My Heady Days Playing the French Horn

When we moved out to the suburbs from south Baltimore, I took up the French Horn. Mr. Hair was my teacher in the 8th grade.

Mr. Hair’s name fit. He was a slightly built, winsome man with a light head of curly hair.

With his glasses, he looked a bit like a Nordic nerd. However, he was far from it.

Mr. Hair would sit next to me and listen to my wild bellowings from the horn. Then he would look at his watch and ask,”Is it time for lunch yet?” His smiling sense of humor got me through the ordeal of trying to pick up the instrument.

French Horn is not the easiest thing to learn or play. Mike Pearce of Littleton Colorado says this in an introduction to advising band directors on recruiting students to play it.

“Do you have trouble finding and keeping French horn players in your elementary or middle school band? Do you have some trying to play horn but they drive you crazy? There may be practical things you can do to make life easier for both you and them.”

Mike’s advice includes giving some thought to the potential horn player’s abilities. Can he or she discern pitch? Are their lips small enough to deal with the small mouthpiece?

I can’t remember why I decided to go with French Horn.  I was a trumpet player to start, blowing away on my father’s high school instrument from the 1940s. Plus, being Lutheran was a handicap. 

Garrison Keillor says this in reference to the French Horn and Lutherans:

“Which one is the best one for a Lutheran to play? If our Lord played an instrument, which one would He have chosen? Probably not a French Horn. It takes too much of a person’s life. French Horn players hardly have time to marry and have children. The French Horn is practically a religion all by itself.”

It could be that being lefthanded had something to do with my choice. We lefthanders are natural arbitrarians. Not only that, as Pearce suggests, you’ve gotta have a large lefthand to grip the French Horn. Mine may not have been large, but it was powerful!

I carried on with both trumpet and French Horn in high school. There I was under the supervision of what I can only describe as the Vince Lombardie of band directors: Mr. Kerman.

Mr. Kerman had big dreams for our band. He wanted us in a national competition in Chicago.

However, to even think of getting there, we had to be good enough in our own state. Thus, it was off to the Maryland state competition.

Like a football player, I went back and forth between the first and second team (or what musicians call “chair”). Sometimes some overweight girl was moved ahead of me .

It was never good for my status in high school, playing the French Horn. I remember embarrassing moments as the hard-charging Mr. Kerman had us playing more and more difficult pieces.

Of course the music he chose had hard French Horn parts. As my partner and I tried to play them and come off sounding like screaming oxen, the rest of the band would break into hysterics.

However, when we went to States I happened to be the first chair French Horn player. Our piece of music was something by a Czech named Vaclav Nelhybel.

Unhappily for me, the piece began with the French Horn. The only positive was that the opening was only one, longly held note.

As Mr. Kerman took his position, I was off to his right, sitting in my chair hoping that my life would not come to an end. My director smiled and consoled us all.

Then, he raised his baton, turned is head in my direction, and developed a facial expression that said,”If you blow this, you are a dead man.”

As his baton moved, so the air in my lungs. I knew there had to be a God in heaven because I produced a clear note, put my instrument on my lap, and let the rest of the band take over.

When I got to the University of Maryland, I thought I would like to join the marching band, so I went out for it. However, there were no French Horn players.

French Horn players were given something called a peck horn. It’s a brass instrument that looks something like your large intestine.

Like the football team at whose halftimes we were to play, the band’s members were required to stand out in the hot sun for hours a day practicing formations. I even had to stand in place with my leg bent at the knee and hold this position for minutes on end.

All this for one academic credit. I quit and that was the end of my music career.

Today I don’t think I could even get a sound out of a French Horn. My embouchure is long gone.

I think if I ever took up another instrument, it would be something like the saxaphone. It’s cooler.


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