In the Pit
Steven Becknell, 1st Horn, LA Opera Orchestra
By Diane Eisenman
Growing Up with Music
The son of a French hornist and a pianist, both music professors at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Steve began piano at age five. He studied violin briefly in 5th grade, but in order to be with his buddies, he auditioned for the band in 6th grade, wanting to play trumpet or drums. Instead, he was handed a French horn by the director, who knew his mother was available to coach him.
Scholarships kept him in Madison through his B.M. degree. As a junior, while attending the Music Academy of the West, he met hornist Jim Decker, who invited Steve to study at USC with Vince Derosa. The weather was definitely a deciding factor!
A Freelance Career
While at USC, he joined the Santa Barbara Symphony as 3rd horn, a step toward his dream of becoming 1st horn in a major symphony orchestra. He looked forward to playing the great horn repertoire of Mahler and Strauss – the ‘meat and potatoes’ of horn literature.
In 1987 he joined the LA Chamber Orchestra as 2nd horn and began performing with LA Opera. Soon he discovered that he really enjoyed opera music and welcomed the opportunity to become 1st horn with the new LA Opera Orchestra.
In the 30 years since, Steve has performed in the studio orchestras of over a thousand movies and TV shows, and recorded with famous vocal personalities. Musical theater experience includes this summer’s revival of The Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages. He plays chamber music with Camerata Pacifica, participates in a woodwind quintet, and plays occasionally with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the California Philharmonic Orchestra and Muse/ique.
A part-time faculty member at USC, Steve encourages his students to keep their options open, as careers can take unexpected directions. Case in point: himself. Steve says he never dreamed when he was 20 that he would be so happy as a member of an opera orchestra.
Playing in the Orchestra
French horn players have two big challenges. First is finding accurate pitches on high notes, which depend both on lip position and air support. Secondly, accuracy and strength are more difficult to maintain with age. “I don’t see myself playing horn my whole life. Most hornists stop playing at least by their 70s. Yet I see me playing piano ‘til I drop!”
Steve enjoys the big soaring horn melodies and the overtones that he feels in his body, especially when the whole horn section is playing together in tune. He loves listening to the beautiful music of Puccini, and the challenge and rewards of Der Rosenkavalier. Playing Wagner’s Ring Cycle for up to five hours a night was exhausting, “with me doing Siegfried’s call again and again.”
Steve loves playing with the LA Opera Orchestra. In addition to finding it less stressful than other performance venues, he enjoys his colleagues, has great respect for James Conlon, and appreciates knowing what music to prepare in advance.
Beyond the Pit
Though his two daughters are excellent musicians, neither chose music as their career, despite having professional parents. For a break from music, Steve goes ocean fishing or skiing at Mammoth Mountain. Locally, he attends sporting events as a fun way to clear his mind.
“Of all the things I do, playing with the LA Opera Orchestra is my favorite. I want to keep doing it as long as I can. I wish the opera did more productions because I love being there.”
Photo credit: Diane Eisenman