Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Tuning Slide- A Bit About Trumpets

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

"Ah, the trumpet.
Now there's an instrument on which one
can truly embarrass himself!"
(G. Keillor to G. Bordner)

A trumpet is a musical instrument. It has the highest register in the brass family. As a signaling device, trumpets have a very long history, dating back to at least 1500 BC; they have been used as musical instruments since the 15th century. They are played by blowing air through almost-closed lips, producing a "buzzing" sound that starts a standing wave vibration in the air column inside the instrument. Since the late 15th century they have primarily been constructed of brass tubing, usually bent twice into a rounded oblong shape.

What is so special about the trumpet?
First- it is often the lead, giving the melody a good ride, soaring over the other instruments. Yet, it is not the only lead. Others can and do take the lead parts that give new insight and direction to the music.

Second- it is easily learned, but is deceptive in its difficulties. To maintain one’s skill at trumpet, one must be willing to work, regularly. Too much time off and you notice the problem. Again, other instruments are in the same boat, but because the trumpet stands out so easily and carries so far it can be downright embarrassing when you are not at your best.

I was sold on the trumpet with three individuals who I will no doubt talk about more over the months. I am not even sure any more who I heard first. The three settled my mind on the trumpet and no one could keep me from it. Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, and Herb Alpert set me on this road. When the Saints Go Marching In, Java, and The Lonely Bull/Tijuana Taxi were the songs that allowed the trumpet to shine.

Many others have come along and had a great influence, but these three set the tone for me. But I also learned that the trumpet has a great part in classical music as much as it does in jazz. Sousa marches added another dimension.

Some might say that the trumpet is only interesting to those who like to stand out, be obvious, overpower others. While there may be a (very, very) small kernel of truth in that, the place of the trumpet allowed me to express myself in ways that my uncertain shyness never allowed me to. What a joy.

Of course the trumpet isn’t the only instrument in the world that can do this, in spite of what most trumpet players might have you believe. For me, with the trumpet, depending on the part you are playing, the trumpet can have all kinds of different ways to express itself- the lead in first trumpet, a nice counter-melody in third, wonderful harmony in second, sometimes doubling the passage with other instruments, sometimes being there on your own.

Sadly, in many bands, even community bands, it is often the practice to use the stronger trumpets on first and the weakest on third. This can happen because, naturally, the weaker ones cannot play the first parts. But I have found that a section of trumpets where all can play any of the parts, makes for a strong sound from the trumpets. Plus, having accomplished players playing with the weaker ones on 2nd or 3rd, helps the weaker ones grow and develop.

There are no secondary or inferior parts. We only make them that way by our attitude. As the great trumpeter and composer W. C. Handy said in the quote at the top of this post- that’s a lot like life itself. The trumpet does not play itself. One does not become proficient at anything, including trumpet, without putting work into it.

Nor does it mean that because one does not have all the incredible talents of the “stars” that one is inferior as a human being. I will never be Louis Armstrong or Maynard Ferguson, but I can be the best I can be. In my life, as an old Jewish story goes, God will not ask me why I wasn’t Moses or Abraham or any other great and talented individual. God will just ask me why I didn’t do the best I could with what I have and who I am.

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