The Beatles Showed the Way

I wanted to play the trumpet at first but it was the Beatles . . . that led me to the French horn.

There was always music in our house growing – jazz, Broadway, classical and rock, from the radio and record player, but also live. My dad played trumpet with his jazz LP’s and my mom sang along with her beloved Gilbert and Sullivan recordings.  

Zachary Smith, PSO Assistant Principal Horn

I was raised in northern Virginia, the third of four children. My older siblings blazed the rock and roll trail for our family. Our tastes matured from Herman’s Hermits to Led Zeppelin in the span of that incredible decade, but my parents never criticized our musical tastes even though I know they hated some of it! They encouraged us to freely explore their record collection which included a fair number of classical albums, and that led to my “discovering” Bach and Beethoven.

The first symphony I fell in love with was Beethoven’s 6th, the “Pastoral;” their recording was the PSO with Steinberg. Little did I know that I would become a member of the orchestra and share the stage with some of the musicians on that very recording!

I could always play my father’s trumpet, even at a very young age. On some instinctive level I just knew what to do to make a sound, so playing anything other than a brass instrument never really occurred to me. I wanted to play the trumpet at first but it was the Beatles, not Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, that led me to the French horn. From the album “Revolver” in the song “For No One” out came the most beautiful, haunting, magical sound I had ever heard. The album credits said, “Alan Civil, Horn,” so I went to my parents, said, “I want to play the horn” and that was that.

Swappig Instruments

I started the school band program in 5th grade, picking up lots of bad habits but really enjoying making sounds on the horn, so my parents suggested I take private lessons the next year. I bought a horn in a pawnshop with my paper route money and by sheer luck found an excellent teacher.

Sgt. John German was Principal Horn in the Washington, DC, US Army Band and one of the most important musical influences in my life. . He was very demanding and knew how to challenge and motivate me, taking advantage of my youthful competitive nature. Through recordings, John introduced me to the different styles and sounds of horn players around the world, my favorites being Myron Bloom in Cleveland, Dale Clevenger in Chicago, and the great British soloist Dennis Brain.

A New Teacher

After four formative years John kicked me out of the nest and arranged for me to study with Ted Thayer, the Principal Horn of the National Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Thayer was equally demanding but had a sink or swim approach that was not quite as nurturing as I had gotten used to…grow up boy!

The highlight of my high school years was playing with the DC Youth Orchestra, an incredible program now in its 61st year, just like me! We played great repertoire – Mahler, Strauss, Beethoven, Schubert – and had no idea it was over our heads. I lived for Thursday nights and Saturday mornings when we rehearsed, and my parents couldn’t wait for me to get my driver’s license at 16 so I could drive myself to and from the district twice a week.

I had great experiences outside of DCYO as well – a top shelf brass ensemble called “Brass of Peace,” summer music festivals and even getting hired to play extra with the National Symphony on occasion.

And Then There Was the 1812 Overture . . .

In 1978 I was hired by the NSO to play extra in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at Wolf Trap National Park with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting, a big extravaganza. Civil War re-enactors in full regalia manned the cannons for the dramatic finale. Well, the troops got nervous and those cannons started blasting away in the soft lullaby section. Rostropovich looked like he was going to have a stroke! To this day I can’t play the piece without hearing “Blam! Blam! Blam!” in all the wrong places.

So many experiences and stories from the 50 years (!) that I’ve been playing the horn. That glorious instrument I fell in love with at age 11 still tortures me daily, but I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve had for anything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: