SHERIDAN — The connection is unavoidable: say “alphorn” and people shrug uncertainly, but say “Ricola,” and people smile and nod, their memories tracing backward to watching Saturday morning cartoons and being enraptured by the commercial with the men in funny clothes standing on a mountain, playing a long, funny horn.
Admit it; you’re shouting “Riiiiiii-co-laaaaaaaa” right now — either in your head, or for the more brave, right out loud.
That horn tucked in America’s collective memory is an alphorn.
And in Sheridan, alphorns are no longer relegated to a TV commercial from the past.
A group of four Sheridan musicians has started Big Horn Alphorns, a musical group featuring the exotic instruments that brings a little bit of the Alps into Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains.
“Like anything new, it’s always like you’re hesitant to do it, but it’s fun. The sounds are really great,” Big Horn Alphorn member Edre Maier said. “I like playing out where people can get interested. We sound horrible, but they think we sound great. It’s a sound they haven’t heard, and they’re just enthralled with it, and I think that’s exciting.”
At this point, the group tries to practice every Wednesday, but the location changes. Sometimes it’s at the Kendrick Park bandshell, sometimes it’s in Whitney Commons and sometimes it may be on Grinnell Plaza or at a beer fest.
“It’s sort of a keep your eyes out for the alphorns situation,” Big Horn Alphorn founder Dale Hoffman said.
“And come running with beer,” Maier added at a recent practice, showing the group’s tight-knit, lighthearted feel about playing an admittedly odd instrument together.
Big Horn Alphorns was founded about a year ago by Hoffman, who had seen his first alphorn performance two years ago while in Germany for his son’s wedding. He and several other guests from the states went to Neuschwanstein Castle, and at the base of the mountain in a little village, there was a group of alphorn players.
“I talked to this one, and he let me play his alphorn, and it kind of got me hooked,” Hoffman said. “By a year later, I had my own alphorn.”
Hoffman bought his alphorn from Alphorn Bau Neumann in Germany. When it arrived, he invited fellow community band musicians Maier, Patricia Dray and Doug Moore over to his house to show it off — which, of course, involved letting each horn player play the alphorn and led to a similar “hooked” kind of feeling.
“When Dale calls, we come running,” Maier said at a recent practice.
“Not quite. Walking, maybe,” Hoffman retorted.
“He’s pretty persistent, though,” Maier said. “‘You would like to do this, wouldn’t you?’ ‘No.’ ‘You’d like to do this, wouldn’t you.’ ‘Well, maybe.’ ‘You’d like to do this.’ ‘All right.’”
The group bought three more horns, and well, here they are playing polka and waltzes and generally bringing a little culture and a little fun to Sheridan.
Most alphorn music is written for three or four parts, Hoffman said. He plays the bass notes, using a larger wooden mouthpiece than the others. Moore and Dray, both trumpet players, play the middle notes, and Maier, a French horn player, hits the higher notes.
The horn has no valves and is controlled solely by lip movement.
“It’s the speed of the buzz,” said Moore, the music teacher at Sheridan Junior High School. “Lower the speed, the lower the note, the faster the speed, the higher the note.”
Each member said it was the uniqueness of the instrument and the opportunity that drew them into the group — even with a price tag of approximately $2,500 for the horn. The camaraderie of playing together has kept them going, even when the sounds are a bit off.
Moore said the instrument is limited to about eight notes in a two to three octave range: the fundamental, the octave, the fifth, the third and an out-of-tune seventh.
“I’m the out-of-tune seventh,” Maier piped in.
Out of tune or not, the Big Horn Alphorns are worth a listen.
Now, go ahead, you know you want to yell it one more time…
• The alphorn is a long, wooden horn made of pine or fir played primarily in places like Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Germany, Hungary and Romania. It has no valves and is played entirely with lip movement. The length of the horn determines what key it plays in. Historically, the horn was carved from a solid piece of wood, but it now is often formed from three pieces of wood and can be taken apart for storage.
• Archaeological evidence shows the oldest surviving alphorns date to 1400 A.D. Other sources say Celtic tribes that first settled the northern Alps some 2,000 years ago first used these instruments.
• In the right weather conditions in the Swiss Alps, an alphorn can be heard 24 miles away.
• The horns played by the Big Horn Alphorns are in the key of F, which means they are 12 feet, 3 inches long.
• It takes five years to dry the block of wood used to carve the bell of the horn.