Decorated helicopter pilot Alan Beck can add another string to his bow: the Swiss Alpine Horn.
The 73-year-old – who became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in January – is the driving force behind an emerging group of players in Taranaki.
Recognized for his aviation safety and search and rescue services, Beck has another lesser-known passion: the Taranaki Swiss Club.
The kiwi’s wife Margaret is Swiss and the passionate singer and yodeller was recently taken under the wing of the local alphorn Othmar Hebler.
“He was really the only alpine horn player here and about 18 months ago I said to him ‘would you teach me to play the horn?’ and he kindly said ‘yeah, that’s how you do it’. I couldn’t even get a creak out of it. “
Beck said he enjoyed the challenge of playing the instrument which is more than three meters long.
“It’s the fact that you have to use your mouth, so you have to play it and it’s a challenge and I love a challenge and the music is beautiful when you hit it.
“And tonight we would only be 50 percent of what we can normally do. Saturday night was perfect at Swiss 1 night in August.”
The group played for a representative of the Swiss embassy and around 150 people during the national day celebrations at the Swiss club base in Kaponga this week.
Beck said room size, temperature, and weather conditions could affect the sound of the horns, which were often sounded outdoors.
Hebler said the alphorn group had grown stronger and stronger since Beck’s approach.
“I taught them a little bit and we moved on and one or two others thought about it and they were quite interested in coming too.
“Then we found three or four other instruments and here we are with six musicians.”
A dairy farmer who arrived in New Zealand in the 1970s Hebler said anyone could learn to blow an Alpine horn.
“A Swiss alpine horn is made of Swiss mountain pine, it’s all sanded and then prepared and tuned. If you can play a brass instrument, you can easily play a Swiss alpine horn.”
Hebler was also an accordion and brass player, but admitted he had a penchant for the alphorn which breaks down into three pieces for ease of transport.
“It’s a natural sound and it’s a piece of Switzerland, a piece of the mountain. Even in Austria and on the border between Switzerland and Germany they have similar instruments and there are no tubes, no notes, it’s just all the natural tones you create with your mouth.”
Gold miner Felix Hunger who left the west coast to devote himself to dairy farming in Taranaki in the 1870s is credited with the province’s long association with Switzerland.
At the beginning of the 20th century, more than half of the Swiss living in New Zealand lived in Taranaki.
Ryan Bühler, a student at Hawera High School, is now part of that tradition.
He reconnected with his birthplace via the alphorn.
“It’s just that I’m from Switzerland and I’ve heard of it before and it always reminds me of Switzerland and going back and it’s just a great thing to learn and if I had to go back I would know how to play the alphorn.”
Aaron Boesch was born in New Zealand and playing the alphorn also had a special meaning for him.
“The Alpine horn I play is my father’s, the one he brought when he left Switzerland. He brought with him a whole range of Swiss instruments and Swiss culture.
“So, some people inherit a house, but I have inherited an alphorn which is good and now I have the opportunity to play it. Before it was sitting in a corner of a room and I took it out on occasion, but now I play every week”.
Is the Swiss Alpine Horn not for you?
Well there is always accordion and piano or you could join Alan Beck and the singers of the Taranaki Swiss Club in some yodeling ….
The Taranaki alpine horn group meets every Wednesday evening in Eltham or at the Taranaki Swiss Club hall in Kaponga.