Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Jill vs. the French horn

When I was in seventh grade, one of our English class assignments was to write a letter to our twelfth grade selves, which we would receive at our high school graduation. In my letter, I said I wanted to go to Harvard and major in Trumpet. I was not joking.

[Stares into your eyes for a long awkward moment.]

Needless to say, I did not follow this path, and there were two main culprits: braces and band camp. At a time where I would sit and actively think about things like embouchure and spit valves and Maynard Ferguson, a critical time in any twelve-year-old girl's life, my crooked, crooked teeth betrayed me. Do you know what happens when you practice scales for hours, a cold steel mouthpiece on one side of your lips and a garland of hideous metal brackets and wires on the other? Well...it's somewhere between a paper cut and forty lashes, except inside your mouth.

Full of adolescent zeal, I forged on. I listened to Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis; I daydreamed about Carnegie Hall and Variations on 'Carnival of Venice'. I blazed through Arban's Complete Conservatory Method like a tornado through a trailer park. I lugged my trumpet case and music stand everywhere, including on our family vacation to the lake—Harmon mutes, valve oil, Jerry Coker's Method for Improvisation, and all. Surely people from the surrounding cabins were surprised to see a fourteen year old girl with a bad perm and a neon Gitano sweatshirt standing at the end of the dock, playing Taps for a stringer of walleye. True story, by the way.

Behaviors like this did not endear me to people in my age group, just in case you were wondering.

One of the proudest moments of my junior year occurred at the Spring Pops Concert. A handful of scholarships to International Music Camp were handed out...and my name was called! I felt like Miss America in an acid-washed jean skirt! In just a couple of short months I would be whisked away to scenic Dunseith, ND (the geographical center of North America!) to spend a full week honing my craft with teenage jazz fiends from all over the world—people just like me! Weird and ungainly people who knew the difference between a major, a minor, and a minor-major 7th chord! MY people!

Bursting with ambition, I practiced every day that summer. And as I practiced, I made some subtle adjustments to my technique, to accommodate my shiny new retainers. I started to play slightly off to one side of my mouth, which, as it turns out, is a Very Bad Thing if you want to be the next Clifford Brown.

The network of tiny muscles surrounding the mouth is delicate, and if the balance is upset, the entire mechanism can collapse like a house of cards. The damage is not necessarily reversible. Sometime in the middle of my week at IMC, this happened to me. Air (and if I'm being honest, spit) started to escape from one side of my mouth, and my range was reduced by half. My lips felt like bruised cardboard. The harder I tried to produce a brilliant tone, the more my playing sounded like the caterwauling of a dying moose. Quite literally, I busted my own chops.

The Ivy League would never know what it had lost.

Several months of soul-searching followed. All I wanted to do was play my trumpet, but every time I tried it was like running a marathon with a torn ACL. I needed a new “sport,” and my high school band needed a new French horn player. I gave it a try, and the mouthpiece was different enough that I could handle playing it, at least for short periods of time. But...French horn, you know? French horn. A French horn wishes it sounded like the caterwaul of a dying moose.


If the trumpet is a sleek and shiny Porsche convertible, the French horn is a station wagon with faux-woodgrain paneling. You spend so much time going oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah, that by the time you get a measure and a half of glory, an actual fragment of the melody line, it is guaranteed that the instrument will crack and bray like Peter Brady on 'Time to Change.' This is why there are no famous French horn players: they are all too embarrassed to leave the house.

I will leave you with this food for thought:

I like this person! This person is using the French horn to its best advantage, as a weapon of musical mass destruction.

Join me for the next installment of Jill vs. the French horn, where I will tell you about the time I was in a brass quintet, and how when we rehearsed, my favorite teacher would drop everything to stand behind me and laugh at my horrendous playing until tears came down. I did not mind this, as I was in on the joke...after all, I had ears...and if I started laughing into my mouthpiece while I played, well, nobody seemed the wiser.

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