#28daysoftshirts – Day 13 is a different kind of nerdy

Hard times!

I’m going to be trying out an orchestra thingy here in Cambridge today. It’s small and unofficial enough that there are no auditions. I still wish I’d, you know, practiced the music ahead of time. But still. Why not try? So in honor of that I went with a music geek shirt. I also wear this when the political situation gets me down.

My only objection to this shirt is that while 13/8 is a hard signature, 6/4 is a downright easy one. Even 5/4 would’ve been better.

Color: Barney purple
Fabric: Stiff
Text: 13/8, 5/4 These are difficult times

Sound the trumpet

Trumpet and reading
Trumpet and reading

Many of you know that the most important part of my life in junior high and high school was trumpet. One day early in sixth grade, in a wooden band room in a mountain town, most of the sixth graders in town lined up to try out and pick instruments. There was a guy from the band instrument company there with samples and paperwork. (I remember him distinctly – he’d lost his vocal cords and had a voice box which was both gross and fascinating to my young self.) My school was pre-feminist. There were still strong gender lines – for example the default schedule was by gender and put kids in either home economics or shop based on whether they were a girl or a boy. The gender lines held strong and true in band. Girls played flute, clarinet or maybe saxophone. Boys played trumpet, trombone, drums and maybe saxophone.

But I picked trumpet. It was likely – I can hardly remember – an iconoclastic move on my part. I wanted to be different. I did not want to conform to the strong expectations laid upon me. I probably also liked trumpet – I can’t remember? But my sister had played trombone so I couldn’t play that, but I wanted to play a brass instrumet. Trumpet it was.

A boy and his new trumpet. OMG.
Grey’s moment picking his trumpet

This was one of the most important decisions of my life. The boys made my life pure misery. I got back in the only way an undersized girl could – by kicking their rear ends in trumpet. I got invited to play in a small youth symphony (the school superintendents wife is an orchestra conductor, and their daughter who was like five years older than me drove me to the rehearsals an hour away). I loved it. I thrived on it. By the time I graduated I was playing in an excellent youth symphony (that produced many professional musicians among my friends). It was the great passion of my youth, and a kindling of life-long pleasure. I still play my trumpet, primarily at church these days.

My attempts to raise brilliantly musical children were not successful. Piano lessons were met with indifference. Guitar lessons led to some of our biggest blowouts. I knew that winds – introduced last in life due to the physical requirements of playing them – were my sons’ last chance to open the door I’d so enjoyed, but given our track record I tried to keep my expectations low.

The whole band thing was a complete pain to arrange. The band practice for the fourth graders is at 4 pm at the school. School gets out at 2:40. The absolute only way this could work was for us to arrange school afterschool on Mondays (the one day a week they have practice), so Grey’s week is now completely mixed for where he is when and we have two pickups this day. But by gum, I was going to give him every chance.

Grey's first day on trumpet.
Grey’s first day on trumpet.

He started really strongly. I was super pleased he picked trumpet because it was a place where I could really help him. He asked me to give him lessons, and when he did I gave him my complete 100% attention and praise for every piece of minor progress. I think it actually helped that I’m pretty good, since I could tease out the scraps of what he was doing right from the blatty noise of a kid learning trumpet.

After a few weeks, when he was doing really well, he started agitating for “his own” trumpet. I recalled that process from my own youth. I first rented a trumpet, then got a very cheap very bad trumpet from the Sears catalog – of all things. Then my parents bought me a good “starter” trumpet. Then (and I still don’t know how they managed to afford this) they bought me the slightly used silver Bach Stradivarius that is still one of my prized possessions.

I set him a goal. He’s excellent at pursuing goals. If he practiced 50 times, I’d buy him a trumpet. Thinking about Christmas which was about 6 weeks away, I added that if he practiced 30 times before Christmas that would count too. My hope was to get him in the habit of practicing, and to get him past the period where he couldn’t actually play anything with the motivation of this carrot. That second goal required him to practice all but about 5 days between the setting of it and Christmas.

