Monday, May 30, 2011


When I was in the fifth grade at Symington Elementary School I was given the opportunity to join either the school band or the school orchestra.  It was an opportunity that the school gave fifth graders every year.  They didn't give the parent's warning that the day was coming when their child may come home asking them to put out an rental fee for an instrument or buy an instrument that they may not be able to afford.

They asked us whether we were interested in playing in the orchestra or not.  They took the kids that were interested in playing in the orchestra to another room where I assume they had all of the instruments laid out like in a candy store and pick out what you wanted to play.  I was not interested in orchestra but the band did kind of get my curiosity up a bit.  I decided to go and see what they had to offer for the kids that were interested in band.

We walked into the room and there they were, all these bright brass instruments laid out shiny enough to be Christmas ornaments.  The clarinets and flutes did not catch my eye at all but the bright shiny instruments did.  I stood back to see what developed as has always been my habit of doing when heading into something I wasn't sure about.

One thing became clear.  I was not going to be playing the coronet.  The line at the coronet station held about a third of the students.  Too long of a line and too much going along with the crowd.  Saxophones had a fairly long line but not too bad.  Too many drummers in line for me.  I would skip the drum thing.  There were only two or three boys standing in the trombone line and that instrument kind of interested me.  A couple of kids at the tuba made that a tempting choice as well.

Then I saw the instrument that was all by itself.  The unwanted instrument.  There was no one in line waiting to see what it was about.  My cheering for the underdog feeling kicked into gear and went and stood next to the instrument all by myself.  I didn't touch it but looked at it and how it was built.  It really was a pretty instrument.  It was a horn with a fairly large bell on it.  The brass was formed into two or three circles and the three valves that cam out of the coils were all different giving it a kind of personality of it's own.  This was a pretty horn and no one else wanted to give it a try.  I figured, why not?

The band leader was spending a lot of time getting information from and to the kids in the coronet, clarinet, and flute lines.  I took the time to study the strange looking horn.  As I studied it I figured out what it reminded me of.  In some of the old paintings of fox hunting the riders may have a circular horn similar to this one.  All that thinking did was to make it that much more interesting to me.

As the band director was heading over to talk to the trombone hopefuls he saw me standing by myself next to the lonesome horn and came over to talk to me.  He asked me why I was interested in what he called the "French Horn" and I didn't have an answer.  I couldn't tell him that the horn seemed lonely and so I decided it and myself were meant for each other.  He tried to talk me into joining the trombone line but I had my mind pretty well set on this thing.  He showed me how it was played and asked me to try it.  I did try it and did not succeed very well.  According to him my lips were much better suited for the trombone or tuba.  Nope, I think I would stay with frenchy here and he shrugged his shoulders in defeat.  He would have to be teaching one kid how to play the french horn this coming year.

I took the information home to mom and she wasn't sure about it.  She wanted to be sure I was sure before we allocated any money towards it.  I was sure.  This was sounding more and more like an adventure I would enjoy the more that adults tried to talk me out of it.  Mom talked to dad that night and they decided that maybe it might be good for me to learn something new.  And so the search for a french horn began.

They found a used french horn form a recent graduate from high school who went to our church and had played the french horn.  They made a deal with Steve's parents and bought the old french horn from them.  When I got it home and opened the case it was obvious that it had been used.  It had been used a lot.  There were a couple of dings in it but otherwise it was in pretty good shape.  I was not disappointed.

As I learned how to play this instrument it became quite clear that it was a special instrument.  It had a nice tone when played correctly.  It was capable of making beautiful sound.  The best part of playing it though was that I didn't have to worry about anyone challenging me for first chair.  I was the first and only chair in the French horn section.  That gave a lot of security in being a member of the band.  Anyway you looked at it, I was the best french horn player they had.

