Tuesday, December 22, 2020


The Horn Lesson

Sometimes time-proven solutions are not sufficient to resolve a problem; if, after trying everything with no positive result, it’s time to take a new direction.

During the end of the 1990s, it was 1997, I had such a student; the logical course of thinking might have been, “this is a hopeless situation”, but I couldn’t accept this prognoses.

This exceptional girl was a huge musical talent; Sylvie was a gifted conductor and impressively charismatic in the many band and orchestra projects in which she lead in the French speaking part of Switzerland. I was a professor at the Lausanne Conservatory and she was a conducting and horn student. Frankly, she was a very bad horn player.

Finally, one day she came to me and said she needed help in playing, that she thought it was a breathing problem. She was right, she did need help but it was more than just a breathing problem.

Through the next months, I slowly began to comprehend what a very unusual girl this student was. She possessed the gift to profoundly affect everybody she met. I tried to analyze this many times but simply could not; it was just a fact that everyone with whom she made contact was moved in some deep and personal way.

But what were these qualities? Certainly, a thousand years ago she would have been called a witch and probably would have been burnt at the stake, but this was the late nineties. As one of her teachers, I became preoccupied with what made this mysterious young woman function. The first thing that became clear was that she had huge mood shifts; Sylvie could be a goddess one day with the vision and wisdom of a goddess and the next day be the most irrational nasty person I’ve ever encountered, but the extreme high consciousness of her up cycles were so striking and so memorable that the times of terror were easily forgiven………… for a while.

Sylvie was able to control these mood shifts when it came to musical performance but other times she was completely out of control and unable to discriminate which polarity of her cycle she was in. This became unbearable for those who were closest to her and as her teacher, it was clear that I was certainly was in that inner circle.

The lessons came and went with no audible sign of improvement, yet I believed in her; there had to be a way. She simply was trying to play without the use of air but no logic or time-proven therapy I could think of worked.

I was starting to see enough historical fragments to begin putting some of the pieces together of a singularly complicated puzzle. I also learned peripherally that Switzerland had some quite troublesome communities, not at all unlike America’s Appalachia or the Ozarks, like child abuse, inbreeding and other socially unacceptable behaviors. This extraordinary talented student was from the town of Féchy, not a backward town but still a small Swiss wine producing village in the canton of Vaud. I am not suggesting that she was a product of any type of social abnormality but a teacher has to open all possibilities to find an effective path of solving problems. 

Instead of eluding to something that may be wrong I will mention a few observations that led me to teach her the way I did: Sylvie’s father also had a history of the same extreme polar mood shifts; her family, specifically uncles and cousins had a history of child abuse and incest. Further, she had prominent scars on her forehead and around her eyes; when asked about them she quickly said it was a bicycle accident. She also had a voice that I can only describe as probably having been injured by screaming or very intense and prolonged shouting. Enough said.

We were becoming close friends and I cared deeply about her well-being and her musical growth. The time for the pivotal lesson had arrived and it was today that I was going to try a major breakthrough for her horn playing. She came to my studio and I began to implement the plan.

 It went like this:

“Sylvie, do you trust me?”


“Will you do what I tell you even if it doesn’t make sense?”


“Ok take a big breath and play a loud note, any note”. She did that and made that same pathetic sound that she had been making for months.

“NO! That’s not enough air; blow harder. Try again. NO! Again! That’s just the same as the last time, I said blow harder. NO! NO! There’s no change. 

Have you ever been angry with somebody? Have you ever been very angry at somebody?”


“Let me hear you scream through your horn, take a huge breath, push all your valves down (the longer the tube the more visceral the ‘brass scream’ will sound) and blow the loudest brass scream that anyone has ever heard in the history of the world. Think about the worst thing anyone’s ever done to you and scream through your horn. DO IT”

She did do it and it was extremely terrible and extremely loud.

“My God! Do that again”. She did and for the first time she was using air in producing a sound, it certainly wasn’t beautiful but it was loud.

“OK, Now play the opening of the Strauss 1st Concerto and use the same amount of air”. She did and after a few times it began to sound truly good. Sylvie had learned how to use her air that day. I will never know her thought processes through that pedagogical procedure, I only know it worked. She understood what had happened and from that day on she started to sound good and to show a potential of sounding great. She was already a great musician, now the horn playing was catching up.

Through the next weeks and months her horn playing kept improving, and that gave her a richer insight into the possibilities of communicating with the players in the ensembles she conducted. 

The lessons continued and her progress was amazing but I was learning that orchestral conducting was the major musical interest in her life; this was quite unusual since band was foremost in the minds of most musicians from that region.

And this girl could conduct! I have played with the best conductors in the world and it was not difficult to see her potential. On one occasion; it was a national music festival, Sylvie was conducting a combined band of over 90 players made up of all the bands she conducted, a choir of 50 singers, 3 alphorns (of which I played one) and 4 cows with cowbells, that paraded through the hall at the right moment. Of course, she was at the highest level of her manic-depressive cycle and what she accomplished was extraordinary; it wasn’t an easy conducting task, she was up for it and her positive energy reached everyone involved in the concert.

Later that night the depressive cycle returned; I’m sure it was some kind of completion depression, which only exacerbated her natural down side. It was a night of emotional terror, she made me feel as though I was crazy and evil for not being able to help; I was miserable and could find no way out as she constantly talked about suicide.

The Conservatoire de Lausanne was not famous for it’s conducting department and I was anxious to see her get the best training possible. After talking it over with her (during a manic period of the cycle) I contacted the Sibelius Academy of music in Helsinki, Finland, one of the worlds great conducting schools, I managed to get her accepted for the following school year, however, I worried about how her behavior when she got there.

I tried to get her to find help for herself but it was always a failure. She would still come to me to talk and I fear I was the only person in her life with whom she could talk and there was that chronic discussion of suicide.

One night the talk of suicide was particularly agitated. The next day Sylvie made an ugly scene in her conducting class, screaming at her teacher that he was a terrible teacher and that Roger Bobo had gotten her accepted in the conducting class of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and she got up and walked out; not a good situation for me!

Later the same day Sylvie was killed in an automobile accident, she was a passenger on a narrow road near Féchy and her car was hit broadside by another car at an intersection. It was not suicide.

Holiday season, Lausanne, Switzerland, December 1997, revised August, 2013

Published for the first time in Oaxaca, Mexico, December 22, 2020