Two Life Lessons From Dale Clevenger


There are people who have traveled great distances to spend an afternoon with Dale Clevenger, but since he lives in a nearby Chicago suburb, I didn’t have to. Those who journeyed thousands of miles are musicians who dreamed of the chance to be coached by the world-famous solo French Horn player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Most of them wanted to improve their technique on that fiendishly difficult instrument. Most of them hoped to heighten their musicianship, elevate their art in performance.

I don’t play the horn, but in the course of recording Dale Clevenger’s oral history for the CSO, I received some lessons, too.

Not about music, but about life. About the beginnings and the ends of things. About the way careers in any field are started; and how they finish.

The first had to do with auditions. And also the need for perseverance despite repeated rejection.

If you are a musician, an audition can feel as though you are on stage naked in front of a small group of listeners who will decide whether you have “the chops:” the ability to make music at the highest possible level. But if you aren’t a musician, you probably still have had something close to this experience: giving an oral report in school, sitting for an oral defense of your masters thesis or dissertation, giving a speech; or perhaps simply going for a job interview or asking someone on a date.

Clevenger had significant successes before he came to the CSO. He played in the Kansas City Philharmonic, the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra in New York, and the American Symphony under Leopold Stokowski (the conductor Disney captured on film in Fantasia). He toured Europe with the Pittsburgh Symphony and recorded the Shostakovich Symphony #7 with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.

While a member of the American Symphony, at age 22, a big chance came: an opening in the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, several steps above any of the ensembles with which he had previously worked full-time. The Berlin band was in New York on tour, performing in Carnegie Hall. And when he walked on stage for the audition, he performed not for a small group of listeners, but for the entire orchestra, as well as its storied music director, Herbert von Karajan.

Dale Clevenger: “I played for about 20 minutes. That’s a long audition.”

Gerald Stein: “And I would think, an intimidating one, too. That is, if one were inclined to be intimidated.”

Dale Clevenger: “That’s the key. I wanted to show them what I could do. I was not worried too much about intimidation.”

When the audition was over, Herbert von Karajan told the young performer that he played “very well,” but that he didn’t match “the tone” of the Berlin horn section; in effect, didn’t fit their sound. “But,” said Karajan, “you will have a fine job one day.”

Karajan was right. In January, 1966, Clevenger would win the competition to become the Principal Horn player of the Chicago Symphony. But not before failing to become a permanent member of the orchestras in New Orleans, Dallas, the New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh, the Metropolitan Opera, and even his first try at the CSO in 1965.

I asked him how one deals with those kinds of defeats. He then proceeded to tell me about a Boston Symphony horn player who had only gotten that job on his 48th professional audition:

Dale Clevenger: “How do you stick it out? How do you do that? Would I have done that? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. There are a lot of people who play five to 15 auditions (before they win a big one). I played 9 or 10. It didn’t affect my ego. You just keep going. (For example), how can an actor be an actor unless he is used to the failure to get jobs? It’s not possible. You have to try to find the positive in that situation.”

Not to mention lots of practice to keep improving.

In the course of our long conversation, I also talked to the virtuoso about his coming departure from the CSO. And, he told me that he’d written a farewell letter to his colleagues. We’d arrived at a the second life lesson — about gratitude and saying goodbye.

If there is a more graceful way to leave the stage, I don’t know it; especially his quotation of a line from the vocal text of Mahler’s 8th Symphony, borrowed by Mahler from Goethe, which is perhaps the best description I’ve ever heard applied to a life devoted to recreating that which is indescribable: the music of the great composers.

February 12, 2013

My dear friends and colleagues of the CSO,

One of the most euphoric days of my life was the day I was engaged to play solo horn in this great and classic orchestra. All of you know exactly that feeling. To quote Mahler in the 8th Symphony, “Das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist’s getan” (“What cannot be described with words, we have done”). I have been so fortunate for forty-eight seasons to do just that. It is with incredible bitter-sweetness, joy, and sorrow that I announce to you that at the end of June I plan to retire from this amazing Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I am the most fortunate and grateful musician ever to have played here, the elite of the elite of orchestras. This will end an amazing tenure, but retiring from music I am not. Indiana University has engaged me to be a Professor of Horn starting August 1, 2013.

You are truly some of the finest musicians on the planet. To have had the pleasure and privilege of making music and sharing the stage with you in thousands of concerts is a sweet memory I shall cherish to my grave. Please, I encourage you all to do everything possible in your power the keep my Chicago Symphony Orchestra “the best of the best!”

