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
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.
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.
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!