Like many other elementary students in the 1960s, I played the flutophone. Coming from a frugal family, I envied my classmates’ sleek black plastic instruments as I took my brother’s ivory bell-shaped flutophone from its worn plaid case. After weeks of begging, Mom bought me a new flutophone. I put it to my mouth, confident I would make beautiful music, but to my dismay, it sounded no better than the old one. In fact, I liked the older one better, but there was no turning back, and it went into the attic.
In junior high, we graduated to band instruments. I suspect many of us with older siblings were predestined to follow in their musical footsteps. My brother’s trumpet featured tarnish and dings. I was certain a new trumpet would sound better, but since it cost a lot more than a flutophone, I knew better than to ask. Junior high, the time you want to fit in with your classmates, is not a good time to play an inferior-looking trumpet. I blamed my poor performance on the dings, not on my lack of confidence. Time passed, and somehow I survived and signed up for high school band.
I don’t know if we had too many trumpets in the band or if our band director took pity on me, but one day in the fall of my freshman year he took me aside. Mr. Wilkie was an intimidating man, wiry with piercing eyes and curly brown hair. He directed with intensity, willing us to perform well. After studying my newly straightened teeth, he announced: “You have a good embouchure for the French horn.We need French horns in the concert band.” My face fell. I knew French horns were expensive and my family would never buy one for me. “Don’t worry.” He entered the instrument closet and returned with a bell-shaped case. “You can play one of the school’s horns.”
I don’t remember anything about my transition from trumpet to French horn, but I dutifully lugged my horn home on the bus each afternoon and practiced a lot. After a year or two, I advanced to the first chair of the French horn section, but it may have been due to attrition. As first French horn, I grew nervous when it came time for state contest. One day Mr. Willkie threw a baton in my direction after I failed to reach a high note in my horn solo as we practiced one of our contest pieces. I didn’t cry and I didn’t get angry. I worked harder, and sailed through the performance.
When I graduated from high school, I assumed my days of playing French horn had ended and I returned it to Mr. Wilkie and thanked him for his patience. I didn’t give playing the French horn another thought for forty-four years. Then, last winter in Florida I attended a community band concert directed by the amazing Dorothy Kunkel. Band members assured me it was not too late and encouraged me to join them next year.
Upon returning home, I rented a trumpet from a local music store to see if I could still play a scale. I could. And I could play simple songs. “The French horn is much more difficult than a trumpet” people told me. I had to see for myself. I informed the music store I would like to exchange the trumpet for a French horn, then waited until school kids returned their rentals last week. I’ve been playing every day now. I’m not sure I’d even qualify for third chair at present, but time will tell. Stay tuned.