I Can Do This…and I’m Getting Better!

Is there any better feeling in the world than the realization of a meaningful personal goal or ambition? David McCullough, the noted author/historian expressed it ebulliently in the short video-bio on him called Painting with Words (See my post of July 21, 2013 in the archives, Meet David McCullough). Discussing his love of drawing and painting and the arts in general, he related the joy that results when “learning and doing” brings notable progress and proficiency: “I can do this…and I’m getting better!” Like so many succinct reflections of his, this one struck a real chord with me; I understand exactly how special that feeling is.

It is not that I have so many great life-triumphs to relate, but the joyous feeling he expressed does relate perfectly to one particularly hard-won success in my life that means a lot to me. I hope sharing my story in this post might rekindle in you similar reflections of personal triumphs. If not, perhaps the recounting will at least provide encouragement for those with as-yet unrealized personal ambitions.

My Life-long Passion-for and Battle-with the Trumpet:
 Bitten Early by the “Bug;” Round One

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Yes, I am referring to that shiny, B-flat brass instrument called a trumpet. I first became smitten in 1955, my sophomore year in high school, when the top hit on the pop charts was Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by Perez Prado and his orchestra. With a mambo rhythm driving a shimmering trumpet solo throughout, the song was a giant hit. It hit me harder than most, for it sparked a life-long passion for the trumpet sound. I could not get enough of the tune, stopping everything to listen when it was played on the radio. Who can explain it, who can wonder why? …as the song lyrics go. My best guess as to why this attraction exists is genetic; I believe I have a hard-wired pre-disposition to the trumpet’s tonal qualities. It is a fantastically versatile instrument which covers the full range of musicality, from regal to jazzy to sexy/seductive. My parents understood my new-found enthusiasm and somehow found enough money to get me started on lessons…with a rented instrument.

Cherry Pink 45 1955

I immediately encountered significant difficulties. Recalling my first lesson with Mr. Cheney, the elderly proprietor of the downtown music store, brings a smile today. I was so nervous that the horn was shaking as I attempted to squawk out a few bleats and blats. It took a while for the nerves to abate and the shaking to stop. I vividly recall him asking if “a nervous disposition runs in the family.” I suppose, in hindsight, the answer to that was yes; my father had what might be called a nervous physiological tendency. To this day, I still experience nervousness, but not nearly as badly as in my youth. Of course, an appearance someday as trumpet soloist in Carnegie Hall or anything similar has always been highly improbable for me, so nerves were not my big problem; playing was.

After several months of lessons, I just could not play the higher register of the instrument with any consistency. Trying harder in the physical sense only made it worse as I “tightened up.” Nor could I gain any feeling whatsoever of confident competence and consistency in any register. Today, I appreciate that the trumpet is a very physically demanding musical instrument. For starters, it requires a lot of lung-power to produce the steady airstream necessary to “buzz” the lips and create that magnificent trumpet sound. By far, the most important aspect of playing is the “embouchure,” the configuration of the lips, jaw, and facial muscles and their relationship to the cupped mouthpiece. Proper and consistent alignment of all these elements as the mouthpiece is placed on the lips is absolutely necessary for success. Additionally, the lower facial muscles involved in the embouchure require considerable strength and conditioning just like the muscles of any athlete. Without the physical conditioning required for “good chops” (trumpeter’s lingo), playing is nearly impossible.

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Granted, there are only three valves to deal with, but so much is going-on at the mouthpiece! And “trying harder” to play upper register notes only makes things worse. Playing the trumpet requires a yoga-like relaxation mentality: Embouchure muscles are simultaneously in a state of relaxed tension! Achieving that takes a degree of mental maturity and much practice.

As a youngster, I had no clue. I did not appreciate any of these fine points, nor was I really informed of them by any of the three teachers whom I eventually went to for lessons in those days. I became very discouraged and gave up on trumpet, assuming that my “natural” embouchure was just not compatible with the instrument’s demands. It was very demoralizing to think, “Here I am, born with this great love of the trumpet, yet totally ill-equipped to play it.” That was my mistaken notion at the time. I switched to the clarinet in junior-year band hoping that it would yield more readily to “time spent practicing.” Alas, I had no passion for the instrument. No passion, no practice, no good! After high school, instrumental music disappeared from my life for twenty-some years.

Not Willing to Say No; Round Two

In mid-life, with a family and a career in engineering to keep me occupied, the trumpet was still on my mind. I bought a Yamaha student horn from a high school kid and gave it another try – with no lessons. After about four months of recurring exasperation, reminiscent of my early years, I put the trumpet away – for another twenty-some years.

Still Not Willing to Say No; Round Three

Five years ago, trumpetitis struck again, at age 68. Out came my Yamaha student horn. The saying that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity” has merit! This time, I said to myself, “I am going to stay with this come hell or high-water and not get discouraged. Determined not to repeat past mistakes, I harnessed the power of the now-available internet to Google articles on trumpet playing and bought a number of books on trumpet technique, books that were formerly not available. I also patiently experimented with different aspects of technique – all new approaches for me.

Success! I Can Do This
and I’m Getting Better!

After five years of daily practice, study, and experimentation, I can finally play the  trumpet – high notes too! I am no threat to the first-chair players in our regional symphony orchestras, to be sure, but my tone is good, my endurance solid, and my register capability way beyond what I ever had before.

A series of lessons from an accomplished local jazz professional helped considerably – not only his “instruction,” but my ability to observe first-hand, through careful observation, all aspects of his approach to playing. He reinforced in me what my new books were emphasizing, namely that your capability as a player is best exemplified by your tone quality and your ability to play notes consistently and cleanly. I have arrived at that station and am now ready to move on to the intricacies of playing by learning techniques like double/triple tonguing, etc. With trumpet, there is no sense going beyond the big three – tone, control, and endurance – until proficiency is achieved in those. It is time now to move on to a more advanced level thanks to a new confidence in my foundation. I continue to look forward to playing/practicing, every single day – it is pure joy. I have graduated to a professional model Yamaha horn which makes playing that much more enjoyable. Just as in golf where expensive clubs do not a golfer make, the instrument does not make the musician, but a better horn does help. Over these past five years, learning about the jazz/swing music of the big-bands and the history of that era has been pure pleasure! Playing excerpts from standards of those years – strictly for my own pleasure – is a total joy. I hope to engage with a “late bloomers” jazz band someday and acquire some real playing experience, but that opportunity has not yet materialized.

In Summary and Looking Back on the Whole Saga

Hopefully, this has not been too long and detailed an account, but I wanted to tell the whole story. Although there are many more important things in life such as family, education, career, etc. than learning to play a musical instrument, some matters become very personal and very important. For me, learning to play the trumpet was one of those.

If you have followed my blog, you know that the fascinating process of learning (anything) is a subject near and dear to my heart. My saga with the trumpet has been extremely enlightening for me in that respect. What was it that I ultimately learned… or at least validated once again?

-Great Motivation is the key to great persistence; great persistence leads to great effort; great effort leads, hopefully, to ultimate success.

-Patience is necessary in all things difficult; do not be easily discouraged by the temporary lack of progress.

-Reach out for any and all resources which can help you. Develop a plan of attack.

Experiment and evaluate before committing to a given approach.

-Master fundamentals before moving on.

Lastly, specific to the trumpet: The embouchure is most everything, and an overlooked aspect of the embouchure is the critical importance of a proper and consistent initial placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. The importance of initial placement finally embedded itself in my consciousness not that long ago as I was observing a trumpet player in a jazz combo entertaining at our local Saturday morning farmer’s market. I have worked on that aspect diligently for months, and it was the final piece of the puzzle that finally really unlocked my abilities.

Is it not fascinating – the diversity of elements required to finally piece-together the whole learning puzzle – for any difficult endeavor? That question validates the priceless worth of teachers/instructors in any venue who appreciate the critical insights and can readily communicate them to students. Some individuals seem destined to breeze right-on through the learning curve with its pitfalls and difficulties. Others of us need to work hard to get there.

