your musical story. How did you get started in music and when did French horn enter the picture?
Dylan: Okay. Well, my first memory is I was four years old, sitting in the backyard drinking a cup of tea and my mom was playing guitar, singing a song. My mom is a singer-songwriter. She’s a folk singer and music was … Acting was part of my long history and my mom went towards the musical side instead of the acting side. And so, my oldest brother was in love with movie soundtracks and my other brother was rock and roll, tried to get into some bands as a guitar player and he currently is … You can look him up, Gideon Prior. David Britton Prior is the oldest brother who’s now a director. Gideon Prior is recording music for himself and putting out EPs and whatnot. I was a singer my whole life. I sang in choirs and I actually went to St. Thomas Aquinas choir school in New York state for a year to be one of the boy countertenors at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
Dylan: I ended up somehow in band. I don’t know how. The feeder schools in the school system that I was in, you signed up for your electives in sixth grade and then in seventh grade you had your electives. I signed up for Spanish and for soccer and I ended up in band. I told my band director, “I shouldn’t be here,” and she was like, “Oh, just pick an instrument and sit down.” I was like, “Oh, how about the trumpet?” and she said, “No. We have too many trumpet players,” and I was like, “How about the drums?” She was like, “Fine. Whatever.” So, I played the drums for a couple of days and then she kicked me off the drums and she gave me a saxophone, an alto saxophone and it was the most dilapidated alto saxophone. It was falling apart. I ended up having to put it all back together, re-glue the pads, take it apart and re-put it back together.
Dylan: I had some sort of musical proclivity and I worked my way up from last chair to first chair in a year and then I went to Idlewild Music Festival and was playing jazz and really got into the saxophone and was jamming with my brother. He would play guitar, I’d play the saxophone. And then she said, “You’re too poor to go to college. You can’t play saxophone. You can play oboe, bassoon or French horn, because you need a scholarship.” And I said, “How about bassoon?” She said, “You can’t afford the instrument.” I said, “How about the oboe?” and she said, “You can’t afford the lessons.” She says, “I play French horn. I’ll teach you French horn.” I said, “You didn’t even hear me play saxophone. I worked really hard.” She said, “Just get a horn and sit down,” and yeah, that was history.
Christopher: Okay, so not quite the fairy tale beginning, but you found your way to your instrument, as it turned out to be.
Dylan: Well, the interesting thing is I’ve always really, really loved classical music and I always knew that I wanted to play classical music in an orchestra. I used to … I bought a little smoking jacket and a pipe and I would sit in my room like Masterpiece Theatre and listen. My grandma would buy me CDs and I would listen to Beethoven 6 or some Chopin preludes or something like that.
Dylan: So, when she moved me to French horn, I thought in my brain, I was like, “Oh, well, I mean, I guess I have a better chance of playing in an orchestra with a French horn. I mean, I guess there’s maybe six or seven pieces for alto sax in the orchestra, which is fine, but I’ll give it a shot.” So, here we are.
Christopher: And how did those lessons go? Did you find that the music you’d been doing so far let you get off to a quick start with it?
Dylan: As a singer, I had a natural ability, because the French horn is so similar to voice and the normal range of the instrument is so high and the overtone series that all the partials are very close together. You have to have a good ear to hear what you’re doing. I mean, you have to have a good ear to play any instrument at a high level, but it helped in the beginning stages because a lot of people when they start on an instrument like that, it’s very difficult for them to hear the pitches and to pick them out because your fingers don’t necessarily mean what you think they mean. So, that helped a lot.
Dylan: We didn’t have a whole lot of lessons between me and her. To be honest, I really didn’t start studying privately until midway into my junior year when I was like, “Oh, I need a teacher because I need to get into college,” and so then I started taking lessons.
Christopher: Got you. And so did you get that vital scholarship to go to college? I presume you did.
Dylan: I did. I applied to … Let’s see. It wasn’t a great way to do it and none of my story should be followed by anybody. My life is a horrible, horrible series of advice that happened to end up in fantastic style and success and I’m very fortunate. But I applied to Eastman, Rice, and USC and I applied to ASU as a backup school. I flew out to Eastman and I took my audition and I was waitlisted. I flew out to Rice. I took my audition. I didn’t get in. ASU accepted me without me auditioning. And then I went to USC.
Dylan: And the interesting thing is that the first lesson I ever took was with Rick Todd, who was a studio musician, and he was like, “You’re not quite ready to study with me. You’re kind of a beginner. I’m going to give you the name of somebody who’s good with these types of people.” He gave me to his colleague in the LA Chamber Orchestra, Kristy Morrell. He was first in the LA chamber orchestra. Kristy was second. I started studying with Kristy and I was going to music camps over the summers every … That’s where I would get my instruction over the summers.
Dylan: The summer between my junior and senior year, I went to Boden Summer Music Festival, which is a chamber music camp six weeks, which was an unbelievable experience. I don’t think they have horns anymore. I was the … We were the only brass instrument. We had woodwind quintets and the horn was able to play with all the strings, but normally it’s just a string chamber music camp. So, I went there and I met Peter Kurau who taught at Eastman and I met Jim Thatcher and I met Charles Kavaloski.
Dylan: Finally, taking my audition at Eastman, Peter Kurau loved the improvement that I made so he waitlisted me. But when I finally audition at USC, Rick Todd, with the improvement from the first lesson I took from him to my audition, he saw that there was some prospect and so he went to bat for me and he really, really pushed for me to get into the school.
Dylan: I didn’t have the grades for it. I didn’t … I was … I think my GPA in high school at the time was like 2. something. It was pretty bad. But I had a 1300 on my SAT, which back then was pretty good. I mean, so I was able to work a deal where if I went to two semesters of a community college, and prove that I was okay, they would allow me to come to the school and I would be under academic probation. And so, yeah, so I ended up at Pasadena City College for a year. I went a summer and fall and then I started at USC in the spring. That was the only school I got into out of all the schools aside from my backup school, which I didn’t even audition for.
Christopher: Got you. I can spin a story in my head a couple of different ways for that journey and one of them is you came from a very musical family. You tried one or two instruments, you found your instrument and you just went on to success in college, even if it was a bit rocky to get in.
Christopher: Another is it was really down to your effort and your practice and your persistence that you got to that level and you got the chance to study in a full degree program. What was that psychological or mental journey for you? Were you’re going through it being like, “I’m destined for music. This is the career path I’m on. I’m going to find my way,” or was it less certain than that?
Dylan: I’m also a little odd in the sense that I’ve wanted to be a father since I was very young. And so around 15, I had taken a couple lessons at the Whiteman Airport in Los Angeles for learning how to fly a plane. My mom happened to know somebody who worked there and I went on some banner tows and I started learning how to fly. And I thought to myself when I was 15, I said, “Well, I can either become a commercial pilot …” I wanted to be in the Air Force and fly actual planes, but I’m six one and from what I understood at the time … I had did no research, but from what I understood at the time, you had to be shorter than six feet in order to get in like an F-14 or something like that, which I’m pretty sure is not true.
Dylan: But I thought to myself, “Well, I can be a commercial pilot or I can be a musician.” And I thought if I was a commercial pilot I was going to be away from my family for extended periods of time and I wouldn’t see my kids. And then, so I was like, “Oh, I’ll be a musician. I’ll be home a lot more,” and I was so wrong. But it was … That was the decision that led me to putting my effort towards being a musician.
Christopher: I see. That’s really interesting. And how did those college years go? Was it a matter of now you were there, everything was smooth sailing or was it still twists and turns and challenges?
Christopher: I don’t ask to put words in your mouth, but because genuinely, sometimes we have guests on the show where it is kind of a straight line. There’s one or two little swerves, but it’s basically like, “I set my intention and I went and I got it,” and others where it’s a lot more twists and turns and a lot more uncertain. So, I’m genuinely curious.
Dylan: Yeah, so I ended up dropping out between my sophomore and junior year. I took a year of mental health and I ended up quitting horn for over a year. I stopped in May of 2000 and I didn’t pick it up until the fall of 2001. Spring of 2000, the fall of 2001, I worked at grocery stores and I worked at restaurants and I took … My dad is a firefighter. He’s a captain for … He was a captain for Pasadena Fire Department and so I took a test to be a fireman and I got placed in the Forest Rangers at Angeles National Forest.
Dylan: My mom and my dad weren’t together when I was growing up, so my mom kind of single-parent raised me, but every once in a while I would talk to my dad. During this time I told him about that and he said he was an actor actually, as well and he was on that show, Greatest American Hero and he was the cholo boy. That was kind of funny. I’m actually half Mexican. That’s my Mexican side. But, so he was, he told me, “You’re too young to give up on your dreams. Go finish your undergrad.” And I said, “Okay.”
Dylan: And during that whole time I was off, I was doing lots of drugs. Again, you shouldn’t follow anything that I’m saying or doing or did. But I was hanging out with very unsavory people and I got arrested a couple times. I was homeless at a certain time and living in a car. I just kept asking and asking, asking, “What am I supposed to be doing? Should I be playing horn? What am I supposed to be doing?” I remember driving one day down the 2 freeway from Glendale to downtown LA. I just got a very clear answer in my head, “Play the horn.” I said, “Okay.” And so I went back to school … Oh, I guess this was actually 2001 to 2002, because I went back to school in 2003, yeah, end of 2002, 2003. The Olympics were on. So, 2002 Olympics? 2004 Olympics?
Christopher: Sounds about right.
Dylan: 2004 Olympics. Anyway, it’s not really important. What’s important is the Olympics were on and Michael Phelps was winning all of those gold medals for swimming. I remember seeing the Olympics and just being like, “Wow”. All of these people talk about the sacrifice and the hard work that they put in to be there and how grateful they were. I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever sacrificed anything in my whole life. I don’t think …”
Dylan: When I was in high school, I used to keep a practice journal and I would write down the minutes per day that I would practice. Sometimes, I would skip out on watching TV with my family and go practice because I had a lesson the next day and I was going to get kicked out of my lesson if I didn’t. And they never understood, but that’s okay. But I never really put in a lot of time.
Dylan: And so after seeing that, I was like, “Okay, well, I feel like the most common story in history is unrealized talent, somebody who’s talented, who just didn’t make it because they didn’t work. I knew I had seen over and over a lot of people who I didn’t necessarily think had a lot of innate ability work really hard and become very successful. And I thought, “Well, the people who, the Yo-Yo Mas and the Winton Marcellus’s and the great people of the world had talent and work effort, so if I want to be any kind of successful, whether I have ability or not, I need to work really hard.” And so, I just took the Olympics as my inspiration and started practicing really hard my junior year and just went from there.
Christopher: And what did that look like, if you could give what practicing was before that attitude change and what practicing was afterwards?
Dylan: Practicing before that was just I had a little bit of a routine, a little bit of fundamentals, a little bit of etudes, a little … Nothing really. I mean, I still am woefully under prepared in solo repertoire. I have not played many of the major pieces that are out there and I have not gone through many of the etude books and I’m … I just didn’t do that because I just didn’t have a lot of time to do it or I didn’t spend a lot of time to do it. And then afterwards I was so focused on practicing. I actually failed a couple of classes because I practiced through a midterm or I would skip classes to play because I was like, “Ah, I don’t need to go to that class. I’m fine. I’m just going to practice.” Yeah.
Dylan: But the other thing is that I was really, really fortunate in that when I started at USC, Vince DeRosa, he taught five time slots per week and he only had two recurring students and so the rest of the time slots were up every single week. Somebody would put it up on the office door and we could go sign up. And so I signed up for a couple of lessons and then I was like, “Oh, wow. This is unbelievable. I need to study with this guy.” So, I switched to him. He welcomed me with open arms and really took me on as his last project at USC and told me that he was going to retire when I graduated and he did.
