Adult Horn Players Hone Their Skills at Grown-Up Summer Camp

Jun 28, 2017

Summertime is camp time, and it’s not just for kids anymore. Adults are signing up for camps that focus on everything from wine tasting to bird watching and playing the horn — what’s often called the French horn.

For more than 20 years, the Kendall Betts Horn Camp in New Hampshire has attracted both amateurs and professionals to practice what some consider the most perilous of instruments.

We’ve all seen the instrument: brass tubing coiled into a circle with a flared bell. Some people call it the French horn, a reference to where the best horns were made when they were first embraced by orchestras. But purists insist that it’s simply “the horn”. Whatever you call it, the instrument’s voice has helped to create some of the most epic classical songs and movie themes.

Though horns have been featured in orchestras for hundreds of years, they were born in the woods, used by hunters to communicate over long distances. Now, every summer, dozens of horn players go to the woods in the White Mountains to return to their instrument’s primitive roots.

Some are aspiring professionals, like 22-year-old Torrin Hallett of Wisconsin. He first came to came to the Kendall Betts Horn Camp four years ago.

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

Kendall Betts Horn Camp's staff and faculty ensemble practices.
Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public

The language of the horn emanates from these wood cabins from early in the morning till late at night. Guided by professionals, players absorb a semester’s worth of training in one week.

Hallett says it’s an intense workout.

“They do tell you to be in shape playing-wise when you come to camp, because otherwise, I have never done it, but some people do get hurt,” he says.

Bruised and swollen lips are among the injuries that can sideline musicians who take up what’s considered among the most difficult, if not the most difficult instrument to play.

“It never really gets easier,” says Bernhard Scully, a horn professor at the University of Illinois and artistic director of the camp. “I think part of it is that the instrument is simply an amplifier for the person playing it. We, the human being, generates the sound, very much like singing. The vocal chords are the lips.”

But if what goes in isn’t perfect, what comes out isn’t either. The lips have to be placed just so, and vibrate the right amount, in order to hit the correct note.

The perils don’t end there. As players blow, their breath condenses into water droplets that can get trapped in the horn’s 18 feet of coiled tubing, which can throw a note off. But when it works, the sound of the horn is what blows players away.

“To me it speaks to my soul, or whatever part of me that could be considered godly. Sweet. Mellow,” says Sue Hodgson, 75, of California, who returned to the horn after playing it as a young girl.

Sue Hodgson
Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public

Hodgson says relearning it was overwhelming, so she came to the camp for help. That was seven years ago. She has returned nearly every year since, and now plays in two bands and two orchestras.

“I get a lot of mojo for going to horn camp,” she says.

The camp propels many of its alumni into orchestras and teaching positions. Camp rookie 16-year-old Colin Lundy of Illinois has come to figure out whether he should go pro. He has played since he was 10, but admits that he really didn’t feel the urge to practice till a couple years ago.

“Playing it, it’s different from any other instrument. Like, it feels so close to just singing,” he says.

After rubbing elbows with professionals and kindred spirits, Lundy now wants to turn his love of the horn into a career. And though he has played nearly nonstop for a week straight, he says he can’t wait to go home and practice.

This story was originally published on June 27, 2017, at 4:53 p.m. ET.