October 2017

     My mother used her grocery allowance to buy my first horn, in a grocery store, from my junior high English teacher. She bought my first college horn, too, from my high school horn teacher.  I turned to my mother for help buying my first professional horn, a Paxman, when I was a senior at Capital. My horn teacher Mr. Perrini arranged for the Wichita Band Instrument company to send a few Paxmans to the school for me to try, and I settled on a model 40L. Thanks to that horn, and of course to Dave's unwavering support, I was able to cling to the thread of my musical soul while I got sober and headed to graduate school.

     Just prior to returning to Breckenridge, Colorado, for another summer season of our orchestra job, I attended the Summit Brass Symposium. The masterclasses and concerts impressed upon me the need for some changes, first to my embouchure and more importantly to my horn. Wichita Band let me trade in the horn I had purchased from them for a different Paxman, the 20M. This was the brand’s most popular model designed by Richard Merewether, and it would be my instrument for over twenty years. 

     A trio of Russian hornists once offered to buy my Paxman when I was in St. Petersburg. I had been invited to sit in with the Mozarteum orchestra for a concert, and my horn caused an immediate sensation for its high quality. Notably, the bell of the principal hornist’s horn had a hole worn through it, and several braces had been repaired with twine.   

     At the close of my second trip to Russia, an airport customs agent tried to impose an exit tariff on my horn, claiming first that I had failed to claim it on entry and then accusing me of purchasing it there. He did not appreciate my pointing out that the bell branch read “Made in England.” When finally allowed to board my flight home, I slid the horn under the seat in front of me, thankful for the engineers who had figured out how to make a detachable bell on horns for travel ease.

     I loved my Paxman horns, and I found in Ken Pope a wonderfully understanding colleague who not only loved Paxmans but also sold and repaired them. His shop in Jamaica Plain (outside of Boston) turned out to be only a few miles away from the mother house of the Daughters of Saint Paul, where my cousin Margaret lived. I don’t know which experience brought me closer to God, being surrounded by Ken’s inventory of Paxmans and other horns or being surrounded by the community of Pauline nuns.

     The injury from cancer surgeries and radiation conspired to limit, increasingly, my ability to hold my horn for extended periods of time. My left side would forever be weak, no matter how much physical therapy or pilates or strength training regimens I followed. My beloved Paxman felt increasingly heavy to my left arm. For a while, a fairly inconspicuous brace attached at the leadpipe grounded the horn on my leg and provided some relief. But even with the brace, only an hour’s playing created disabling pain radiating from my arm to between my shoulder blades. Ultimately, I realized, the problem lay in the overall distribution of the horn’s weight.

     With a mission to consult with Ken and other horn vendors about my problem, I attended a regional horn workshop. I lost track of all the horns I tried there. Ken soon sent me three horns from his shop to try, including a beautiful new Paxman with rotors considerably lighter in weight. Its resonant sound and free-flowing airstream, hallmarks of the brand. Yet the now familiar pain in my body didn't budge. The other two horns Ken had sent felt too foreign to my face, hands, ears. Too old to change everything again, perhaps I was now too injured to keep going. Tearfully, I called a friend to announce my days as a hornist had ended.

     “Oh good lord, Thundercat (our pet name for each other), enough with the drama! I’m coming over and you are gonna try my horn.” Ally soon arrived to save the day, refusing to hear any of my foolishness. She patiently listened as I played the usual repertoire of horn excerpts on each instrument - four horns, including my own Paxman. Then she opened her case, screwed on the bell, handed it to me and told me to play through the excerpts again.

    A stunning, effortlessly beautiful sound filled the room. It was the familiar sensation of the Paxman's free-flowing airstream and the resonant overtones. But no pain this time, and less effort on my lungs. This horn required less effort to “spin” the sound into its optimum resonances with the harmonic overtone. The extreme ranges of both volume and pitch remained consistent in tone quality. The maker of this horn had played Paxmans for much of his career. Indeed, he had retained that sound as he designed his own horn. I was thrillingly in love with the horn again.

     It dawned on me that, for the past hour, I had been playing Ally’s horn without feeling any pain. This horn’s weight distribution was more onto my strong, uninjured right side. My injured left side, now unburdened, simply had to support the fingers moving the valves. Freed from automatically cringing against oncoming pain, I could now instead draw in a full breath and propel the air through the instrument with ease I hadn’t felt in years. 

     My heart broke open to the joy of an emerging voice borne of healing. Hornmaker Felix and I spoke at length in the ensuing days about my particular needs. Crafting one horn at a time in his workshop, he agreed to modify the height and length of the valve array, and he narrowed the angle of the bell branch wrap to accommodate my petite height. I had never paid so much money for a horn, nor waited for one to be custom designed. I felt like a real princess.

   The money for the new horn came out of a combination of selling my Paxman to a trusted colleague and using the money from the lawsuit against my sisters. It seemed only fitting to invest what Lu had shared so generously with me. Doing so commemorated one of my mother’s more positive influences in my life. At the same time, it also marked an end to her presence in the finality of severing all ties with our sisters. They may have had scurried away with substantial loot from the estate, but I had laid claim to a renewable source of wealth through a sonic affirmation of my presence. All they could do was shout and grumble, much like the character of the devil depicted in Hildegard of Bingen’s liturgical drama, Ordo Virtutum.

     My new horn arrived six months after I ordered it. Like a child excited at holiday, I ran around the house yelling before I was calm enough to carefully unpack the horn from its massively padded mailing box. I had already warmed up earlier on my Paxman, and so I eagerly fit my mouthpiece into my new Cantesanu and played arpeggios through the entire four-octave range of the horn. Then, closing my eyes, I called forth the mournful melody of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, playing it with a tender grace and nuance that had long lingered at the threshold of my imagination.

     At long last, what I had imagined had become manifest, unceremoniously in the living room among the tattered packaging and the sleeping dogs. Thank you, and welcome home, child.

    Conventional wisdom advises a break-in period of at least a month for a new instrument. As it turned out for me, I decided to forgo all courtship and take the new horn for a spin at a recording session later that day. With each run-through of the opening movement of Mozart’s Symphony #25, I played increasingly clear and strong high A pitches above the treble staff. Tami, playing the other horn part, giggled along with me in delight.

     Within a few days, I handed over my beloved Paxman to its new steward. Like me, he experienced an instantaneous compatibility with his new instrument, and he quickly dispensed with his former horn. Such incredibly satisfying timing of two new journeys.