Great musicians who became virtuoso players at a very young age as was the case with two jazz greats, Harry James on trumpet and Benny Goodman on clarinet, are truly “naturals” in every sense of the word. Those two legends worked very hard at their craft early-on, but Benny Goodman did not hesitate when asked about the basis for great musical talent; he replied matter-of-factly, “You are born with it.” I understand. They are the ones who are physiologically equipped for the task in terms of muscle-memory and body-awareness in addition to being instinctively capable of visualizing the physical techniques required for great proficiency on an instrument. They then take that ability to new creative musical levels. The rest of us have much longer learning curves in the technique phase and often fall victim to “dropping out” for good. When Goodman was fifteen, he was already good enough to be playing in professional dance bands. He had all the confidence he needed at that early age. I imagine his personal revelation that “I can do this” came well before his teen years. Lucky him!

One More Thing!

David McCullough – when asked what he would like to be able to add to the list of his other accomplishments – replied, “Play the piano.” I liked that.

Dancing with the Stars?
Where Does That Enter Into the Discussion?

Yes, my wife and I enjoy watching the program. The process of celebrities with no prior experience in dance realizing at some point that “I can do this…and I’m getting better!” is fun and uplifting. For me, that aspect of the show cuts to the heart of its appeal. Perhaps a future post on DWTS is in order?

To My Readers

If any of this post strikes a chord with you, please tell the rest of us about your personal experience, whether in music, athletics….whatever! It can be very brief or it can be long. Reader-contributions in the form of comments are what truly make any blog “go-round.” To comment, you can click on the “Leave a reply” link just below!

Jazz and the Swing Bands: Four Music Legends

One day several years ago, my wife and I were browsing in the local Border’s bookstore (remember those?). Entering bookstores, we usually head in different directions after first establishing a time to meet back at the registers. Well into our designated half-hour, I stumbled upon a book on the sale rack; it was Ken Burns’ companion book to his ten-DVD documentary titled Jazz. I knew about the series, but I never much fancied jazz given my poor understanding of it at the time; to me, “jazz” was limited to the early fifties/sixties embodiment – which I still do not like much. I picked up the book, anyway, thumbed through it, and proceeded to be astonished at the wide range of music the name “jazz” really encompasses. New Orleans jazz, the big-band sound, and the swing dance bands are all part of the historical evolution, and I have always enjoyed listening to that music. Now, after fully digesting Mr. Burns’ Jazz and acquiring some historical perspective, I am hooked more than ever on New Orleans jazz and the big bands of the thirties and early forties.

Louis Armstrong

Within those genres, there were many great performers, but four in particular stand out in my mind. First, there was Louis (not Louie) – Armstrong, that is. Although Burns dotes perhaps more than he should on Armstrong and his pioneering effect on all of jazz, there can be no question that he was one of the primary forces responsible for shaping the evolution of jazz. In general, the public has been kind to Armstrong over the decades, given his one-of-a-kind persona and such later recording hits as Hello Dolly, Mack the Knife, and It’s a Wonderful World.

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But Armstrong is far more laudable and important for his innovative musical phrasing in the early days which set the direction not only for jazz but for much of the popular music that ensued; and then there was his dynamic trumpet. Back in the twenties and thirties, his driving style, high register capability and the overall power of his playing found him pretty much alone in the spotlight. From the forties on, his technique and ability on the horn fell behind that of younger players, but what a storied life he led! From dire poverty in the slums of New Orleans, the fatherless boy from the Colored Waif’s Home learned to play the cornet in the Home’s band and proceeded to ultimately become an international musical celebrity who played command performances for royalty around the globe despite the early and long-lingering obstacles presented by racial prejudice.

