Blame it on Pops

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If I remember correctly, my elementary school required that its students sing in the school choir or play an instrument. My older brother insisted that if I took up an instrument it should be something suitable for a boy.

I chose trumpet. It was loud, shiny and, I thought, how difficult could it be? All I needed to do was figure out the keys and fill my cheeks with air. Well that’s what I thought. After all, Louis Armstrong (Pops) made it sound so powerful and majestic and made it look so easy. I wanted to play like Pops, who was one of my big brother’s favorites. My mother bought me a used instrument that came with an oversized beige and brown case. I bought two mouthpieces, some valve oil and I shined it to perfection. And before my first lesson I was able to produce a few pitches with cheeks fully extended.

My first lesson was about embouchure – shaping the facial muscles and lips to fit the mouthpiece. In the second lesson I learned that Louis Armstrong’s technique was “bad,” in that the cheeks should not be extended while playing. My ten-year-old world was turned up side down. Louis Armstrong is wrong? My brother has bad taste in musicians? Who would I emulate now?

So throughout elementary, middle school and high school I played trumpet in the school orchestra and in my neighborhood pick-up band. While my trumpet teachers required “proper” technique my boys in the neighborhood liked seeing (not hearing) me play solos like Armstrong (Pops). As a result I never settled on a technique and was always a mediocre player at best. Years later I learned that technique was all about getting the instrument to produce the sounds and ideas that are in the head and heart, by any embouchure necessary. Got any music lesson war stories?