Dylan: Yeah, and then the following year after he was gone, I skipped music theory every Wednesday and went up to his house and took lessons still. He would make me a sandwich and then he’d kick my butt and tell me I sounded terrible. And then his parrot would laugh at me every time I missed a note. That was … But, he really cared about me and when I would play, he never let me be less than amazing. I would say, “Well, you know …” He’s like, “I don’t want it to sound good. I want it to sound great.” He said, “There’s plenty of people out there who sound good.” He’s like, “You can sound phenomenal. You have to keep going.”
Christopher: That’s quite striking that expectation and I’m sure that really brought out your own ambition or your own standards. It leveled up your standards, I’m sure. But thinking back to those first couple of lessons, can you think what it was that was so striking that made you think, “I must study with this guy”?
Dylan: He was all about production. Vince DeRosa was all about how to play the instrument. And again, another … He wasn’t really about a lot of rep, which is fine. It was very self-study with him, although he did tell me, gather all of the… He’s had several musicians go out and win jobs and things like that over his career. And he told me to gather all of the audition lists and start going through audition lists and bringing them to him. But there would be lessons where I would spend an hour on one or two notes and he was just, “No, no, no, no,” and he would just yell at me and tell me how to produce a proper sound and how to really play the instrument. And my goal was just to get him to say yes. And he didn’t give a lot of really detailed instruction. He wasn’t like, “This is what happens in your body and this is how you do this or this.”
Dylan: He was just like, “Get into the sound and lift,” and, “This is all it takes to make a sound.” Very simple instructions but very, very specific and very detailed in how he doesn’t allow you to not be correct. And so I just tried to figure out how to have them say yes and I had learned all sorts of stuff around my body to try and, “Okay, what if I do this?” “No.” “Okay, let me try this.” “No.” “Okay, let me try this.” “Yes.” And I’m like, “Oh, I could not hear a difference at all, but I’m going to believe him. And so I’m going to follow this. The more he says yes, the more I’m doing it right.”
Dylan: And it’s because my ears weren’t developed enough to really hear the nuance between the sound difference. And I think that’s really an interesting fact is that I can hear stuff in my students now where I’m like, “That’s not right. That’s right.” And they’re like, “I can’t tell the difference.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay, good,” because I couldn’t tell the difference when Vince was telling me. Not to say that my ears are anywhere near the level of his, but there’s, I always talk about how there’s kind of this dual improvement that occurs with your physicality and your ear.
Dylan: And sometimes you make a huge jump in your physical improvement and you’re like, “Oh my goodness, I’m amazing. I’ve never been better.” And then your ear catches up and you’re like, “Oh, I completely lost it.” But you haven’t lost that. You’re just more onerous of your own mistakes and detailed and able to see the finer problems. And then your ear jumps and you’re like, “Oh man, I’m terrible. I’m worse than I used to be,” and then your physical catches up with your ear and it’s just kind of this cat and mouse between your physical ability and your ability to hear the details of your sound.
Christopher: That’s a really interesting way of looking at it. And I’m sure it’s all the more applicable with French horn, where, as you say, you are so much responsible for the tone production and the pitching. When you work with your students, apart from explaining that phenomenon, do you do particular ear training exercises or anything to help them keep those two progressing and lockstep?
Dylan: We do a lot of trying to learn how to get out of the way. I mean, that’s been my whole goal as a musician and my goal as a teacher is to help somebody get out of the way of them playing. We all have this kind of innate programmed ability to play instruments. I mean, our bodies are programmed to do anything. If you look at sports or if you look at whatever, and allow your body to play and allow your body to do all these things, then you’re much better off than if you’re trying to make your body do all of these things. And I sometimes I liken it to learning how to throw a ball.
Dylan: So if you’re learning how to throw a ball, you throw the ball and then it doesn’t go where you want it to go. So you throw it again, and then it doesn’t go, and you throw it again, and you just keep doing it and you allow your body an opportunity to coordinate itself. Every time you throw the ball and it doesn’t go where you want it to go, you don’t be like… Sorry, terrible English. But you don’t change your shoulder rotation or the way that your tricep is flexed or your ulnar nerve or the way that your wrist turns or your fingers or anything like that. You just throw it again.
Dylan: And when we play music, because we have some sort of control over what we’re doing, whether it’s your lips or your hands or your air or whatever, we tend to make a mistake and then try and fix the mistake right then and there. And so we do something different. We’re like, “Okay, well that didn’t work, so I got to do something different this time to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” And we don’t just allow ourselves to just make the mistake and then try again, and make the mistake and then try again, and make the mistake and allow the body an opportunity to achieve the intention that’s in your mind, right?
Dylan: If you have an intention and you let your body try and figure out how to achieve that intention, because that’s all your body wants to do. It wants to please your mind. It wants to make sure that it does what you can do. And so we just have to get out of the way and allow our body that opportunity to do it without trying to control it too much.
Christopher: I love that. And that’s a really reassuring way of looking at it, I think, rather than, how can I figure out how to make my body do this? To trust that your body or your mind in some sense, knows where it’s trying to get to and if you’re just patient with it and relax into it and get out of your own way, you’ll find your way to that solution. That’s really interesting.
Dylan: Yeah, I think there’s a certain amount of mapping that goes on in your brain. So there’s the Alexander technique and Feldenkrais and a couple of the different things, but one of the things that I really, really appreciated when I started studying with Pat Sheridan, a tuba soloist at UCLA, when I went in to get my master’s later in life, he taught me about body mapping. And body mapping is based on the idea that your body moves based on how your brain perceives your body to move, not based on how your body is actually supposed to move.
Dylan: So there was a study with cashiers who are getting carpal tunnel because they were pressing their number pads like this. And when they went, took the cashiers away who had all this carpal tunnel and they retrained them that their arm actually moves like this from this joint right here, and it’s not at this motion, it’s at this motion to get to the number pads, over 90% of them recovered and didn’t have to have any surgery and were fine and could go back to work.