Benny Goodman

 Benny Goodman: “The King of Swing” – at least the white version. Many would argue that Chick Webb, holding court in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom, came sooner and was more deserving of the title, but leading an all-black band had its disadvantages back then, so Benny was anointed with the title in the mid-thirties. His band in the years, 1937-38 was one of the best ever assembled featuring soon-to-be-recognized all-star performers such as Gene Krupa on drums and Harry James on trumpet. Benny was truly a virtuoso on the clarinet; his smooth, effortless style on the lead solos imparted the trademark “swing” for which his band became so famous.

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Goodman came from a large immigrant Jewish family, dirt-poor and mired in the worst of Chicago’s slums. His father caught wind of a local charity that was providing musical instruments to young students who could not possibly afford to rent or own them. Benny received a clarinet, quite by luck of the draw. His father saw to it that Benny received tutoring from a classically-trained teacher, Professor Schoepp, who taught him the fine points of musicianship and technique. Goodman quickly proved to be a child prodigy on the clarinet, possessed with a life-long desire to excel on his instrument and in his musical profession.

 By the age of twelve or thirteen, he was already playing in local dance bands with adult musicians – Benny was the one in short pants….literally!

He could do it all at a very early age: Sight-reading, improvisation, jazz, classical, and he was driven early-on by musical instincts and ideas for a genre of music not yet readily heard (or even played) – the sound that became big-band swing. He practiced constantly on his instrument, even after decades of fame and international renown. He never let-up. He was the best clarinetist out there, even in the company of Artie Shaw.

One aspect of Goodman I admire tremendously is the fact that one NEVER hears a compromised note in any of his thousands of intricate lead-solos, and woe to any band member who misses notes or comes in late for his solo. I heard the same accolade paid to Harry James on the trumpet by a well-known music critic; this is an assertion I can attest to after years of listening. Like Goodman, James never fluffed notes, even when playing intricate, high, and fast jazz riffs – an amazing feat on the difficult trumpet. Goodman was very confident in his abilities on the clarinet even as a young teenager playing professionally with adults. I recently saw an interview of the aged but still active and able Goodman conducted by a young Diane Sawyer. When asked about his talent, he answered with complete frankness and humility that it is something one must be born with. Determination and hard work alone are not sufficient to produce that kind of capability. We mere mortals could practice an instrument twelve hours a day for years and never approach the abilities of a Benny Goodman or a Harry James. The fact that Goodman worked so diligently at his craft despite his great gifts is the ultimate tribute to him and undoubtedly reflects the difficulties and insecurities he experienced as a child in the Chicago slums. He was driven to excel; He was one-of-a-kind, the likes of which will not be seen again. 

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey – a fine musician and trombone player whose band was second to none thanks to fabulous instincts and a no-nonsense approach to band-leading. Benny’s band swung harder; Harry James and His Music Makers were louder and brassier, but Dorsey’s outfit was more versatile and endowed with fabulous musical arrangements and taste. He made Frank Sinatra the star he became when Sinatra joined him in 1939 after a year with Harry James and his new band.

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I have a CD called The Essential Frank Sinatra With the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra which features a bonanza of stellar recordings from the 1939-1941 era when the band was still featured but the vocalist had a major part in the number. These are priceless arrangements with Sinatra on the verge of perfecting his genius, supported by fabulous, often subtle-as-silk orchestration. They called Dorsey “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” yet he was anything but. He was one tough character with a fiery temper who was not above driving home a point with his fists….and yet somehow he produced this beautiful musical product – an amazing contradiction.

Harry James

 As good as Benny Goodman was on the clarinet, perhaps Harry James was even better on the trumpet. Also a child prodigy on that difficult instrument, it seems that James could so anything on the trumpet ….and do it perfectly. I recall Goodman, himself, paying that compliment to James. Unlike even the best of his contemporaries, he NEVER fluffed or sloughed notes, even the quick ones tucked in a rapid passage; you heard them all – each and every one of them!  He was very versatile, equally able to play the difficult trumpet standard, Carnival of Venice like any classically trained trumpeter, yet able to improvise the hottest of jazz licks and make them shimmer. Comparing Goodman and James for virtuosity, Goodman did have competition from Artie Shaw on the clarinet. I cannot name any trumpet player during the late thirties and through the forties who could seriously challenge Harry James.

