(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on February 24, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)
The onslaught of President’s Sale commercials has finally subsided. Before the craziness of car clearances and appliance sell-offs, however, President’s Day marked Timothy Dwight Elementary School’s annual spring concert. What better way to punish our parents for a hard-won day off from work than to subject them to one-and-a-half hours of pre-pubescent interpretations of our country’s most patriotic songs?
In middle school, my music class was the only place where my fellow students and I were faced with the harsh reality of our limitations. Mostly, the teachers would fall over themselves to prop us up and keep our faces out of the mud. My shoddy compositions were “an improvement.” My low math scores showed “creativity and promising thought.” Even in history, my butchering of events could be termed “revisionist optimism.” (Then again, my teachers kept referring to a President’s Day that even now does not exist as a federal holiday. It’s simply Washington’s birthday with Lincoln tagging along.)
But in music, as in life, talent wins out in the end. I might have gotten pats on the back for remembering not to pick my nose in class, but by the time I got to music I knew the jig was up. To be in a room where children are playing instruments is to see God’s bias toward music. Those without talent stick out like a sore thumb—thumbs that would sound better if sucked rather than used to play the cello. I still remember how excited I was on my first day of sixth grade music class. Finally, I would get to play an instrument other than the tambourine or maracas. It doesn’t take long for the glory of a well-practiced recorder concerto to lose its luster. On that glorious day, our music teacher picked up each of the shiny, polished instruments before him and demonstrated how each sounded. I was hooked after hearing the trumpet. Even in music, I fell into line on the phallic spectrum: not quite the trombone, but certainly not the clarinet. No, the trumpet seemed “just right.” I don’t recall the exact reasoning behind this decision: the closest I’d come to a trumpet was listening to “All You Need Is Love.” Mostly, I chose it because it only had three buttons. Unlike the others, with their forest of valves and holes and strings and bows and slides to fuss about, the trumpet seemed like a scooter in a sea of Harley Davidsons. It might not get me any dates, but it wouldn’t take much to get on the road.
My music teacher told us that we should name our instruments in order to better “connect” with them. My parents refused to buy me a trumpet, instead opting to rent one from the school. My dad would sooner buy me shotgun than a trumpet because it would make less racket, and even if everything went wrong he wouldn’t suffer long.
I kept at him, however, convinced that I couldn’t name an instrument without owning it. Who goes to a pet store and starts naming the fish in the tanks if they’re not taking them home? Finally, my mom cracked on my birthday and bought me a used trumpet with a dull shine and the distant memory of chrome about the buttons. The case was beautiful, however—I would carry around the carcass of an outhouse rat if it came in a purple, velvet-lined molded carrying case!
I raced up to my room and closed the horrid box that contained John Doe, the name of my RENTED trumpet, and shoved it under the bed. I opened my new case and pulled out… Maria, sweet Maria, and gave her a quick polish. I pulled out my sheet music and began “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Twinkle I did, managing to pucker my lips in my best Dizzy Gillespie.
Alas, there was an ugly side to Maria. A dark place she hid to anyone who saw her, and known only to those who knew her… intimately. Maria had a spittle. A spittle is a small place where all the spit collects while you blow into the trumpet, a mucous house. Maria housed a perpetual loogie that rolled around inside her, just waiting for fumbling elementary school hands to accidentally open it in mid-tune. In fact, she needed to be emptied like a choral colostomy bag after every song! I never saw Louis Armstrong swearing because he’s just poured an ounce of his own saliva onto his pants right after “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
In the band, I was first-chair off key. Like bad guests, my notes tended to linger a bit too long. What really did me in was my lips, however. Due to a double-cleft palate, I could not properly pucker my lips. I couldn’t kiss, whistle, or suck anything through a straw. Turns out the trumpet is for lip-guys, and that just wasn’t me. The result was that my trumpet playing was painful to the ears; it was like watching Cupid try to blow the lead off his arrows.
Much like President’s Day Sale commercials, there was a palpable sense of relief when I finally stopped playing. I traded the trumpet for a new first baseman’s glove and made my music teacher a much happier man.