Interlude: Learning the Trumpet

You can’t trust the trumpet. It will drip warm honey into your heart sweet and sultry like Ella on a summer night, then in a moment turn sour. You can trust an oboe with your spouse, but not the trumpet. It’s all lips and spit on cold metal, how could it be anything but duplicitous. They say the devil plays the fiddle, it’s a lie. He plays the trumpet.

I’ve heard the instrument chooses the person and jazz trumpet has had me in its grasp since hearing Louie in high school and Miles in college, and just three fingers, what could go wrong. Since this opera journey began I’ve been itching to play something. I walk around blowing into the mouth piece for weeks strengthening my embouchure, Bzzzzzzzzz. With a beginners book and cd, I learn to read music, go up and down the scales and feel pretty good when I can take it incrementally up to a high B. I play everyday for a year.

My only experience as a player before this was an elementary school music class where I felt out of place and was put of place. Some kids already had their own instruments. I marveled at the carnival of shapes and textures that gleaned like a tumbling treasure chest. I was given a trinket by comparison, a triangle and a small metal stick and then asked to stand in the back of the room. I play it with gusto. Quickly the triangle is taken away and I’m demoted to rubbing two ribbed sticks together, and then demoted again to rubbing two smooth sticks together. My passion for music as a player is silenced quick and early beneath the brass and timpani.

It was empowering to pick up the trumpet and take back my music education and free myself of the past in its squeaks and bellows. Even if my greatest contribution to the art form is to play Au Clair de la Lune as good as a fifth grader and to master trill, I love it… while it lasts.

My trumpet career ends in Paris on a summer sunset.

Through college I worked at a winery where jazz and classical musicians provided the backdrop during summer. I used to love to stop and listen to them seduce the buzzed crowds. My job was to conduct wine tastings and tours; the winery did an able job teaching our insatiable staff the ins and outs of wine. I carried literally thousands of bottles working there – and never spilled a drop. So, what happens next seems inexplicable, or maybe just an ironic inevitability, me a ripe patsy to fulfill a Paris cliche’.

I walk jauntily and cocky, with a sloshy bottle of Bordeaux for dinner in my right hand. Me in Europe, hell yeah I’m feeling out of the roots and in the air of the world. Nothing can stop this moment of joie de vivre, nothing can pause the bravado of joining the revelers along the Seine. Fuck limits – fuck gravity. Fuck. My foot grabs a step and I trip, I trip still holding the bottle. When it breaks, I don’t even try to salvage the wine I know its bad. I hear the scream before I realize it’s coming out of me. I raise my arm holding onto my right hand now gushing a tsunami of blood and I let out an unconscious bellow, a barbaric wail, a scream that swallows the attention of every tourist and Parisian in the shadow of Notre Dame. A heroic waiter rushes over and presses a white towel to the wound and holds me. The nurse at the hospital is kindly moving like he’s only awake with the help of coffee and amphetamines and tells me they filmed The Empire Strikes Back at the Sequoias near Yosemite, and while I wait I recall the mummy of Ramses II and with wonder think those trees lived and breathed the same air as him and Luke Skywalker and me. They tell me I severed the tendons in my trumpeting hand and it will take the next six months before I can even use that hand again – I cringe at the thought of not being able to raise my finger and shoosh people who talk during performances.

I really respect people whose hardships bring out their inner strength and they rise to the occasion and stun everyone with their resolve and good humor. I bet that’s how a cellist would respond. My mood is reprehensible: the physical therapists and girlfriend are saints to put up with me and see me through the surgery and rehabilitation. She leaves me, understandably, with the memory of six romantic Paris nights and still slightly numb fingers.

The six months of recovery feel like six hundred, but I am more or less back to myself. Tennis, typing, and shaking hands, hallelujah, I am taking them all for granted again. The trumpet has been on the shelf since the surgery then shortly after healing I begin a graduate program that will keep it collecting dust.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t trust the trumpet, it has too many contradictions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t love its honesty. It is the most human of instruments. The Viola will never snap or mock you when its in a bad mood. After playing for just a short time I feel closer to the orchestra than ever before and enjoy this special connection of having something extra to listen for, like listening for the voice of a friend at a crowded party. I love when Verdi sets the trumpets loose in Aida for the “Grand March,” and to hear my devilish friends so loud and so happy.