I recently learned of the death of my main instructor in horn, Boris Rybka, from his daughter Kate, who kindly tracked me down to share the sad news.
Renowned classical musician and WWII Navy veteran Boris Igor Rybka, born in Philadelphia, passed away peacefully among family at Foulkeways in Gwynedd, PA. Boris performed nationally and internationally as a French horn player, pianist, and conductor. He taught music at numerous institutions, influencing generations of musicians.
Raised in New York, Boris attended Jamaica High School and the New York High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia). At age 17, he volunteer-enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Post-war, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University School of Music. Boris performed with the New York City Opera (principal hornist), New York City Ballet (principal hornist), the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, New Jersey Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Aspen Music Festival, Cabrillo Music Festival, and various other ensembles. He also taught at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, St. Olaf College, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and St. Paul Academy.
Boris was a handsome gentleman with pale-blue eyes and a dapper style. Living in Germany, Amsterdam, and many states across the U.S., he was fluent in English and German, and studied Dutch, French, Italian, Latin, and Czech. Proud of his Czech-Scottish heritage, he enjoyed Bohuslav Martinů, knedlíky a zelí, tartan ties, and a good beer. He was an avid traveler, reader, cook, hiker, and Vermont tree farmer, with an affinity for funny limericks, dogs, and Saturday Times crossword puzzles – in pen. A devout Catholic, he loved God and his family.
He is survived by siblings Mary Carolyn Bishop and Jim Rybka, children Katherine Rybka Brennan and Gregory Rybka, grandchildren Rhea and Sage Brennan, niece-caregiver Mary Collum, and many family and friends across the U.S. and Europe. He was previously married to musicians Janis Martin and Priscilla McAfee. He spent his final 19 happy, healthy years with his beautiful and beloved partner, Joke van Woudenberg.
A Catholic funeral and military burial took place at Washington National Cemetery.
With Boris it was always musicianship first, then life (or maybe I have those two switched), and somewhere down in 10th or 11th place was playing that particular instrument, horn. His background as an opera coach showed in the horn studio, too—he was always eager to sit down at the piano and bang through an approximation of the piano (or orchestra!) part(s) while I played horn parts, and not only could he show me with his own phrasing what to do with mine, he could simultaneously blurt out instructions, corrections, and jokes. I’ll never forget the time I brought the second Strauss horn concerto to my lesson, meaning to ask whether it might have a place in my upcoming year of study. I’d barely glanced at it, but Boris grabbed the piano part, bounced gleefully over to the piano, and counted off “3! 4!” as I scrambled to get my part onto the music stand and start playing.
We careened all the way through that concerto without stopping, and at one point early on when I fumbled through a tricky passage, he called out “you should have that under your fingers!” while banging ahead through the tutti.
I retorted “I’m sight-reading! And it’s in E-flat!”
He banged on, “E-flat isn’t transposing!”
But all of that came with a grin, a twinkle in his eye, and the generous expectation that of course I could play anything he put in front of me.
I left the studio that day knowing Strauss 2 pretty darned well. After a reckless first romp all the way through, where his approximation of the piano reduction was messy but evocative, he then took me backwards through the piece, working briefly on sections I’d fumbled, offering pointers about phrasing and style, and a few remarks about where the concerto came historically in the transition to valved, chromatic instruments.
He’d always refer to spots in the music by their role in the compositional structure, assuming that of course I knew where he meant. “Let’s pick it up in the bridge—now be sure to catch a big breath where the oboe (that he heard in his head) [does something or other]…” Fortunately he’d already be playing me a brief intro before the passage in question, so with a few lucky guesses I was mostly able to keep up with him despite having never opened the music before, and…
Well, lesson learned. Don’t ever bring something to a lesson without first playing through the piano part, and at least vaguely blocking out the structure, and getting the hard bits under your fingers. Warming up beforehand was also a good idea—but it wasn’t always possible given my college schedule.
One time I rushed over to the music building from a math class, and I bumped into him in the hallway before I had reached my locker. I told him I’d just gotten my period and felt like absolute crap, and so (for the first and only time in my life) I suggested that maybe I should just cancel my lesson that week.
He didn’t hesitate.
“Go get your horn! This is the perfect time for a lesson—when you don’t feel good, and things aren’t working right.”
He was right. It was one of the most productive lessons I ever had.
I occasionally drove up to St Paul for extra lessons—for which he never accepted a penny. Boris felt strongly about my also getting lessons from the other professionals in the Minneapolis/St Paul area, so at his insistence, I began taking extra monthly lessons with Kendall Betts who was then principal in the Minnesota Orchestra, and with his then-wife Priscilla McAfee, who had headed the St Paul Chamber Orchestra section.
My lessons with Kendall were strange, to put it politely, and I brought a skeptical report back to Boris, who chuckled and calmly told me to carry on—that Kendall’s approach was, yes, unconventional, but that he had valuable things for me to learn. Those lessons did get better gradually, but it wasn’t until ten years later, when I was rehabbing after a Rottweiler-induced four-year break, that the genius of Kendall’s Kopprasch obsession sank in. Following Kendall’s method enabled me to rebuild myself as a horn player in two weeks flat, enabling me to make finals at the Oakland Symphony audition, and quickly introducing me into the freelance scene in San Francisco, where I was a newcomer (after six years in Chicago and then the four years off).
