Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Day I Made it Final

At the height of my trumpet playing powers, when my embrasure was still good, my teachers and mother insisted I had a unique tone. My skull and nasal passages had something to do with it.

I always hated trumpet but never had the guts to admit it, maybe even to myself.

Trumpet had a blaring, rude sound. Other instruments' keys were played in order. You raise one finger, the pitch goes up. Trumpet was a combination of three buttons that were more like a combination code than a methodical method of pitch control.

The only reason I ever took it up in the first place was my brother Patrick. When I was in 6th grade he came home with a violin and announced he was taking lessons. No one had ever approached me at school about lessons and I never knew how it happened for him.

I was jealous. My dad had an old cornet so I was able to push my way into the class.

It became clear my dad’s old cornet, with its sticky valves, wouldn’t be adequate. My mom took me to St. Anne Music to rent a trumpet. St. Anne’s was the student instrument capital of the world then. We found one that had a copper bell. I had never seen anything like it. I thought it had magical powers. The guy at the store told me the copper attracted static electricity and enhanced the tone. I completely bought his silly story.

A year later, when our family was about to lose our house in the county, the trumpet repo man started knocking on our door. I knew he wanted the trumpet back, so I hid in the dark and pretended not to be at home. One night, I forgot to hide and answered the door. He asked where the horn was. I lied and told him it was in my locker at school. He asked how my studies were going. I told him it was going well and how much I loved playing trumpet. I never saw him again.

Years, and several schools, later, my teacher Thelma Lewis had me auditioning for Walter Susskind, the director of the St. Louis Symphony. I won summer lessons from one of the symphony’s trumpet players. I couldn’t care less. The lesson interfered with my vacation time so I quit.

This was right around the time I took up electric guitar.

Before I gave up public education all together, I spent a year at Southwest. I was in the marching band. We spent every weekend at a football game or parade. I’ll never forget playing the Budweiser tune in the Veiled Prophet Parade. I always suspected they donated money to the school band.

We were living in the Central West End at the time. I used to love to take the bus downtown. The tall buildings and crowded streets were totally intoxicating to me. I spent all my time at Ludwig Aeolian and Hunleth Music. They were magical places. Hunleth had exotic instruments that were impossible to identify hanging from the walls.

Through all of this, my brother was as impassioned as ever about violin. Unlike me, he meant it. He was still in grade school and needed a new violin. I knew what had to be done. We played hooky from school and took the bus downtown. I threw my trumpet case up on the counter at Hunleth. I opened it and showed the salesman my horn. He admitted it was beautiful and traded even for a violin for Patrick. I felt a sudden emptiness, but it was final. I would never be a trumpet player.

When we were back on the street, we were stopped by a truant officer. He assumed I was old enough to be out of school but wanted to run my brother in. I showed him the violin and told him I was taking my little brother to pick it up for school. He bought it and let us go.

My brother picked up the nickname Slash. As much as he loved his violin, this was no coincidence.

When I hear the sad little trumpet solo in Islands, by King Crimson, I really wish I still played.

Walter Susskind, a teenage Patrick slashing away, and me (Prince Valiant haircut) in the bleachers with the Southwest High School Marching Band.


Dominic said...

y'know... this is possibly my all-time favorite posting on this blog. it's wonderful.

Dorothy said...

Very nice story, Dave.

Anonymous said...

I really wish you still played too. Every time you told the story of the repo man letting you keep the trumpet, I felt you should have at least kept up with it. Though I have no sympathy for that job, I can't hold anything against a repo man that decides the right thing to do is let some kid keep his musical instrument if he cared so much about playing. However, the kindness you did for your little brother in exchange for your music is more than enough for me to forgive you.