‘My life is beautiful,’ says Felix Klieser, a virtuoso horn player who performs on his toes

Byvu lita

Nov 26, 2023
The German musician refused to let being born without arms stop him from becoming a horn virtuoso. As he prepares for the Royal Albert Hall concerts, he explains why the real disability is imagining that there are limits

When Felix Klieser was four he made a decision: he was going to learn the french horn. “Nobody knows where I’d even heard about this instrument,” he laughs. “There is nobody musical in my family. We never went to concerts. My parents didn’t even know what a french horn looked like!”

Göttingen, the small city in the middle of Germany where Klieser grew up, boasts just one music school. A teacher there, conscious of the fact that the horn is a very physical instrument, requiring impressive lung capacity and strong lips, gently suggested some more appropriate first instruments. Would he like to make some sounds on a piano, perhaps, or bang a drum? “I remember becoming a little bit angry,” says Klieser, “because the idea was not to make music. The idea was to play the horn!”

Determined, focussed, a little stubborn – all qualities necessary to succeed with an instrument. But there was something else that might have made excelling on the horn tricky for Klieser: he was born without arms, meaning that when he progressed to using the instrument’s valves he would have to mount his instrument on a tripod and play using his toes.

“I am a person who loves problems,” he says. “I learned from very young that problems can be interesting.”

Now 32, Klieser has comprehensively silenced any doubters. He won the prestigious Leonard Bernstein Award in 2016, has recorded several acclaimed albums (including his 2013 debut Reveries and a 2019 performance of Mozart’s horn concertos with the Camerata Salzburg); and had a two-year residency with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Next week he makes his Proms debut, playing Mozart’s sprightly fourth Horn Concerto, first for an evening performance and then again the following day at the “relaxed prom” – where audience members are free to leave and re-enter the auditorium at any time and will not be shushed if they make a noise. This suits Klieser. “I’m not someone who thinks everyone has to know a lot about the composers, about the history. People should simply come to the concert and enjoy the music.”

Klieser has faced many challenges with the horn – “with the colour of the sound, with high notes, with intonations” – but he shrugs off the suggestion that playing with his feet has been one of them. “The foot is maybe the one and only thing I didn’t have to practise. It was working from the very beginning.”

Watching him play, this is hard to believe. He smiles: “From the outside, when I see myself playing, I also think, ‘Wow!’ But for me it’s like sitting on a sofa and watching a movie – the position is quite relaxed.”

Actually, Klieser believes his disability may have helped him achieve as much as he has. “When you have something you dream of and a problem arises, most people give up. But I think it is possible to solve every problem in the world, and I believe this way of thinking is more important than talent, or how much you practise.”

Klieser tells me a story. When he was about 14, he auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra of Germany. “And I played very, very horribly,” he says with a smile. He didn’t get the position. More concerningly, he couldn’t understand why, whenever he played on a stage, his talents seemed to escape him. He was nervous, yes, but it didn’t feel that simple. After a year or so he worked it out: his parents’ house was carpeted, and he associated that with his most relaxed playing. So he began to practise in the bathroom, the one room in his house with wooden floors like a concert venue: “And at first I had the same feeling there. The acoustics were horrible, the atmosphere was horrible. But I stayed there until I felt comfortable.”

Klieser made it into the orchestra. And nowadays, he says, he can play absolutely anywhere. This is what he means by mindset: “When something is not working, then it’s OK. You just have to understand why it is not working.”

Klieser approaches repertoire from a similarly open-minded perspective. He loves playing the famous concertos by Mozart, Strauss and Haydn, but is ever restless and eager to discover what he calls “new ways”. In 2021 he released Beyond Words, for which he recorded baroque arias – written for the voice – for the horn and orchestra. Replacing the vocals with the horn, he says, was something “no one had tried before”; he wasn’t sure if it would work.

Experimentation may be a product of his musical upbringing: as a boy Klieser learned mostly film music – Forrest Gump, Star Wars, Jurassic Park – before he was old enough to actually watch the films. “By experimenting you learn more about yourself, you learn more about what you can do with your instrument. It’s like if you eat only pasta and tomato sauce and have never tried to do something with pesto in your life – let’s try something new!”

One new thing is treating his instrument as a celebrity in its own right. During the pandemic, when all concerts were cancelled, Klieser bought a PlayStation and played games night after night – clearly as adept with a games controller as he is the horn’s valves. “And then I was a little sad for my instrument because it’s doing nothing,” he says. “It’s dark, it’s cold. So I bought some eyes and put them on him.” Thus Alex, as he calls his anthropomorphic horn, was born – and has since become a minor social media star, shown dressing up for Christmas, cooking pasta and even learning his own instrument on Klieser’s Instagram page.

It’s a source of frustration for Klieser, he says, that people don’t seem to accept that he has fun and enjoys his life. “People see me and think, ‘This person has some problems.’ And when I tell them, ‘No, I do everything myself, I have a nice job, I am really happy’, they say, ‘But you have to be really sad and life has to be hard!’ No! My life is beautiful. It’s because people see something missing. But the biggest limits people have are often the limits you cannot see. If people do not understand the possibilities they have, is that not a disability in itself?”

It’s perhaps because of his uneasiness around these definitions that he doesn’t see himself as a role model for disabled people. He’s not even sure if representation is a problem when it comes to classical music and disability. True, he is the only person he knows playing without arms. “But then to become a classical musician is not a high chance, and to have no arms is not a high chance. So to have both things together, that is a very low …” He pauses for a second, unable to pick out the correct English word. With his feet he takes his phone out of his bag on the floor, swings his legs on to the table and swiftly opens up a translation app. Within seconds he has tapped in the German word and has the translation: “probability!” he says, triumphantly. Just another problem solved for Felix Klieser.

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