Sunday, November 8, 2009

The School Band

In 1969 my brother came home from school with a violin. I was jealous. I was so jealous my dad gave me his cornet and I was signed up for band. His horn was almost unplayable. It became apparent I would need a better one if I was going to take this seriously.

The place to go for band instruments in those days was St. Ann Music. I got a beautiful Conn trumpet that had a copper bell. I’ve never seen another one like it. They told me it improved the tone. It just looked really cool to me.

The next year I started junior high at Nipher in Kirkwood. It was 3 miles away and I used to walk along railroad tracks to get there. Sometimes I’d hop a train. You should try that carrying a trumpet case.

Band teachers were always a little different than the others. They were just a little off. Nipher is where my friend Baritone and I would trade instruments. Our teacher was cool with it. He encouraged experimentation.

In those days when the door bell rang at night we were instructed not to answer. It could only be a bill collector. One night, as we hid in the dark, the ringing became so incessant I had to answer. I couldn’t stand it any more.

Sure enough it was a guy from St. Ann Music looking for the trumpet payment. If he couldn’t get that he wanted the trumpet. I told him I’d left it at school. He asked how my instruction was going. I told him I loved it and I was getting better every day. He said he was glad to hear it. I never heard from them again.

When I moved out to the country with my dad I hadn’t practiced for months and my embrasure was shot. I auditioned for the school band and didn’t make it. I had always been encouraged and this was a real blow to my ego.

Somehow when I moved back to the city with my mom I passed the audition and was back in the school band.

It was a whole different experience this time. My teacher was a lovely, ancient woman who wore too much rouge and perfume named Mrs. Lewis. She loved me and really pushed me to excel.

Mrs. Lewis took me to play with the black gospel church groups on St. Louis’ north side on Sundays. I traveled with a friend whose name I can’t recall. He would wail out an improvised horn line every now and then. I was really impressed and realized how musically repressed I’d been.

I loved these trips. I felt like I was carrying on a family tradition. My dad and his friends went to church for the gospel music on weekends even though he had admitted to me that he was atheist. He thought the lyrics of a Blood, Sweat and Tears song were really deep that went, “Swear there ain’t no Heaven but I pray there ain’t no Hell.

At the end of 8th grade Mrs. Lewis took my buddy and me to audition for Walter Suskind. At the time he was the director and principal conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

I played Mendelssohn’s Intermezzo which I’d never even heard before. I remember my buddy got to play something that seemed like a lot more fun. We both passed the audition and got free summer lessons from one of the first chair trumpet players of the Symphony. I think this was the course you took to get into the Young People’s Symphony.

I remember I had to ride my bike miles with the trumpet case hanging from my fingers. It hurt.

Eventually I quit. I felt like I was burning up my summer vacation. I regret it now of course but at the time I never admitted to anyone that I hated the sound of trumpets. It was electric guitar for me!

Well here I am with kids in band. Schools are always cutting band from their budget first and we’re lucky the St. Charles schools realize how important music is.

My kids have the same discipline issues I did and Dylan has already given up trombone. They had both studied piano for years and eventually lost interest. Chloe seems to be genuinely into the flute.

To be fair to Dylan he’s getting better at bass and guitar every day. I guess music has to be a personal pursuit.

When I gave up trumpet my brother and I took the bus downtown to Hunleth Music. (An incredible place whose demise is a real loss to St. Louis). We were both playing hooky. I traded my trumpet for a violin for him. We were stopped by a truant officer. We explained we were on a musical expedition for school. He looked at the violin case and let us go.


Anonymous said...

i remember you had that trumpet on oakland, but i seem to remember you sweating over learning guitar music as far back as shaw,am i wrong? i also remember you writing a classical piece with at least 6 or 7 different instruments on staff paper...Geo

Doggie said...

I was arranging pieces on staff paper when I lived with Tony and Patrick on 18th street. I used to struggle with my mom's guitar but never started learning until 8th or 9th grade.