Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"A Well-Tuned Word"

Bradley was learning to play the trumpet as part of a youth band that his mom had signed him up for last year. Nearly a hundred young musicians met every Tuesday evening to rehearse under the direction of the local High School music teacher, Ms. Tabitha. There were a good number of different brass instruments in the band: a few trombones, several baritones, a tuba, a couple french horn players and a squadron of trumpets, of which he was one of the youngest.

Though most of his bandmates were older than he was, Bradley had a bit more experience playing his instrument than many of his fellow trumpeters. His grandfather had played the very similar cornet, and Bradley had been permitted to play around with the instrument for most of his life. He had also learned to read music at the same time he’d learned his letters, and so in the context of technical theory, he was leaps and bounds ahead of the others.

While the musicians spent a few minutes assembling and warming up their instruments, Ms. Tabitha walked around the room and handed out a new piece of music. “This is a fairly advanced selection,” she cautioned. “Usually I reserve this for my second or third-year students, but I’ve been so impressed with your work ethic as a team, and how much time you have each invested in practicing your craft, that I’m confident we can take this on. I hope we will be ready to present it at our spring recital in June.

The piece was called “The Great Steamboat Race,” and it told the story of two old merchant vessels charging down a river, trying to outpace each other. There were parts for all the regular instruments -- clarinets, flutes, saxophones and the like -- but the heart of it lay with the percussion section, where milk jugs full of water and whistles would replace the drums and xylophones they were accustomed to using.

When everyone had spent a few minutes looking over the pages, Ms. Tabitha had them listen to a recorded version that she’d found on YouTube, played through by a professional orchestra. It was a crashing, dynamic piece of music. You could almost picture the sailors urging their boat up to full steam, getting covered in coal dust and water as they pounded against the current.

Each musician was trying to pick out their own instruments as they listened to the track, but Bradley didn’t have to wait long or strain his ears to detect his part. The whole piece began with a duet between a trumpet and a flute, and there were many spaces for more solos from beginning to end. Bradley snuck a peak around at his fellow trumpet players, each listening to those solos with the same hope that they might be the one person trusted to play them alone. His self-confidence wilted into discouragement.

Ms. Tabitha walked them through the music very slowly, giving everyone plenty of time to find their proper fingerings and slide positions. By the end of their two-hour practice, they had gone through the whole piece twice, and everyone was instructed to practice it on their own several times before the next meeting. “We’ll start assigning the solos as early as next week,” Ms. Tabitha said as they cleaned out and packed up their instruments. “If you want one of those parts, you had better practice every day.

On his way out the door, Ms. Tabitha signaled for Bradley to come and chat a moment. He stepped aside so the other students could get past and find their waiting parents. “Bradley, I know you’re intimidated by some of the other players in your section, but you are a very talented kid. And beyond talent, you work hard to learn every piece we play. I want you to audition for the trumpet solos next week. I think you have a habit of underestimating yourself, but I believe you have what it takes to lead the section.

Bradley was surprised but deeply encouraged by his teacher’s attention and praise. “Thank you,” he said, sheepishly. “I’ll do my best.

When Bradley got home, he set his alarm for six o’clock in the morning, ate his supper, brushed his teeth and went straight off to bed. It was still well before sunrise when the alarm went off, but Bradley woke himself up, pulled on his clothes and took his grandfather’s cornet down to the basement where his playing wouldn’t rouse the rest of his family. He practiced the solo parts until his mother called him up for breakfast nearly two hours later.

Bradley dutifully practiced like this every day for the whole week. By Tuesday morning, he’d committed the part to memory, and on Tuesday evening he played through his audition without even one mistake. Ms. Tabitha beamed as she awarded him the lead solo. While it’s probable that the other musicians had spent some time in practice, Bradley had obviously devoted far more energy and effort into playing through the piece on his own time. “Well done,” she said. “I knew you could do it.

Truth is, Bradley hadn’t known whether or not he was capable of taking the lead, but a few positive words from his teacher had given him the nerve to try, and it was all the encouragement he’d needed.