by Kerry Geddes and Kieg Garvin
I am an amateur musician whose musical experience prior to February 1996 had amounted to two years of piano lessons as a child, twenty-one years of amateur choral singing, and a university music degree in which my 'instrument' was the voice.
In those days, singing was my musical passion, but I had often contemplated the idea of playing some type of brass instrument. There were various amateur choirs, both university-based and others, which anyone with limited vocal experience could join, in order to ease themselves into a satisfying and ultimately rewarding musical activity, and this was the way I started. However there were no equivalents that I knew of in the instrumental field. As we all know, normally an instrumental musician must be of a satisfactory proficiency level before having any hope of joining an orchestra or other ensemble.
Realistically then, as a mature adult I could not see myself becoming proficient enough with an instrument to be able to successfully audition for a position in any skilled ensemble, so I never acted upon my instrumental contemplations. Then in 1996, a friend who was the musical director at a local high school, in an attempt to encourage me further, gave me the chance to try out some of the school's brass instruments on my own. I was initially apprehensive about his suggestion to try the horn, because I had heard that it was a difficult instrument to learn, but I had always loved its sound, so when I was shown the rudiments of how to blow it and actually managed to produce a tentative C major scale, I was well on the way to becoming hooked.
The next day, by a lucky set of coincidences, I heard that a well-known music retailer in Brisbane was running a music activity called the Adult Starters Program, where adults who wanted to learn to play a wind instrument could receive basic instruction on the playing of their instrument while performing in a learners' concert band. The program had been operating successfully for a few years with a new band being formed each year, and the latest one was due to start up the following week. Seeing it as a unique opportunity to learn an instrument with similarly minded adults in an ensemble that had nowhere to go except up, I bought a second-hand horn and became a member of the new band. Six weeks later, I played in my first concert for an enthusiastic audience consisting entirely of friends and relatives of the band members.
Understandably, the music for that concert was very simple--nothing too extended, either in length or in musical range, no difficult rhythms, and nothing quicker than moderato. But all things considered, we made a good sound for a bunch of adult learners, most of whom had never played their chosen instrument before joining the band (or had perhaps played for a short time during their childhood), and some of whom had never read music before.
This then was the start of my interest in concert band music, a love of the horn, and at the age of 45, the beginning of an amateur venture which may never have happened, had it not been for the existence of the Adult Starters concept and an hour in a high school music room. With the help of Philip Farkas' famous book, a good horn teacher, and a practice commitment that I still continue to look forward to each day, I improved my playing to a point where I felt confident enough to leave the original band and join an established community ensemble. Now, three years after my final procrastination about learning a brass instrument, I play in two community concert bands, and do the odd gig as a member of a brass quintet.
So you can see that my story is not one of planning for a professional orchestral career as a hornist. Instead, it has been a series of fortuitous circumstances which first led to my choice of the horn and which now allows me to experience the unique satisfaction of playing that instrument, in a field of amateur music-making that I had never previously thought possible for myself.
Kerry Geddes lives in Brisbane on Australia's central east coast. He completed a BA in music and psychology at the University of Queensland, graduating in 1986. Besides playing the horn, he sings in a small amateur acappella group that specializes in music of the Renaissance period. When not playing the horn or singing, he works for a telecommunications company as a data analyst.
On reading the enclosed clipping in this morning's paper I was moved to write you. I suggest you read the clipping before continuing to read my letter. This article appeared in the Times-News, Hendersonville, North Carolina, on January 30, 1999.
76-Year-Old in the Band
(reprinted with permission of The Associated Press)
Through the blare of rowdy kids tuning their instruments, the 76-year-old man with regal white hair, a black cane, and a tarnished French horn slowly makes his way to his seat in the brass section.
Retired pipe fitter John Suta is in his third year with the Roosevelt Middle School band. The eight-graders he plays with no longer see him as an oddity, but as an inspiration who plays with a passion for music and thick fingers gnarled by a lifetime of hard work. "He is exactly like a middle school band player, even though he is older," said 13-year-old Anna Richardson. "Without music I would just as soon be dead," Suta said, summing up a philosophy that through the years has led him to take up opera, the piano, and the harmonica.
And it was what drove him to walk into the middle school's beginning band class and ask for a chance to learn how to play a horn he had always loved. Without hesitating, the teacher told him, "Take a seat." Since then, Suta has advanced from "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to Beethoven, from sixth-grade to eighth-grade band. Josh Mack took over leadership of the band program this year and inherited Suta. "I just knew he had to be there," Mack said.
