My mother used her grocery allowance to buy my first horn, in a transaction at the grocery store withmy junior high English teacher. Mom bought my first college horn, too, from my high school horn teacher. I turned to her for help buying my first professional horn when I was a senior at Capital University's conservatory. Mr. Perrini, my horn teacher arranged for the Wichita Band Instrument company to send a few Paxmans to the school for me to try. I settled on a model 40L. Thanks to that horn, I was able to cling to the thread of my musical identity while I got sober and headed to graduate school with Dave.
A few years later, 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.
I love Paxman horns. But my 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 painfully heavy to my left arm. For a while, I attached an inconspicuous brace at the leadpipe to set the horn on my leg. It provided some relief but the disabling pain radiating from my arm to between my shoulder blades resumed after an hour.
With a mission to search for a new horn, I contacted my buddy Ken Pope, whose horn shop in Jamaica Plain has supplied hornists all over the world with great instruments. He 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.
Perhaps I was too damn old.
Perhaps I was finally too injured.
Perhaps I was finally done.
Tearfully, I called a friend to announce my days as a hornist had ended.
"Ally, I think this is it. The pain is too much. I'm done
“Oh good lord, Thundercat (our pet name for each other), enough with the drama!"
"Noooo, it's true this time!"
"OK this is too much. I’ll come over right now, and you can try my horn. I will hear no more of this
foolishness from you”
Ally swooped in to save the day. Putting up her hand to silence me, she opened her horn case, handed me her horn and commanded, "Now just PLAY, dammit."
A stunning, effortlessly beautiful sound filled the room. It had the familiar sensation of the Paxman's free-flowing airstream and the resonant overtones. But there was no pain, and less effort on my lungs. This horn required less push to “spin” the sound into its optimum harmonic overtones. The extreme ranges of both volume and pitch remained consistent in tone quality. It turns out that the maker of this horn had played Paxmans for much of his career. He had found a way to retain that sound, that feel of a Paxman tone, in a design of his own.
For an entire hour, I played without pain. The weight of this, Ally's horn, rested onto my strong, uninjured right side. My injured left side, now unburdened, simply had to support the fingers moving the valves. Freed from instinctively cringing against oncoming pain, I now instead drew in a full breath and propelled the air through the winding tubes with an ease I hadn’t felt in years.
My heart broke open to the joy of an emerging voice borne of healing. I was thrillingly in love with the horn again.
"OK, time to call Felix," Ally concluded as she dialed him and handed me her phone. The hornmaker listened at length 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. 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.
Even in death, Mother was part of my buying a horn. But something was different this time.
The money for the new horn came from two sources. The first was from selling my Paxman to a trusted colleague. The rest was from the lawsuit money against my sisters. It had been sitting in a savings account for a couple years. It seemed only fitting to invest the money into a horn, since they had convinced Mother to sign a will cutting me out of the estate.
Buying a new horn with the lawsuit money 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 the sisters. They may have had scurried away with substantial loot from the estate, but I had laid claim to a renewable source of wealth - 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 could calm down enough to unpack the horn from its massively padded mailing box. Fitting the mouthpiece into my new horn, I played arpeggios through the entire four-octave range of the horn. Effortless as flying away from her, from them, from all of it.
Closing my eyes, I called forth the mournful melody of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess. Playing to my younger self, the music wafted out with a tender grace and nuance that had long lingered at the threshold of my imagination, forever out of reach until now.
At long last, what I had imagined had form. Freedom of my own sound, announced alone and unceremoniously in the living room among the tattered packaging and the sleeping dogs.
Thank you, and welcome home, child of the singing trees.
Within a few days, I handed over my beloved Paxman to its new steward. He too experienced an instantaneous compatibility with his new instrument, and quickly dispensed with his former horn. It was an incredibly perfect moment of joyful journeys intersecting along the map of healing.