My lessons with Priscilla were invaluable. It was the first time I’d studied at any length with another woman, and the guidance she gave me on the extra challenges ahead was critical to my surviving some of the exasperation that did in fact follow. I so appreciated her candor in that area that I later invited her to speak to the Senior Women’s Honor Society at St Olaf. She graciously made time in her schedule to come down for a dinner meeting, asking only that we arrange for someone to take care of her toddler and baby during the event. She’d allowed a lot of extra time for her winter drive down from St Paul, so I got to spend an hour just walking around campus with her and getting to know her better, and I’ll always appreciate her generosity and kindness in preparing me for the realities of my career to come. (I also had the pleasure of meeting up with her for dinner a few more times in following years, when the SPCO came to Chicago on tour.)
I opened my senior recital with “Kaddish,” by Lev Kogan. It’s a piece based on the prayer that a devout Jew says every day for a year upon the death of an immediate family member. In my last coaching before the recital, I finished playing the piece and took a long moment afterward to regain my composure before looking out into the house to get his comments.
He was sobbing.
After another long moment, I set my horn down on the stage floor and walked out to sit down in the seat next to him. At last he began to speak, and he told me of a dear friend who’d been disowned by her parents for marrying a non-Jew. Many decades later, someone else in the family died, and they went to the funeral, where her goyische husband stepped up to the bima and sang a Kaddish for the deceased—his brother-in-law, if I’m remembering the story correctly these 36 years later. Boris said that his singing was so beautiful and so moving that her parents then came up to the bima and embraced him for the first time, and then their daughter. The wound in the family was healed in that emotional reunion. Boris thanked me for my playing and for bringing that memory back to him.
By now, I was sobbing too, and I explained that my friends and I had just lost one of our circle to suicide. We sat together in a long silence before continuing the run-through/coaching session. I don’t have to tell you that I learned something important that day about the responsibility I had as a musician performing that piece.
Boris was also generous with his wisdom about the realities of a life in music. He never pretended it would be easy—in fact, he encouraged me to consider that if there was any other profession at all that I could imagine enjoying, I should probably do that instead. He once shocked me by admitting—when I asked if I’d see him at the Canadian Brass concert the next evening—that he hated going to concerts; he’d rather stay home and read a book about forestry. And it wasn’t many years later that I realized I agreed with him—for me, concerts are something to play, not to go to. After he did his damnedest to wave me off from the idea of playing professionally, he embraced my determination and proceeded to put me through an “audition excerpts boot camp” of sorts. He and I designed an independent study course for our January interim term, in which I would study, listen to every recording the music library had, compile a range of tempos observed in same, practice, and play a mock audition of all the major orchestral audition excerpts. It was a tough month on both of us, but he made it fun, and obviously it was useful training for what came next—getting me into grad school.
For that, Boris pulled out all the stops, phoning up all his connections from a long career of heading up several major orchestras’ horn sections himself, and gathering their advice on where I should go next. Several of the men he called took pains to warn me (through him) about the sexual harassment I was likely to face if I studied with Dale Clevenger and certain other likely prospects for my graduate degree. Sure enough, my time at Northwestern did feature some rather unpleasant circumstances in Dale’s studio, both with sexual misconduct and a dogmatic, unhelpful teaching style. I nearly quit horn on the spot, but somehow I persevered through the first semester. The fact that I had walked in with my eyes wide open helped a lot; I had already prepared myself for the likelihood of untoward behavior and how I would handle it, and for me there was never any question that such advances were unwelcome and inappropriate. many young women arrive at these awful situations without those advantages.
On my way home to North Dakota to spend the holidays with my family, I stopped in St Paul to see Boris.
He was reeling from his recent separation from Priscilla. For the first time, I saw a man who was unsure of himself about something—who needed ME at least a little bit—and he seamlessly welcomed me into a new role as a friend and colleague; a fellow adult. I spent the afternoon with him and also joined him for dinner.
He gave me a lesson, too, and quickly fixed some of the things I had been struggling with, but even more helpfully, he offered a perspective on what Dale might be going through as a horn player in his middle age, experiencing new difficulty with doing things on horn that had probably always come easily to him. That perspective and his advice about how to handle it helped me salvage some useful learning from my year with Dale, along with giving me some insights into a hornists’ aging process, whose effects I would later observe among my older colleagues and now myself. Once again, he had a healthy attitude about horn not being the only thing that matters in life—it’s okay to just be done one day, but along the way and especially at the end of my horn career, I’d better have other things that matter to me. He was so right, and the rawness of his pain in that moment over losing his family hammered the point home.
Not long after that, unfortunately, I lost touch with him. He had moved away from Minnesota, and I didn’t try hard enough to figure out how to track him down.
I wonder if he knew that we all referred to him among ourselves as “Uncle Boris.” I like to think it would have brought that twinkle to his beautiful baby blues.
A kaddish for the charming Czech-American forestry buff who also knew his way around a piece of music and played horn pretty well.