Classically Trained: Abuzz with rediscovering an instrument

Editor's note: This column is the first in a series about Bradley Zint's participation in OC Can You Play With Us?, an initiative where he and other Orange County amateur musicians will play alongside the Pacific Symphony professionals. The columns will run through May.

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When played at its very best, the French horn is the voice of God.

It's the call from the heavens, the beam of light illuminating the dark path, the glory rising above the storm. That's what we horn players would like to think, anyway.

Call us delusional.

The problem is, the French horn is so darn difficult. Being God's voice is hard. When mere humans designed the modern-day horn, they made the tubing long (about 17 feet), the mouthpiece small (compared to other brass instruments) and the sound headed in the wrong direction (whoops!).

A horn's bell — that flared piece of metal at the end, where the noise exits — faces away from the intended music-loving audience.

They really made the horn players work for it.

I guess that's why the folks at Guinness World Records say the French horn is the hardest orchestral instrument, along with the oboe.

I don't think I knew all that when I took up the horn in sixth grade. But I knew it was the instrument for me.

I knew it so much that I stuck with it for 12 years.

The dedication paid off. Playing horn took me places, helped me meet a lot of great people and put years of music-making memories in my head.

I found success at it, too. In high school I won placement in some elite groups, statewide and regional.

In college, I auditioned as a non-music major. I just wanted to be in one of the bands, to keep playing for the fun of it. I also wanted to be eligible for a locker so I didn't have to store my instrument in my small dorm room.

What I got was placement in the Wind Symphony, the university's top ensemble. There, I was the only non-music major and one of two freshmen in a sea of upperclassmen and graduate students.

I also got a locker.

For seven semesters, playing in the Wind Symphony was a tremendous honor, perhaps the greatest of my life so far.

Then the music died, slowly but surely. Playing the horn nearly every day turned to a few times a week, which turned to a few times a month, which became never.

Normally, one might lament the loss of an activity that brought accomplishment and joy. But I didn't.

At least, I didn't at the time. In college I rekindled my love of writing and found a new venue for it: journalism.

I got busy with the college paper, and that trumped my music efforts. Newspapering caused me to be late to band rehearsal more than once. Eventually I had to give the horn up to more fully pursue word-filled, ink-stained, greener pastures.

Fortunately, my knowledge of and ear for music was not lost in my new world. I got to write about orchestras and teach an occasionally interested colleague about the wonders of Beethoven.

Here at the Daily Pilot, I'm blessed with listening to and reviewing great ensembles, young, old, foreign and domestic. I interview great musicians to tell their stories.

I rarely write about myself, especially when there are others more talented and interesting whom I can share with readers. But this time is different.

On May 1, I will be participating in OC Can You Play With Us?, an initiative by the Pacific Symphony that has some 200 amateur Orange County musicians playing alongside the professionals in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Longtime director Carl St.Clair will lead.

It's the second year of the initiative. I attended last year's and wrote about it.

So when I heard OC Can You Play With Us? was coming back, I figured: Why not me? The event whose name is a question had called out to me. I responded with an enthusiastic yes.

I applied, got accepted and printed out my sheet music.

I also set out a goal for myself: Practice (nearly) every day, enough to be ready for the rehearsals and performance. Try to get back some of the playing abilities of yesteryear. And have fun with it.

My practice regimen began March 26, a run-of-the-mill Monday. After waking up, the first thing I did was rescue my horn from the ground floor of my bedroom closet. Then, like any good brass player, I buzzed.

You read that right: Brass players don't blow. They buzz.

I buzzed my lips into the mouthpiece to make a sound. Sure enough, one came out.

So I buzzed again. And then again. More sounds came out.

There were notes, but no music. There was sound, but not harmony.

To a nearby listener it must've been torture. But to me, it was great.

I realized the muscle memory implanted after my years of buzzing was not gone. I could produce note after note with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

As I buzzed, I looked on my floor and saw my copy of "A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument." I bought the book by Jasper Rees years ago but only started reading it recently.

Rees, a British journalist, writes about his trying to play the French horn again after some 22 years of keeping it in the case. He relearns the music game of his youth so he can play a solo in his adulthood.

There was so much to this book I felt I could relate to: Boy learns horn, boy stops playing horn for other stuff, boy gets into journalism, boy becomes man, man wants to replay horn like he did as a boy, man plays horn again.

On the cover is Rees' head poking out of a horn bell. He looks frustrated and lost — two recurring scenarios throughout his book.

As bad as I sounded on my first day of practicing, I felt happy that at least I didn't have quite as a dazed a look on my face. I was holding an old friend, albeit a metallic, stubbornly difficult one. We could be pals again soon enough.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at bradley.zint@latimes.com.

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