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James came from a traveling circus family in Texas. His father, Everett, was a fine cornet player responsible for leading the circus bands; his mother was a trapeze flyer. Like so very many of the major players in the music business, Harry led a hard-scrabble life as a youngster, following the circus from town to town with his parents. His father was a stern taskmaster and saw to it that James was well trained on the horn, driving young Harry to master Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method  For Trumpet, the trumpet player’s bible. Young Harry apparently did just that.

The “Chill” Factor and Harry James

 It is a wonderful, other-worldly experience when one hears music which can produce chills up the spine. I recently bought a DVD of the 1948 film, Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas as a talented, obsessed trumpet player. Harry James did all the playing for the film.

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In one scene that has burned itself in my movie-memory, Douglas and Doris Day visit a posh nightclub where the elder trumpet player who mentored Douglas years ago as a boy was playing with a small jazz group. Douglas was recognized by his old teacher and was invited up to the stage to play a number for the audience. He took out his horn and, with the backing of the other musicians, launched into the old standard, With a Song in My Heart. Right from the very first note and all the way through the piece, I got chills up and down my spine from the power, the tone purity, and the musicality James put into that number. The scene was beautifully staged; the elegant nightclub audience was stopped cold in its conversational tracks on the first note, mesmerized by the beautiful artistry on display. I do not believe it took much acting on their part.

 At the conclusion of the song, with the audience a-buzz, the elder player remarked to the audience that he, indeed, had taught the young Douglas how to hold that trumpet, but he “did not teach him how to play it – not the way that he does.” Putting his hand on his breast, he added, “That’s something that you can’t learn; you’ve got to have it.”

 I have heard a lot of very fine trumpet in my years of involvement with the instrument and am not that easily impressed, but James’ playing in the fine soundtrack of this film takes my breath away every single time I hear it – especially that one number. Pure genius; one has to be born with it to be that good. 

A Social Commentary on the Interesting Common Denominator of These Four

All four performers came from rough/tough beginnings – from dire poverty – and all four had to develop very tough skins early in life. Artie Shaw, another great musician/bandleader fits the same mold. Reading their bios, one is amazed at the sensitivity and artistic expression which became the hallmark of their music given the rough and tumble business in which they worked and the hard-driving lifestyle that being on the road made virtually inevitable. The three bandleaders profiled were not only superb musicians in their own right, they also mastered the supremely difficult task of hiring and retaining the best (and often ego-centric) musicians – and keeping them in line. The lesson to be learned from the three of them: Steel, hard-forged in fire, is the toughest.

I wish more young people today were aware of the great artistry they and others of their ilk displayed and the tremendous lift their music provided to a country emerging from a great depression while simultaneously mobilizing for a world war. Those fine musicians deserve the recognition. They and their music need not take a back seat to any musical genre. Lucky are we who understand and know the joy.

Oh, To Have Been There!

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If you were granted a wish and could temporarily go back in time to be present at some past event, what would be your choice?

An interesting dilemma for most since our imaginations and sensibilities are tickled by a lifetime of experience, perceptions, and passions. Have you ever posed this question to yourself? I ponder it quite often as the months and years fly by. Traveling along this one-way journey in time called life, we all encounter knowledge, events, and people that pique our interest and stimulate our imagination; sometimes we are just plain fascinated by certain events and people, and it can happen that our fascination seems misplaced in the normal scheme of our thoughts and priorities…and we wonder why.

Finding answers to the latter question can lead to some interesting self-analysis! In that vein, and in an attempt to answer my own question posed at the beginning of this blog, I have made some progress and have surprised myself in the process!

 Here is my take: My natural inclination is to favor serious events and people, those responsible for substantial contributions to society. It seems fitting that special consideration should be given to those events and individuals responsible for increasing our knowledge of the universe by revealing, through science  and mathematics, the timeless workings of nature.