Grey's practice log - he practiced 30 times in exactly one month.
Grey’s practice log – he practiced 30 times in exactly one month.

He practiced *every day*. Some days he practiced twice. (I didn’t set the bar too high for how long he would practice – even five minutes counted but practices had to be separated by time.) He got extremely good for a 10 year old who’s had the trumpet for two months. And last weekend I found myself at a local music store, proudly forking over the cash for the “good starter trumpet” variety of instrument.

Proud owner of a new trumpet
Proud owner of a new trumpet

I’m trying REALLY HARD not to put too much on this. But I’m incredibly proud of my son for what he’s done so far.

Here he is playing Jingle Bells.

A theme from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is his favorite piece to play.

Good King Wenceslas is a good addition to the young trumpter’s repertoire.

The trumpet shall sound

I was strictly rationed on how many pictures I got during the rental.
I was strictly rationed on how many pictures I got during the rental.

In my imagined version of what it would be like to raise children, those children picked up where I had left off with music. They loved to sing before they could even talk. When I introduced early piano lessons, they spent hours dedicated to wringing skill out of their fingers. They practiced guitar until their fingers were red.

Those were not the children I got. They sing – but only when no one can hear. Practicing was a huge struggle when we tried it. They just weren’t ready.

In first grade, arguments about practicing guitar were frequent and unpleasant.
In first grade, arguments about practicing guitar were frequent and unpleasant.

Now with music, there are different entry points. The world class violinists start at 3 or 4. The pianists 5 or 6. Even Thane is probably too old to be world class in some instruments. But… a child is physically too small to play a brass or wind instrument until they’re around 10, which is perfect since that’s much closer to the age at which a (normal) kid is more ready to spend long term focus working on a remote goal. (Well, at least my kids.) So although I’ve watched that particular parental daydream disappear – along with any girl-daydream and my quiet dark-haired poet daydream – I prefer my actual real children over my daydreams.

But my parents thought I was not very musical after years of piano lessons in which I didn’t really focus or practice or excel. And then I hit trumpet and the world was a new and beautiful place and music took a central place in my life. So, there is hope.

And then, last Tuesday, a huge moment came. Instrument rental night. My last best hope for a child to follow in my musical footsteps.

A boy and his new trumpet. OMG.
A boy and his new trumpet. OMG.

Now, I tried really, really, really hard not to make this too big a deal for Grey. I casually asked if he wanted to do band. (Please note: band is at 4 pm on Monday afternoons. School gets out at 2:20. So I had to switch Grey’s afterschool to school afterschool instead of Y afterschool on Mondays to make this work. SO MANY LOGISTICS. What a terrible time for a working parent!) Then I lightly inquired if he’d thought about what instrument he wanted to play.

“I want to play trumpet!” – words every parent wants to hear.

When asked why, there were many answers. “It only has three buttons! It’s the easiest!” “I love how it sounds.” Then in a quiet, vulnerable moment… “Because I want you to be proud of me.”

Ah. How clearly our children see us. It breaks my heart a little that my son is searching for ways to win my approval, as though it is some elusive and difficult substance. But yet… he is right. I cannot stop my heart from glowing that he picked my instrument. He’s asked me to teach him, and begged me for lessons every night since. I am not sure I have ever seen him more excited than he was the night we went to get his instrument. “I’m not actually sure I’ve been more excited myself, mom.”

I hear him working his way through to “Hot Cross Buns”. I remember a little girl on her front porch, some 27 years ago, doing the same. And I can only hope that he has as much joy of his instrument as I had and still have of mine.

Welcome to brass, my son.

First trumpet lesson: posture and hands
First trumpet lesson: posture and hands

Enjoy some pictures of both King Richard’s Faire and rental night!