Dylan: So there’s a lot that if you can just train your brain how your body’s supposed to move. How is my ankle supposed to move? How is my elbow and my shoulder and all of this? And you give yourself a good map, whether it’s subconscious or conscious, you give yourself a good map, then your body can more easily attain the things that your mind sets it out to do.
Christopher: Got you. And I can’t help but be reminded of an interview and a masterclass we did with a chap called Mark Morley-Fletcher who talked about what I think is a slightly similar thing in a different context, which is in the performance context. That tricky fine line between relying on your autopilot and being very conscious about controlling what you’re doing.
Christopher: And he was making the point that you need to find the balance such that you have a clear intention of what you’re trying to accomplish and put out musically, but you’re not so tuned out that you can’t allow in the input from the world and give your body a chance to respond to what’s going on and react in the moment. And I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how that same kind of getting out of your way applies in a performance situation outside of the kind of practice room where you’re trying to master the technique.
Dylan: Yeah. Well, it’s exactly the same thing because when you’ve given your body an opportunity to coordinate itself, you’re laying groundwork in your subconscious, right? We talk about how we only use 10% of our brain, right? But that’s, from what I understand, that’s really only a part of the conscious mind use the 10% of your brain. The rest of your brain is being used on a subconscious level to keep us breathing, all of our cells moving, our nervous system, everything is being run through our brain. So having intentions of what you want to do is the number one way to accomplish what you want to do.
Dylan: If you have clear intentions, if you know exactly what you want to sound like, if you know exactly what you want it to be, if you know exactly how you want the articulation to go or the phrase or the musicality or anything like that, you can then allow your subconscious to move your body the way that you’ve trained your body to move. And so I’ve thought that the key to unlimited mastery is a very coordinated body and a very well trained mind. So if you can keep your mind from trying to control your body and keep your mind focused on intention of what you’re doing and you’re surrendering to allowing your body to do this and to perform the way that you need to perform, then that’s really how you achieve the greatest performances.
Dylan: One of the things went that when I was working on performance psychology that kind of led me to that after studying at UCLA and working on learning how to coordinate the mind and things like that. I read a book called The Brain that Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge and it was about neuroplasticity. It was really, really fascinating. It really shows how the brain is a use it or lose it kind of mechanism. It’s plastic. We used to think that after nine years old it when atrophy occurred and you would lose all the extra connections, then it started to harden and then after 25 it was hard and set, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks or something like that. But what they found is that your brain, it reduces plasticity, but it stays plastic, so it stays able to change and adjust all the way up until you pass.
Dylan: So one of the things that I learned is that your brain doesn’t think in terms of negatives. And I learned this from studying at UCLA with Pat and also from this book where if I tell you don’t think about pretzels, you’re thinking about pretzels because there’s no such thing as don’t in your brain. There’s only electrical impulses that are either on or off. So that’s why they say you can’t undo a bad habit, you can only replace it with a new one. So if you have a section of your brain has this bad habit, every time you say don’t, it sends an electrical impulse to the section and the section grows. So you just have to not use that section, and then this section will grow and take over this section and this section will shrink and go away.
Dylan: So that plasticity kind of led me to some other books that I read. One of them was called The Talent Code by, man, I always want to say Doyle, but I know that’s Arthur Conan Doyle from Sherlock Holmes. But anyway, Daniel something. And it’s another phenomenal book about how talent is actually created and these little hotbeds of talent throughout the world and why are so many amazing soccer players coming out of Brazil and why are so many amazing women golfers coming out of South Korea and why are there so many amazing gymnast coming out of this one gym in Texas like why are there so many talented people there. And it talks about the different aspects of what creates a talent and how to do that. And then he also talked a lot about different master teachers and what they would say and how they would get their students to do what they needed.
Dylan: And he put out this little pamphlet called The Little Book of Talent, which is a really small book that has just the master teachers saying how to learn faster, how to learn better, how to improve and how to be better at what you’re doing. And that was really, really helpful. And then that kind of primed me to study with… And then I read a book called Golf is Not a Game of Perfect, which is another great book. And the guy who wrote that also wrote Golf is a Game of Confidence. And that really is about how just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean that you failed. Because it’s not about being perfect, it’s about accomplishing your goal overall. And it’s about how to not allow the imperfections to have your brain say, “Ah, I’m failing at this. I messed up,” and create more imperfections.
Dylan: So one imperfection doesn’t mean to create 20 imperfections just because you’re thinking about that one imperfection. You just have to accept that if I’m a 80% freethrow shooter, I’m going to miss 20% of the shots but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take the next shot. Because if I miss three shots in a row, my chances of making the next shot are really high because I’m an 80% shooter, and there’s some like magical thinking in that. And then I started studying with Dr. Greene and he sent me through a litany of books about the performance psychology and the brain and how thinking really affects you in a physical manner and how to change the way that you approach something and change the way you think about something so that you can have the best performance possible. Because as I’ve said, unlimited mastery comes from a very coordinated body and a well-trained mind. And part of your well-trained mind is learning how to think or how to not think. And these books have been incredibly helpful and really, really changed my life.
Christopher: And so did you graduate and go straight into a successful career as an LA studio session musician or what was the next stage of your own journey?
Dylan: I won a job at a summer festival called the Pageant of The Masters and started working there over the summers. And I was working at a instrument selling shop and so I sold instruments and lots of trombones, lots of trombone mouthpieces and lead pipes. And I was very good at… I’m a very good salesman. And then I started their French horn department, because it was called Ferguson Music, which is now called Horn Guys. And they have a whole branding now. But I was gigging, I had a job at a Korean church in Orange County that I would drive to every Sunday. I had a couple of students here and there. I had some gigs I would do.
