At This Summer Camp, Horn Players Of All Ages Find Community

Jul 15, 2017
Originally published on July 15, 2017 12:50 pm

To the uninitiated, it's the French horn — though that's a bit of a misnomer. To its players and students, it's simply a horn, an instrument that has featured in orchestras for centuries.

The horn's sound is easily recognizable thanks to the prominent role it's played in some of the most epic classical songs and movie themes. But it's still an uncommon instrument, and not the easiest one to build community around. To that end, dozens of horn players head into the woods in the White Mountains every summer to celebrate and learn more about their instrument.

The Kendall Betts Horn Camp in New Hampshire attracts players of all abilities, including aspiring professionals like 22-year-old Torrin Hallett of Wisconsin. When he first attended four years ago, it sealed his fate.

"It was just incredible," Hallett says. "I had never before been in a place where everybody just spoke horn all the time."

The sounds and language of the horn emanate from wood cabins from morning until night as teachers like Bernhard Scully, a horn professor from the University of Illinois, guide study groups divided by age and ability. He says that in one week, participants absorb about a semester's worth of training — finding kindred spirits in the process.

"It's sort of a family," Scully says. "For all of us, wherever we are in the world, whatever we're doing, this is a place where we can come and convene, sit together, eat together, commune together about all things related to horn, all in a positive, non-competitive environment."

The bonds form quickly, and the camp's impact lasts — it has propelled many of its alumni into careers. First-time camper Colin Lundy wants to be one of those who successfully go pro.

"As a high schooler, it's so difficult," the Illinois 16-year-old says. "It's kind of like a taste of what it's like to be in the professional music world."

That's not a world that's entered lightly — especially because, according to instructor Lowell Greer, a retired professional soloist, the horn is a particularly difficult instrument.

"When we play a concert here, we have the most sympathetic crowd in the world," Greer says. "They all know the difficulties, they all know the hurdles we have to get over, and they're cheering each for the other."

And that supportive environment and camaraderie is exactly what keeps many of these campers coming back every summer.

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(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's summer. You can pack the car, slather on some sunscreen and head to camp. And this summer, we're visiting a few of the most unusual camps around the country. There is a retreat in New Hampshire where horn players meet up to master their instruments in the mountain air. And another thing - it's not just a camp for children. Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight reports on the musicians of all ages who meet up at Kendall Betts Horn Camp.

PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: If you're not a horn player, you may know this instrument as the French horn. But that's actually a misnomer. It's just the horn. Though you may not recognize it by name, you likely recognize its sound. It's helped to create some of the most epic classical songs and movie themes.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD WAGNER'S "RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES")

WIGHT: Horns have been featured in orchestras for hundreds of years. And now, every summer, dozens of horn players go to the woods in the White Mountains to return to their instruments' primitive roots.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Playing horns).

WIGHT: The Kendall Betts Horn Camp attracts players of all abilities, including aspiring professionals like 22-year-old Torrin Hallett of Wisconsin. When he first came four years ago, it sealed his fate.

TORRIN HALLETT: It was just incredible. I'd never before been in a place where everybody just spoke horn all the time.

BERNHARD SCULLY: Today, the hope is to do the kind of last big combination of articulation. And that is the slur, legato, staccato.

WIGHT: The language of the horn emanates from wood cabins from morning until night as teachers like Bernhard Scully, a horn professor from the University of Illinois, guide study groups divided by age and ability. He says in one week, participants absorb about a semester's worth of training. And they also find kindred spirits.

SCULLY: And it's sort of a bonding. It's sort of a family, you know for all of us. Wherever we are in the world, whatever we're doing, this is a place where we can come and convene, sit together, eat together, just commune together about all things related to the French horn, all in a positive, noncompetitive environment.

WIGHT: The bonds form quickly when one player reminds their group they're about to play a song for the last time together. They lament.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

WIGHT: But the camp has a lasting impact. It's propelled many of its alumni into careers. Sixteen-year-old Colin Lundy of Illinois came to camp for the first time this summer, and he now wants to go pro.

COLIN LUNDY: 'Cause as a high schooler, like, it's so different. And it's kind of, like, a taste of what it's like to be in the professional music world.

WIGHT: It's a world that's not entered lightly. Instructor Lowell Greer is a retired professional soloist. He says the horn is a difficult instrument.

LOWELL GREER: When we play concert here, we have the most sympathetic crowd in the world. They all know the difficulties. They all know the hurdles we have to get over. And they're cheering, each for the other.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Playing horns).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's so much fun.

WIGHT: Fun that draws many of these horn players back every summer. For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Playing horns). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.