Posts Tagged 'musical instruments'

My instrument of choice

I played the trumpet in high school.

A couple of music classes led to mastering an instrument and playing in the high school band and orchestra. This avocation fit in nicely with my teenage persona which can best be described as mildly nerdy. I’m not sure how I got that way, but it probably had something to do with the friends I kept and the scarcity of girls, of any flavor, in my life. It was also abetted by my pudginess that didn’t start to evaporate until my senior year. By then it was too late to change my school mates’ perception of me.

The choice of the trumpet was made with little thought given to its complexities. After all, how difficult can it be to play the thing? It only has three valves and, given its size, is easily schlepped from home to school and back again. All I would have to worry about was the proper operation of the spit valve.

Alan, the best musician in our group, played the piano. Definitely un-schleppable, he would be dependent on the kindness of others. Realizing that playing the piano in a school parade was not in the cards, Alan also chose a backup. He latched onto the saxophone and seemed to master it over one week-end.

My other friends picked their instruments of choice before I had a chance to weigh in with my preference. Larry, a friend who always irritated me with his “My father’s car is better than your father’s car.” At the age of twelve, he was also better than me in identifying the make of any car cruising past us. Larry became an orthodox Jew aligned with the Chasidic sect; I also tend to bristle at them. Their ability to be prominently displayed in the local newspaper, while my more populous sect goes unnoticed, ticks me off. Larry chose the clarinet. Even lighter than the trumpet, his schlepping would be easier than mine. I can still see him sucking on his reed.

Russell was the smartest guy in the bunch. While others might spend their summer vacations chasing girls or playing softball. Russell read the dictionary from beginning to end. He also selected one of the most difficult instruments, the French horn. An awkward, medieval instrument, it reminds me of Marty Feldman playing the part of Igor in Young Frankenstein. Hunched over best describes both Marty and Russell. The horn is equipped with a very small mouthpiece that requires the development of a tough, untiring embouchure.

The embouchure is the way a musician applies his mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument. The smaller the mouthpiece, the greater the difficulty in developing a strong embouchure. While playing the king-sized tuba may seem like corralling a difficult partner, the large mouthpiece offers far less resistance and therefore is less tiring than the small mouthpiece of the comparatively smaller French horn.

Developing a strong embouchure requires practice, a lot of it. Practice requires diligence. Those who devote substantial time to practice generally develop greater skill at playing a musical instrument. And that universal truth was my Achilles heel. My practice sessions were intermittent and short. The clock moved ever so slowly. While my technique was acceptable, my lips tired easily and I struggled to complete a gig with my band mates. My trumpeting became spotty when I entered college. I’d pick up the instrument every so often, but my embouchure was shot and, like the once a month golfer, I soon became a trumpet has-been.

My musical whimsy resurged ten years ago when I was bitten by the guitar bug. My son Steven, an excellent guitarist, offered to teach me this ubiquitous instrument. Watching other amateurs master it gave me the confidence to forge ahead. Most importantly, the guitar seemed less likely to tax my aging body in the way that the trumpet did. The fingers of my left hand soon taught me the error of my ways. Five minutes of playing produced searing pain in the tips of my fingers. Steven promised that the pain would subside with the development of calluses; all I needed was enough practice. My previous experience with the trumpet came streaming back.  Sadly, I gave up a promising six string career and pledged that I would someday find my sweet spot in the musical world.

Jackie’s daughter, Sammy, is devoted to the ukulele. I have watched her maneuver through a sea of humanity at the airport with a Shaquille O’neal sized backpack and the ukulele lovingly slung over her arm. She takes it everywhere and plays it well. The instrument is small, without a lip crunching mouthpiece, and only four strings, two less than the guitar. Could this be my nirvana?

Debbie, a fellow temple member, teaches a ukulele class on Wednesday afternoon at the Ojai Library. Hearing of my interest in the instrument and playing on my easily influenced brain, she lovingly invited me to attend the class. With her cute little smile, she promised, “We just do it for fun. You don’t need to know how to play. You’ll love it.”

I went to the class and borrowed a spare ukulele. Flanked by two women who proved to be the Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin of the ukulele world, I got right into the swing of things with the “C” chord. Requiring but one finger on the fret, I marveled at the simplicity of the instrument. I became emboldened and sought out the C7 chord. Using the same finger that was already in my repertoire, I placed it on a different fret and produced another glorious sound. Was I ready for the big time?

Then, just as I was congratulating myself, Debbie handed me a xeroxed copy of Basic Ukulele Chords. There were thirty-five of them. “More to come, Freddy, after you’ve mastered the basic ones”, Debby intoned with a wry smile on her lips.

Calling up my last ounce of stick-to-it-ness, I have been practicing sort of regularly. I refuse to repeat my abortive experiences with the lip challenging trumpet and the finger searing pain inflicted by the guitar. Surely, I can master this instrument.

I can already play Happy Birthday. I hesitatingly make my way through My Darling Clementine, and I am picking through Amazing Grace. I shy away from anything that requires more than three chords. I hate the G chord and my strumming is atrocious. Simply holding the instrument without it twisting away from me like a dog that hates its master, is tougher than it looks.

So far I’m on track to star status…without sore fingers.


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