Sunday, September 27, 2015

All about Alphorns!

As soon as I learned of the annual alphorn competition and festival in Nendaz, Switzerland,  I immediately wanted to go.  Our friends, Lynn and Howard Adams, were planning a visit to Switzerland in the summer and decided to schedule their trip so they could join us. It is one of the highlights of my time here to date and I expect it will stay near the top. 

our home for 2 nights

The location is simply stunning, but after nearly three years in Switzerland, that didn't come as a surprise. Our hosts at the B&B were from England which made everything very easy. The B&B was beautiful inside and out - absolutely no complaints.
view from our room

ready to go hear the alphorns
The town of Nendaz is in the French speaking region - about a three hour journey from Zurich. They definitely took advantage of the fact many people would be coming to their village for the competition and festival. There were also craft stalls, lots of entertainment besides alphorns, a parade and of course, plenty of food and drink. The weekend event surely helped the income of many businesses.

Most competitors were in the solo or duet category and all wore traditional costumes. Because the horns have no valves, there is a limit to the different tones that can be produced making the pieces sound quite similar after a while.  The varied skill level of the participants was definitely noticeable. 

gorgeous spot!

It was very windy on the hilltop where the competition was held.  The alphorns were propped on a stand waiting for use, but after they fell over once, resting them on the ground was deemed safer. 

I definitely enjoyed listening to the larger groups because I appreciated the difficulty in both playing the instrument and staying together without a conductor. There were also some people who had amazing ability to play fast notes which I know is very difficult without valves. 


As you can tell from the pictures, there were participants of all ages. In the group of 12 (largest group), one woman used a cane to walk to her spot while someone else carried her instrument for her.

12 players - woman on left end with hat was leading with her arms while also playing

this trio was great!
with our color coordinated friends, Lynn and Howard


walking back down to the village

A distance away from the competition area, the village was buzzing with activity and non-stop entertainers on stage.

alphorns being made and available for purchase

mouthpieces for sale

Having the opportunity to try an alphorn was a wish come true and a definite highlight of the weekend for me. I had no problem getting a sound, but it would take more rehearsing to figure out the intervals. I would like to try again with a larger mouthpiece someday.

adorable children

tent interior with stage at the far end

This group all wore very goofy hats, not a traditional Swiss costume, but they could sure play. The pieces they played were primarily arrangements of pop tunes and they were hard! Definitely a welcome break from alphorns and accordions.

There were many folk dancing groups - they often danced to a small ensemble of accordions.

accordion players

ready to dance

dancers of all ages

Of course, there were also yodelers.

really high notes!
not all bells are on cows

There were three men whose contribution to the entertainment was to repeatedly crack a whip. They accompanied the group of men who carried and swung large cowbells. When they were approaching, I thought the sound was drums. It certainly was very loud and not at all melodic. Not my idea of music, but it sure was different.

seems a bit scary to have a whip being cracked overhead

noisy bells leaving - yay!

After more exploring in the village, it was time for the parade. Most of the same groups that performed on stage walked in the parade, but there was much more! There are always surprises at a Swiss festival!

A Swiss parade should have:
animals (especially cows),

first time to see St. Bernards here


and more goats


alphorns, of course, 

they must stand still to play

cute kids in the parade and watching,


folk costumes,

flag throwers (one flag for each canton),




and most importantly, all around silliness.

schwingen, Swiss wrestling, on a float seems dangerous

zum Wohl!


On the second day, activities began a cable car ride up the hill. We rode the cable car up in order to walk down!
once you go up, this is a very common sight!

is schwingen always in season? 
The competition among the finalists was scheduled for the afternoon. We didn't stay for the final round, but the mass ensemble of 245 alphorns playing together was a priority and definitely a unique experience.
It took a while to get everyone into position.

Finally ready to play.



conducting this many = very hard job

definitely the youngest in the group
plenty of spectators

The flag throwers came too! They stood in the background and seemed to each throw their flag whenever they felt inclined. There was no synchronization. Each person also had a different costume, presumably typical of their canton.
competition finalists in the front rows
It was definitely a challenge to get all the participants in one picture. Howard was energetic and motivated to climb the hill to get the view below. As you can tell, the end people still aren't all visible.

We were even pretty well color-coordinated the second day! It was a great event, but eventually it was time to head back to Zurich. If you want to go to a "quirky Swiss festival", put this one on the list of possibilities!