 Catering to that instinct alone, I would choose to be present in Isaac Newton’s quarters in August of 1684 when Edmond Halley (of comet fame) traveled from London to Cambridge University specifically to ask Newton a question about the nature of planetary orbits in our solar system. The question stemmed from on-going coffee-house discussions among Halley and his respected scientific colleagues in London. At that time, Newton was a young, relatively unknown, reclusive professor of mathematics at Cambridge, but rumors of his immense intellect had begun to leak out in local circles and had come to Halley’s attention.

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As I describe in my own book, the upshot of that historic meeting was the publication three years later of the most important scientific book ever published – Newton’s Principia, in which physics, celestial mechanics, and mathematics were revolutionized in a most major way. In the process, his book provided ample mathematical justification for Newton’s concise answer to Halley’s question that day, namely, that planetary orbits would be elliptical! Halley’s visit not only instigated Newton’s involvement, Halley also pushed Newton to write the book and guaranteed its publication with his personal funds. I would like to have been there during his visit!

I also hear strong calls from other quarters. Being present on November 19, 1863 to hear Lincoln deliver his Gettysburg Address (see my last post) is a strong historical contender. I would like to have been there!

From the arts, there are a couple of contenders which I can only say come as somewhat of a recent surprise to me. Lately, I have indulged an interest that had simmered essentially unrecognized beneath the surface for years, and that is a fascination with the big-band era of swing music which encompassed the late 1920’s to the late 40’s. A chance browsing encounter in Border’s Bookstore (RIP!) several years ago resulted in the purchase of Ken Burns’ book Jazz: A History of America’s Music. I now have a music mini-library which includes books, much music, and Burns’ ten-DVD set, Jazz. The music and its history have brought great joy these past few years, and I regard them as serious aspects of our history and culture. I also play the trumpet – a truly related activity.

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Given that, and being a great fan of Benny Goodman’s swing/jazz music, I am intrigued by the thought of being present on two storied occasions: His famous performance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935, and the ground-breaking appearance of his band at staid Carnegie Hall in 1938. At the Palomar, Goodman’s young and struggling band created a music sensation when, half-way through their typical program of “danceable music,” they threw caution to the wind and launched into the up-tempo swing style they had been steadily perfecting. The crowd stopped dancing and gathered around the bandstand to just watch and listen while responding with wild enthusiasm to the startled musicians; this famous event fueled Goodman’s rapid rise to the top of the music business as “The King of Swing” and ushered-in swing as “America’s music.” The movement became nothing less than a cultural revolution which had a profound effect on depression-era Americans.

Carnegie Hall, being a staid bastion of classical music, was tilling new ground by letting in a swing, or “jazz” band like Goodman’s for the first time in 1938. Benny’s band was a good choice at that time, for history records it as perhaps the finest of all the big bands. Harry James, Goodman’s great trumpet player, nervously peeked around the stage-curtain before the performance began and famously offered, “I feel like a whore in church.” Goodman, James, and crew nearly brought down the church-walls with a legendary performance that had the well-heeled audience, dressed to the hilt in evening attire, toe-tapping and grooving throughout. I would like to have been there – for the pure pleasure of it all! Lindbergh postcard (front)Lindbergh Postcard (back)

Finally, there is one historical event which I find especially irresistible – one which encompasses many diverse elements. I would really like to have been present at Roosevelt field, New York, on that rainy morning of May 20, 1927 when Charles Lindbergh gained just enough altitude to clear telephone wires at the end of the runway on his way to Paris and a rendezvous with destiny. If I could further have bypassed the limitations imposed on us by space and time, I would have relished subsequently being there at Le Bourget Airport in Paris 33 1/2 hours later when he swept in out of the night sky to a frenzied reception by thousands on the airfield turf and a well-deserved place in history. If only I could have been there!

Please comment and briefly share your personal candidates with the readers of this blog. We would enjoy hearing about them!