From the 2016 Celebrating Excellence | When Cynthia Simpson was 10 years old, she had no intention of becoming a professional musician—and certainly not a professional French horn player.
She was in fifth grade at the time, and her father was the band director at her school. He needed horn players, so she played horn. She couldn’t have guessed that 15 years later, as a graduate student at The University of Alabama, she would be ranked the second best French horn player in the Western Hemisphere.
“The horn is not always a gratifying instrument to play,” Simpson said. “It’s very difficult, and, as a fifth grader, I didn’t have enough motivation.”
For years she tried to quit, but her dad wouldn’t let her, reminding her that success would take time. In high school she made first chair, and by the time she was ready to apply for college, Simpson was finally a competitor.
Her hard work and perseverance led to acceptance letters at some of the best horn programs in the nation—Boston University, Northwestern University, and The University of Alabama.
“I chose The University of Alabama in part because it was close to home and offered in-state tuition,” Simpson said. “But ultimately, it also had the program I wanted.”
Simpson explained that at other universities, graduate students typically get the best experience. They play in the top ensembles, and they play in the best chairs. But at UA, the program is centered on undergraduates.
“Undergraduates are held more accountable here,” Simpson said. “Consequently, they play in top ensembles at a much younger age.”
Another reason she chose UA was the faculty—particularly the horn studio director Dr. Charles “Skip” Snead.
“Skip isn’t just our teacher,” Simpson said. “He’s like our studio dad.”
For decades Snead has been involved with the International Horn Competition, so when Simpson decided to participate in 2011, he was there the whole time, coaching her to success.
“The International Horn Competition is the most prestigious competition for horn players in this hemisphere,” Snead said. “Success in that competition essentially means you’re the top rung on the ladder.”
Typically, the biennial competition has 70 to 100 competitors in two divisions, collegiate and professional. With Snead’s help, Simpson made it to the collegiate semifinals in 2011, but for her that wasn’t enough.
Simpson felt that she could do better, so she took a four-year break from the competition to practice. In 2013 she graduated from UA and went on to the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance in order to pursue a performer’s certificate. There, she also played for the Kansas City Symphony as a substitute horn.
In 2015, she returned to UA as a graduate student, and in April of that year, she was ready to try the international competition for the second time.
From April to August, her typical three-hour practices stretched to four-and-a-half to six hours a day, and she began listening to dozens of recordings for the four pieces she had selected for the competition.
“I needed to know what level I had to be playing at,” she said. “And I had to consider everything from the amount of sleep I got to how hydrated I was.”
The three-day competition was held at the University of Nebraska at the end of August, and Simpson’s hard work paid off.
“My experience from four years ago helped me to formulate a plan,” she said. “I feel like it gave me a little bit of an edge knowing exactly what to expect.”
Simpson floated through the preliminary round and the acapella semifinals, focusing on each one in the moment. The judges chose her for the final round, and in front of roughly 200 people—including professional judges and horn players she’d always admired—Simpson played one of the most challenging staples in horn repertoire, Strauss’s “Horn Concerto No. 2.”
“It’s one of those pieces that professionals perform their entire career,” Simpson said. “Each time you hear it or play it, you learn something or feel something more.”
Her performance hit the mark, and in the end, she was awarded second prize, becoming the second best horn player in the Western Hemisphere.
“It was the longest 24 hours of my whole life,” Simpson said. “But it was everything I could have asked for and expected.”
At only 10 years old, Simpson wanted to give up. In high school, she wanted first chair. But now, Simpson’s goal is no longer about herself. At 25 years old, she has realized that music is not about the musician—and it’s not about perfect performances either. It’s about connecting with audiences and feeling something together.
“Perfection is irrelevant,” Simpson said. “I don’t need to have a ‘perfect’ performance because my abilities don’t make people feel; it’s the music that makes them feel.” •