Interview with Hornist Oto Carrillo

Thank you for joining us for this interview with Hornist Oto Carrillo!

Today, Jeremy talks with Oto about Mozart’s 3rd Horn Concerto, why he started playing the horn, and how he escaped from an elevator shaft just before his first performance at Carnegie Hall.

Oto Carrillo joins the FCS for our Signature Concert #4: Anxious, Tender & Jaunty, in-person and live-streamed, on March 5, 2022. Click here for tickets and more information.

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Interview with hornist Oto Carrillo

Jeremy Cuebas: Welcome to this interview with hornist Oto Carrillo. Mr. Carrillo joins the Fort Collins Symphony on March 5th, 2022, to perform Mozart’s 3rd Horn Concerto. Oto, thank you for being with us today.

Oto Carrillo: I’m happy to be here!

JC: Could you give us a quick introduction of who you are and what you do?

OC: My name is Oto Carrillo. I play the French Horn and I’ve been playing in the Chicago Symphony for 21 years. I grew up in Chicago, but I was born in Guatemala. I didn’t move to the Chicago area until I was about 1 and a half years old, then I started playing the horn around age 8 or 9. It was my first instrument, I’ve been playing it ever since, and now I’m a professional horn player and pretty much living my dream come true.

JC: And what brought you to the horn?

French Horn Painting
Painting by Margaret Glass

OC: My parents put the instrument in my hands. I had no choice. I did see it coming, though. My three older brothers had instruments as well that were chosen for them. I think that my parents originally wanted a jazz combo, so my oldest brother plays clarinet, my second-oldest brother plays saxophone, and my brother closest in age to me plays trumpet. So they thought I’d play the drums. But they also wanted me to play the French Horn because they knew how beautiful of a sound it had. And they also knew that it had a reputation for being a very difficult instrument. Apparently, I could whistle pretty well at a young age, and they thought I had a pretty good ear, so they thought “why not put him with the hardest instrument.”

JC: Along with playing in the Chicago Symphony, you’re performing as a soloist and teaching. What does your schedule look like?

OC: Mondays are our days off at the Symphony, so in a typical week I teach on Mondays. Most years I have about 6 students or so at DePaul, then the rest of the week is rehearsals and concerts with the Symphony. We usually have a new concert every week, so it’s a busy schedule.

Christmas time is the hardest because we usually have a brass concert, the regular concert, and then the Christmas shows as well. It gets a little bit tough, but we circle that week, look at it for the whole year, and just get through it. But it’s rewarding.

JC: You’re joining the Fort Collins Symphony on March 5th, 2022,  to perform Mozart’s 3rd Horn Concerto. Could you introduce this piece to people who may not be familiar with it?

OC: So, Mozart wrote this piece for the natural horn. I always have a hard time describing this without having my horn in front of me, but it looks like the horn with no valves. It’s just a coiled pipe that looks like a Christmas tree decoration. A lot of notes can be played without valves between adjusting with your hand in the bell and through tension in the lips. It’s very tricky. Now, with modern horns, we have valves, so we can play all the notes. It’s a much more modern sound.

The 3rd Horn Concerto was written in the classical style and it sounds like Mozart’s sound. These concertos are some of his best music, and it has one of the prettiest openings that you’ll ever hear. It works so well on the horn, has a beautiful melody, and has a beautiful second theme.

The second movement is called the “Romanze.” And as you might guess it has a sweeping melody that just keeps going and going. There’s a lot of nice interplay between the soloist and the orchestra.

And then in the last movement, you get a rondo, in which you hear the theme repeated many times. It’s kind of like a hunting horn, which is a very popular form of diversion back in the 18th century. People would go hunt for foxes and they would blow the horn while they were riding when they found something of interest. That’s the reason why the earlier horns were valveless, so they could put it over their shoulders. The last movement has that hunt reminiscence. It gallops along quickly and has some spectacular flourishes for the horn and it shows off the virtuosity of the horn player.

JC: One thing I wanted to emphasize, for those that aren’t familiar with the horn, is that a lot of the notes you play are happening in your mouth, with lip tension. Could you explain that briefly?

Natural Horn and Valve Horn
Natural Horn and valved horn
Photo from

OC: Sure. When we make a sound on the instrument, we have to create vibrations, sort of like when a violinist brings their bow across the string. So we vibrate our lips, it kinda sounds like a bumblebee, by blowing air through my tight lips, I can go up and down on the horn to make higher and lower pitches. The valves aid in getting specific pitches that are not on a natural tube. With the valves, I can play every note on a piano, black and white notes, whereas before they could only achieve that effect by opening and closing with their hand at some points inside the bell. It’s very difficult. Those players back in the day were very virtuosic to be able to perform this.

