Ohio is not a state known for its mountains. The Hocking Hills, the Appalachian foothills and the state’s other areas of rolling terrain, though lush and beautiful, aren’t exactly the Alps.
But that’s not keeping growing numbers of people around the Buckeye State from picking up an instrument deeply tied to Alpine life, the alphorn, as a musical avocation. And it’s also not stopping Ohio’s premiere alphorn ensemble from appearing as the opening act in the 35th-anniversary performances of Merry TubaChristmas Columbus later this month.
What’s an Alphorn?
It’s likely that the alphorn — a long, wooden tube with a conical bore and a mouthpiece like that of a brass instrument — was first used as a communication tool for Alpine communities in the days long before cell phones. Shepherds in the Swiss, German and Austrian Alps needed a way to communicate with others when they took their flocks out beyond their villages and into the mountains.
Because the alphorn, usually around 10 or 12 feet long, is large and resonant, it can be heard for miles. The instrument allows a player to invent any number of horn calls (distinct combinations of notes and rhythms with specific meanings) and play them to communicate the details of certain circumstances.
For instance, a horn call might mean, “It’s snowing up here,” “Help!” or, “We’re coming home now.” The folks back home — or animals that may have strayed from the flock — would hear and be able to understand the call.
Alphorns in Ohio
Jim Esswein, a retired Columbus City Schools music teacher and a longtime tuba player, first played an alphorn several years ago on a tour of Austria with the Zanesville-based German-language choir Mendelssohn Liedertafel. He bought his first alphorn on that same trip and applied his tuba-player’s know-how to develop proficiency on the instrument.
Esswein practiced on his own, then, in 2008, started playing in trios with two other Columbus alphornists. The group expanded to include Angela Buckley, a now-former Columbus resident who lives in Cincinnati, a professional engineer and a lover of all aspects of Germanic culture.
“I said, 'Hey, this is fun. We should name ourselves, and we should do a little bit more and actually have outfits and do a thing,' ” Buckley said.
The alphorn ensemble Alphorn Grüezie — Swiss German for “Alphorn Greetings” — was born.
Now in its ninth year, Alphorn Grüezie performs regularly at cultural and international events around Ohio, including at Oktoberfests, the Ohio Swiss Festival in Sugarcreek, Ohio — known as “the little Switzerland of Ohio” — and, for the first time last year, at Merry TubaChristmas Columbus.
Thanks to its own outreach program, Alphorn Grüezie can number up to 15 players for a given performance. Alphorn Grüezie owns several starter horns and is dedicated to lending them to people who want to learn how to play the instrument, as well as offering basic instruction.
“It’s one of the reasons that, in the alphorn world, the joke is that Ohio has the highest number of alphorn players per capita, because we have really worked at supporting young students and coming in and joining us and playing and learning about the instrument,” Buckley said.
Merry TubaChristmas Columbus 2017
Almost all of Alphorn Grüezie’s alphornists were proficient on more standard brass instruments before taking up the alphorn. Tony Zilincik, professor of tuba at Capital University, started playing the alphorn about three years ago.
Zilincik also has coordinated the annual Merry TubaChristmas Columbus for 11 years and will conduct this year’s 35th-anniversary TubaChristmas performances at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18 in Capital University’s Mees Hall Auditorium.
Last year was Alphorn Grüezie’s first year at Merry TubaChristmas Columbus. At Esswein’s suggestion, Zilincik added the group to the TubaChristmas lineup for what he says turned out to be successful performances.
“Just like the tuba, which has a stunning visual appearance because it’s so large — and then we have 200 of them onstage, so it’s visually and sonically stunning — the alphorn has the same thing, because it’s a 12-foot-long instrument,” Zilincik said. “So you put seven or eight of them out there next to each other, and it’s a fabulous sight. And then you hear them, and it’s a wonderful sound.”
Home for the Holidays
The musicians of Alphorn Grüezie won’t be the only ones making return appearances at this year’s Merry TubaChristmas Columbus. Since the beginning, the event has served as an annual reunion for Central Ohio musicians, many of whom play their tubas or euphoniums only in TubaChristmas.
“It’s always a blast to see all these people you haven’t seen for a year,” Zilincik said. “And it’s a unique situation, too, because some people only pull the instrument out the day before Tuba Christmas and get ready, come out on stage and we all play together. That community aspect of music-making overtakes anybody’s personal limitations.”
And since, as Zilincik puts it, anybody who has a tuba or euphonium and has made a sound on it is eligible to play in Merry TubaChristmas Columbus, those limitations can be significant.
“So the really neat thing that happens at TubaChristmas, for me, is that you’ll have a sixth-grade student who’s been four months on their instrument sitting next to somebody who’s been playing for 30 years,” Zilincik said. “They get to interact, and they talk. So if there’s a young student who can’t play all the notes yet, I say, ‘Just don’t play the ones you can’t play. And sit and listen, because there’s 200 people around you that are going to play.’ ”
In addition to celebrating the 35th anniversary of Merry TubaChristmas Columbus and Alphorn Grüezie’s second year with the event, this year’s TubaChristmas marks another special, if bittersweet, occasion. As current coordinator of Merry TubaChristmas Columbus, Zilincik has been walking in the footsteps of his late father-in-law, Gary Tirey, the former longtime director of bands at Otterbein University. Tirey brought TubaChristmas to Columbus in 1982.
Said Zilincik, “We’re going to dedicate this TubaChristmas to his memory.”
The 35th-anniversary performances of Columbus’ Tuba Christmas take place at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18 in Capital University’s Mees Hall Auditorium. Suggested admission: a non-perishable food donation.