...50 years with a French Horn
Old baseball players hang up their spikes. What does an old French horn player do, hang up his mute?
It all started when I was in fifth grade at Holmes school in Darien, Conn. I was fascinated by the mellophone that one of my father's friends played. A mellophone is the little brother of a horn. (From now on I'll call the French horn a "horn", which is what all symphony players understand. You jazz aficionados, it doesn't mean "trumpet" in this context.) I convinced my parents to buy me one and I started out with lessons and played in the elementary school orchestra.
A mellophone is okay to start on, and does look like a horn, but it doesn't have its range and beauty. Speaking of beauty, my mother used to tell the story of my practicing the mellophone soon after I got it. My grandmother lived with us at the time. As my mother and her mother worked in the kitchen, Grandma O'Brien said to her "I guess Joe O'Connell's cow is feeling sick again. I can hear her from here." I eventually improved.
In junior high I graduated to a real horn. This was a "single" horn, meaning it was simply in the key of F. At the right is a picture of my brother Rip (the lower one) holding the mellophone. I am above him holding my single horn. I did pretty well, played in the orchestra and band, and eventually had a good teacher who suggested I get a "double" horn. This means it has tubing that allows it to play both as an F and a B-flat instrument. Actually no one plays anything but a double horn now. The range and quality of a double horn are what make the instrument so beautiful.
My teacher, Clarence Newman, got me a used Conn Model 6D. The picture here shows that instrument, which I have played since 1949. The horn itself (serial #385296) was in fact made in 1949, so it wasn't very used.
Mr. Newman asked me to fill in as fourth horn with him at the Stamford Symphony in a performance of Brahm's Requiem. Boy, was that a thrill! That was my first performance with a real symphony. I still have the program in my scrapbook. I started saving programs I played in, and have kept that going to the present.
In high school I played in the orchestra and band (although I played a sousaphone in the band because that's what they needed). I joined the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra, which was really quite a good group. Our school music chairman, Luther Thompson, also played the horn, so he got me in. The conductor was a fiery Italian by the name of Quinto Maganini who came up from New York every week on the train. Before I got my driving license I had to bum a ride from another member. One night I rode home with the bass player, Joe Bruno, who was also driving Maganini to the train station. He was running a bit late and speeding up to make the train. Finally the conductor said, "Slow down Joe, better late to dinner than early to hell!" He did make it though.
I went on to college where I played first horn for four years with the Concert Band of Wheaton (Illinois) College. Those were my salad days. We practiced every day, my lip was tough, and there was lots of good music to play. One of the perks was that we got to tour for two weeks around Easter vacation, so I got to see much of the country over the years. Being close to Chicago I once got to visit an old man named Carl Geyer in his workshop. Geyer was arguably the finest maker of French horns in the world at the time. He personally constructed horns for the symphony professionals, and his design is still used as the basis for one of the families of horns. There was a big article in Saturday Evening Post about him. I did buy a mouthpiece and a mute there. I also played a number of concerts with the West Surburban Symphony under Karl Schulte.
There was a long time of only occasional playing until I reached Melrose, where I quickly hooked up with the Melrose Symphony in 1985. Peter Hazard was conductor then. Over the seventeen years in Melrose I've played symphonies, marches, pops numbers and about everything you can imagine. Here I am all dressed up for the Holiday Pops in 1993. I've played in all "chairs" from first horn to fourth horn. As the years have gone by, after age 65 the stress on my lip from a horn mouthpiece began to take its toll. The time came in the last Pops concert on May 4, 2002 that I decided to hang up my mute and retire from serious horn playing. I think I'm a good enough musician to know when that time was ripe.
I'm not really "blowing it off" completely. I'm playing an E-flat alto horn now in the Wakefield Retired Men's Club Band. It's a much easier horn to play, less demanding on the lip, and I have fun.
If you want to read more about Carl Geyer, click here