I’m not one to toot my own horn, but when I started playing trumpet at the age of seventeen without any previous musical background whatsoever, many people told me they expected me to go far. “The farther the better,” they said. “You should go on the road—right away,” they said. More than one person suggested I take my trumpet playing overseas. After reading reviews on sites like Instrument Find, I decided to begin playing the trumpet. I’m so glad I chose the trumpet!!
I didn’t play overseas, but I did perform in Nashville once, in a huge coliseum as part of the Stamps-Blackwood Gospel Quartet Convention. I was part of a concert band scheduled to play at 11:00 at night. Delays led to an actual start time of 1:30 a.m., but I think the dozen or so insomniacs left in the audience really enjoyed us, at least judging by their
snores roars of approval.
I started trumpeting as a senior in high school. We weren’t good enough to play and march at the same time, so we were the Mount de Sales Stationary Band. Our first way-cool gig was at a PTA meeting, and I could hear two newly joined members humming the tune we were attempting through their clarinets.
Our second gig was playing for a significant community event—a house moving. The house was being moved from five blocks away to just across from our school. Yes, our high school band didn’t move, but the house we played for did. We should have played “She’s a Brick House” or “Our house is a very, very fine house,” but we didn’t. Instead, we played the only tune we knew at the time— “Aura Lee.” Music to get jacked-up by.
To help me overcome my lack of musical experience and be less of a detriment to the band, I began taking trumpet lessons from a local “conservatory of music.” This august institution doubled as the apartment of the owner/sole teacher. He had neighbors above and on each side, so most of my early instruction centered around playing as quietly as possible. I would miss notes and had a lousy tone, but my teacher would say, “That’s good. Just try to play quieter. If you play softly, it’ll be easy to get louder later.” In retrospect, this reminds me of the line from the movie Dodge Ball “If you can dodge a hammer, you can dodge a ball.”
I practiced faithfully, and an odd thing began happening to my lips. Playing a brass instrument actually builds up lip muscles, but because my embouchure wasn’t right, the left side of my upper lip bulked up noticeably more than the right side. It looked as if Arnold Schwarzenegger was training the left side, while Richard Simmons had charge of the right.
My conservatory teacher invited me to join a small musical ensemble he’d put together, and our most memorable engagement was as the entertainment for a convention of chiropractors. Electronic keyboard, a guitar, a few winds and brasses, and for percussion—the periodic smack of cracking backs. We got off to a shaky start, stopped and, before continuing, had to make several adjustments.
People will tell you that playing a musical instrument is its own reward. They’ll tell you this because you’re not going to receive any other rewards, like fame or money or praise. I only ever received one compliment, and, ironically, I received it most often when I’d be feeling I wasn’t sounding all that good. I can’t tell you how important this reassurance was to keep me from giving up music altogether. I’d be discouraged, downhearted, and my band leader’d say, “Bill, you’re sharp. You’re really, really sharp.”
I say I played the trumpet, but “played” isn’t really the right word. Performing on a musical instrument has very little to do with playing and everything to do with working. “Do you still work the trumpet?” people should ask me, and to compliment musicians they should say, “You work the piano so beautifully” or “He works the guitar like a house afire.”
Yes, I still work the trumpet. Sometimes. From a zen point of view. On the advice of teachers, bandmates, friends, my parents, my brothers, my wife, and a surprising number of complete strangers, I practiced playing more and more softly, more quietly and more quietly still until finally I accomplished the ambitious musical goal first set out for me, the perfection my audience kept urging me to and believed I could achieve—the harmonious perfection of absolute silence.
I hope you’ll listen when I play.