Blowing My Own Horn


I hated that beat-up old horn. So when I put another dent in it, I just laughed. Big mistake.

Blowing My Own Horn

I really wanted to play the flute. I thought it was so feminine and romantic, like something you might play while sitting on a rock in a field of flowers. But my parents couldn’t afford any kind of instrument at that time, and I wanted to be in the junior high beginning band, mostly because my best friend, Lisa, was in it, playing the snare drum. The school owned some instruments that it loaned out, and Mr. North, the grumpy old band teacher, assigned me an old, dented French horn in a beat-up black case.

I really hated that thing. If it wasn’t enough to have my backpack full of books to carry home every night, I also had to carry that heavy French horn up the hill almost a mile to my house. It really embarrassed me to carry that big old black case. I kept thinking of the flute, and how the case would have fit right in my backpack.

Our family of eight lives on an old quiet street, and the neighbors take a lot of interest in us. Brother Legarde, two doors down, is our home teacher and a musician himself, so he was delighted the first time he saw me coming by with the French horn. He put down his leaf rake and came right over, full of questions.

“Erika, my dear,” he said. “Is that a French horn I see?”

I set it down on the sidewalk. You really can’t just walk on when Brother Legarde stops you.

“Yeah,” I said without enthusiasm.

“You’re playing it? You’re taking lessons?” he asked, his eyes shining.

“School band is all. And I’m still working on making a decent sound come out of it. It mostly screams in pain when I blow into it.”

He laughed. “It’s all in the lips. They have to get strong and firm, and that takes time. School band is nice. What chair are you?”

“Third.”

“And how many chairs?”

“Three.”

He smiled gently. “It takes time,” he said again. “I’ll be listening to you practice, waiting to hear a sound that’s not painful.”

I smiled, picked up the heavy beast, and trudged home.

I hated that horn a lot, and I can’t explain exactly why I didn’t just quit and transfer into cooking or something. But it’s like some unwritten rule in our family that once you start something, you have to see it through. So I practiced pretty regularly, and after a while, I could at least play most of the notes.

Brother Legarde always called out words of encouragement when I passed. “Keep working, Erika. It’s sounding better. I heard you practicing yesterday.” Things like that.

I especially hated cleaning the horn and its old brassy smell. But Mr. North inspected our instruments once a week, and if they weren’t clean, he docked our grades. And believe me, I needed all the points I could get. Mr. North glared at me a lot when my horn squeaked, and I don’t think he thought I had much talent, and he was right. I would kind of dump the horn into the case and buckle it up and watch with envy as the two flute players dismantled their shiny silver instruments and tucked them neatly into their velvet-lined cases.

On a Friday in October, Mr. North decided we should go outside with our instruments and practice marching in preparation for the Veterans’ Day parade in November. Our band met on the stage of the auditorium, so I picked up my horn, leaving the case by my chair, and walked along the edge of the stage, swinging my horn in what I see now was a very careless way, when suddenly it slipped out of my hand and fell all the way off the stage to the auditorium floor, landing with a loud, tinny bang.

The whole class, including Mr. North, stopped and looked at me. I jumped down off the stage, picked up the horn, and looked up into Mr. North’s stern face. “Let me see it,” he said. I handed the horn to him. “You’ve dented it.” I see now that this was a real mistake, but I started to laugh. The horn had so many dents in it you wouldn’t believe it. I climbed back up on the stage, and he handed the horn back to me.

“You’ll be responsible for getting this repaired,” he said. “And unless you do, you’ll receive a failing grade in band.”

Suddenly, I wasn’t laughing any more. In our family, nobody has ever come home with a failing grade. I walked out kind of soberly and tried to march and play at the same time, which wasn’t easy.

Afterwards, Lisa came over to me. “What are you going to do?” she said.

“Do I have a choice?” I said. “After school, I’m going to carry this beast over to Midtown Music and see if they can fix it.”

“Couldn’t you get your mom to take you?”

I strapped the horn in and snapped the case shut. “‘If you create the problem, you solve the problem.’ That’s what my mom always says. I think I’ll just take it over there myself. I’ll be paying for it out of my baby-sitting money, too.”