Suta's love for music goes back to his childhood in Aurora, Ill., when his mother would sing songs in her native Hungarian. He grew up studying singin with an accompanist for the Chicago Opera and speaking German, Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian in his immigrant neighborhood. After World War II, he studied to become an opera singer, but soon discovered his love for music wasn't enough to pay the bills, so he raised two sons on a pipe fitter's wages.
But music never left Suta's life. After he retired, he teamed with a friend on piano and sang at weddings, picnics, and senior centers. And on his own he even sang the national anthem at a few University of Oregon basketball games. Through the years, he always remembered the days when his brother and a friend would go house to house at Christmas, playing carols on a violin and French horn.
Those memories came flooding back four years ago when he spotted an old French horn in a Salvation Army store. "I had that horn in my ear," Suta said. "I saw the tag. It said 85 bucks. I said to the lady, 'What's your best price? I don't have 85 bucks in my budget. Will you go for $75?' She said, 'Yes.'" He tried a few adult classes to learn the instrument but they were all too advanced. That's what led him to Roosevelt.
Despite heart trouble and nerve damage in his legs that make it difficult to walk, Suta rarely misses practice and is at every concert. The young horn players look to him for guidance and, in turn, they help him. About a year ago, he stumbled in the small cluttered house where he lives alone, falling on his French horn and crushing the bell. He dropped the instrument off at a local music store, not knowing how he would afford to pay for the repairs. When Suta returned to the store the next day, the horn was fixed--the Roosevelt Middle School band members had pitched in to pay for the work.
"It almost knocked me over," Suta said, crying. "You hear about all the things youngsters do, all this and that. But you don't hear [enough about] the beauty of children."
Here is a man whose love of the horn has moved him to attempt to learn the instrument in his later years, not by studying privately, but by joining an elementary band, something that would give most of us pause. The article interested me not only because I too began to try to play the horn in my old age, but also because he grew up in Aurora, Illinois, where I began my first instruction in the instrumental program in the public schools. I began to play the trombone at that time. I was discouraged by the band leader as I was in seventh grade at the time we moved to Aurora from an area having no school instrumental program. In Aurora, instrumental instruction began in the fourth grade and the band leader felt I would be unable to compete with students who had played for three years. I told him 1 had some experience in piano and at least knew a quarter note from an eighth note. "All right, I will let you in, but you won't amount to anything." My early struggles play no part in this story, but eventually I was able to earn my living as a trombone player.
Years of blaring trumpets and crashing cymbals caused me to suffer a hearing loss and I could no longer continue to function as a playing musician. Accordingly I retired to the mountain fastness of North Carolina about 28 years ago.
Back in high school, when I became first chair in the band, the band leader anointed me as a private teacher and I began to teach elementary students. The money I earned enabled me to travel to the big city and study with an eminent teacher, Jaroslav Cimera. From that time, I have always been active as a private teacher. I have now been teaching 68 years.
I was in college during the Great Depression. I had to drop out for two years as I could not afford the $90 per semester for tuition. (I lived at home.) The elementary school band leader offered me a job teaching one of his seventh-grade bands. (This was the same man who said I wouldn't amount to anything.) He could not afford to pay me as he was being paid in scrip, himself. I had this school band for five days a week for a year. The experience prompted me to swear a mighty oath on a stack of Arban books, that I would dig ditches before I would become a school band leader. In consequence, when I returned to college, I never took even a single hour in education, preferring to concentrate on music courses. I did not learn to play any other instrument with the possible exception of the cello. I had to learn to play one scale on that instrument during a conducting course. I was glad I had chosen the trombone.
Although I had been active as a private instructor all my life, I was astounded to find the concept of private teaching to be unknown, except for piano, when I moved to the Carolina mountains. The attitude of the citizenry was, "The band leader is paid to teach, let him teach them." Accordingly, I had difficulty in establishing myself as private teacher. I wrote about 40 letters to band leaders in the general area, offering to do a brass clinic for no pay, just to get acquainted. I got but one response. When I went out to do the clinic I found the band consisted of thirteen players! I don't believe any were trombonists, so I got no students from this school.
As time went by I did have a small class of trombone and trumpet students. One day, one of my seventh-grade trumpet students came in carrying a horn and said, " The band leader wants me to play this."
