By kristine gill
The first time he heard the French horn, Bill Slocum knew he wanted to make music.
He was 5 when he attended a concert with his family in Grand Junction, Colo., and heard one of Beethoven’s string-quartet arrangements for horns.
“I remember walking out of the concert telling my mother that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I thought, if music can be this, that’s what I want to do.”
He had his first horn when he was 12. Now, at age 74, he has 15.
As music director and professor of horn at Youngstown State University for the past 39 years, Slocum has taught countless students how to play the same instrument that inspired him as a boy.
“There are two reasons people play the horn: They fall in love with the sound and they love the danger,” Slocum said. “The horn is unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen when you play it.”
But the sound is what first drew Slocum in.
“It’s warm. It’s emotional. You can reach people with a horn sound,” he said.
It was the challenge that maintained his interest. Slocum said the horn is difficult because it plays an octave higher in the harmonic series than other brass instruments.
“The high notes are always frightening. The valves at that point are almost no help at all. It’s all with the lip and ear,” he said. “It’s the one instrument that can wreck a concert.”
Slocum has had his share of catastrophes on the stage — the kind he said that make you want to stand up and walk off. But nailing it makes all the risk worth it.
“When you do a solo on the stage, it’s an elation so extraordinary,” he said. “It’s a real high.”
Rob Cole studied horn with Slocum for four years at Kent State University and later at YSU. He said Slocum always was positive and easy to work with.
“I remember one piece I was working on with him and he was trying to convey how he wanted me to play this certain phrase, and he said: ‘Imagine reaching for distant clouds,’” Cole said. “That something that stuck with me for a long time. I could tell you what phrase it was, even.”
Cole now owns Horn Stuff in Salem, repairing instruments. He teaches horn at Westminster College and has played in the Youngstown Symphony since 1969 and the Warren Philharmonic for quite some time.
“He was very sought-after when he taught at Kent State,” former student Chuck Ward said.
Ward studied under Slocum at the Cleveland Institute and later played alongside him professionally. Ward owns Chuck Ward Brass in Chardon.
“He just knew what the horn player needed to know on stage, and he’s been through it,” Ward said. “He would inspire you to study probably better than you thought you were capable of.”
Slocum spent the majority of his childhood in Albuquerque, N.M., earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees in music from the University of New Mexico.
He went on to teach at Wyoming State University as a professor of horn when he was just 26.
“Of course I thought I was much older than I was at that time,” he said with a laugh.
During that time, he conducted the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra in Cheyenne.
Slocum left Wyoming when he was offered a position with the world-famous Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. He played for it while teaching horn at Kent State from 1968 to 1972. At Kent, he became the director of the undergraduate music history program. He also played in the university’s brass quintet and the woodwind quintet.
There was a day when Slocum drove between Kent and Cleveland five times to teach and perform.
“It was kind of an insane life, but the world was kind of that way,” said Slocum.
Slocum began teaching at YSU after he learned the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra needed a first horn player. He has taught at the university ever since. His wife, Gloria, plays for the orchestra as a violinist.
Slocum also recently retired from the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra, which he conducted for 26 years beginning in 1980. He said he learned how to conduct by observing the greats such as Leonard Bernstein, whom he played under during a tour of Japan. He was principal horn for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and also toured Europe and South America with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He studied in NYC for a year at The Juilliard School.
“When you’re playing, you have the control over the sound. When you’re conducting, you’re just waving a stick,” he said. “They’re both making music.”
Slocum’s daughter is a string-bass player with five degrees including her doctorate. Her daughter is a flute player who will graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia this year. Slocum said his son, Jay, also is musically inclined but works as a public defender in Reno, Nev.
Slocum still finds time to practice each day and said a two-hour session is not uncommon.
His love of brass has led to studies of mouthpiece and horn-bell construction, and he collaborates frequently with manufacturers in Cleveland.
In his spare time, art and poetry consume this musician who once had a painting on display in Cleveland’s annual May Show. In the summers, he travels to his cottage in Cape Cod and in the winters to his home in Arizona. He’s sure to take a horn with him on those trips.
“Everybody thinks I’m insane,” he said. “But I’m going to take the horn, and I’m going to practice it.”