The Big Question: one instrument takes us back to the beginning of music. Jasper Rees started learning it when he was ten...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
Soon after I began on the French horn as a ten-year-old—the earliest, for dental reasons, that anyone should grapple with that narrow mouthpiece—I read that it is the joint hardest instrument to learn. (Alongside the oboe.) I went through phases of boasting, then moping, about what turned out to be all too true. All horn players who put in the hours and years earn membership of an exclusive society, the musical equivalent of the Alpine Club. Why? Because mistakes in exposed places are easy to make and tend to be costly, and yet there’s a matchless thrill that comes with mastery.
And then of course there is the profound, all but prelapsarian beauty of the sound. More than with any other instrument, those who choose to learn the French horn are making a direct link to music’s very beginnings, when man first blew through a conical horn. Even now its uniquely natural sound is embedded in our collective DNA: it’s the instrument, a wise man once said, of primitive alarm, but also of honeyed repose. The staple tunes a good young learner attempts will include a Mozart concerto which links friskily back to the hunt.
When he or she joins an ensemble, the horn will have to do some heavy lifting. But, unlike several coevals in the wind section, it will get a tune to play too. Not that there’s much need for horn players to mingle. Such is its prodigious range—up to four octaves in the right hands—that the horn is the only orchestral instrument whose players can club together, form an eight-part ensemble and leave everyone else out. To see how delicious this can be, go to YouTube and type in “Handel Messiah 8 horns”.
There’s no room for busking it on an instrument which refuses to suffer fools gladly and exposes the dilettante without mercy. It explains why, even if (like me) you never quite conquer it, the horn is an excellent primer for the skills that are essential elsewhere: humility, teamwork, an appreciation that effort brings fulfilment.
Jasper Rees is an arts writer for the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, co-founder of theartsdesk.com and author of "I Found My Horn"
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