I wanted to play the French Horn as a child, but fate had other things in store for me.
The French Horn
by Robert Aubrey
We had a rule in our family: each of us five children was required to take up a musical instrument for at least one year while we were in grade school. If we didn't want to continue with it after that trial period we didn't have to. (Apparently our father had had an embarrassing incident with the violin when he was a young lad and he could well appreciate the difference between parental prodding and pointless cruelty.)
My three sisters tried out the woodwinds--flutes and clarinets--which were popular with young girls back then, and were glad to be rid of them after their year was up. My brother hankered for the drums and he found hours of pleasure in his bedroom doing what came naturally to a young boy--banging on a noise-conducive surface with wooden sticks. After a couple of months of that my parents decided to relax the one-year rule and told him he could quit right then and there, if he so desired. Reluctantly, he so desired.
When it was my turn to choose an instrument, my mother took me to a performance by the local high school band. The purpose of the concert was to introduce elementary school children to the joys of making music together and to highlight the various individual instruments which were employed ton that end, and, it was hoped, to allow the children, the budding musicians, to decide which horn or whistle they would arm themselves with in their initial, tentative forays into melody making.
Parents and children filed into the auditorium and seated themselves. After the few minutes it took to get the rambunctious 8- to 11-year olds to settle down, the band played a couple of tunes to get the audience in the mood. Then it was time for the soloists to come forward and demonstrate their particular instruments. One after the other they sat down on a wooden chair in front of the band and under a spotlight; they hoisted their instruments and showed off their wares.
I don't recall exactly all the different instruments which were shown, almost forty years having passed since that night. I suppose there were a tuba, a trumpet, a flute and a clarinet; the trombone, to be sure, and quite possibly a tympani drum; for all I know they might even have rolled out a piano or clavichord...or Wurlitzer jukebox. They were striving to strike a chord with the grade-schoolers, but so far none of my strings had been plucked. None, that is, until a girl sat down in the soloist's chair and place the most ridiculous looking contraption that I had ever seen in her lap--it looked like something which one of those goofy characters from the Saturday morning cartoons would pull out of his pocket and which would immediately expand to ten times its original size--some Rube Goldberg device which would save the world from an evil mustache-twirler. It was bright shiny gold; it curved round and round and round and seemed to swallow itself. It showered my wide-open eyes with sparkling bits of luminescent confetti. My jaw hung down and my face got sore and I didn't even care. What was this wonderful invention?! I simply had to have one. I'd be the coolest kid in the neighborhood. It was wicked keen, man, it was really neat-o, and I hadn't even heard it play a single not yet.
Then the girl in the spotlight shove her fist into the bell of the instrument, twiddled four fingers of the other hand on the valves, and after a short intro by the band she launched into a melody I had heard countless times sprawled out on the carpet in front of the tube: it was the theme from "The Marlboro Man" (known to non-smokers as the theme from "The Magnificent Seven") and it was a piece of music which never failed to captivate me with its feeling of wide open freedom and promise, of the expansiveness of life on the frontier of the tomorrows to come. And even though it would be another ten years before I would know the pleasures of nicotine addiction, every time I heard that theme, every time I saw that rugged he-man on his horse rounding up cattle in the wild, wild West, I felt a certain yearning, a craving for something nebulous and delightful, and as yet undefined.
That was it. I was sold. I was going to play the French Horn. And not just for a year...forever!
After the concert was over, the members of the audience filed out of the auditorium and approached the tables which the musical instrument rental dealers had set up and on which they displayed their wares. I grabbed my mother's hand and just about ran to where I saw the French Horn propped up. I was going to be the first in line, even if it meant doing something unethical like taking "cutsies". I reached out to grab the gilded and curlicued object of my youthful desire.
The dealer stayed my hand. "Not so fast there, little tyke, it's not a toy, you know. We don't want to cause any, um, damage, now do we?" He laughed good-naturedly and smiled at my mother.
"I want it!" I blurted out.
"Well, alright, but let's see what your Mom has to say. Let's let her in on this, why don't we?"
He consulted with my mother, but I had no idea what they were saying, so entranced was I by that shiny piece of treasure up on the table.
"Now why don't you try this out for size," and he forced a trumpet into my small hands and wrapped my skinny fingers around it. "Here, this is how you hold it." His big hairy hands fumbled with my little mitts and I could feel tears starting to well up in my eyes.
"But I want that one!" I was getting ready to summon one of my temper tantrums--that always seemed to work when I wanted my Mom to buy stuff for my G.I. Joe doll.
He let out another good-natured laugh and said, "Yes, I understand, but that's a girl's instrument and you're a boy, now aren't you? Why, soon you're going to be a big boy and all the big boys play the trumpet."
This was my introduction to the cruel, cold logic that operated in the grown-up world. Yes, I had to admit that I was indeed a boy, even if I sometimes liked to play dolls with my sisters--they with their Barbies and me with my G.I. Joe. (Until the time Ken caught Joe flirting with Barbie and a big fight broke out and Joe...he didn't mean to do it...but he shot Ken with his M-16. After that, my sisters wouldn't let me play dolls with them anymore.)
The dealer could see that I was upset; he noticed the tears working their way down my soft cheeks and his tone became conciliatory: "Why don't you take that trumpet home with you and give it a whirl. And if it doesn't suit you, well, later on maybe you can try out the French Horn.
I went home with my mother and the rented trumpet and not a little bit of disappointment. After thinking about it some, I realized that what the dealer had said was true. It was a girl, after all, who'd been sitting in that chair with her fist up the bell of that French Horn. Maybe some girl had already stuck her fist up the bell of the very horn I saw on the dealer's table outside the high school auditorium. If that were true, then she had most likely left all kinds of "cooties" in it, and I seriously doubted that the technology yet existed which could completely de-cootie-ize musical instruments.
So I ended up playing the trumpet and was on the quick road to virulent manhood. Maybe someday I could ride alongside Mr. Marlboro Man and blow reveille while he puffed his smokes, wrangled some cows and fought off the Indians. In no time at all I forgot about my initial infatuation with Miss French Horn--let some other sissy come claim her. I'd found the perfect fit. The dealer was right--the trumpet is what all the big boys play. And the reason they play it is because it's really goddamned loud. You can easily dominate the rest of the band no matter how poorly you play. Just take a deep breath, get that lip buzzing, put that bugle to your mouth and wake up the whole neighborhood. What a great way for a shy little boy to get noticed. And it opened up whole new opportunities for tormenting big sister, while at the same time satisfying my obsessive-compulsive needs. I could sit in my room and play the same out of tune scale over and over and over until my sister was pulling out her hair and getting ready to kick in my door and shove that horn way down past my trachea, esophagus, and what my music teacher called my "diaphragm." Ah, sweet revenge...and to think that there'd been a time I was willing to settle for the muffled echoes of a French Horn.