I played the French horn through the fifth and sixth grades without any competition and I was liking it.  I think I was also getting fairly good at playing the horn.  This horn did have a small draw back though.  It didn't have a spit valve.  The coronets and trombones and tubas all had a little place where I assume most of the spit collected while playing would come to rest.  Therefore they put a little valve at that place and when you needed to clean the spit out of your horn, you just opened up the little valve and blew.  All of the spit would come pouring out and you could continue playing.  The french horn on the other hand had so many coils curled up around it the spit could land anywhere in the horn.  To get the spit out of the french horn you had to take out the mouth piece and rotate the horn several times to roll the spit through all the coils and finally out of the horn.  This was very tiresome and time consuming.  Other than that it was almost the perfect instrument other than the piano as far as I was concerned.

When I arrived in the band room my seventh grade year, the first year of Junior high, I received a little shock.  There was another french horn player in the new band.  We got to know each other fairly well and when we compared how each of us played, we were pretty equal.  Susie was a nice sweet girl from another elementary school and she had also been a lone wolf in the brass section.  After quite a bit of talk we decided that neither of us were really rabid about being in first chair in the french horn section.  I could handle second chair and she couldn't care less which chair she was in.  We would have to challenge at least once at the first of the school year and so we made a friendly pact that whoever won that first challenge of the year would be first chair for all of the year.  I think we both made this agreement because each of us thought we were better than the other.  Each of us thought it was a good bet.

The day of the challenges came and about halfway through the hour the battle of the french horns took place. Sue would play first and then I would try to beat her performance.  When she started playing it became clear that she was a good at the french horn.  She played along and then all of a sudden she slid on one tiny note.  One little mistake that could doom her to second chair for the whole of the school year.  All I had to do was to take my time and concentrate and play steady and under control.  It was the most nervous moment I had ever had in band.

I began wonderfully on the correct note.  As I continued through the specified piece of music I could feel my nerves starting to gather themselves.  I was coming up on the part where Sue had made her mistake.  I could feel her eyes on me as I played on though.  When I came to where she had slipped, I glided though without a hitch.  I knew however that she had played with a better French horn tone than I had.  It was going to be a tough call for the band leader to make.  After standing there and looking at us he finally put me into first chair.  I had it made now.  No more challenges I would spend the year in first chair and that meant a decent grade out of band class.

About half way through the school year, Sue decided that she was tired of being second chair.  One day when the band leader asked if anyone wanted to challenge for a chair Sue raised her hand.  I was totally stunned.  What about our agreement?  There was no way I was prepared to accept a challenge.  I had not practiced it and had no intention of practicing it.  Sue played the challenge and beat me soundly.  We switched seats and she smiled.  I tried to smile back but then I thought to myself that the war was on now.

Sue and I spent the next two and a half years battling it out for one seat in the band.  Most of the times we would switch and the next challenge the other would win.  Personally looking back on it, I think the band leader was switching us intentionally just to keep us practicing and improving ourselves.

We were joined by a third french horn player who had switched from trombone at the beginning of our ninth grade year.  I started out in first chair and as the newcomer stayed in third chair for the whole first half of the year, Sue and continued to swap first and second chair consistently.  Then came the day that the trombone transfer challenged for second chair I gave it my best.  Apparently this kid had been honing his horn skills all year long without Sue or myself noticing it.   He beat me soundly and fairly.  I was now third chair with this stranger between Sue and I.  It wasn't right.  I found myself beginning to lose interest in the band.  I had other venues I wanted to pursue, in particular drafting and shop.   I knew I wasn't going to be using any french horn skills in my future and so I dropped band after my ninth grade year to take courses that would benefit me better.

The horn sat in my closet at home all through my high school years, never being dragged out.  About a year or so later mom and dad found someone who wanted to purchase a french horn for their child who was just starting out.  Mom and dad came to me to be sure it was okay to sell the old horn.  I didn't put up a fight.  I knew I would never really play it again and so the horn left my life as quickly as it had entered it.

I had fun playing the horn.  I still think it is the most wonderful sounding brass instrument there is.  My son almost made me change my though.  He had taken up coronet in school and one night at a concert I heard him play a beautiful rendition of Georgia On My Mind solo while the rest of the band accompanied him.  It was indeed a wonderful performance and I was extremely proud of him that night.   Then I stop and think, how much better would that had sounded if it had been played on a french horn???  A lot better I wager.

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