Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Losing My Mojo

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Many of our deepest motives come,
not from an adult logic of how things work in the world,
but out of something that is frozen from childhood.
-Kazuo Ishiguro

There was a time somewhere about half a century ago when I was your typical high school trumpet player. I no doubt believed I was invincible, the top of the band's musical food chain. My sight-reading ability was somewhat lacking, but one evening of working on it at home usually fixed that and I was able to exhibit the skill that my first chair position would expect.

I don't remember any hints of uncertainty or doubts about what I could do as a trumpet player. I was lead trumpet in our stage musical. I organized a small combo to play at our school talent show and even made an arrangement of the Beatles' Help! as our number. I was lead in a trumpet quartet that played at many local churches. I was also lead in a Tijuana Brass-style group that played at both the local pool and at our town's annual Fourth of July fest. I knew I would never be a professional musician- that wasn't in my plans. I did know that I loved being a trumpet player.

I had what I might later have called "mojo."

For fifty years, I have considered Memorial Day as the day I lost it. True or not, what we believe is often "truth" if not "fact." If we believe it, it is real. Since today is the 50th Anniversary of that day, I will tell the story in full, something I have wanted to do for years.

The "Monday Holiday" bill had not yet been enacted. In 1966 Memorial Day, the day to remember those who died in battle, always celebrated on May 30, happened to fall on a Monday. It was a mostly clear, cool morning. I remember a misty fog along the river, not unusual on a spring morning like that. The sun was breaking through as I joined the group of veterans at the corner of Main and Allegheny Streets on the bank of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

Memorial Day always began at the river. This was a time to remember the sailors who had died in service. Since we were only a couple decades past the end of World War II the memories were personal, real and not yet part of history. They were still at the edge of current events.

(Susquehanna River Bridge, Jersey Shore, PA)
It was a simple ceremony. I don't know what was said. I remember what was done. A reading and a prayer, and a wreath tossed solemnly into the river. The honor guard rifles faced up-river, to the right in the above picture, and proceeded with the traditional three-volley salute. The volley comes from the battlefield tradition of three-volleys to indicate that the dead had been removed from the battlefield and properly cared for.

The sounds echoed from the mountains and it was my turn.


My notes felt right. They flowed as I wanted them to. They moved up-river following the smoke from the volleys. It was an honor to be called to do this. My friend Steve, the second chair, was stationed a short distance away to play the echo. It was all moving and appropriate. It was finished.

Next Steve and I joined the rest of our high school marching band for the parade. It would be our last official parade having just graduated. The parade moved up the main east-west street through town.
(Allegheny St., Jersey Shore, PA)
We marched past what had been my Dad's pharmacy and then our house. We went by the junior high school where a Winged Victory statue remembered World War 1 sacrifices. Just past my grandfather's house a small curve in the street took us to the left-turn that led into the cemetery. The band took its "parade rest"-style position for the ceremony.

(Jersey Shore, PA, cemetery)
Speeches and honors were now given for all who had died in the service of the country. For a small-town in Central Pennsylvania, we had our share of names on the veterans' memorials downtown next to the Post Office. There were 45 who died from World War II, and another 9 from Korea. Many hundreds served.

But that's another story.

My memory of that day is fixed with what happened next. The three-volley honor salute was finished. It was not the first time I had been in this cemetery and heard that. This was my fourth or fifth Memorial Day parade. Beyond that, my dad, a veteran of WW II, had died about 18 months earlier. The volley had echoed from the hilltop cemetery on that cold December day. Now I was standing but twenty yards or so from his and my mother's graves,

Again, time to play Taps. I was focused and ready to go. Taps is not difficult to play. It is ingrained in every trumpet player's mind. Its haunting sound is as familiar as our own name. Steve had gone to the hilltop behind us for his echo response to my call.

Perhaps I was nervous, or, at the other extreme, over-confident. I don't remember any performance anxiety at that time. This was not my first public solo performance. Most likely I was just careless.

Three notes in I choked. Everything I knew about performing disappeared. I had forgotten to let the water out of the horn. The sound started to gurgle, the notes lost their clear intensity. My mind went into auto-pilot, which 50 years ago did not include the simple act of letting the water out in one of the pauses at the end of a phrase.

