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Holiday Horns concert pays tribute to Carroll County music teaching legend Phil Hooks

It was mid-morning Saturday when the Krug Chapel at Carroll Lutheran Village, in Westminster, filled with the warm of sunlight and the swelling vibrations of more than 15 French horns in harmony, sounding the notes of the hymn, “Abide with Me.”

On two screens at the front of the sanctuary was projected the image of a table draped in navy blue velvet and adorned with gold garland, upon which sat a single French horn, flanked by two red Christmas stockings.

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The stockings were labeled simply, “Phil” and “Norma.”

That was Phil Hooks, who died in August, and his wife Norma who preceded him in July, and the concert, Holiday Horns, a tradition established more than 20 years ago by Hooks and his French Horn music students over the years.

“They just played ‘Abide With Me,’ it seems to be so appropriate,” Carroll Lutheran Village Chaplain Jimmie Schwartz told the more than 100 people gathered for the concert. “We know that we have lost to God’s eternal keeping our dear friends Phil and Norma Hooks. However, the gift of music that they shared with us in such a generous fashion did not go with them: It remains here.”

In years past, the Holiday Horns concert was also held in TownMall of Westminster, and at one point, Baltimore Washington International Airport, according to the Rev. Dr. Sarah Dorrance, an early student of Phil Hooks’, lead pastor at Middletown United Methodist Church and the organizer behind Saturday’s show.

She recalls the more casual genesis of the tradition, a gathering of French horn and bassoon players — Norma Hooks played bassoon — at the Hooks’ Finksburg home.

“I still remember when I was in high school gathering with some others in Phil and Norma’s basement,” Dorrance said. “We would have cookies and punch, and see each other and play our instruments, and it was a lot of fun. It really built out of that.”

The number of players in the concert have always varied, but there have always been enough, drawn from the many students of Phil Hooks’ over the years, according to Dorrance, teaching that continued when he moved from Finksburg to become a resident of Carroll Lutheran Village.

“Phil taught most of the horn players in Carroll County, it’s pretty amazing,” she said. “Even when he was at Carroll Lutheran Village, he had three students there. They gave him a special room.”

Scott Taylor, of Westminster, was one of the horn players at Saturday’s concert, and said he began taking lessons from Hooks when he was in seventh grade. He recently graduated from Towson University.

“This is a special day for everyone, absolutely. Having former students, friends of Phil’s, colleagues coming together. It’s like one big family reunion, it’s fantastic.”

Hooks wasn’t the sort of teacher who stopped instruction at the end of the lesson, according to Dorrance.

“Once you were Phil’s student, it didn’t matter if you had graduated or how old you became, he was always mentoring you,” she said. “It was 10 years ago, maybe 15, I went to buy a new horn in my adult life. He came and spent half the day with me, helping me try out different horns and seeing which one was a good fit.”

David Pape, of Sykesville, was referred to Hooks by his elementary school band teacher while in the fourth grade.

“Once I got to the point where I was proficient enough, I started playing with the holiday horns and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

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Pape’s favorite song of the concert is one he said is a fan favorite too, and a very meaningful one for all the musicians involved.

“The Hallelujah Chorus, that’s, I feel like that’s the sentiment for a lot of the group,” he said. “It’s always been one of our favorites, and with Phil’s passing, it takes on a new meaning for some of us.”

It was the song members of the group played as Hooks’ casket was taken from the church to the hearse, according to Pape.

“At least for me, it’s changed how I play it. It’s no longer just my favorite piece, but every bit of who I am, and every bit of Phil that is in me, is now going into that piece, even more than it used to.”

Schwartz thanked the horn players and extended an invitation for them to return next year, something Dorrance said Hooks anticipated in an email he sent to her about five years ago.

“It says, ‘I have reached the age where I am more aware of just how tenuous life is, and while I have no intention of checking out anytime soon, I know there will come a day when I am no longer around,’ ” she read aloud at the concert.

It is a big production however, and it’s ultimate future is uncertain, but, Dorrance said, “This year, the legacy continues.”

“I can’t promise beyond this year,” she said in an interview. “This year is promised.”

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