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Tuesday, December 6, 2005
A Musical Memory, Circa Christmas 1981

On the unproven theory that politics isn't everything, and on the superstition that things happen in threes, I'm writing my third consecutive post on amateur music before turning back to politics. This post is an anecdote, and it's really not local. Last evening's American Fork Symphony concert did revive the memory, however.

As I have recently confessed in this blog, I used to play the trumpet. I didn't play especially well, but I played for seven years, until I quit after my first semester of college. I was first chair trumpet in the high school concert band for three years, but it wasn't that great a band, so that doesn't mean I was terribly good. In fact, the band program struggled at Snake River High School for a few years, while the choral programs routinely excelled. Then my junior year brought Vern Buffaloe to us as our new band teacher. He was our own John Miller's mentor, an excellent musician, and a truly gifted teacher of young musicians. He used to program computer simulations of tank battles at the Pentagon in the summers so he could afford a teacher's salary during the school year.

There was what I believe was a long-standing tradition of ending the annual high school Christmas concert with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, sung by the combined choirs, plus alumni, and accompanied by the band. (We had no orchestra.)

Those who have performed that particular Handel chorus know that there is a rest for both choir and orchestra prior to the final "hallelujah." Most of us have, at one time or another, in rehearsal (I hope) or performance, missed that rest and have boldly dived into the next note, only to find ourselves alone, embarrassed, and the subject of mockery (in rehearsal) or anger (in performance). I've never done that in performance.

But if you are the first trumpet, there's another passage you don't want to miss, a loud little flourish in the middle, where no one is singing and you're pretty much alone. You're also in a part of the trumpet's register where intonation is not especially easy; if you hit the right notes, there's no guarantee that they'll be in tune. Mess it up, and everybody knows it.

In rehearsal on the very day of the Christmas concert, Mr. Buffaloe (a very kind man, despite this story) cut us off just after that passage. I was afraid I had missed it and not noticed, but I hadn't. He said to me, in front of the whole band (all 30 of us), "David, I have never heard you miss those notes, not even in rehearsal. I'm going to look at you and smile when we get to that passage tonight, in performance, and see if that flusters you enough to make you miss a note."

As a matter of fact, before the first time I ever rehearsed the piece with the band, I had practiced that precise passage over and over again, because I intended never to miss those notes. It would be like going to school without putting my pants on, or something like that -- a nightmare, at least to my youthful, oversized musical ego. Now Mr. Buffaloe had thrown down the gauntlet. I worried about that a little, but I didn't have any extra practice time before the concert. During pre-concert warmups I played through that passage a couple of times. He heard me doing so and smiled, reminding me of what he had said he would do.

Vern Buffaloe (who passed away a few years ago) is a saint, in my book. He was one of my most influential teachers, and I miss him more than most. But he was also a man of his word. In that night's performance, a few measures before the flourish in question, I could see him start to twinkle. As the strategic moment approached, he almost stopped directing the band altogether, caught my eye, and grinned at me. I heard the trumpeter next to me, who didn't have any notes to play just then, start to chuckle.

There's not much point in smiling when you have a trumpet to your lips, so I didn't. Instead, as the prominent passage approached, I turned slightly toward him and away from my sheet music. It was time. I held his gaze, took a deep breath, and . . .

. . . nailed it. He grinned more broadly and nodded, and the music moved on. After the concert, he used it as an excuse to shake my hand, and my girlfriend used it as an excuse to hug me.

It wouldn't have been the end of the world, or even my world, if I had missed it, and I don't think I would have hated him. Had I missed it, we would have apologized to each other, would both have felt a little miserable for a while (I for botching it, he for applying the extra pressure), and eventually would have laughed about it. As it was, he threw down the musical guantlet, I picked it up, and it went a lot better than such things sometimes do.

Now it's just a memory -- but maybe that memory and others like it help justify the amateur music that doesn't sound as good as the same piece on my compact disc. Music is generally a very human thing, anyway, but it's doubly so when it's live, and when it's you.

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