The tone(s) of my youth

In the world of music, there may be no sadder sight than that of a small boy with a large French horn.

I know: I was one, once.

It was at the tender age of ten that I came under the spell of that slippery and mysterious piece of tubing; and for the next three years, until I retreated into the relative safety of the trombone, my musical life was one long ostinato of frustration. Please don't misunderstand: I still think the French horn is one of the most lyrical and lovely of instruments - when it is played right. It is just that I was very clearly not the right player.

I suppose the thing got off on the wrong foot at the very outset. Like any red-blooded American boy, I wanted to play the trumpet. So, of course, did all the other boys. And as a 30-piece band with 19 trumpeters is, to say the least, a bit lopsided, the director very wisely urged us toward diversification. To the stout he extolled the virtues of the tuba. To the more wiry and active, he declared his fondness for clarinets and saxophones. The violent and mischievous found solace among the drums. And for the shy, earnest types - of which I think I was one - were reserved such beautiful and exacting things as French horns and oboes.

Now, I've never played an oboe. But I'm told it is difficult, simply because it demands such restraint. The player, like a kind of human bagpipe, puffs himself full of wind, squeezes it to tremendous pressure, and then lets it leak out in a long, agonizing trickle. Bad enough, I'm sure. But at least - oh, how I envied them! - the oboists whose fingers pressed the proper keys got the notes they wanted. It was really that simple: learn to blow, master the fingering, et voila! - there was the note.

With the French horn it is quite otherwise. Nothing is easier than to make a noise: purse your lips, blast away into the mouthpiece, and out comes a sound. Nor does the problem lie in the fingering. It has but three valves, and any beginner's book will tell you which combinations correspond to which note. So there you are - if you believe everything you read. In fact, as I soon found out , the fingering chart is a mere tissue of prevarication, an artifice promising certainty and delivering nothing but mystery. For so long is the instrument's air column, and so numerous are the possible notes that each fingering can produce, that the novice is instantly adrift on a kind of black night of the scale. Press the valves, blow, and any one of seven notes comes forth. Which one , it seemed to me, was wholly a matter of chance.

The problem was particularly acute at entrances. Once you got well and truly launched into a line of notes, you could estimate how large a leap it would take to reach the next note. In itself, that fact never ensured accuracy; but at least you could tell (after the fact) whether the shot was too high or too low. But at entrances there was nothing to guide you. Not only could you be egregiously mistaken; you could easily go blithely on without even realizing you were mistaken.

Worse still, the French horn parts we got were full of long rests. So there were plenty of entrances. There you sat, with this great coil of plumbing gradually growing cold in your lap, trying not to lose count as the measures passed. Suddenly it appeared: your high F- sharp, standing out unprotected like a lone tree on a high plain. To this day I squirm when I hear horn players making an entrance in even the finest symphonies. All but the best of them remind me of nearsighted burglars, bungling at least half their attempts to break into the score. How they must envy the oboists, I think.

Back in those days, however, it was not the orchestra but the marching band that ultimately undid me. Nobody, designing either a marching band or a French horn in an ideal world, would dream of putting one with the other. There you were, stumbling about with your hand wedged awkwardly up the bell, trying to keep your lips firmly on a tiny mouthpiece that bobbed like a cork on the tide. I suspect the arrangers who scored the marches included horns only out of misplaced sympathy. Every band, they must have reasoned, would have a few unfortunates condemned to play the thing, so it was only fair to give them a part. But the best they could think to give us was a series of offbeats. So we scuffed around the playground in our white bucks and blazers; and while all the good tunes went to the trumpets and trombones, we played one-poot-one-poot from start to finish.

Well, I stuck it out as long as I could. I even bought my own horn, an ancient silver-colored apparatus with an E-flat attachment that made it look like the insides of somebody's boiler. But one day, nosing about alone in the band-room storage closet after school, I came upon a trombone. No one had checked it out. Tentatively, hesitantly, I opened it and put it together. I studied its large, stable-looking mouthpiece. I gave the slide a few preliminary thrusts. Then, looking about - it seemed almost disloyal - I put it to my lips and blew. Out came a sound - it was so simple, so pure. I moved the slide. Obediently, the note changed.

Quietly, I put it back, shut the case, filled out a loan card, and took it home. The rest is history.

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