February 26, 2024

Alphorn lessons in the Swiss Alps

Within moments of taking the alphorn into my hands – with the naïve idea of learning to play it – I understand why this instrument is jokingly referred to as the original Swiss mobile phone.

The pure notes that come out of this instrument were indeed perfectly suited for locals to communicate with each other across the high hills and low vales.

I, however, have only been able to make the musical equivalent of missed calls from the alphorn.

In the alpine town of Chur, I have ignored the attractions of the snowy mountains and the gondola rides, choosing instead to spend my afternoon trying to grasp the basics of the alphorn.

My teacher Werner Erb is a master musician, and with his white beard and twinkling blue eyes, a dead ringer for a lean, Swiss Santa Claus. He has a gentle nature and seemingly boundless reserves of patience with his students; six strangers who have gathered there for this crazy musical adventure.

Erb and couple of his musician friends from his Alphorngruppe Arcas group begin with a magical performance, belting out a couple of snazzy jazz number on the alphorn. Easy peasy, I think; hold and blow. Turns out that holding this instrument measuring almost 12 feet is a difficult feat in itself.

Purse your lips and blow gently, Erb urges. I blow, and I blow, feeling much like the piggy from the kiddies’ tale who huffed and puffed the house down. Except in my case, try as I might, nothing emerges by way of music. I finally give it my all and manage to create a note that sounds like the mating call of wild animals.

The others in the group giggle, but Erb keeps a straight face and makes encouraging gestures that say ‘go on’. The next burst of sounds from my alphorn emerges soon after, sounding not even remotely musical.

The master explains his own process of creating music, “I close my eyes and play, and it feels like meditation.” Surely enough, as I watch – this time with way more respect – he plays ‘Amazing Grace,’ a rendition that flows over us smoothly like a prayer.

But Erb is encouraging, “focus on the breath,” he says. I call into action all my years of pranayama (yogic breathing) training and attempt one last time. And this time, Erb kindly identifies a solitary note as a B Flat.

And there ends my lesson for the day; I have no more deep breaths to spare, and more importantly, I can truthfully claim back home that I finally managed to make music on the alphorn.

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