Dear Trumpet

Trumpet and I getting together for Easter
Trumpet and I getting together for Easter

My Dearest Trumpet,

You were absolutely my first love. Obviously, you weren’t the first instrument I dated. Piano and I went out for a few years before we met, and I had a crush on voice when I was a little girl. But I fell head over heels for you. I remember the time we played Cappriccio Italien together. There were all the good times at the Evergreen Music Festival or with the Tacoma Youth Symphony. We had fun in pep band (well, even though we rolled our eyes. I still have the third trumpet part – the best part – to “Sweet Child of Mine” memorized). I used to drag you everywhere. Do you remember that 15 days driving trip across the US when I practiced with you at rest stops and behind hotels?

I don’t think I’ve ever been more in love with you than I was in high school. You made me feel like I was flying on a dragon when we played Gabrieli together. You were with me in one of the best moments of my youth, when Dr. Cobbs winked and told us – for an encore – that we were going to “crash the ship again” in Scheherazade.

I cannot imagine how my life would have been without you, and I wouldn’t trade our time together for anything.

In the normal course of events, though, I went to college. And although I formed a brass quintet (I cannot BELIEVE that site is still up!) and tried playing in the college symphony, it just wasn’t the same. I don’t want to say we’d grown apart, but we both moved on to other things.

After that, it was like we were Facebook friends. Oh, we’d get together a few times a year at Easter or Christmas or for special occasions. But even though I tried to rekindle the spark by looking for a nice symphony orchestra – or even a brass ensemble – where we could be happy together… it just didn’t work out. I spent a long time pining for you. Over a decade, I remained true. Ok, so there was that one fling with the cornetto, but it that was over quickly.

Finally I had to admit, though, that it was over between us. Things would never be the way they were. I guess that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? You can’t go back to the way things were when you were 17. And I moved on.

You know that I’ve been seeing a new instrument – guitar. And it’s been good to me. I mean, the guitar is patient and kind. It gets along a lot better with my friends than you ever did. I could see guitar and I building something beautiful together – not like what you and I had. Nothing could ever reach that. But, you know, a comfortable life together. We were just starting to get serious, you know. Talk about some investments together. Sign some papers. That kind of thing.

Then all of a sudden, you want back in? Really? That wind ensemble that reached out to me; with the amazing looking repertoire, and the schedule I could actually do… but that is on the same night as guitar lessons… let me get this straight. You want me to break up with guitar, and come back to you? And you’re saying that it won’t be just like it was, but it will be great again between us.

The question is, my dear Anduril1, do you mean it, or are you just playing with my heart again? I don’t want to break up with this good and loving instrument just to have my heart broken again. But I can’t really pass up the change to be with you again, either.

I’ve asked to audition in December – gives me some time to see how guitar and I are working out. But… don’t break my heart, trumpet.


1 Yes, that really is the name of my trumpet. What can I say, I named it when I was like 14 and the two things I loved best in life were trumpet and Tolkien. DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

High Notes

It’s Holy Week and I am, as usual, late to the music stand with my Easter selections. Every year I go to the same box of music that I’ve had since I was 14. It has a “color printed” word art sheet on the front – done with Lotus Amipro – that says, “Classical Trumpet: It Ain’t No Oxymoron!” This was my way of expressing my individuality and ironically bad grammar as a youth. Shockingly, I was never one of the cool kids…. Anyway, I’ve played Handel or baroque music nearly every Easter for the last five years because: I know it, it sounds great, it goes with the other music nicely, and I own it. I would pretend that I decided this year that my church had been subjected to enough baroque brass music, but in reality I had played through everything I owned that was baroque and not lento and that I could play.

Yes, I did miss my senior prom because it conflicted with my orchestra concert - how did you guess?

I really wish the publishers would come out with a book called, “Really Flashy Awesome Easter Music for Trumpet Players Who Play Twice a Year But Were Good Once”. I would buy that book, and love it forever.

What I settled on were some Sacred Harp tunes – which are not really THAT Eastery, but at least provide some variety from “The Trumpet Shall Sound”.