Lisa shook her head. “Your parents are so strict.”

“They’re really into character development, that’s all.”

At the music store, I stood looking around at flutes and recorders and thinking about that rock in the field of flowers while the man examined the horn. “I would have to remove all the dents leading up to your dent,” he said, running his knobby fingers along the bumpy horn. I couldn’t bypass all these other dents.”

“How much?”

“Sixty dollars.”

I gasped, told him I’d have to think about it, picked up the horn, put it in its case, and left.

For the rest of the week, I practiced playing and marching as best I could. And really, the dent didn’t hurt anything. But on Friday, Mr. North nailed me with his cold eyes and asked, “What about the instrument repair?” I told him I’d see what I could do over the weekend.

Friday night was Halloween, and Lisa and I had decided to go trick-or-treating one more time before leaving our childhood behind, just for a little while before we went over to the stake Mutual party.

At the Legardes’, Brother Legarde opened the door and pretended he didn’t know who we were, even though it was perfectly obvious. But instead of putting candy in my sack, he put a flat, wrapped thing that looked like a cassette tape. Sure enough, when I got home and opened it, it was a tape of Mozart’s Four Horn Concerti. I was pretty touched that Brother Legarde would give it to me. After the Mutual party I listened to it and could hear how nice a French horn could sound.

The next morning, Saturday, I thought about the little music store over on Redwood Road, kind of a dumpy place that’s been there forever. I lugged the horn off the bus and into Mozzie’s Music Store. Mr. Mozzie, grizzled and unkempt looking, smiled at me as I got the horn out and put it up on the counter. I explained how I just wanted the one dent removed. He looked at it for some time, turning it this way and that, pushing the valves up and down.

“It’s not a bad old horn,” he said. “It could be fixed up. But sure, if you want one dent out, we’ll take one dent out.”

“How much?”

“Four dollars and fifty cents.”

I felt so relieved when he said that, but something made me hesitate. “How much would you charge if you took out all the dents?” I asked.

He picked up the horn again, squinting at it and fingering the dents. “I could smooth this horn and shine it up and oil the valves for $35.”

“I’m going to think about it,” I said, and don’t ask me why, but I packed that thing up and got back on the bus and went home.

I lay on my bed and listened to the “Four Horn Concerti” again, and I began to see myself in that field of flowers. Not sitting on a rock, but marching around, under a radiant blue sky with wonderful haunting music coming out of a shining French horn.

Then I went over to the Legardes’ and knocked on the door. Brother Legarde answered as usual.

“Thank you for the tape,” I said. “I’ve listened to it quite a few times, and it’s really beautiful.”

“Good. You’re training your ear as well as your lips. The French horn is a beautiful instrument, played by many angels I’m sure. It suits you. Will you come in?”

“No thanks,” I said. “I wondered if I could rake your leaves and do a little cleaning up in the yard for five dollars. I need to get my horn repaired.”

“It’s broken?”

“Well, I dropped it and dented it.”

“Oh, by all means,” he said, coming out onto the porch. “Your instrument must be in the best possible condition. It needs to be treated with special care.”

I felt kind of shoddy and careless when he said that. So much for good character. But I did my best in his yard, even turned his compost pile a little after I put the leaves on it, which is not a pleasant job. He gave me ten dollars.

On Monday, I went right up to Mr. North. “I have two estimates on the horn. I’ll get it fixed this week.” He nodded and looked at me with almost friendliness, with a little respect anyway.

I told Mr. Mozzie that I guessed if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing right. He did a good job. It was shinier and better looking, and the valves didn’t stick. I cleaned the inside of the case with an old toothbrush, wiped off the outside, and carefully taped the corners. Mr. North warmed up a little, and by the time I was in the ninth grade and was first chair, he had even started smiling at me occasionally.

Now I play French horn in the high school marching band. I hold my head up high and get those notes out loud and clear, and the sun glints off the beautiful horn I got for Christmas last year. I keep it shined and clean at all times. I try to do the same for my character.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Roger Motzkus