French horn player Phil Hooks coaxes a few notes from his alpenhorn in the back yard of his Finksburg home.
Photos by: Phil Grout, Sherwood Kohn
For most of us, the alphorn (also spelled, “alpenhorn”) is something played by a guy wearing lederhosen and standing on a mountain in a Ricola cough drop TV ad.
But Phil Hooks has one in his back yard in Finksburg.
It is in his back yard because it makes too big a sound to be played indoors. Besides, at 12 feet, 3 inches long (approximately the length of a French horn unrolled), it is pretty big for Hooks’ studio, where he plays and teaches the French horn.
Of course, Hooks takes it inside when he is not playing it by breaking it down into three parts. And he does not annoy his neighbors – although the instrument can be heard at least a mile away – by refraining from playing it early in the morning or late at night.
Hooks’ alphorn is a slender, tapered thing of beauty, crafted from spruce, wrapped with blond wicker and decorated with inlaid bands around the bell, which sits on a wooden foot at ground level. Weighing about 14 pounds, it has a mellow tone, although its range is limited to the “open notes” (those played without using keys) on a French horn and cannot be used to play a scale.
It’s a sweet sound,” said Hooks. “Certainly not brassy. It takes a little more air than the French horn, but the feel is the same and it has the same notes that are available on the overtones of a French horn.”
“Most of the time I make up my own tunes,” said Hooks, although he can play “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” most of the notes of “Amazing Grace” and Dvorak’s “Going Home” Largo from the composer’s Ninth Symphony. “It’s kind of fun to do.”
A player and teacher of the French horn for 45 of his 75 years, Hooks has had a long love affair with the alphorn. He actually owned an American-made polyurethane job for 10 years, but fell hard for the real deal during an International Horn Society symposium in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 2007, where he performed with a 50-alphorn choir in the Jura mountains near Lucerne.
Smitten, he bought one of the instruments. It cost him $3,000, plus $600 to have it shipped back to Carroll County. Subsequently, he has played at other gatherings, but finds it cheaper to rent an alphorn on location.
He is looking forward to playing in a Rocky Mountain alphorn festival in August in Utah with his friend and former student, Jeremy Norris, who also teaches French horn. Carroll Countians may have seen and heard Hooks playing his French horn around Christmastime at the Westminster Mall.
“Nobody knows how old the alphorn is,” said Hooks. “Traditionally, They have been used for signaling.” In Switzerland, he said, the instrument is often used to call cows in from distant pastures. “But they’re fun to play.”
In fact, Hooks has fun playing a number of wind instruments, including a conch shell, a Hebrew shofar, hunting and coach horns, and – just to see whether he could do it – a length of ordinary garden hose fitted with a mouthpiece at one end and a yellow plastic funnel at the other on which he can tootle “Happy Birthday.”
Married for more than 40 years to a bassoon player named Norma (she is the executive secretary of the International Double Reed Society), Hooks has two grown sons: Marc, a Baptist missionary who plays the French horn, and Scott, who works for a laser manufacturer in Florida and is a percussionist.
A native of North Carolina, Hooks moved with his family to a row house in Baltimore when he was 7. He studied at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Maryland on scholarships, and has played professionally over the years with many groups, including the Veterans Administration National Medical Orchestra, with which he has toured the globe.
“What a fortunate man I am,” he said. “I’ve traveled the world playing the horn and enjoyed every minute of it. I’m blessed.”