When I was at Maranatha* playing trumpet was really my escape. For one thing, it got me out of at least part of the mandatory evening study halls. I would find a large room in the upper floor of the school building and play for hours on end. At the time I had dreams of becoming an orchestral trumpet player. I was really into the most difficult pieces I could find, the more black on the page the better. Bach in particular was a favorite.
While I did of course work through all the exercise books and methods, I was really into playing songs. I would get lost in those melodies. I could play, close my eyes and be anywhere – anywhere away from the oppressive place that I was. I could be a successful performer in a pit orchestra or on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. I was a pretty decent player and in my sophomore year I placed first at State level competitions and went on to Nationals and became one of the youngest trumpet players to take a first place there. The next year I had hoped to repeat my success but over the summer my trumpet teacher (and also tennis instructor), Phil Richdenwald, the same guy who taught me that the high notes were just a couple millimeters above notes I played all time, noticed, as did I that I was getting worse not better. The problem persisted for months. Despite increasing practice time, my playing was getting worse and worse. Phil finally recognized the problem.
Embouchure is the word used to describe the placement of the mouth on a particular instrument. Phil had me play in front of a mirror and we could both see the problem. Due to natural growth in my face my upper lip had physically changed and I had unwittingly been adjusting my embouchure as a “cheat” to compensate. What I had been doing was moving the mouthpiece down and down until only a tiny bit of my upper lip was in the mouthpiece. It was really discouraging. I could no longer even play the piece that I had gone to nationals with. By the time I returned to Maranatha for my Junior year I could hardly play at all.
Phil contacted an expert and he designed a program for me to basically “start over” with the instrument. If I wanted to keep playing I basically had to begin again by positioning my lips on the mouthpiece in the proper fashion. I couldn’t play songs at all. I was so discouraged because that was my main foil to the otherwise discouraging environment of Maranatha. The program required that I play long, sustained notes for literally an hour at a time. Just holding notes, no melody, no vibrato, just long boring notes.
I complained to Phil that I wanted to just quit. I wanted to play music, not this. I wanted to be a musician. At that point Phil laid a serious piece of wisdom on me. He said this *is* music, that sometimes “being a musician” involves the not making music parts. He said I had to view the art of being a musician as a much bigger thing. Sometimes it involves playing songs but a lot of the time it was doing other things relevant to that end; Sitting silent and reading music like you were reading a book, holding hours of long notes for months on end. Phil had long told me to hear music in scales and other exercises, no matter how banal and mundane they seemed.
I think any passion is this way. Running is not always putting one foot in front of another; it’s sometimes doing the things necessary to achieve that end. It’s a lot like panning back getting a bigger picture of something. The bigger picture of me as a trumpet player involved this long waylay into a period in which I had to set down the part I enjoyed so much in order to return to it stronger than ever later. Same deal with running. Sometimes “being a runner” involves the not running part – the elliptical machine, the weights, the cross-training, and the mental understanding. Indeed, at times, being a runner means resting the mechanisms necessary for running.
An unexpected thing happened to me during those months and months of playing nothing but long sustained notes. I started to hear music in the notes themselves. I studied the way the sound reverberated in different rooms and I started to hear notes in context where there really wasn’t any context. This is the top note of Bach’s “air with variations”, I would think to myself. The incredible thing at the end of this process was being able to do it again, to play melodies as strong, if not stronger than ever before.
If running is your thing, embrace the totality of being a runner, not just the running part.
*Maranatha is “Maranatha Baptist Academy” in Watertown, WI. It is the hyper strict boarding school I went to for the first three years of high school. They enforced a regimented schedule 24/7 that discouraged any individuality, substituting their judgment for your own. It was an oppressive environment that is difficult to describe. Suffice it to say they would beat children with a board for what you would think of as minor infractions. I regard it as the worst three years of my life.
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