I’m Playing the French Horn Again

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Three of the most terrifying words in the English language are fifth-grade band. To give a hormonal preteen a trumpet? Maniacal. Obviously, I signed up.

When it came time for my “audition” — a very casual conversation with the band director about what instruments I was interested in — I told him I wanted to play the saxophone or percussion. (I didn’t tell him this was only because I thought they’d make me look cool and I had unrequited crushes on people who I knew wanted to play saxophone and percussion.) Regardless, he handed me a brass mouthpiece and said, “See if you can make a sound with this.” Then I made a fatal mistake: I made a sound. I left being told that I would learn to play the French horn.

As an 11-year-old, I hated the French horn for all the reasons you’d expect: I didn’t like being told to practice; it was a hard instrument to tote around and even more difficult to play; and it was far less cute than the clarinet or flute. But by fifth-grade standards, I was decent at it! In fact, I was first chair for most of fifth grade and middle school — please clap. During one concert, I had the distinct privilege of playing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” all by myself — you may clap again. The adult approval and occasional applause did make me like the French horn a little more but not enough to stick with it. I stopped playing once I got to high school.

But as the saying goes — it doesn’t — if you hate something, let it go, and if it returns years later, completely unprompted, it was meant to be whether you like it or not.

A couple of months ago, my neighbor knocked on my door at 8 p.m. with a French horn in his hand. He asked my husband, who plays music, if he happened to have any use for the instrument; it used to be his daughter’s but she no longer wanted it. Now, nearly two decades after letting the French horn go, she’s back for more.

Relearning the French horn is nothing like riding a bike. Though I can still make sound with relative ease, those sounds are … not great. Plus, I have forgotten most of the fingerings. (That’s French horn for which buttons to press in order to play different notes — relax.) And speaking of salacious details, I also forgot that brass instruments, like the French horn, have a valve designed to collect a pool of your spit. While cutie woodwinds hold their reeds in their mouths to soak (borderline pornographic), horns are dumping out the contents of their spit valves onto the carpeted band floor. I recalled this latent middle-school memory as I poured my French horn spit into my bathtub, performing a familiar and depraved ritual for the first time since 2004.

It is very easy to be bad at the French horn. The instrument is deceivingly difficult given that there’s only four keys you press and, to play, you basically just make a fart with your mouth. In fact, it’s considered one of the hardest instruments to play, which, in hindsight, makes my middle-school self a prodigy. Fortunately, stumbling into French horn ownership has relieved any pressure to be good.

There is no good reason for me to play the French horn. I’m a 31-year-old writer with no desire to join an orchestra. I have tried and failed to pick up more practical interests, but historically I am not very good at having hobbies. I learned to cross-stitch early during quarantine, but now I only do it occasionally when I feel like stabbing something a bunch. I’ll paint or play guitar every once in a while, but I have this adorable quirk where I desperately crave the approval of others. So if I make something, I want to be able to show people so they can say, “Wow! And this is just something you do for fun? Amazing!” Also, when I learn something new, I want to miraculously be an expert at it lest I drop it immediately. Neither mind-set is conducive to most hobbies. In this sense, playing the French horn is the perfect hobby for me.

I have no goals when it comes to playing the instrument. When I practice, I look at a fingering chart, attempt to play “Happy Birthday,” giggle a little when I inevitably go bwaaaah on a wrong note, and call it a day. I intend to only ever play at home, where my dog is my most attentive audience. She has no concept of time signature or key or what music even is, so she’s easy to impress. No one is telling me to practice, which, unfortunately, does make me want to practice more. There are no concert solos, no first chairs, no crushes playing drums who I desire to look cool in front of. It’s just me and this fun, terrible music I am making. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m getting pretty good at being bad. Honk, honk.

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I’m Playing the French Horn Again