Dylan: My first movie I did was in 2007. I did Horton Hears a Who!. I had actually drove up to Fresno from Los Angeles to take the audition. The first and second horn were open. And I advanced from the prelims, but the second round didn’t start until like 2:00 PM, or yeah, afternoon, and then my downbeat in on the Westside in Santa Monica was at 7:00 PM, 7:30 PM for Horton Hears a Who!, and I was my very first session. And there was a horrible snow storm and the 5 was closed and so I had to go around on the 14 which was going to take me six hours. So after I advanced, I just left and I just went to my session.
Dylan: And I mean after that it was really few and far between. I didn’t even start my master’s until 2013? Or no, 2011. So I took time between my undergrad. So I did my undergrad and then I did a graduate certificate and then I took about four years, three, four years, and then I started my master’s. And in that three or four years, I was doing some gigs and some work, but I was teaching at a college and they told me they wanted me to teach like a music appreciation and a music kind of theory class. And I said, “Yeah, great.” And they’re like, “Great, we just need to see a copy of your master’s.” And I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll be right there.” And so I went and got my master’s and by the time I finished my master’s, I had learned so much that my career had taken off and I didn’t even teach at the college by the end of it.
Christopher: Unpack that a little bit. What had you learned that had such an impact on your career?
Dylan: Well, so like I said, I was studying with Pat Sheridan, and I also studied with Chris Cooper who’s a great horn player in the Bay Area. But I played with Pat Sheridan a lot. He was doing our band program and I took some private lessons with him and I spent a lot of time with him. And he did this book called The Brass Gym and The Breathing Gym with Sam Pilafian, or the late Sam Pilafian who recently passed away. And his ideas on focus and how the body works and how to get out of our way. I mean, he was a phenom. I mean, Pat Sheridan is still, and so is Sam Pilafian.
Dylan: But Pat Sheridan absolutely made me… He played Flight Of The Bumblebee on the tuba. He inspired me to play Flight Of The Bumblebee on the horn, which I have a YouTube video out of Flight Of The Bumblebee. And it’s just his ideas of using your air to make the sound and things like that, which is what Vince taught me and what Jim Thatcher taught me and what all my teachers taught me. But the control of breath and the control of air that Pat brought to me, and that’s where I had my… He was all about coordinating the body and practicing off of the instruments.
Dylan: You don’t necessarily need to play on your instrument all the time. You can do your finger patterns and you can do everything like that off of the instrument. And he was also huge, huge, huge on ear. You know, “If you can hear it, you can play it,” kind of thing, which is a very Arnold Jacobs thing, who I absolutely love Arnold Jacobs, who was the principal to Chicago Symphony for 40, 50 years with Bud Herseth, who was the principal trumpet, for those of you who don’t know.
Dylan: But it was… We were playing some brass bands, like British brass band stuff and it’s really, really difficult. And the finger technique was so hard and I was really struggling with a couple of sections. And then I realized that I wasn’t hearing it properly and so I went to the piano and I plunked it out and I figured out what it was and I sung it and then I went to play it again and I had no finger problems. I thought it was a finger issue, and I realized it was an ear issue.
Dylan: And then from there I realized that there’s lots of times when we’re sight-reading through something or playing something and a passage comes up with a lot of 16th notes or something very fast and our eyes go blurry over those notes. And I correlated that to, “Oh, that’s actually my ears not hearing it, so I actually can’t see it.” So when you can actually hear it very clearly, I don’t get blurry vision over these fast notes, and that was a kind of big aha moment of how to play anything.
Christopher: Fascinating, yeah. I think that rough idea has come up a few times on the show before often relating to slow practice. You know, you’re trying to get something up to speed and seemingly paradoxically the way to do it is to slow everything right down and really give your brain a chance to kind of pick apart each and every note, and then suddenly all of the problems disappear and you can play it at speed. You mentioned something in passing there that I’d love to circle back to for those who’ve never really come across the idea before, which is practicing off your instrument. You mentioned doing finger patterns, but I wonder if you could talk a bit more about how you can productively improve on your instrument while you’re not physically using it.
Dylan: Yeah. So I stumbled upon this when I was studying with Vince, and this was right before I took my time off. So things were going really downhill in my life, and I was practicing maybe 45 minutes total a week. But Vince told me, “Put your hand out and blow against your hand or blow through this hole.” And so I would do this constantly trying to feel the air properly on my hand in front of me trying to focus airstream while I was driving everything, and I was improving like crazy. And people are like, “Oh my gosh, you’re improving. How much are you practicing?” And I was like, “You don’t want to know. I can’t tell you.”
Dylan: And I really think that there’s a certain amount of… I mean, man, this can go on a lot of different ways. But to really improve off your instrument, you just figure out what technical things you struggle with on your instrument and you do it somewhere else. You can do it in the car. Or you can, if you’re struggling with articulation, you do it in a car, you set a metronome and just get your tongue coordinated faster and faster and faster. And then if you’re struggling with finger patterns, do your finger patterns off your instrument and really hearing things and singing things, if you can sing, but not sing sloppy.
Dylan: I know not everybody can sing with this beautiful Pavarotti voice, but if you can at least be really, really, really specific in your pitch. Don’t let yourself be sharp or flat. Be very, very pitch specific in your singing and it’ll translate into your instrument. And I think that’s one of the things that has helped me improve more than anything, is that kind of practice off my instrument. Holding myself to the same standard or a higher standard than I would on my instrument. And when I go back to my instrument, I have that same high standard.
Christopher: Awesome. And you mentioned that first film music session for Horton Hears a Who!, and these days, film music is a particularly big part of your performing repertoire in your career. How did that grow? How did it expand? And was it natural that as you became a better player during your master’s that career just kind of sprang into fruition? Or were there particular things you needed to figure out and work on or?