A very heart-felt thank you for these wonderful years,


Wonderful years, too, for those of us who just listened. Thank you, Dale. And thanks for the lessons.

19 thoughts on “Two Life Lessons From Dale Clevenger

  1. Thank you Geri,
    What a lovely tribute to a great artist!

    Hy Speck


  2. Dear Dr. Stein,

    Thank you for posting this. I know Dale personally and have sent a number of students to him that I have coached to be ready for study with him. He is one of a kind. He revered my teachers, Adolph Herseth and Arnold Jacobs, and he is a legend just like they are. He will be sorely missed as an active performer. We are all delighted that he will be teaching at Indiana.

    In my coaching of horn and brass players, he is one of my models.

    Michael Goode
    Principal Trumpet
    Symphony 47
    Hollywood, CA


  3. I’ve admired the way Mr. Clevenger has yet to tell the claque of critics in Chicago how hurt he must have been by their constant harangue at the end of his tenure over “missed” intonations — or whatever they call not quite getting that “fiendishly difficult” instrument to respond.

    He was piled on and came out proud and unbowed.

    I look forward to hearing him in Indiana.


    • When I do oral histories of musicians, I often ask them about their feelings toward the critics. The CSO Archives Department makes these available to those who wish to listen when they visit the Archives. You might find some of them to be interesting. Thanks for your comment.


  4. – thank You for super essay
    Beccy Goldberg

    A description of Argentum Nitricum and other remedies as they might be needed by the professional musician.

    I have been intrigued by the unexpected crossover of homeopathy and music whilst training at the Northwest College. The amalgamation of art and science in Hahnemann’s day is clearer if one has studied Beethoven and sonata form. Homeopathic observation skills are second nature to an aware, empathic performer, and potency, for me, is understood as the harmonic series expressed by an orchestral palette.

    When set a Materia Medica project, I decided to use my thirty year exposure to classical musicians to make sense of the correlation between the remedy composition Argentum Nitricum and one of its most famous acute uses in stage fright, drawing on the archetypal orchestral musician…


  5. Anything that can be done for performance anxiety will be a considerable boon for musicians (and not only for them). Thanks for commenting and for your kind words about the essay.


  6. Thank you for such a wonderful tribute to an amazing artist! I grew up admiring Mr. Clevenger as a musician growing up in the Chicago area…

    As for your site, I stumbled upon it following a link of a friend. I wish I had seen it earlier! I have spent the last hour reading your essays — especially the ones pertaining to classical music — which are all written with a sense of elegance, frankness and kindness. It is so important to remember our priorities as musicians, in the middle of all the ambition, competition and fear… to remember why we play at all, to have the courage to truly play for others, to take every defeat as an opportunity to grow, to always strive for that which lies beyond us. Thank you!



    • I am very grateful for your comment. I write, in some part, probably for the same reason reason you make music: an inner necessity. But, as you say, doing it for others also means something very special. Thank you.


  7. […] scene, and brass playing around the world:  Dale Clevenger.  Here are some excerpts below, and click this link for the entire article. Thanks for the wisdom, […]


  8. Is it to late to finish a dream of playing in a symphony, practicing, getting back in playing shape?


    • I’m afraid that I’m not one to ask, as I’m not a musician. But, there are certainly lots of community orchestras although, as you know, getting into a top-level symphony is very hard. Still, you never know. Thanks for your comment and best of luck.


  9. […] scene, and brass playing around the world:  Dale Clevenger.  Here are some excerpts below, and click this link for the entire article (you might also want to check out other articles on Dr. Stein’s […]


  10. Dear Mr.Dr.Stein,

    Thank you for such a valuable post you shared with us.

    I’m an American horn player, born in HongKong, grew up in Japan, studied the horn in Germany for 5years, and now I coach musicians asa a profession using the skills of the AlaxanderTechnique. I teach a t various music colleges in Japan and Shanghai(China).

    I write a blog in Japanese.

    I would very much like to translate your post into Japanese and post it on my blog, of course with a link to this page and detailed introduction to this blog.

    Would you consider if you mind letting me do that ?

    Best regards,

    Basil Kritzer


    • Thank you for your praise of the post. I’m fine with your making the translation and posting it on your blog with proper credit. I would appreciate your making the link or links back to my original post sufficiently prominent so that some of your English speaking readers might be enticed to look at other posts on my site. This permission, of course, does not refer to any use of the post that is directly remunerative to you or anyone else. All the best.


  11. It looks fine. Thank you.


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