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My Alphorn Explorations

September 12, 2020

In the past few weeks I have become a bit more than enthusiastic about the alphorn. I love finding YouTube videos with great alphorn players, learning about the culture and history of the alphorn, finding out how and where alphorns are made today. In the past couple of days I have built two exploratory alphorns from PVC pipe. Scroll down this page to see images of the second PVC alphorn. Click on the links at the top of this page to see more of my explorations.

A Little Background

I played trumpet in school bands and orchestras from 4th grade (1962-1963) through my first year of college in a renaissance ensemble at Whitman College (1971-1972). That's 10 years of formal trumpet playing.

Then came a long interruption with almost no playing, except for the occasional home practice session. I sold my school trumpet in 2002.

Fast forward to 2019, 47 years since I last played in a group.

With the prospect of entering retirement in 2021, I decided during the summer of 2019 to rent a trumpet, start practicing, and get myself back into playing by joining a local amateur band or orchestra by 2021 or 2022. I loved the rental trumpet and decided to purchase it. It's a beautifully refurbished Olds Special Vintage trumpet built in 1969 in Fullerton, CA -- during my Sophomore or Junior year at Pasadena High School (Pasadena is just 35 miles from Fullerton) -- so it was like coming home to my trumpet roots. I found some old trumpet books that I have carried around over the years and began a renewed process of developing an embouchure that is capable of producing musical tones.

Retirement Trip Planning

While planning my retirement trip to Switzerland for Summer 2021, I noticed how frequently websites mentioned the alphorn, as one would expect. Internet searches for alphorn-related content turned into a lot of fun.

I learned that there is an International Alphorn Festival in Nendaz, Switerland, and if one happened to be in Nendaz this summer, one could have enjoyed a two-hour "Let's Play Alphorn" class for CHF 15 (about $16.50). The event organizers let me know that this "Alphorn Initiation" class will be offered again in 2021.

I found out there is an Alphorn Factory to visit in Habkern, Switzerland that is only a 16-minute bus trip from one of the hotels I booked in Interlaken-Unterseen -- Bernatone Alphornbau.

Closer to home, I learned about the Northwest Alphorn Workshop and Retreat coming up in May 21-23, 2021. That would be an opportunity to actually try playing a real alphorn.

I learned a lot of fascinating things about the alphorn, such as the three main fundamental pitches and their respective horn lengths: An alphorn in E is the longest at 13 feet 2 inches (4.01 meters), the alphorn in F is 12 feet, 3 inches long (3.73 meters), and the alphorn in F# is 11 feet, 6 inches long (3.5 meters). I also learned that alphorns are quite expensive. Not surprisingly, alphorn teachers tend to be brass players (especially trumpet, trombone, French horn).

One Thing Led To Another

I wondered if there would be any way to simulate the experience of playing an alphorn.

During my high school years one of my science projects involved learning about the acoustic properties of musical instruments. I bought a book, which I still have: "Horns, Strings & Harmony: The Science of Enjoyable Sounds" by Arthur H. Benade (Anchor Books, 1960). The last chapter of the book is: "Homemade Wind Instruments." Voilà, there was my project. Write about the science of sound production and the manufacture of instruments to produce those sounds, then build two of my own instruments for the demo part of the project: A single-valve trumpet and a simple "woodwind" complete with a set of (rubber-band equipped) keys. The project was both personally enjoyable and academically successful (I got an 'A' and had a ton of fun). I did have some previous experience building homemade instruments, however, such as the two-bell "tuba" I built in 7th or 8th grade from water tubes and the mixer valve of an old washing machine.

It did not take too long on the internet to discover that people have made simple alphorns out of common materials, such as plastic pipe and garden hoses. The internet search result that intrigued me most was this link: "Das billigste Alphorn der Welt" ("The Cheapest Alphorn in the World") on the website of the Alphorn-Center in Friesenheim, Germany, at the western edge of the Black Forest. I am grateful to have learned about Franz Schüssele at the Alphorn-Center, who produced the "Cheapest Alphorn" video (YouTube link) and provided the "Bauplan" online. For other great and entertaining videos from Franz Schüssele, see the "Videogalerie."

Modifications

I had to make some modifications to the German "Bauplan" since pipe sizes in the U.S. are different than those in Germany (actual diameter differences, and not simply a difference between Metric and English Units). Also, our local Home Depot does not carry every possible connector type, and I did not want to have to special order parts on the web for this fun experiment. I wanted to keep the cost of all the parts to around $25. So, using the basic design elements from the Alphorn-Center, I built two PVC alphorns, the second of which is shown below.

 

It has three sections for ease of storage and transport.

 

It measures about 12 feet, 1 inch in length with a fundamental pitch of F.

 

Final tuning was a task of trial and error for the length of the pipe that attaches to the mouthpiece.
The 9-1/2 inch piece yielded the best overall pitch quality and tuning.

 

For a tight connection between my trumpet mouthpiece and the 1/2 inch PVC pipe, I used a 1/2 inch end cap and drilled a hole in it about the diameter of the middle part of the mouthpiece shaft.

 

For trials with homemade wooden mouthpieces, see here.