Dylan: I mean constantly. But you know, I was initially brought in by my teacher at the time, Jim Thatcher. He’s the one who called me up and said, “What are you doing Thursday night?” And knew I was going to be up in Fresno taking the audition. I was like, “Oh nothing. Now what do you need?” He said, “Show up to Fox at 7:30.” And I just said, “Okay.” Or at 7:00 or whatever. And so that was my first session. And the way that it works here is actually through word of mouth and recommendations. And so I would just try and show up and not ruin everything. Sometimes what’s the phrase we use is, “An error of omission is always better than an error of commission. And sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.” And I learned that a lot when I was really coming up is because if you miss something a couple of times you just leave it out the next time.
Dylan: If everybody else has hitting it then you’re fine. Now I can’t do that because I’m sitting in the hot seat and I have to make sure that to set an example. But it was very helpful to not lose my jobs early on by ruining takes. Help when I can and get out of the way when I can’t. But it was a long time I didn’t get my first real principal gig until 2014 when I was recommended by somebody they had not been happy with their previous people and somebody recommended to try me. And so I was called for SpongeBob with John Debney and I had the audacity… I was say 2014 still in my 20s I think. I can’t even remember what year it is anymore. No, I must’ve been like 29 or 30. It was at the end of my master’s.
Dylan: And I was like, “Well, if you want me to do it then you need to let me pick my horn section.” And I said, “Well that’s kind of a jerk thing to say, but all right, fine.” And so we went in with a phenomenal section and everybody was … It was just a really amazing time. And I don’t do that. I’m not like, “Oh you have to let me pick the section.” That was just that one time because I knew this was going to be my shot. I needed to be able to have everybody on board.
Dylan: And so everybody kept being like, “Oh my God, you sound so amazing.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no I sound okay. But everybody sounds amazing. This is a group effort.” And I really feel like that’s what we have right now because things are going and everybody sounds phenomenal. If you listen to some of the soundtracks that are coming out that we’ve done recently, Star Wars or Call of the Wild, or Jumanji or Ready Player One, or I need the big stuff that’s come out. You hear a phenomenal horn section, it’s not just one person, it’s everybody.
Christopher: And that must have taken a bit of gumption to say, “This is my shot but I’m going to put a big requirement on it. My right is I get to pick all the other players.” That’s quite a big deal. Was that coming from a general bravado that you naturally have? Do you generally, are you a confident performer? Or are you someone who was always happy going out in front regardless of anxiety and that kind of thing? Or was this a rare exception where you’re like, “I’m just going to go for it?”
Dylan: Well, so I come from a background of actors and when I was younger and singing, I spent a lot of time in musical theater. I was a singer, dancer, actor, triple threat. But no, I didn’t like acting as much. I did like a PSA and some other acting auditions, whatnot. And I felt so kind of naked. And one of the reasons why I chose music is because I really appreciated the fact that there was an instrument in between me and the audience and I felt protected. But I’ve always been a ham, so I don’t mind overdoing everything, which has helped me be an okay soloist. And I think at the time I just knew … I don’t carry myself with a lot of bravado. I just carry myself with a lot of innocent stupidity. I don’t know.
Dylan: I was born and raised in California and I just have a very relaxed sense of authority where I’ve never called anybody Mr or Mrs. I’ve always called people by their first name. When I was younger, which is not very polite, but it’s just how I’ve always been. So I just would get really comfortable in situations really quickly that I probably shouldn’t be comfortable in. And so I was just like, “Yeah, this is how it’s got to be. I know you had problem as you said, you want to do this right? Let’s do this right.” But yeah, I’m not, I hate conflict. I avoid it at all costs. I’m not a beat my chest kind of guy. I’m very demure when it comes to that kind of thing.
Christopher: And you mentioned gigging along the way, I’d be curious to know in terms of bravado and competence, is that sitting in the principal horn, that seat for a recording session, is that analogous to being front and center on stage in a classical music concert? Do you need the same kind of present moment awareness that we were talking before or the same kind of in a mastery to overcome nerves or have that kind of control of your playing in the best possible sense?
Dylan: Absolutely. But it’s a different skillset because in a performance you know exactly what you’re going to play. You’ve practiced it 1,000 times. You know exactly how it’s going to go. You know exactly where the notes are, you know exactly where your rests are, you know exactly where your high points are and where your low points are. And where you can manage your energy. And that’s not to say that there’s not a lot of improvisation and spontaneity that occurs in and something like that. But in the studio world you don’t know what you’re going to play, more it’s becoming a little bit more common for really big movies to send out parts ahead of time so you can take a look at it. But I mean the most you look at it as you open a piece, you scan through it, you’re like, “Okay, that’s fine.” You scan through it. Okay, that’s fine. Okay, that’s fine. And then that’s it.
Dylan: If there’s something really, really, really difficult, you may take a look at it, play it a couple times and be like, “Okay, we’ll get there.” But you don’t know what you’re going to play. You don’t know how long you’re going to play, you don’t know what order they’re going to go in if you’re going to hit hard piece after hard piece after hard piece, and then play some light delicate solos. And then be tacit for three hours while they work on the strings. It’s a different type of concentration because your concentration has to be so singular, but it’s for smaller spurts of time.
Dylan: So it has to be a pure concentration and you have to give everything you have. You can’t pace yourself because there’s no part of the movie that you’re going to listen to this you’re going to say, “Oh, okay, he’s pacing himself for this.” It’s, you have to give everything you have at all times. If it says fortissimo, then you’re giving fortissimo right at 10:00 AM all the way until 5:00 PM if that’s what it says. And you hurt, and it hurt. It’s you go home and you ice your face and you drink lots of water and you put vitamin E on and you try and go to sleep early so that you can wake up tomorrow and do the same thing. And then the next day you show up and it’s all fortissimo. And then for the last hour, they’re like, “All right, we’re going to let everybody else go and we’re going to have horn solos. Or everybody just stay in your seat, we’re got to do the couple horn solos.” And you are just like, “Oh my goodness.” But there’s a lot of downtime, right?