I finished with the gurgles seeming to mock me even more intensely when Steve's echo sounded so perfect to my ear. I was upset at myself. I had let the veterans down. I had let my father down.

I was ashamed.

I had one more opportunity. There was one more short parade that afternoon in nearby Salladasburg. There was one more cemetery with Taps.
(Salladasburg, PA, cemetery from Stacy on Find a Grave)
That, too, became an embarrassment. I flubbed a note at the beginning and, yes, I again forgot to let the water out. That, I am sure, was more nerves and, even more likely, inexperience.

But it became my experience. It became, for me, a defining moment in my musical life. It made me, in my mind, a sloppy trumpet player. One day in May 1966 set a standard of self-understanding that I have spent half a century trying to change. My low sight-reading skills added to it three months later when I did not pass the audition to get into the marching band at college. I never thought until recently that they simply didn't need another freshman trumpet player at that point and it had nothing to do with my ability. The Memorial Day experience was already coloring my personal lowering expectations.

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post on how logic and emotions interact. My now ancient story is as good an example as I can imagine. In the great scheme of things, even the past 50 years of my own life, that Memorial Day series of flubs isn't even a drop in the bucket. If anyone noticed then, or remembers it today, I would be shocked. I did what I could and I did it well. My logical brain knows all that. It knows that the gurgling sound of a trumpet is not the end of the world- and that very few people even heard it.

But there was a sense of failure and shame connected to that moment in my memory. It had more to do with standing mere yards from my parents' graves than it did about the hundred or so people who were there. It was connected with my own needs to live up to perfection for my deceased parents. In that moment I failed.

Here's how that all works in us. We start with:
  • Principles:
    • Values
    • What you stand for
    • Your personal foundation
These don't change much over our lives. They are reaffirmed or adjusted, but we mostly maintain our personal principles.

We add to our lives with:
  • Experiences:
    • What happens to you
    • Interactions with the world beyond you
In and of themselves, these experiences are simply there. We give them meaning, positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy, based on our personal values, that foundation through which we judge the world and ourselves. This then produces:
  • Emotions:
    • Feelings at a given moment.
    • Reactions to experiences
Let's put it together:
  • Experiences produce emotions.
    • These emotions may be based on our principles and values, or on a physical reaction to what is happening. If it makes us feel good, happy, fulfilled or whatever, it is a positive emotion. If we are hurt, sad, lost, etc. it can be a negative emotion.
  • Experiences and emotions are stored together in our memory.
    • That's how memories work. They are not stored as a single event- A Memory in A Location. They are stored in some interconnected way in our brain. When a memory comes back it easily comes back with the emotions. This is Proust's famous experience with the madeline cake.
  • The emotions connected with experiences can then interact with our principles.
    • Good emotions can produce a positive "value" response; negative feeling emotions can produce a "value" response that says that this does not fit my values.
  • Together these guide how we do what we do in our lives.
To design the future effectively,
you must first let go of your past.
-Charles J. Givens

There's the rub. Back again to the letting go I talked about last week. Back to logic and emotion and principles and mindfulness.

After a previous post on developing experiences my friend Terry commented:
Experience counts more than theory, because experience works on the heart
But when that work on the heart is an ongoing emotional "shame" it will color what we do every time we are faced with a similar situation.

Finally, today, 50 years later, I am discovering new ways to rewrite that emotional experience of Memorial Day 1966. I have been able over the past few years specifically, to present alternative realities. I have also been willing to take risks such as doing a solo, attending jazz, big band, and trumpet camps where I couldn't hide and playing in a quintet. New experiences rewrite the "heart story" and put things into a better perspective. Even this Tuning Slide blog on trumpet playing is part of it.

I have been controlled by that previous day for 50 years. Maybe I will finally let it go.

In working on the previous post and this one I came across lyrics from singer-songwriter James Bay in his song Let It Go. The song is about breaking up with a girlfriend, but some of the words are perfect for what I have been talking about...
Trying to push this problem up the hill
When it's just too heavy to hold
Think now's the time to let it slide

So come on let it go
Just let it be
Why don't you be you
And I'll be me

Everything's that's broke
Leave it to the breeze
Let the ashes fall
Forget about me

Come on let it go
Just let it be
Why don't you be you
And I'll be me

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