Mr. Keith Collins and the French Horn

French HornI was going to be a trumpet player. I was inspired by my next-door neighbor who was about six years older than I, and a trumpet player in the high school band.

“The trumpet is the best instrument there is.” Roy insisted. “I mean, why do you think Betty Grable married Harry James?”

“I don’t know.”
“Because he plays the trumpet, that’s why.”

We were tested in the fourth grade by Mr. Collins, the band leader, and if we passed the musical aptitude test, we could begin taking lessons. I passed, and chose the trumpet. We met once a week in the high school gym for our lessons, and we were supposed to practice thirty minutes a day. Getting to the gym was no problem, I had a bicycle. But the practicing 30 minutes a day? Well, that cut into some quality time, so I didn’t always do it. But I stuck with it, then came the end of the eighth grade, and Mr. Collins began the selection. We went in to see him, one at a time.

“Dick, do you really want to be in the band?” Mr. Collins asked.

“Well, yeah, that’s why I’ve been taking music lessons for the last four years.”

“I have too many trumpet players, and you’re not good enough to get in.”

I was crushed.

“But, if you will switch to the French horn, I will let you in. The fingering for the French horn isn’t that different, you can already read music, and I can switch you over this summer.”

French horn? I knew that Harry James played the trumpet, Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey played the trombone and Jimmy Dorsey played the clarinet. But who in the world played the French horn? Who had ever even heard of the French horn?

“I’ll do it,” I said.

I got into the band as a freshman French Horn player. There were only three of us, two juniors and me. My new hero became Eddie Webb, the other boy French horn player. When we started getting ready for the marching season, he saw me reaching for the music.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m getting the sheet music for this march.”

“You don’t need it.”

“What? Why not?”

“This is a march. We will always be right next to the bass horn. When the base horn goes ‘oompah’ we go toot. It’s like this. ‘oompah – toot, oompah toot, oompah – toot, toot.’ That’s it, that’s all you have to do.”

As it turns out, Eddie was correct, as far as march music was concerned. But when we started the concert season, I actually developed an appreciation for the French horn. More than that, I developed an appreciation, no, a LOVE of classical music. I listen to it as I write, I listen to it on Sirus Radio as I drive, and it has been a huge comforting part of my life.

One thing Mr. Collins did was find a small “solo” piece for the seniors during the final concert of our senior year. Sometimes it was no more than ten or fifteen bars, but it was a proud moment. For me, the solo piece was in Pavane For a Dead Princess. I had no more than ten bars, but it was almost a disaster.

The valves on a French horn aren’t lever actuated, they are actuated by strings. All conscientious French horn players check the strings regularly, and keep some spare string in their case. I’ve never been particularly conscientious. About the second piece into the concert, the strings for both the first, and the middle valve on my horn broke. I had no spare. You can still operate the valves, BUT you have to reach around in a very awkward position, and it isn’t all that easy to do. We reached, Pavane, Mr. Collins lifted his baton, and the concert band began to play. The music flowed beautifully, then we reached my solo. I stood up, Mr. Collins pointed his baton toward me in a fluid and rhythmic motion, and smiled benevolently at the senior who was about to leave his fold. He saw me make that awkward reach around to the backside of my valves, and the benevolent smile turned to a look of horror. He continued to direct the band, the music continued, and I hit a series of middle “E’s” then “D’s, then low “Es” then low “A’s”. Every note required a different fingering position, but, I NAILED them.

After the concert was over, Mr. Collins asked to see me.

“We have no more concerts to play until graduation night, and because you are graduating you won’t be a part of the band then. I would say that if you weren’t graduating you still wouldn’t be a part of the band.”

Mr. Collins’ frown turned to a smile.. “But somehow you pulled it off. So I can’t be too angry with you.”

There are teachers we encounter during our twelve years of school who make a lifetime impact upon us. I can name three: Mrs. Foley in the fifth grade, Mr. Walker and Mr. Wilkerson in high school. But the one with the greatest impact on my life, was Mr. Keith Collins.

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