Dylan: So we’ll record and then we’ll stop recording and they’ll be talking to, they want to change some articulations in the strings and want to change bowings and want to change some notes and fix some stuff when they talk and blah blah blah. And then you go again and you’re completely singularly focused for a couple of minutes, 30 seconds to three, four or five minutes and then you’re off. So it’s a real on and off thing and it’s its own skill. But it does require the same type of, in the moment presence.
Dylan: And I think that if we want to get into some kind of performance psychology and how to combat nerves, one of my biggest tips and piece of advice for being less nervous is two things. Number one, is playing from your heart. Which I know is a strange thing, but I remember learning this when I was playing and I was trying to come in on a soft entrance and I was shaking in my head and I couldn’t understand why. I was like, “I know how to make sound and I know this and that.” But it was coming from a place of fear.
Dylan: So if I came from a place of love where I can actually feel it in my heart and this applied to a tied whole note where I was just playing one note for eight beats. But if I gave everything I could emotionally and musically, then everything came out better and everything came out easier. And I know that seems kind of cheesy, but we’re musicians, It’s part of who we are. And the other part of the best piece of advice really is that trying to take yourself out of the player standpoint. So when I played, one of my first big principle sessions for John Williams was for this movie called The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks about the Washington Post and I think the Watergate scandal. And it was usually you have one hour of solos or some other stuff and you rest. This was five out of the six hours that we played were massive solos or playing really delicate with the strings or with the woodwinds.
Dylan: And I was just broken mentally. I was like, “I can’t do this in the normal way. So I have to figure out another way to do it.” And what I figured out is that if I really listens to everything else that was going on and I heard the orchestra and I listened to the winds, I listened to everything and I didn’t take myself as, this is my entrance, I have to play this note. I have to play this thing. I took it as, okay, there’s this piece of music and I’m adding my sound to this piece of music. So basically it’s not about me, it’s about everything. It’s about the whole, it’s about the overall piece of music that nobody’s listening to the French horn player, they’re just listening to the sound that’s being added to the other sounds. And so I took myself as part of the sound and I took the personal out of it and allowed me to step away from the control aspect of it and really get into the hearing and the musical aspect of it.
Christopher: Wow. Those are really deep and fascinating tips. A lot more than I might’ve expected on how do you overcome nerves on both of those. Thank you.
Dylan: Yeah. Absolutely.
Christopher: I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the other part of what we just said, session work requires, which is seemingly incredible sight reading skills. And I’d love to hear how you prepare your students for sight reading maybe or if there are any tips or practice approaches you pass on to them that helped you get to the level you are where you can as you say, you just skim through and be like, “Yeah, that’s fine. Yeah, that’s fine. Yeah, that’s fine.”
Dylan: I mean singing, take voice lessons, learn how to use your voice and learn how to sight read. And I sang in choirs all through high school. So I would sightsing what I was… I could read music as a vocalist. And doing that, being able to read music and sing it when you see it is the greatest thing you could possibly do towards learning how to sight read on your instrument. Because sight reading on your instrument is nothing different, right? It’s actually easier because, and there’s another subject we can get into about my philosophy on playing is that your instrument has been designed to play all of these notes. And all you have to do is you just have to excite the instrument in the proper way so that that note comes out. You’re not actually making the sound, the instrument is making the sound, right?
Dylan: If you play a string instrument, you’re strumming your bow across the string and sorry, for better technique, you’re running your bow across the string and vibrating and swinging the wood and the sound is coming out of the instrument. You’re playing a wind instrument, you’re putting air through the instrument, which is creating some vibration, which is exciting a standing wave, which is the instrument is then making a sound. So by doing that, then you take yourself out of it again. And so if you can just focus on being able to hear what you’re about to play and singing what you’re about to play, then your instrument just does whatever your mind intends it to do.
Christopher: Got you. Again, not the answer people might have been expecting they are really valuable. And I think for people to understand how you approached that and how you think about it. And it beautifully comes back to what you were talking about earlier in terms of getting out of your own way.
Dylan: Yeah. I know that a lot of people are looking for, oh, play this book of Etudes or play these exercises or sight read something every single day or something like that. But I mean there’s only so much music out there and there’s only so much stuff to sight read and yeah, that’s valuable and that’s something that you should probably do. But I’m really not here to teach you your repertoire on your instrument. And I’m sure you all have people who can give you that advice. And I find that, a lot of the problems that occur in music and teaching is that people address the symptoms and not the causes of problems. It’s like saying, “Oh, I have chickenpox.” And they’re like, “Okay, here’s this cream for chickenpox.” And it’s like, well, that’s just addressing the symptom of chickenpox. You need a pill to get rid of the cause.
Dylan: And so trying to get down to the root problem of what your problem is on your instrument is really interesting. And it’s something that a lot of people have a hard time with. Because one of the problems with on a horn is getting to a high note from a low note, right? And 90% of the time it’s not the high note that’s the problem. It’s the low note. It’s not the note that you miss, it’s the note before the note that you miss. Something else is causing a systemic problem that is creating decay somewhere else. If there’s a problem in a tree, it’s not the spot on the tree, it’s somewhere else, right? Some systemic issue. So if you can find the root cause of your problem, you’ll be better off than just treating the symptoms.
Christopher: So that may or may not lead naturally to my next question, which is something that you mentioned before we hit record, which is that you’ve been working on this fascinating translation/localization of a book or rather translation/localization of a fascinating book. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that.
Dylan: Yes. So we came across this book some years ago when a colleague of ours got injured, had a chop injury. And he was from Spain and he brought this book back and there’s exercises for your face, which most people don’t get into. Music medicine and music psychology were 50, 60 years behind sports, right? How long has sports medicine, sports performance psychology, things like that been around. It’s been around forever. And in music we’re like, “Oh, we don’t want to talk about being hurt because that shows a sign of weakness.” Especially in the freelance world. Nobody wants to talk about being uncomfortable or being in pain or anything like that. Or nobody wants to talk about. And I’ve heard so many people say you don’t want to talk about stage fright or nerves or performance anxiety because that’s just going to give somebody performance anxiety.
Dylan: And I just think that’s such a ridiculous statement. That’s to say is if you don’t have performance anxiety, you’re not really excited about what you’re doing. Similarly, so you should be comfortable talking about it and you should figure out a way to go about it as opposed to trying to avoid it. And similarly, if you’re hurt or if you’re in pain or if you’re … Something like that, don’t avoid it because you think that you’re going to show up as weak. It’s actually stronger to say, “You know what, it really hurts. I’m having a problem with my arm, or a problem with my neck or a problem with here and there. Problem with my face and I want to fix it. I want to learn how to get better.” And so he brought this book back and he was working on his face and we looked at the book and Annie started making lectures for brass instrumentalist based on the stretches for the face in the book.
Dylan: And then we reached out to the author and talked about a translation for the book. And so we started on that because it’s something that our music community so sorely needs and is just not there. I mean, I don’t know another book, I know lots of books about, oh, the Chops, or Playing Less Hurt, or there’s some different books on that kind of thing. But this book is really interesting in the sense that it’s organized in postural playing. So there’s different sets of exercises for each posture, right? There’s small winds, there’s wind fronts, there’s brass, there’s boweds, large bowed string, there’s piano, there’s drums. Any way that you kind of hold your body to play an instrument, there’s a set of exercises to offset the stresses from the asymmetrical nature. Because when we play an instrument, we’re not perfectly symmetrical. Like okay, this is it. Everything in our body is the same. We’re usually like ugh something kind of messed up in our body. We’re not sitting in a way that seems comfortable. So doing the opposite or doing exercises to make sure that those muscles that you specifically use are healthy seems the obvious way to go and it’s just not out there. So we figured it needed to be out there for the another population. And I hope it gets translated in other languages. I’m not the person to do it, but there’ll be an English version very soon. It’s at the formatter. We’ve done all our final edits. We’re just putting the pictures in and how it sits in on the pages. And then it’ll go to print and it should be out hopefully by the end of a quarantine.
Christopher: Terrific, and the title?
Dylan: The title is In Tune. The title of the original Spanish book is A tono: Ejercicios para mejorar el rendimiento del músico, which roughly translates to In Tune Exercises for the Improvements of Performance of Musicians. And we have a better more finely translated title because the thing about translations is nothing goes directly translated. It’s the sentence structure and the way that you would say something, and this book is from Spain which is… Spain Spanish is different from Mexican Spanish, which is what I grew up learning how to speak. And so it was its own struggle. And so basically the big part about translation is the localization where you turn it into something that doesn’t seem awkward for a native speaker to read. And that’s really where the struggle was because this book is so technical where it shows you all the different muscles that you would use and it tries to show what the levator scapular and crestia ulnaris and all this ilia kind of biological or musculoskeletal tagging and trying to make that into an English literate thing was very challenging to do to not lose what the actual meaning is.
Dylan: And I find that that’s really one of the hardest things to do. I’m actually working on writing my own book on brass playing. And I believe that the first chapter of my book is going to be devoted on how difficult it is to and how it’s more important to write what you don’t mean than it is to write what you actually mean. Because it’s so easy, and in history, I’ve seen this a lot where people who’ve studied with great teachers are like, “Oh, well they said this.” And it’s yes, they said that to you because you needed to hear this and it specifically addressed this problem. This is not a universal like everybody needs to do this this way, but it kind of addressed this general issue. And so if I’m saying something, I’m like, “Okay, that doesn’t mean this, and that doesn’t mean this. And that doesn’t mean this. I’m trying to specifically say this and don’t take it like this and don’t take it like this.”
Dylan: Which it’s kind of a bummer to do but you also don’t want to end up generations down the road and they’re like, “Oh well Dylan said this and it was really screwing me up and now I’m injured.” I feel if I’m going to put something out there, I want to be responsible with how it goes.
Christopher: Absolutely. Yeah, I know that’s something we’ve certainly seen inside Musical U where if you’re sitting at home in a room, you can write what you think is very clear instructional material to explain intervals or the major scale or whatever it may be. And then you put it out into the wild where you’ve got a community of a thousand musicians and music learners and you very quickly realize what you didn’t say and what you should have said and how you could have phrased things differently. So I can only imagine the pressure of doing that in a print book where you need to really nail it first time or as you say, leave yourself open to confusion down the road. So In Tune is coming out very soon by the sounds of it. Is there a website or somewhere we can point people to? Is it coming out through traditional publishers or Amazon? How can people get their hands on it?
Dylan: It should be out through Amazon and I’m sure Annie and I will have it out on our own websites anniebosler.com and dylanskyehart.com. That’s D-Y-L-A-N-S-K-Y-E H-A-R-T. I’m sure you’ll have some sort of link. We’ll have it available for purchase, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find it on Amazon. We’ve been struggling with trying to figure out how to put an ebook version out where you can click on something and exercises come up, but that’s… We’ll see. That’s a whole another can of worms. We’re just trying to get the book out because it needs to get out as quickly as possible.
Christopher: Absolutely. Well, as you say, we’ll definitely have links to all that in the show notes and when the book is out we’ll be sure to notify our audience because as you say, it’s something that is not talked about enough and aren’t enough good resources on, so I think that’s going to be a fantastic addition to the literature. Thank you so much for joining us on the show today, Dylan.
Dylan: Well, thank you for having me. I really had a wonderful time and I hope everybody enjoyed themselves and learned something and if you have any other questions or if you are confused about something I said, feel free to reach out to me and I’ll do my best to answer everybody that that does.
Dylan: If you’re a French horn player out there and you’re interested in possibly studying with me, I teach at Cal State Long Beach and we have a pretty fantastic program growing there. Myself and Jenny Kim, who is the third horn player of the LA opera, and she is a phenomenal teacher as well, and we have a really great set of students. So if you’re interested in coming, look up Cal State Long Beach and we’d be great, we’d be happy to have you.