Robert Ward
Robert Ward | Courtesy of SF Symphony

San Francisco Symphony principal horn player Robert Ward grew up in Schenectady, New York, and started on the horn when he was just 9 years old due to his familiarity with his father’s bugle. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and after stints at the Atlantic Symphony of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Denver Symphony, he came to the SF Symphony in 1980 as assistant principal. He was promoted to principal in 2007.

Ward says that his goal was always to play in an orchestra. Being at the SF Symphony has given him the best seat in the house, he thinks, as well as colleagues he likes and admires.

After more than 40 years with SFS, Ward is retiring, and his last concert will be Holiday Brass on Dec. 21. He talked to San Francisco Classical Voice about making room for other horn players, the historical novels he’s been working on, and how musicians are really athletes.

I understand your father played the bugle, and that led to you playing the horn.

The way I always tell it is that I owe my entire musical career to a man I never met, which is the guy who was my dad’s sergeant in the armed forces in World War II, who directed him to go get a bugle and become a company bugler. What ended up happening was my dad did do that, of course, and probably avoided some other onerous duties in the process, which I’m sure made him happy. When he came back from the war, the bugle came with him. Around the house, there was always this kind of beat-up old green bugle from WWII.

SF Symphony brass
Robert Ward (center) with members of the SF Symphony brass | Credit: Cody Pickens

At a certain point when I was pretty young, he showed me how to play it. And of course, he didn’t really play anymore because he was off being an electrical engineer, which is what he did for a living. Anyway, the key to this is that the sound you make on a bugle is made the same way as you make a sound on every other brass instrument. … You kind of buzz your lips together. … From a real early age, I learned how to do that.

So, armed with this sort of rudimentary knowledge of how to make a sound on a brass instrument, one day when I was in fifth grade — I was 9 years old, this was probably in the fall of 1965, in my elementary school — it was try-the-instrument day. I ended up trying the horn and playing the scale on it the first time I picked it up. That attracted some attention, so I left carrying this weird, awkward-shaped horn case and had some lessons and, you know, got pretty good at it.

What did you like about the instrument?

I think that for whatever reason, I loved the thing that everybody else loves about the horn, which is the sound. I really enjoyed making this wonderful, broad, all-encompassing sound, and I still love doing that on the horn. That’s what, I think, attracted me initially. I always had comments from people that they really loved my sound. So, 60 years later, I guess I succeeded.

What do you feel like makes someone a good horn player?

I think that one of the most important things about playing the horn is that it gives you an opportunity to be expressive. If someone is willing to play these wonderful symphonic pieces of music with great horn passages, playing them in an expressive, interesting way is, I think, chief among the requirements to be a good player. I think that you also have to be physically skilled.

One way of looking at musicians aside from —this sounds stupid— aside from the music is that we’re all sort of athletes, right? Except the muscles that we’re using are much smaller. We’re not Simone Biles doing backflips and stuff like that. But there’s tiny, tiny muscles that we’re intimately connected to in our bodies that are essential for us to play. If you’re someone who can train well and hear yourself and get better as a result of the feedback that you get from listening to yourself, then that is very helpful.

You’ve been with the SF Symphony since 1980. What do you like about it? What made you stay so long?

When I was in college, I thought, “Well, this is what I want to do. I want to play the horn in a big orchestra.” I never pictured myself as a soloist on the horn. That was never my goal — to play concertos. My goal was always to be in the orchestra and a part of this enormous organism, and you know, I have the best seat in the house. I’m right in the middle. I hear my amazing colleagues inspire me every day. So, the bottom line is I really got to do what I set out to do, and for that I feel exceptionally fortunate. How could you not feel this way?

It’s brilliant music. It’s a brilliant organization. It’s great. And I came in at a time when things were on the upswing, right? I mean, I played the first concerts in Davies in September of 1980. I’ve had four music directors — Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt, Michael Tilson Thomas, and now Esa-Pekka Salonen. All of them were very different, and all of them taught me something about playing the horn, and we got to be partners in making some great music. I think that good fortune, talent, hard work, opportunity — all of these things came together in a really nice way.

SF Symphony horn section
Robert Ward (second from right) with the SF Symphony horn section | Credit: Kristen Loken

You’ve stopped teaching at UC Berkeley, and you’ll stop teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music following your retirement from the SF Symphony. Why?

I think that after 43 years of playing in this orchestra, and 60 years of playing the horn, it’s time to create a space for whoever’s coming after me to be able to pass on their own knowledge.

I totally see this as a continuum. I mean, one of my hobbies is genealogy, and I’ve done a lot of research into my family. Not only that, but I have a collection of older horns that I’ve put together over the years. I’m fascinated by my family’s history, the history of these horns, who owned them. Also, who was my teacher’s teacher? Who was his teacher? The lineages of horn teachers are very interesting to me. I sort of see them as this tree, and people who have studied with me will get jobs and have gotten jobs, and those people will teach, or they won’t teach, and it’s a whole continuum. I think it’s fascinating and interesting to view it in that way.

What did you like about teaching?

I’m not a super dogmatic teacher. I’ll hear someone play something, and I try and approach the whole thing. Intuitively, it’s like, OK, what is this person doing that’s not quite right, and how can I help him or her fix it? So, there’s a way that I can listen to sound and then work with them on their tongue production, work on what phrasing you can have to make something beautiful because, basically, you want to deliver beauty in your playing. If that’s your goal, well, how can that be a bad thing?

What do you think you’ll do once you’re retired?

I’m trying to write fiction, and I have written four unpublished novels actually. Some of them have to do with music. I’m working on one right now about a musician, a horn player who leaves Europe in 1913 — comes to America and is trying to make his way from Prague. What’s fun about that is that I get to layer in actual historical things. Like, there’s a guy that this fictional player studies with in New York who is a real person and who taught some, and his lineage of students and grad students is pretty impressive. So, I get to include him in the novel.

Do you think you’ll take classes or join a writing group?

I have been a member of a writing group for probably 12–13 years now. It’s another great group of people, with wonderful, intelligent, super skilled, talented, and imaginative writers that I get to hang out with, some of whom are published. I get to learn from them and be in that world, which is really wonderful.