I thought I would start writing down my thoughts about music in the same way I have been writing about running. A good place to start for me is to say a few words about the instrument that got me started in the word of music, the trumpet.
I am a trumpeter, since the age of 9, after hearing my grandad Ron’s jazz records. When I heard big bands and New Orleans music, the trumpets were loud and proud and so triumphant they made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. When I heard a muted trumpet playing a ballad, it filled me with a warm melancholy that was emotional and mysterious to my young ears. I started to practice. First, my grandad showed me the ropes on an old cornet and then as soon as I can remember I started to improvise. My ears guided me through my improvising and I was able to solo long before understanding what I was doing musically.
The trumpet is a difficult instrument to master, It requires a physical and disciplined approach, a weight lifters mentality when exercising to increase range and master technique. A lead trumpeter in a big band for instance, must have great chops*. They need a combination of breath, muscle and fine technique to play a full range of notes with a controlled tone and perfect tuning. Learning any instrument requires patience and a keen interest in everything involved. I, however, was not a technician, I wasn’t interested in looking after my trumpet, wasn’t into talking about trumpets with other trumpeters. Ask me what mouthpiece I used, how big was my bell? No idea! I just wanted to play and improvise.
Although in awe of trumpet gymnastics, when younger, I did not aspire to this way of playing. I heard players like Miles Davis with his warm, melodic, almost nonchalant sound and I wanted to play like that. At that time, that was the way I wanted to express myself with the trumpet and it sounded effortless. However, many great musicians are like swans. They look majestic above the water, but underneath, where you can’t see, they are paddling like mad.
At points when learning anything, you hit a plateau, you realise you are going to have to put some effort in to get better and this tests your resolve. It happens at any age, any ability. Artists must keep learning and innovating, they must rise above to discover themselves further. When younger, I often lacked the discipline to keep progressing on the trumpet. I threw my energy into developing skills in other areas; I discovered singing and playing other instruments, composing and recording, all of which of course make me who I am today.
In the last few years, and for the first time in my life really, I have started to enjoy the act of studying my trumpet further, and studying jazz harmony. I love performing, but there are things you can only learn through sitting down and reading or working them out yourself and fortunately I find pleasure in it now, I feel proud about my small achievements and progressions. Perhaps the discipline I have learnt training for marathons has somehow translated over to the trumpet, or maybe I am just a bit wiser now and ready to learn again. I will endeavour to study and learn more throughout my life, to keep progressing with this challenging instrument I have found myself attached to.
One final note, I Brasso’d and polished my trumpet (Stomvi mambo) for the first time ever, what a great feeling to have it nice and shiny. It has survived a decade of gigs, travelling with me around the world. It has been dropped; dented, forgotten in numerous places, mysteriously disappeared and reappeared, left on a train, left off a train, jumped on mistakenly by an exuberant band member, it has sprung a leak live on stage which fired spit in my eye as I was playing (imagine a clowns flower), its been patched up, fixed three times and most recently, dropped out of a locker after a long haul flight onto a ladies head (A whole jumbo jet tutted at me). Poor thing, how did it end up with me!
*Chops are not something for the BBQ. To a musician, it means skill or excellence in their particular field. More specifically to a trumpeter, chops are also another word for embouchure*.
*Embouchure - The embouchure is the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of woodwind instruments or the mouthpiece of the brass instruments, Embouchure is not a way of cooking chops.