If music be the food of love.....
(better opt for a pre-nup)
I was encouraged to take up the trumpet by a lad called James, a cornet-playing school friend. We were young, about eleven, and at the type of school where you could have a go at blowing something without being arrested. What swung it was that he told me, with a surreptitious raising of the eyebrows, 'the teacher wears a mini-skirt'.
On a personal development note, not unlike a snake shedding a skin, things were stirring in the reproductive department. Unspotted, my ‘rep-dep’ had performed a covert take-over of my ‘department-for-reason’, that little-used region between the ears where important decisions are made. Perhaps it had all begun a few days before when I'd been grabbed in a sensitive area by 'matron' who invited me to cough. She looked like an East German discuss-thrower so was not someone to cross swords with, to mix metaphors. I wasn't a hundred percent sure what that was all about but she wrote something on a pad and I was sent on my way with a horse-riders gait.
I nervously approached my first trumpet lesson feeling increasingly nauseous. Brought suddenly into sharp focus that odour of school (Eau de School). It pervaded as I deep-breathed in readiness to get some wind through a bent, brass tube. Floor polish, pipe smoke, sweat, lunch – a smell unique to a school corridor. It could be harnessed and used as a nerve agent against religious fanatics in the desert.
'Oxygenate', James had instructed me. I was trying but getting dizzier by the second. On the point of hyperventilation I began to hallucinate......
…...what if the mini-skirted teacher is a prop forward called Arthur?
I opened the door and there she was. Yes, she. I have wondered since which direction my life may have taken should the skirted one have been an eighteen-stone slab with a scrum cap. I might have been marching through a city centre in crotchless leathers chanting, 'balls to inequality'.
Joan she was called, stick thin and tall. More skin than clothing. She didn't look to have enough puff to blow a trumpet. But I was wrong. She really was very accomplished but I have to admit to being a little overawed to start with. After all, I'd been wrenched out of a rural environment where it was not uncommon to see substantial ladies in dungarees shouting at cows. To encounter a semi-naked trumpeter was a bit out of left field and took a month or two to get accustomed to.
However, over the next couple of eye-popping years she taught me to play. She must have seen something because I was sent on to the 'big school' to try and win a music scholarship. I was driven down with James in his father's Bentley. Vomiting in the Mersey Tunnel en route didn't help and may have been part of the reason that I came away empty-handed.
But I did continue to play at the big school. Orchestra, brass band and some trad jazz. Our jazz combo was enthusiastically led by a teacher nicknamed pubes, due to his big black beard, a beard almost as impressive as matron's.
Never really accomplished, I enjoyed the music but realized my limitations when I met a lad called Richard. He could play the piano by ear. All he had to do was waggle his fingers about and out came a tune – annoying git. The Sting (Redford / Newman) came out in 1973, just as I arrived at the big school. My mate heard Scott Joplin's The Entertainer on a little radio not much bigger than a fag packet – then sat down at the piano and played the bloody thing straight through. Increasingly annoying git. Playing by ear is a gift, one that I didn't have. Still don't.
I shared a study with a guy that also played the trumpet, at least he told me he did. I'm not sure I ever heard him play, he certainly never joined the groups I played in. Perhaps he was too self-conscious – or had other plans. It was only years later that I learned that he headed one of the countries leading rock bands. I once stayed up till one in the morning to watch him headline a huge charity concert on TV. I didn't even recognize him. I gather the band was at it's peak in the late eighties but they still have periodic resurgences, which, by a cruel twist of fate, seem to coincide with a flare-up of my facial psoriasis. Spot the talent?
I've continued to play over the years - keyboard, badly. And that's no false modesty. I gave up the trumpet a long time ago, my decision vindicated by an episode in 1993 that would have been excruciatingly embarrassing had I not been pissed. Tex Matthews and his band came to play at the local golf club. (I'd taken up golf because it was largely silent and I could contemplate my shortcomings in the undergrowth beyond the fairways). He was a trumpeter and headed a swing / jazzy combo. Good fun they were too. (I think I'm right with his name although an internet search fails to find any record of him. It was twenty-five years ago, I suspect the band has retired to the archives). At the half time break I staggered up and told him how much I was enjoying the evening and that I used to play a bit.
'Here,' he said, 'have a blow.'
I couldn't get a note out of it. It may have been too much ale or too many fags I don't know but the instrument remained stubbornly mute, except for a nasty, asthmatic hiss.
'Haven't lost your touch then?' said Tex.
'Carry on,' I replied, handing the trumpet back, 'I don't think it's working properly.'
Bit of a musical confidence-sapper that but I do hack around on my Yamaha keyboard in the privacy of our spare bedroom, often in dressing gown or undies - the customary livery of a rock god. I keep the door shut so as not to offend anyone else and wear headphones for my own protection.
Music has always been in me, it's just a pity I'm so bad - there never really was much hope of success. Having said that, if a thin bloke in a suit playing banjo while singing through his nose can make it, surely there's hope for anyone. 'Leaning on a Lamp-Post' earned him immortality. It's what I do on the way home after a glass or two of red.
I am the unsung hero of the proper musician. To appreciate anything there needs to be something with which it can be compared. I am a musical datum point, a crochety soul frustrated by lack of ability against whom anyone else may be favourably judged. I've even stopped singing in the shower. I have to have the window open, to release the steam because the fan's packed up, and I don't want to frighten the natives.
As I sit and write I'm composing an advert to place on our local internet discussion page: Appalling keyboard player seeks equally inept musicians to make a noise.
But I probably won't pluck up the courage to post it.
© Jo May 2017