Learning how to play the alphorn in Switzerland requires more than one breath

Dec 1, 2017

While learning how to play the alphorn in a Swiss alpine town, our writer launches peculiar sounds into the mountains.

Within moments of taking the alphorn into my hands, I understand why this instrument is jokingly referred to as the original Swiss mobile phone. The pure notes that emanate from it are indeed perfectly suited for locals to communicate with one another across high hills and low vales.

I, however, can only make the musical equivalent of missed calls from it.

In the Swiss alpine town of Chur, I have ignored the snowy mountains, choosing instead to spend my afternoon trying to grasp the basics of the alphorn with five other strangers.

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My teacher, Werner Erb – a master musician and a dead ringer for a lean Santa Claus – and members of his Alphorngruppe Arcas Chur begin by belting out a couple of jazzy numbers. Easy-peasy, I think. But holding this wooden instrument measuring almost 4m long is a feat in itself.

“Purse your lips and blow gently,” Erb urges. I give it my all and manage to create a note that resembles the mating call of wild animals. The others in the group giggle, but Erb keeps a straight face and makes encouraging gestures. The next burst of sounds from my alphorn emerges, sounding not even remotely musical.

The master explains his own process of creating melodies: “I close my eyes and play, and it feels like meditation.” I watch – this time with more respect – as he plays Amazing Grace, which flows over us smoothly, like a prayer.