Continuing the Answers!!

Yeah, I gotta pick up the pace here…but time to resume clearing out the Ask Me Anything! 2011 queue.

SK Waller asks:

If you could play any instrument in a symphony orchestra, which would you choose, and why?

Easy: I’d play the trumpet, because that was my instrument, and I was pretty damned good at it too, if I do say so myself.

A history, which I’ve probably told before: I joined band in fifth grade, and played the French horn my first year. I wasn’t very good, but then, it was fifth grade and my first attempt at a musical instrument. The next year I switched to the trumpet. I don’t know if this was my idea, or my teacher’s, but it happened. I was a bit better at the trumpet, but still, I rarely bothered to practice with the effect that I sucked.

On to seventh grade, where I continued to suck at the trumpet. In seventh grade, I was in the Junior High Band, with the eighth graders; up above that, ninth and up, was the Senior Band, the students of which were not tolerant of students who sucked. Neither were the eighth graders, for that matter. So it was that about halfway through seventh grade, I decided that I was really no longer interested in being filed away by all the other kids as “one of the sucky ones”. I started practicing, and getting better, and stopped sucking. Sucking, well, sucked.

Over time I became fascinated by the symphony orchestra, and the brass section in particular, to the point where, for a time, my career ambition was to be a symphonic trumpet player. To me, there was nothing quite so thrilling as a big symphonic passage where the trumpets soared above it all. My musical hero, trumpet-wise, was never Maurice Andre or Wynton Marsalis; it was Adolph Herseth of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Get just about any Chicago Symphony recording from the 1950s on, and you’ll hear Herseth playing the principal trumpet part. Track down a Mahler 5th by the CSO — Solti’s live recording is amazing — and you’ll hear some astonishing trumpet playing amidst the greatness of the rest of the orchestra.)

Of course, it’s not all fun-and-games for symphonic trumpets. As much as I love Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven, the trumpets of their day were limited instruments and thus were not used for much more than providing some harmonic oomph at strategic points in the score. So the trumpet players spend a great deal of time counting measures, playing a few notes, and then counting more measures.

I did get to be a symphonic trumpet player, in college. Those were some of the finest memories of my college years.

Along the same lines, Kerry asks:

Can you describe that unique smell of the ACS band room (circa 1988-89) WITHOUT using the words “brass,” “moldy reed” or “feet”?

Oh, wow. Ummmm…wow. That’s hard. Really hard.

At Allegany Central School in the 1980s (and before that, obviously), the band room was located at the extreme end of a long wing that extended off the right hand side of the building, so getting to band involved a fairly long walk, past the Industrial Arts room (“shop”), past the Agricultural Arts area (a subject that was taught by the single most uptight teacher I’ve ever had), past the Chorus room, finally into the Band room.

The band room had a lot of character, which is to say, it was pretty much of a mess.

The room was oblong, running north and south. One entered the room from the northwest corner; the band itself gathered facing the east wall, with the band director (Mr. Beach or Mr. Roosa) standing on the podium, facing west. At the back of the room, along the west wall, were two practice rooms. (For those who have never been musicians, a “practice room” is a little room, maybe five feet square, where you practice. I always detested practice rooms and avoided them at all costs. You can’t judge the sound you’re making with your instrument when you are working in a room the size of your bathroom or a large closet.) The south wall had a big shelf loaded with musical instruments, and a bunch of file cabinets which contained sheet music.

Now, the instrument shelves were full of instruments. Some belonged to students in the band; others belonged to the school. Many of them were complete wrecks. Others were on the way there. The school’s Sousaphones wouldn’t fit on the shelves, so they sat in a pile on the floor. Yup.

Along the eastern wall, at the band director’s back, were more cabinets. These contained records, tapes, more sheet music, and basically music-related crap of all kinds. There was a dinosaur stereo system that nevertheless sounded freaking awesome. I loved going to the band room during a study hall and cranking that stereo with whatever I could get my hands on. There was a tuner (a gizmo that, well, tells you whether or not your instrument is “in tune” — i.e., producing the notes you play at the correct pitch. If musicians aren’t “in tune” with one another, the group will sound awful.), and there were a whole lot of goofy posters, some of which were humorous and some of which were music-related. One of these posters I’ve always remembered: it had an ape of some sort sitting on the ground looking pouty, and the caption was “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” Early LOLCat, I assume.

And there were the other usual suspects: crappy chairs; music stands in various states of disrepair (getting the non-wobbly stands was quite the perk of being higher on the band food chain); percussion instruments taking up most of the north end of the room; more cabinets containing more sheet music; et cetera.

But Kerry’s asking about the smell. It was a pretty unique aroma. I wouldn’t say it was a horrible smell, but…well, it wasn’t entirely pleasant, either. My main recollection of the odor is one of petroleum, in various forms. Valve oil, used by trumpet and horn players to lubricate their valves. Slide oil, used by trombonists to lubricate their slides. Various oils and jells used by instrumentalists of all types to lubricate…well, you’d be surprised how much lubrication is involved in the general day-to-day functioning of a wind instrument.

There was also the smell of musty paper, owing to all that sheet music around. It was kind of like the used bookstore smell, but not as pleasant. And there was the fact that for a lot of band members, the band room served as a “second locker”, which meant that there were occasionally things that you would normally find in someone’s locker floating around. Some of these things smelled…bad.

I haven’t thought about the smell of the bandroom in quite a long time, but I do remember it. It’s one smell, or set of smells, that I’ve never encountered since.

More answers to come, I promise!

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3 Responses to Continuing the Answers!!

  1. Aaron says:

    I can attest that he was indeed pretty darn good with that horn of his. And, he neglected to mention that he got to play that trumpet part for Mahler's 5th. And he played the shit out of it. And one particularly sublime performance gives me chills to this day just thinking about it. I don't think there was anyone in that group that group that wasn't moved. OK, maybe one or two, but they had gaping holes where their souls should have been.

  2. Kerry says:

    Nicely done. I think it was the valve oil component that I was missing.

    Memories are flooding back, as well as the requisite sweaty-hand feeling of going to band practice. I was never comfortable, especially during jazz practice, when we might suddenly be called upon to improvise. NO. THANK YOU. Makes me anxious right now, 20 years later.

  3. Kelly Sedinger says:

    What always bugged me about improvising is that nobody ever taught us how to do it…it was "Just play anything!", but you can't just start playing notes completely at random!

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