Written by Ashley M. Biggers
Photography by Robin Zielinski
Professional musicians at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, and in symphonies from Seattle to Pittsburg play Patterson Hornworks French horns—instruments the Pattersons make by hand at their home workshop in Las Cruces. Jim and Cora Patterson craft such fine instruments—in part—because they’ve spent decades as professional musicians themselves, honing the horn that’s been called treacherous, intransigent, and wild card because of its difficulty.
Jim, a Los Angeles native, grew up playing brass instruments, first the trumpet in seventh grade band, then tuba. He switched to the French horn at age 16 and followed his musical passion and prowess to University of Southern California where he studied with Hollywood’s top studio musicians. “It was the John Williams, LA horn sound,” says Jim, who in his spare time, took different instruments home to learn how to play them. “As curious as I was about making music, I was just as curious about how the instruments worked.”
Cora, meanwhile, grew up in Los Alamos playing trombone before taking up the horn. She studied at University of Texas at El Paso before studying musical education at University of Delaware. Back in New Mexico in the early 1990s, she went to Hummingbird Music Camp, outside Jemez Springs, for a horn weekend where she met Jim.
They met, married, and started a life together in Los Angeles, where Jim had been working a day job in the aerospace engineering industry. “I learned a lot about manufacturing that are useful skills to this day, but I had to walk away because that wasn’t who I was,” he says.
He started the next day in a bass repair shop where his daily work became making instruments play better. Before long, he started creating a few parts to enhance existing instruments and soon had enough knowledge to begin building horns from scratch. He officially launched his business in 1997, catering to Los Angeles studio players. Cora left her job teaching music for the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2001 to join the business.
By 2005, they’d outgrown their current space and, facing Los Angeles real estate prices, opted for Las Cruces instead. Their customer base had always been out of state—they complemented their Hollywood recording artist clientele with symphony musicians from across the country—so the location of their workshop didn’t matter much. Plus, the move allowed them to spend less time on repairs and more time on building horns. “Instruments are inherently simple, but it takes a lot of craftsmanship to make them good and make them right. We’ve always had an emphasis on extremely good craftsmanship,” Jim says.
The basics may be simple, but the details are complex. Based on a simple hunting bugle, French horns have evolved to have some 13 feet of coiled tubing, along with the signature flared brass bell and a set of valves. They purchase the bells and valves from German craftsmen, but bending the coils takes place in their workshop. French horns have the most complex bends of any brass instrument. To achieve that intricacy, each brass tube is formed straight, then filled with tar-like pitch. Once it hardens, the pitch keeps the tubes from collapsing as they’re curved.
Working with customers at the top level, the finest changes in form or configuration during assembly makes a difference. Patterson Hornworks makes six distinct models, with 10 different designs possible thanks to options in bell sizes.
“We’ve experimented extensively with these designs,” Jim says. “Through our own expertise in playing the instrument we were able to determine which designs were better. But we also have very high level customers who would play our horns and help us fine tune them.”
“They’re really more of collaborators,” Cora adds.
The horns take two to three weeks to build, and they produce three to four instruments each month. Last year, they produced the most ever, 40 horns. In addition to Jim and Cora, Jim’s son, Phil, another full-time employee and two other part-time employees join them in the shop. Phil has become the production manager, scheduling the builds and workers, and making sure the right parts are made. Jim bends the horns and, along with Cora, who works on marketing and accounting, the two assemble the horns and test them. “There’s a lot of balancing and adjusting to make sure the horns play well,” Jim says.
Patterson Hornworks makes six distinct models, with 10 different designs possible thanks to options in bell sizes.
The duo have kept up their own playing as well. Jim plays principal horn and serves as a member of the orchestral board for Las Cruces New Horizons, with which Cora also plays. The two can also be seen regularly playing with the Roswell Symphony and occasionally with the El Paso and Las Cruces Symphonies. Of course, they play their own instruments. Cora keeps it classic by playing the first model they ever developed, while Jim takes up the triple horn model.
These models aren’t the only ones seen in symphonies. Musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Houston Symphonies—as well as the aforementioned list—have picked up the instruments.
Nancy Joy, associate professor of horn at New Mexico State University and a member of the Las Cruces Symphony observes, “The tone quality and evenness of sound and intonation through-out all the different ranges of the horn are essential for my playing high and low horn in orchestras and solo and chamber music. I feel as though my personal musicality is enhanced, since the Patterson’s design of my horn are perfect for me, giving me the opportunity to solely concentrate on making music.”
For Cora, that’s the greatest reward. “Seeing a great playing instrument go into the hands of a great player and have them appreciate it and be able the play the nuance of the music is the best part,” she says.
For Jim, letting go is hard. It’s dirty work, bending, soldering, sanding, polishing, and cleaning the French horn. But, “When everything’s done, we forget all the pain and the dirty work,” he says.
Still, after nearly 30 years in the business, he says, “the excitement is working with an artist who is a really fine player and improving that artist. If the end result is better music, that’s pretty exciting.”
“Professional musicians at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts . . . play Patterson Hornworks French horns.”