What was I to do? About all I knew of the horn was that it was fingered with the left hand instead of the right. How did they get off on the wrong track originally? Still, I felt I could not desert my student. There was no question of finding a teacher who actually played horn as there were none in the area at that time.
I went to the nearest city of any size and asked at the music store to see all the horn music they had available. I was presented with one beginner's book. I knew a used car salesman who had played horn in high school and still had his instrument. He loaned me the horn and I began to learn to play at the age of sixty-two.
While I studied with Mr. Cimera he absolutely forbade me to play on any other wind instrument. I was not even allowed to play baritone, even though I could use the same mouthpiece I used on the trombone. As long as he was alive, I always obeyed that directive, but now he was dead, though I feared he turned over in his grave when I played the first note on my borrowed horn.
It was not long before I could play a C scale. Now I knew more than my prospective student. This is a good principle to follow. One should always know more than his student. My first lesson went rather well.
A couple of weeks later another trumpet student showed up with a horn. Flushed with my success, I confidently showed him how to play the scale, only to find out he could not do it no matter how hard he tried. "Let me have your horn," I said, and began to play the scale only to find out I could not play the scale either. The lesson time was almost over and I did not have time to investigate further, but I figured out a fingering for the scale which, while not correct, did make it possible for the student to play the scale, since he had to have something to practice. I called up his band leader and told him the problem. It turned out the instrument had just come back from the repairman, who knew even less than I did about horns and had strung up the valves so they worked just the opposite from the designer's intentions.
I bought myself a used King horn which was much better than the model loaned me by the used car salesman. I found there were things on the horn that were easier to do than they were on the trombone. I had a great low register, and in time my high register was adequate for the music I was trying to play. The horn seemed to have much more flexibility. The notes did not "lock in" on the various partials as stiffly as they did on the trombone. I also discovered in spite of my teacher's stern warning, I was able to continue to play trombone with no apparent disadvantage due to my horn playing, probably because the mouthpieces were so very different.
One day a student walked in with his new horn, a Holton Farkas model. I asked to blow a few notes on it and immediately ordered one for myself and have enjoyed it ever since. I played duets with my students, though some of them eventually developed more technique than I had. In this case, I switched to trombone. Early on, I had tired of playing trombone studies, had switched to trumpet studies, and finally began to play horn music on the trombone. This all happened before I retired. I played horn music by thinking in mezzo-soprano clef with a slight key change. Having this skill helped me a great deal in my horn playing since I could demonstrate on the trombone something I might not be able to play on the horn.
One day, one of my advanced horn students announced he would be traveling to the Midwest and planned to stop in Bloomington, Indiana, and take a lesson from Farkas. I was delighted as I felt I might benefit from any suggestion Farkas might make. Farkas, at that time, charged fifty dollars while I only charged five. Considering the difference in our reputations, this seemed about right. When the student returned from his trip I was eager to hear his report. "What did Mr. Farkas tell you?" I asked. "He told me I was doing everything right." That was all I learned from the student's $50, but still it did boost my confidence in my horn teaching. "First do no harm," is what they tell the medical doctors. Certainly this dictum should be followed by brass teachers as well. Unfortunately, I have known a few students whose career was ruined by teachers trying to change their embouchures.
Naturally, early on I turned to the IHS in search of knowledge. I have been a member for many years. Reading The Horn Call has been interesting, but the articles tend toward the esoteric. I found little information for someone looking for basic knowledge. Articles on natural horn and interpretation of obscure baroque music may elevate the author's reputation in the minds of his contemporaries but do little for the high school band leader who looks toward The Horn Call for some useful information. As far as the natural horn is concerned, it may be great for aficionados but I have not as yet noticed any first chair players in major symphony orchestras eschewing their valved instruments.
Even before I stumbled into horn teaching I had long considered the horn to be the most expressive of the brass instruments. It has no equal for romantic expression. The many shadings and nuances available endear it to composers and listeners alike.
The enclosed newspaper article touched me. I thought you might enjoy this human interest story as well. I wonder what factory made the old instrument he uses.
I should add that I do not consider myself capable of producing a finished horn student. As they approach the limits of my knowledge, I always encourage them to seek a "real" horn teacher. These days there are a few available not too far away. I have sent several to Dr.Gayle Chesboro, a teacher known to many members of IHS.
Keig E. Garvin
Hendersonville, North Carolina, USA