Think first

Many thousands of years ago, when I was in high school, I had a trumpet teacher who liked to say “Think before you Stink.”  I also had one who told me to hear the pitch before I played it. I’m pretty sure both comments were in reference to the same piece – William Latham’s Suite for Trumpet

It’s the sort of piece that they make you learn just because they think it’s good for you to play something that makes almost no sense melodically.  It’s kind of a pretentious Rite of Passage. (Not to be confused with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which I think is a fun little orgy of music.)

Truth be told, Latham’s Suite did grow on me, and was kind of fun to play. I learned it in 11th or 12th grade. But it was the third movement, which begins at the 4:29 mark on the first video above that was a HUGE challenge. Getting that VERY FIRST NOTE right is trickier than you would think.

Yes, there is another metaphor hiding in all this rambling on about trumpets and music and such.

The truth is, before you take on any endeavor, you must stop for just a moment and collect your thoughts. Hear and feel the note, so to speak, before you sound it, or you might mess it up. That is the key to being always accurate.

The problem, however, is finding balance. Because there is that fraction of a second too long… Sometimes, when you’ve waited too long, your moment passes before it really even begins.

Somewhere along the line, when playing the trumpet was the bulk of my world, I grew afraid of making a mistake. Timidity doesn’t work on the trumpet, and it’s not exactly an asset in life, either. But when you grow worried that the least of mistakes is going to be amplified by that bell you’re blowing through, you somehow learn to play more quietly, to try to hide your inevitable mistakes.

Along came the Hindemith Sonate for Trumpet… Because another wise professor decided that I wasn’t playing with enough VOLUME, and that I needed to learn air control by playing something loud and slow.

To earn my “A”, I had to play this thing more slowly, more deliberately, than any of the recordings I’ve been able to find on Youtube. Also, it was the second to last major solo I learned to play as a music major. One more semester, learning a piece called the Hollow Men, and then that infamous lesson in which I knew I was done.

I went out with Vincent Persichetti, to a piece that was written based on a T.S. Elliot poem. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” Don’t tell me there is no poetry in life…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The final stanza became my swan song as a trumpet player. I quietly changed my major without telling a soul in the School of Music, and I never did the “exit interview.”

Why did I leave? What on earth happened in a lesson that made me realize beyond anything that it was time for me to do something else, anything else?

I had a Mercedes Bach trumpet that had more than a few issues, and push came to shove, and it was time to make a decision to either buy a new trumpet or just transpose everything and play on my C trumpet all the time – something I was doing, but which required some effort on my part, and not considered a long term solution.

My professor, in his wisdom, suggested that I sell the Toyota Van that my parents had given me as my source of transportation while attending school, visiting home, going back and forth to work. He thought I should sell that van (which I didn’t really consider mine, because I felt it was rather a conditional gift) to buy a really expensive trumpet.

In that moment, I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working in jobs I hated (like waiting tables!) to support the need to constantly purchase bigger and better equipment – something I witnessed all the others doing.

Try this mouthpiece, it’ll give you a darker sound. Try that trumpet… It has a better response. You should really get an E flat trumpet for that, it would sound more authentic…

In one sudden rush of understanding, I realized that as long as I remained a music major, I would be playing music that didn’t touch me very deeply, playing by somebody else’s rules, and giving up everything else that I was or could be to do so.

I love music. I always have, and I always will, but in that moment, I hated music. In that moment, it ceased to be communion with the Universe, and became never-ending drudge-work.

Silver trumpet
My C Trumpet… I still have the B-flat trumpet as well…

There is a balance. A balance between rushing into something and taking so long that you become paralyzed and trapped.

Collecting your thoughts for a moment, rather than rushing into something blindly, is usually a very good thing. Becoming so afraid of making a mistake that you don’t speak when you should is often worse.

The problem is that we all too often have it drilled into our heads that making a mistake is a horrible thing. But the truth is that very few mistakes lead in actual death or serious injury, and that most mistakes lead to learning and growing.

If there was ever something I would like to tell my younger self, that would be it, though I suppose my philosophy of “I’d rather regret the mistakes I’ve made than the ones I didn’t make” was probably pretty close in many ways.

Do things with intention and deliberation, and if you fail, figure out why and then try it again.

One more thing? I did like the pieces I’ve linked above. But I love this:

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4 thoughts on “Think first

  1. I read this and thought it applies to so much in life. I particularly love this phrase: “I’d rather regret the mistakes I’ve made than the ones I didn’t make” . How valuable that lesson is! Wouldn’t it be great if we could go back and talk to our younger selves and share the wisdom that time confers. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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