JC: Thanks for that explanation. Now, I assume that you’ve performed this concerto before. Is that right?

OC: I think it was the first one of the Mozart concertos that I played. I have performed it with a band, but I have not yet with an orchestra. So, this is the first time that I will have played it with an orchestra.

The band arrangements are different in a lot of ways, but many people will also play it with piano, especially students learning the pieces.

JC: And how old were you when you first learned this concerto?

I remember practicing the “Romanze,” because it’s the “easier” movement technically, my first or second year of playing. So I was about 10 or 11 years old. When I was in high school, I was in the Chicago Youth Symphony, and our principal horn player was selected to perform with the orchestra, and she was playing the 3rd movement, the Rondo, the Hunt. So I remember learning it just because I heard her playing it.

JC: So if you first played it when you were 10, and now you’ve been playing with the Chicago Symphony for 21 years, how has your understanding of the piece changed?

OC: You know, you sit down and explore the things that you’re playing. Both what you’ve done before and what is new. There’s a lot of feedback that you can create. Between playing by yourself and playing for others, there are a lot of different ideas. Where do these ideas come from? A lot of them are stolen from great players, or borrowed from other soloists in other fields. Anything that I can hear that will put in an added layer of dimension to my playing.

So how has it changed? I can’t even quantify it. Just working on it now, I try out different things to see what works and what doesn’t work, and I try to overturn every stone and make sure that I don’t leave anything untouched. But in that regard, I give myself some flexibility to be creative on the spot as a performer. I’ll probably, in the end, combine some of the features that are safe with some of the things that are risky and we’ll see what happens!

JC: Moving away from the Mozart, what are some of your favorite pieces of music?

OC: I’ve really loved the music of Bruckner and Mahler because they write so well for the horn and they’re great to listen to as a listener. There’s so much depth of sound and color. It’s like reading a good book.

I’m also really starting to love the music of Maurice Ravel. Every piece I hear is so rich and layered. He didn’t write much for the French Horn, but he was such a knowledgeable composer.

In the car, I listen to a lot of popular music while I’m heading to teach. Some Top 40, a lot of  80s music because that’s when I was growing up and it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling listening to the music of my childhood. Also a fair amount of jazz, and some world music.

Guatemalan Marimba
A Guatemalan Marimba

My mom just sent me a youtube video of marimba players from Guatemala. The marimbas there have a very distinct sound, and we actually have one at home.

JC: Do you have any fun stories to share?

OC: Well, maybe not a fun story, but an iconic story, about the first time I got to play in Carnegie Hall. I was in the Chicago Symphony and my son and wife were with me. We were all in New York on tour and we got stuck in an elevator right before a performance.

The hotel was right next to Carnegie Hall, so I didn’t have far to go, and we got in the elevator about 5 minutes before the concert. I didn’t play until the 2nd half of the concert, so I could get my stuff, leisurely walk over, and have plenty of time to warm up.

Well, we got stuck. And long story short we were stuck in there for an hour. They couldn’t get the elevator unstuck, so the elevator operators came up in the adjacent elevator and punched out the panels of the elevators, and I had to crawl through the elevator shaft and leave my wife and 14-month old son in the elevator to run to the concert. They couldn’t fit through the shaft because it was so narrow. I barely made it to the concert, but I later learned that my wife was in there for a whole other hour before they could get her out.

So, that was the first time I played in Carnegie Hall. They say that the way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice, practice, practice, but I went a different route.

JC: What do you like to do outside of music? Besides crawling through elevator shafts?

OC: Hahaha, right. I like to stay in shape because I know someday I might have to do it again!

I play basketball, not recently because of COVID. I play softball on a team from the CSO, and I really enjoy that because I grew up playing baseball. I really like woodworking, just to take my mind in a different direction. All these things apply to music, of course: just concentrating on one task and being focused.

I like to travel. In the U.S. there are about 60 named National Parks and I’ve been to 50 of them with my family. This trip to Fort Collins in March will be the first that I will have flown in two years, so that will be exciting. I also like to visit the state capitals, and I only have two more to go before I’ve reached all of them, and those are the two Dakotas. We started when my kids were young and we just took them everywhere we possibly could. We just visited as many places as we could and wanted to enjoy the outdoors and see the world.

JC: Well, Oto, thanks so much for joining us today. You’re performing Mozart’s 3rd Horn Concerto with the Fort Collins Symphony on March 5th, 2022, and we are so excited to have you with us!

OC: I can’t wait!

Join us for Anxious, Tender & Jaunty, featuring guest hornist Oto Carrillo, in-person and live-streamed on Saturday, March 5th at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Time. Click here for tickets and more information.

SC4: Anxious, Tender & Jaunty