Recently, an amazing thing happened to me. My friend Fred Irons, a retired professor of some sort of wild engineering, a writer, a chess player and a fellow trumpeter, bought himself a new trumpet…and gave me his old one.
This is amazing on many levels. Mostly because my old trumpet, a Holton student model
that my parents bought for my older sister in 1970, is the only one I’ve ever played, and is quite beat up. That one came down to me as a hand-me-down hand-me-down. My sister played it for two years, then quit. My brother then took it up, played for one year, then quit. When, as a fourth grader, it was my turn to select a band instrument to learn, my mother quite strongly suggested the trumpet was the way to go. So some thirty-five years later, here I was with the same one. The poor thing’s quite beat up, as I said, primarily because of a mishap in high school, when I was knocked out of my chair while holding it: the bell was bent up extraordinarily, and had to be straightened at the shop; you can still see the creases where the metal folds were. (Oh, how I cried–you can’t begin to imagine.)
I played that horn through junior high and high school, practicing my face off to maintain my position as first chair in the trumpet section (my arch-enemy Dennis was always in the second chair, but that’s another story for another time). I played in concert band. I played in jazz band. I played in marching band. I played in a brass quintet. I played “Taps” on Memorial Day. When I went off to college, I stopped…and found that I missed it terribly.
Fortunately, when I graduated and moved to Belfast, I found an active community band, directed by a guy by the name of John Cameron; so I was able to begin again. John was, and still is, the music director at Belfast Area High School; and he was by far the best band director I’d ever played for. It was from John that I began to learn how chords actually worked, how music layered against itself–I began to love playing second trumpet, because of the harmonies. I learned to understand tone, and how to manipulate it to effect. Despite all those years in school bands, I had never been truly a musician. It wasn’t until I began playing for John Cameron that I realized how little I actually knew. And how much I had to learn. Sadly, the Belfast Community Band disbanded after I’d played with them for just shy of ten years.
After I’d moved further inland, I somehow ended up being a founding member of the Sebasticook Valley Community Band,
originally based at Nokomis Regional High School. Because Nokomis is a high school big into its music program, many many alumni came out of the woodwork to play under Bruce Brown and Stan Buchanan, both of whom had been affiliated with the school district forever. I played with them for years and years, outlasting Stan, outlasting Bruce, and into the tenure of Peter Polk, who came to us as director when he retired from the 195th Army Band. These three were very different directors: Stan a showman, Bruce a guy who found great joy in both the music and that you were playing it with him, and Peter, who was perhaps the most didactic director I’d ever played under. After ten plus years with them, however, I started getting tangled up in my ever-growing kids’ lives; I haven’t played with the band in a while, though the newest director, Lance Schank, has been urging me back.
All this with my much-abused Holton.
Then, this summer, Fred, with whom I played in the SVCB, dropped me a line to offer a deal. He’d trade me his trumpet, a six-year-old Bach Stradivarius, for some manuscript editing.
How could I beat that? The horn’s beautiful. It’s a wider bore than the Holton,
and produces a richer sound (takes more air, too, so I had to get used to that). It’s a silver-plate. There are no creases in the finish. It’s a miracle to hold. It’s a lovely thing to play. I still need to put in about a million hours of editing for Fred to make up for its worth. I may never get there. So I still feel a bit guilty when I pick up the horn and play a bit nearly every day. I haven’t quite earned the right, and I know it.
Imagine, though. When I hear music, regardless of where I am, I play the fingerings: air trumpet. I play along to the radio when I’m driving in the car, pressing the steering wheel in place of valves. When I’m home, I fiddle around with the sheet music on the piano rack; I play the songs that are floating in my head. Now I have this gorgeous trumpet to actually, truly play music on. It’s wonderful. When I play it, I begin to believe I’m actually better than I am, if that makes any kind of sense. And all thanks to Fred Irons.
When it came time for my kids to take up instruments, one took up the clarinet, one the saxophone (which he eventually abandoned for the electric guitar), and one the flute. I offered the trumpet. They weren’t interested.
Last Christmas I had the opportunity to play carols from the balcony in the Dixmont United Methodist Church, around the corner from my house. I was accompanied by the church pianist, Mildred Clifford–a more accommodating accompanist than any I’d ever come across. The sound under the tin ceiling was swooping and glorious. I hope I can play there again this year, with this new beautiful Bach Strad.