By the way, you’re all invited to my church this Sunday for our Easter celebration (with pancake breakfast starting at 9!). I’ll have some awesome music! (If I learn it in time and have a good lip day). And your reasons for not coming because you’re heathen/pagan/on another coast/bursting into flame when you enter a church… well, they can stop you if you don’t WANT to come, but we’ll welcome you all the same if you secretly DO want to come.

I didn’t feel like I had quite enough material in my “complaining about Easter repertoire” up there to make it’s own post, plus I’m about 6 posts behind in my head, so I though I’d throw in a picture that – on another day – I might turn into a vast discussion.

In truth, I’m endlessly amused by the stuff Grey draws. It goes from heartwarming (two happy smiling characters, labeled “Rich” and “Poor” cheerfully exchanging a full bag of coins), to funny (like the favorite animal as the hydra one), to extremely nerdy. The other day he came home with this “board game”. He made it at afterschool. The design and drawing are his, and he made clay tokens to represent the players. I took quite an extensive video of him explaining it to his beaming father. In this picture you can see the game board, the three auxiliary cards and the clay figures.

Grey's Game
Grey's Game

OK, I’m off to go ice my lips!

The trumpet player is mine!

What moment did you make your parents most proud?

I know mine. I was in 8th grade, and playing my very first season with the Pacific Northwest Youth Orchestra. When I auditioned there was a senior and a sophomore also on trumpet. I was thrilled, THRILLED to just be accepted.

The music for the season was picked expecting a very good first trumpet, a quite competent second trumpet and an extremely green third trumpet.

The senior dropped out before the first rehearsal. I never met her.

The sophomore stopped coming at some point, but only formally dropped out way, way, way too late.

We were playing Cappricio Italien by Tchaikovsky. For those of you who can’t automatically hum a few bars, the piece starts out with a big solo trumpet fanfare. Just trumpet. No strings. No one else. It is as bare and bald an entry as a trumpeter might ever hope to make. And midway through the season it became clear that the only person left to play it was little old 13 year old me.

I can just imagine what must’ve been going through the mind of my conductor at that point. It was too late to change the piece. They couldn’t bring in a ringer because they HAD a trumpeter. It was just about as unforgiving a situation as you could be in. I’m personally responsible for at least one box of Tums, I’m sure. Heck, it was unfair to me. What pressure for a girl barely into her teens! I’d been struggling with “Mary Had a Little Lamb” a scant two years prior! Not only did I have to learn a very difficult part, but I had to learn the first (instead of second) trumpet part. But they decided to make the best of it. (Not that anyone SAID this to me, mind.) The local trumpet teacher gave me free lessons and devotion. They encouraged me and taught me and crossed their fingers. By the time the concert rolled around, it was clear that I COULD play the part.

Playing it in a room for your teachers and orchestra members is one thing. Sitting in your folding chair in the high school auditorium while your orchestra conductor lifts her baton, and opening your first ever orchestral concert with a difficult solo? Not so easy. I remember noticing my trumpet teacher surreptitiously had her trumpet out. I don’t blame her. There was every chance I was going to either freeze or botch it. No one knew whether I was capable of pulling this off — least of all myself.

I remember the look in my conductor’s face as she lifted her baton. I’m pretty sure she was chanting some internal mantra version of “Come on… you can do it!” And down came the baton. I was ever so slightly behind the beat on that first note, but out it came, clear and clean. And the rest followed. And we were well into it. And I was totally and completely hooked on the life symphonic.

Of all the moments in my life, I know that was the one where my mother was the proudest of me. She knew how hard I had practiced and worked. She knew how difficult a thing was being asked of me. She knew how possible it was I would fail. She said that she wanted to stand on her chair and shout “The trumpet player is mine!”

I played plenty of big solos and hard pieces after that. But, truth be told, there are few pieces in the symphonic repertoire that expose the trumpet more than that first one I played. That was the day that I learned that I could exceed against great odds, and rejoice in the struggle.