Blame it on Pops

Thursday, November 04, 2010 - 12:10 PM

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?

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Terrance McKnight

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Comments [7]

Harry from Brooklyn, NY

My grandmother took me to Cincinnati Symphony concerts on a regular basis and my mother danced with the summer opera, so I got a lot of classical music (live and recorded) as a kid. I also had piano lessons with the church organist, who taught me a lot about harmonics and music theory. His style was gentle and I learned a lot.

After my mother re-married, I moved to a new city and had a new piano teacher. May Estelle Forbes had high standards and drove me crazy with her focus on precise technique and complex interpretation. She eventually told my parents that they would have to buy a new piano if they expected me to continue with her. Nonetheless, I remain grateful to Ms. Forbes for helping me understand the hard work it takes to be a great musician.

For instance, I attended Brad Meldau's "Highway Traveler" at Zankel Hall Tuesday night. I will never play piano that well, but I thank him and his colleagues for a fabulous evening. I understand how well he played and I also appreciate my earlier studies of music theory. The piano is so transparent, that you can be a piano nerd even if you are not a virtuoso.

Nov. 11 2010 05:49 AM
BWB from Brooklyn, NY

Well, Terrance, be glad your folks got you the instrument you *wanted* to play, right off the bat.

In my case, I wanted to learn either piano or guitar.My parents were probably worried that my desire for Instrument "A" was influenced by my liking the Beatles, and they weren't at all prepared to bring even an upright into the household, bought or rented. The solution? Send me to downtown Manhattan for...accordion lessons. Mind you, this was a few decades before a certain Mr. Yankovic somehow made the instrument kinda-sorta hip. I gamely tried, but the experience largely squeezed the enthusiasm for learning out of me.

At some point, I'd like to take a stab at learning guitar. Some desires aren't so easily killed, I guess.

- Barrett

Nov. 10 2010 01:18 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

To Alan Katz...Brass can be difficult to play 'cause of all that heavy breathing. Breath control is important just like singing. Can you believe that there are brass players who actually are smokers too???!!!

But of all the wind instruments, it always seems, from their facial expressions, that the oboe players are always in the most pain.

Nov. 05 2010 07:56 AM
Guy Jones from New York, NY

I think the useful aspect of having played an instrument (irrespective of one's talent level) is an increased appreciation for what professional musicians have achieved with that particular instrument. Knowing firsthand the difficulty of playing the trumpet would give one a greater appreciation for the great musicians who played it -- for example, Miles Davis's restrained yet lyrical tone; Satchmo's New Orleans-tinged virtuosity; Chet Baker; Clifford Brown; and switching to the french horn in the classical realm (which I've heard takes incredibly strong lungs to play due to the difficulty of forcing air through the long length of the brass tubing) -- Herman Baumann and Dennis Brain, among others.

Nov. 04 2010 06:58 PM
Alan Katz from NYC

The brass instruments always struck me as being rather difficult to learn how to play, due in part to the necessity of having a proper embouchere to produce any sound of sustained force, even apart from attempting to create a decent tone. Trombone, in particular, because of the additional guesswork involved in moving the slide to the proper position for a given note.

I took up alto sax in junior high school, and while I wasn't any Charlie Parker, the reed-based woodwinds always struck me as being somewhat easier to play than brass instruments.

I always enjoy your show, Terrance, due in part to the background anecdotes you provide on the composers and/or artists and the works themselves. Keep up the good work.

Nov. 04 2010 06:48 PM

For me it was the violin because I was actually dared to do it. Later, I took many, many private lessons that lasted up to two hours - from a teacher who was a chain smoker.

Nov. 04 2010 04:19 PM
John J.Christiano from Franklin NJ

Yeah, keep your cheeks in...unless you're Dizzy Gillespie.

I had poor lip strength. First recommendation was grow a mustache; not hard for a 14 year old Italian boy. But Sister Regina Christie would have no part of that.

I found out that if I created an underbite by pushing my lower jaw forward, I could strengthen my embouchure.

Nov. 04 2010 01:21 PM

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