I have been fascinated with the Alpenhorn- Cors des Alpes in French or Alphorn in German- ever since hearing an eerie, beautiful melody echoing off the mountain peaks while hiking in the Bernese Alps.
That was ten years ago.
Last spring, my husband surprised me by enrolling our family in a weekend alpenhorn class at Haute-Nendaz in the Valais. We were all excited – even my teenage kids. We collected our instruments and when the time came to put together the three pieces of wood that create a three and a half meter (nearly 8 foot) long instrument, we were ready to start blowing.
But not our teacher. Steps must be followed in order to learn to play the alpenhorn.
Step one: History and culture
Our instructor explained that the alpenhorn was created as a form of communication between alpine farmers. If the wind was right, the sounds could travel up to 10 kilometers. The craftsmen constructed the instruments using spruce trees that had been stressed and curved at the base by snow. Today’s instruments are beautiful pieces of art; each design unique to its player.
Step two: Lip buzzing
We began with lip buzzing. The alpenhorn is like a brass instrument. The different tones and pitches come from the position of your lips, their tautness and the location of your tongue in your mouth. Once our lips were thoroughly tingly and itchy; and we could play a portion of Twinkle Little Star, we were allowed to move on to the mouthpiece.
Step three: The mouthpiece
The important thing to remember is avoid pressing your lips too tightly against the mouthpiece and don’t puff out your cheeks (as demonstrated in the photo above). By tightening our lips and raising our tongues in the mouth, we narrowed the airstream and thus played high notes. The opposite is true for low tones.
Step four: The whole instrument
Finally we could attach the rest of our alpenhorn to our mouthpiece and head outside to the old watermill. Our first notes were clear, loud and beautiful (unlike our neighbor’s annual New Year Dying Cow Concerto). We learned to breathe deeply and, like with all musical instruments, control the flow of air by using our diaphragm. Trust me when I say, you need a lot of air to play a 3-4 meter long instrument!
Step five: The notes.
This was the most difficult step for me. Since the alpenhorn has no keys or holes with which to change notes, you must know your notes by sound. I tended to hit high notes. My son complemented me by playing only low notes. I am not sure what my husband was playing. But my daughter, with her years of Swiss musical experience, could play notes on command.
Step six: The Concert
Our education was not complete without a concert in the alpine fields next to the old watermill with our instruments echoing off the mountains across the valley. Actually, we stepped outside the sports center and played our music upon the ears of children playing in the playground. Nobody clapped but nobody threw mud at us, either.
A Swiss Experience
I cannot imagine a better Swiss experience than learning the alpenhorn. I have more respect for this instrument and its culture than ever before.
I don’t seem to be the only person who thinks this Swiss instrument is unique and special. During our class we were filmed and interviewed by ARTE TV for a television series called Par Avion that will broadcast from April 15 to May 17, 2013. If you get a chance, check us out.
We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you
would like to join the AIWC, please visit our website at http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/