I can remember the first time I was handed a trumpet and told to blow. I can remember when and where, who and why. I can remember the feeling, the sensation and the overall experience. And I can remember thinking it was a mistake.
It was 1989, I was eight and had just been invested into the Cub Scouts. A young lady was at the meeting who gave a brief presentation at the end, encouraging us to sign up for the new marching band that had been formed. Drums, trumpets, cymbals; they all seemed overwhelmingly exciting to me and I begged my parents to allow me to join. In all honesty, I have no idea why. Let’s put that one down to youthful exuberance.
And so my parents relented and I was told to come to a practice session. I was asked my instrument of choice. My answer, little did I know at the time, would change my life forever.
Mum, Mum, the trumpet…
My next memory was again in the Scouts’ Hut, the meeting building on the outskirts of the village. I and a couple others were tucked away in a corridor away from the main hall that led to the kitchen. An older man, somewhat intimidating by his seemingly lack of interest – he rarely spoke, rarely moved his face, rarely showed any emotion of any sort – handed me a trumpet and told me to blow.
At the time I did not know who this man was, but later I would learn his name was Brian Etheridge, and after that I would learn he was the father of the young lady who had started this adventure – one of hers, and one of mine. The lady’s name was Anne, and along with the brass, would also change my life in ways I could never have (retrospectively) imagined.
At some point, but alas I cannot remember, I must have been shown how to hold such an instrument. I’m guessing it was the same man, although I have no recollection. But needless to say, I grasped the cold brass, heavy as it was, held it to my lips, and…
Yes, I really did hum.
You’re not really playing, are you? You have to blow. Pretend you are kissing a girl.
Kissing! At my age? Nope, that analogy was lost on me.
I tried again and again, but something was missing in my brain-to-lips department. I just kept humming into it. Hoping upon hope that somehow, as if by magic a noise would come out the other end. Eventually Brian had to pass the instrument on to another child, to allow them a chance to kiss it. But I wasn’t distraught. I wasn’t discouraged. I was actually intrigued. And when it became my turn again, having seen and heard my peers’ attempts, I learned and I progressed.
There you go kid, how does that feel?
Fucking weird! Lips vibrating, jaw tense, cheeks tingling, ears wide open, eyes even wider. Blushing at the sound I had just made.
Twenty-Seven Years Later…
I still occasionally play. Of course it is hard to maintain lip, I work too much to practice properly and maintain strength, but from time to time, I pick up my old friend and make a few noises.
And as I look back on my childhood, the experiences that shaped my life, my interests and my being, I remember having to lift a trumpet and hold it perpendicular to my body for lengths of time that were, at times, torture. Being raised in a marching band, it had to be that way. It is a part of deportment and discipline, which is something else I respect greatly for making me the man I am today.
But alas I remember my little arms tiring, struggling to hold such a heavy piece of metal out straight for such extended periods of time. Having to lug the trumpet-in-case around, banging into my legs and stretching my arm. Not to mention caring for such an instrument, such a metal as lacquered brass. And for me, one of the strongest feelings associated with my instrument; the smell. The dull yet unmistakable smell of valve oil on brass. It is something that will never leave me, that I will never forget. For me, the smell of music.
So what if the weight issue could have been solved? And the delicate nature of an instrument being made of a soft metal, so easily dinged and damaged. What if that could be solved as well? The price, you ask, what of that? Can it be reduced to allow more to experience the wonderous emotions that can only come from humming into a mouthpiece for the first time?
Yes, yes and yes.
But is it worth it?
It was only a year ago I realised some clever people had managed to make instruments out of plastic. One of the more publicised brands, it would seem, is the pTrumpet. Made completely from plastic, mouthpiece and all, this instrument comes in at a great reduction of a brass instrument of equivalent beginner quality, far, far lighter, and much harder to damage.
This is all good, surely? This is the sort of thing that would encourage a child to pick one up and hum, you would think. And because it is made of that (awfully environmentally unfriendly) material, the choice of colour is basically limitless. This can surely only benefit the strapped-for-cash families who want to introduce their child to music. The kids of today who are raised on multi-coloured everything, instantaneous results of everything and ease-of-use of, well, everything.
And yes, for absolute certain it can only help in all these matters. But is it right?
Would I be the same person I am today if I hadn’t ridden from Claygate to Weybridge on my bike each morning with not only a rucksack full of books on my back, but also my trumpet? Would I be the same person today if I had not learned to care for such an expensive belonging, something that isn’t disposable and needs attention, cleaning and care? Would I not be different if I hadn’t held my trumpet for such a long time, pushing my little arms to their limit of endurance? Or having to learn how to keep my trumpet warm as we played outside in December temperatures?
Sometimes I do think I am being a bit too grinchy, but other times I think it is important that people understand how to look after things, how to care for belongings and to appreciate craftsmanship and quality. And the best age to learn that is clearly young. Because these kinds of traits will carry over to all sorts of areas in one’s life – their first car, their first computer, their first bunch of flowers from an admirer. Anything and everything.
Alison Balsom’s first look at the pTrumpet:
It looks really similar to the prototype, but it’s lighter, I think…
I’m divided on the pTrumpet and the like. I can see the benefits, they are clear, but I can see the deficits, they are also clear. I guess I am just worried that kids these days won’t appreciate or even learn certain skills that are essential later on in life. I don’t think I would change a thing about my learning of such an instrument. Sure it could have been easier, but that would have missed the point entirely.