A SCRATCHED black-and-white cornet mute rests on my bookcase. This device is one of the few tangible links left to remind me of times past in high school concert bands, stage bands, and marching bands. Extraordinary moments they were, of musical derring-do, embarrassing flubs, and emotional peaks of joy. It was like being in a special club - this cornet-trumpet world - whose members included such sparkling luminaries as Harry James, Al Hirt, and ``Doc'' Severinsen. Now, fragments of those experiences sometimes appear in dreams, like faint echoes down a long tunnel of years.
Although the cornet isn't as slim and powerful-looking as its cousin, the trumpet, it served my needs just fine for eight years. Actually, playing any instrument is much like playing sports. Any level of success requires drill in the fundamentals, self-confidence, and practice ... never-ending practice. Oh, but the rewards: hitting those sweet high notes in strong, clear blasts was every bit as exhilarating as a basketball slam dunk. And playing a solo well was just as ego-satisfying as sinking a crucial free throw. As for teamwork, imagine playing along with an enthusiastic brass section as it rollicks through a piece of music at fortissimo. As trumpeter Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong used to say, ``Ohhh, yeahhh!''
But summers were tough, just like an athlete's off-season. No more the daily discipline of band practice. While in high school, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of summers at the Illinois Youth Music Camp. We teen-agers from around the state flocked to Champaign-Urbana (the University of Illinois) to hone our musical ``muscles'' to a fine edge. Our ``workouts'' averaged five hours a day. (Talk about tired lips!) First, though, came the ordeal of auditioning for a spot in the band, then the butterflies-in-the-stomach wait to see the results posted. Our practices were held beneath a canvas circus tent. Thank goodness for youthful resilience and love of music. Because along with the usual rigor and fatigue of long practice sessions, we had the torment of oppressive heat, sticky clothing, and parched mouths - compliments of the sweltering, Midwest summer sun.
At last, that magical night of the concert arrived. Tingling with excitement, we young musicians sat ramrod-straight on risers in that same tent with its sawdust floor. Dusk brought a blessed lessening of the heat. Proud, attentive moms and dads and kids sat on folding chairs, fanning the still air with their programs. Their tanned faces smiled as a colorful selection of marches, fandangos, and other compositions unfolded before them. Such a thrill for me to play with good musicians in front of such an appreciative audience. We kids were swept along on an emotional high.
But then, all too soon, the last piece was played, and we smilingly took our final bows. And later, amid the busy swirl of packing and people piling into cars, we unhappily (even tearfully) said farewell to newfound buddies.
After the long drive home, the family car pulls into the driveway. Thud! back to normal. The rest of the summer stretches ahead, broad and empty as a salt flat. That beautifully honed performance edge, earned in sweat, begins to dull. Sun-kissed summertime fun dilutes self-discipline, and lessons are practiced halfheartedly. But such was my avocation year after year: playing the horn. (And consequently receiving valuable lessons about discipline and persistence.) Important, too, were examples of parental sacrifice, such as paying for lessons and enduring the horn's abrasive toots and blares - month after month, year after year.
Music was always there - until it couldn't be.
Like my fellow musicians, I finally reached that inevitable fork in the road. One branch led further into the world of notes and sheet music. And it demanded much more commitment. The other branch wound off into unknown territory.
My choice to walk the latter path was made with some resignation. I had earned much kudos as a horn-blower but had gone as far as I wanted. The musician's life just wasn't for me. So I reluctantly let go of my cornet and its accouterments - such longtime companions. Looking back, it was as if my life were a speedboat, and I was gently slipping these possessions overboard, sadly pausing a moment to watch them bob and drift away in the churning wake.
Amazingly, I can still remember cornet fingerings pretty well. But the lip muscles have long since gone.
But in some dreams I am playing the horn again. Or up pops our high school band conductor, himself a trombonist and admirable fellow. The mind spins out numerous variations.
Sidenote: Three years ago a group of us high school alumni were given a tour of the 'ol alma mater. For most of us, our curiosity had been sharpened by more than a decade of absence. Ironically for the musicians in our group, when we arrived at the doors of the wing that housed the concert band and choir, our guide didn't have the keys! I guess the memories lingering among the music stands will just have to wait a big longer.
George Gershwin was always asked to play the piano at parties. Being a musical genius surely helped his popularity, but the piano is such a socially amiable creature; - more so than the cornet. Actually, if I chose to take up music again, I would prefer the piano because of that. But while my mind says, ``piano,'' my heart is still drawn to that horn.
My slightly battered mute has earned its permanent home atop the bookcase. You see, I've come to look upon it as a cherished trophy. And its unique power unlocks very special, happy memories. Oh, yeah!