Women of Brass: How Horn Quartet Genghis Barbie Is Conquering the World

Mar 17, 2017

It’s 2009, and the Great Recession is draining bank accounts and devouring dreams everywhere. In New York City, four freelance French horn players suddenly find themselves out of work and wondering what to do next.

“It kind of came to me in this random moment—I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we have to have a horn quartet with these four people and play pop music.’” 

That’s how hornist Danielle Kuhlmann remembers coming up with the idea to form a quartet with three of her closest French horn friends: Leelanee Sterrett, Rachel Drehmann and Alana Vegter.

“We just got together for fun at Alana’s apartment with a six-pack of beer and, I think, two arrangements (of horn quartet music) and just started playing tougher.”

They thought the experience was so fun that they wanted to share it with others. Thus the all-female horn quartet Genghis Barbie was born, of four friends wanting to have fun playing music.

“It’s been as much a celebration of our friendship as of our musicianship and our horn playing from the very beginning,” said Sterrett, who also serves as third horn of the New York Philharmonic.

Also from the beginning the members of Genghis Barbie carved out a unique niche for the group, which specializes in playing '80s and '90s pop music and traditional tunes, as well as classical repertory arranged for horn quartet.

Above: Genghis Barbie plays their own horn quartet arrangement of The Eurythmics' hit  “Sweet Dreams.”

Credit Spencer Lloyd / genghisbarbie.com

The group reinforces its crossover repertoire with a funky, glamorous image—no prim concert black, but instead capri leggings, tank tops and T-shirts, stiletto heels and bold bling. Even the bells of their French horns are decked out in candy colors. And to top off their Spice Girls-with-horns image, each of the members of Genghis Barbie boasts a stage persona with a “Barbie name.”

As freewheeling as this image may seem, it wasn’t fun and games for many when Genghis Barbie first showed up on the scene.

“When we first started, we got an incredible amount of extremely positive feedback and an incredible amount of extremely negative feedback,” said Rachel Drehmann, aka Attila the Horn. “I think we all felt it in people that we play with in our regular jobs, and we also felt it in just reading comments online. And there were some blog posts on brass website blogs that had five to six pages of comments that just were vicious and incredibly rude.”

Said Kuhlmann (Velvet Barbie): “There was some negative feedback. That’s just the way it’s always going to be. When you’re female, you’re generally judged by your appearance before anything else, and sometimes that’s all that people are going to judge. We accepted that. We were confident in what we were putting forth, so it didn’t really deter us form anything.”

However, Drehmann said the group also received staunch support from horn icons like Julie Landsman, former principal hornist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and a member of the Juilliard School faculty. They’ve also received invitations to perform as a featured ensemble at conferences of major professional brass musician organizations and at universities, where they’re often featured as teaching artists.

But just as the American economy has moved beyond the Great Recession, the musicians of Genghis Barbie also have moved forward in their careers. Drehmann freelances fulltime in New York City, while Sterrett (Cosmic Barbie) and Vegter (Freedom Barbie) perform full time with the New York Philharmonic. Kuhlmann, for four years a member of the San Diego Symphony, is leaving at the end of the current season to join the Seattle Symphony.  

The Barbies say this coast-to-coast arrangement has required the group’s emphasis to shift from touring to publishing and selling their quartet arrangements and CDs and, right now, to planning their fifth recording. And though they’ve toned down the super-glam get-up over the years, the musicians say they’re still committed to the group for the sheer joy of making music together.  

“We keep the momentum going through our other projects,” Kuhlmann said, “still having a presence, still having a voice, still being able to stay Barbies.”

Throughout the month of March, Classical 101 celebrates National Women’s History Month with Women of Brass, a series exploring all-female brass ensembles and the work of their pioneering founders. Listen to The American Sound at 6 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Tuesdays to hear performances by some of today’s most enterprising women’s brass groups.