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Making music: Jacobs student moves from performance to horn-making career

As a kid growing up in North Carolina, Jacob Medlin loved taking his toys apart to figure out how they worked.

He still likes taking things apart -- the 26-year-old master's student at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music has a box full of parts from the instruments he took apart (and never quite figured out how to put back together). Today, though, Medlin's focus has shifted to building.

Working out of a bright blue basement studio in his Ellettsville home, Medlin creates about one new Geyer-style double French horn a month. Each horn takes him about 160 hours to complete, though he's getting faster as he streamlines the process.

'The horn chose me'

Medlin, Jacob
Local French horn maker and Jacobs School of Music master's student Jacob Medlin in his Ellettsville workshop.

Medlin comes from a musical family; his mom plays clarinet and his dad plays horn. When it came time to choose an instrument in the third grade, he picked clarinet.

A few years later, Medlin stood before his middle school band director playing his sixth-grade audition on clarinet. There was a moment of silence before the band director looked at him and said, "You might just be one of the worst clarinet players I've ever had audition for me."

Because all of Medlin's friends were entering the advanced band program and he wanted to have the same lunch period as his buddies, he agreed to switch to horn to fill a gap in the advanced band. "All of this is to say that yes, I chose the horn, sort of, but sort of not. Really the horn chose me."

"The same thing happened for my dad," Medlin said, laughing. "In sixth grade, he wanted to play the drums, but the band director said 'We have too many drums.' My dad said, 'OK, how about trumpet? Saxophone?' He went through everything he could name until finally, the band director handed him a horn and said 'Why don't you try this?'"

Playing horn requires a lot of facial dexterity, Medlin said, pointing out the relative thinness of the rim compared with the trumpet or trombone. "Band directors are hesitant to start young children on the horn. Most kids never get around to seeing a horn until high school, and at that point, a lot of them don't want to switch until they have some reason to."

Horn player to instrument maker

From the sixth grade on, Medlin played the horn with increasing interest, continuing to study the instrument at the University of North Carolina, where he received his undergraduate degree in 2006. He eventually found his way to IU as a master's student to study French horn with Jeff Nelsen at the Jacobs School.

"Jeff is the kind of teacher that focuses on the right things -- making sure that you're having an enjoyable experience, making sure that the music comes first," Medlin said. "I had been brought up in a technically oriented school of playing. I saw him as the person who could kind of free me to get my brain out of it."

Upon learning that his advisor, Rick Seraphinoff, built natural horns (the valve-less predecessor to modern horns), Medlin asked if he could observe Seraphinoff in action.

"I think a lot of times when you say something like that, ask if you can come by 'sometime,' the scheduling is kind of amorphous," Medlin said. "But Rick said, 'Sure, I'll be back there at 5 or 6 tonight. You should come by."

Medlin found that he loved watching the process of instrument-building. He began to spend 10 to 15 hours in Seraphinoff's studio near Brown County each week, observing for a few months before he used his advisor's tools to practice building horns of his own over the span of the next year. "Rick was the big impetus for all of this," Medlin said, gesturing around his workshop, a veritable shrine to his North Carolina roots.

Unlike most other horn makers, Medlin doesn't finish the horns before presenting them to their new owners. Not only is it hard to predict how a given horn will turn out, he said, but horn players are looking for different qualities based on their personal preferences.

"A lot of (horn makers) have tried to design their horns so they sound exactly the same, so that if someone wants a horn from them, they know exactly the way it plays," he said. "But horns are tricky instruments. I could build a horn today and do the same thing tomorrow but have that horn not play the same way."

Medlin initially builds a "skeleton" horn and then brings in the person who will be playing the instrument to find out exactly what they're looking for in tone, articulation and feel.

"If there's something about the horn that they don't particularly like or there's something they wish would be different, I'm sitting right there. Usually, it can be very quickly fixed. If I just make the horn and send it to them, we can't do those easy things that we could have very easily ironed out had they been here."

Hornmakers "R" Us

While he purchases some of the basic horn pieces from a maker in Germany, Medlin crafts much of the horn with his own two hands, along the way improvising tools that help him screw in short pieces of tubing or take ripples out of a specific section of the instrument's bell.

"I wish there was a 'Hornmakers "R" Us' where I could just buy all of this stuff," Medlin joked. "But since I only make about 10-12 horns in a year, it doesn't make sense to do big production stuff yet."

During a visit to his studio, Medlin had three horns in the works in various stages. His two cats prowled upstairs while one of the four foster kittens he and his wife, Jennifer Medlin, were taking care of that week sneaked downstairs to the studio.

So far, Medlin has created 10 horns that have found homes with musicians in U.S. locations such as Cincinnati and North Carolina and as far away as Australia. For about one month each year, Medlin travels to trade shows, where he hopes to become better known as a horn maker. As a relatively young, new horn maker, Medlin depends upon word-of-mouth from those who are playing Medlin horns. "It really is that one friend tells two friends and they tell five friends . . . Five years later, I'll have more work than I can do."

Medlin's website, http://medlinhorns.com/ (slogan "Medlin Horns: Traditional horns with modern attitude") is less marketing focused and more instructional.

"It's about giving people a lot of the information I wish I'd had when I was growing up. Things about horn maintenance and things you never really learn until you've got your horn in 6,000 pieces," said Medlin. "My hope is that people find the website looking for information and they eventually say, 'This guy makes a good horn.'"

Since he switched gears from performance to instrument creation, Medlin has had to turn down some performance opportunities and come to terms with the fact that he is no longer pursuing a career as a French horn player.

"I've played my whole life, so it took me awhile to be OK with not playing. It was difficult for me to stomach that maybe what I thought I was going to do for my entire life wasn't what I'm doing," admitted Medlin, who still teaches horn lessons and practices his instrument when he has time.

"But when I sit down and think about why I went to school and what I was trying to accomplish, I think 'OK, I wanted to be involved with horn, doing something artistic and paying my bills. I'm able to do all of those things.'"

There are probably only 10 horn makers in the U.S., Medlin said, as opposed to the "hundreds and hundreds" of students who graduate each year and compete for a limited number of positions. "I never thought this is what I'd be doing -- but it's a nice way to stay involved with horn community and to have more artistic space."

--Jennifer Piurek

This story was originally published Sept. 2, 2010.