Monday, December 26, 2016

How to know

In fourth grade, Hyde Elementary School offered free lessons on any orchestral instrument. My friend Ta and I thought we wanted to learn trumpet.

This wasn't a well-informed decision - we weren't sure whether it was called "trumpet" or "trombone," but we agreed that we wanted to play the one where your fingers went up and down on some buttons, not the one where your whole arm goes back and forth.

For some reason I was under the impression my parents wouldn't be supportive. Perhaps because I'd taken piano and not kept on with it, and then drum lessons and hadn't played at all during the year we lived in Latin America, despite having brought along sticks and a practice pad.

So I brought it up in an offhand way: we were rolling down the driveway to go on a bike ride, and I said, "We can take instrument lessons for free for a year. Ta and I were thinking we'd like to play trumpet."


Having gotten their assent so easily, I realized I wasn't sure how much I actually wanted to do it, but at that point I felt like I couldn't back out, since I'd said I wanted to do it.

So I started playing trumpet.

Within a couple of months, our parents decided we needed more rigorous instruction than could be provided by the music teacher at school, so we switched to lessons with Bob Pettipaw. He lived about a mile away and was a serious freelancer in the Boston area.

We would go for joint lessons. Ta's mother or mine would drop us off at Mr. Pettipaw's house for an hour. We would each have a 25-minute solo lesson upstairs in Mr. Pettipaw's studio, then at the end he'd have us do 10 minutes of duets. During the 25 minutes that the other guy was upstairs with a lesson, we each had the run of the books in the living room.

There were coffee-table books of art which got some attention. A lot of novels that didn't draw the attention of 9-year-olds. And several volumes of the cartoons of Charles Addams. It took a while to get through all of them, but we nonetheless read each of those books several times.

I studied with Mr. Pettipaw for almost six years and learned a great deal from him.

But before that, after only about three weeks of trumpet lessons with the music teacher at Hyde School, one of our mothers got the idea of taking us to the community band. We both knew how to read music already, but as trumpet players we had no business joining a wind ensemble made up of good high school players and serious adult amateurs. Nonetheless, the conductor didn't turn us away. He set us up on 3rd-cornet parts, where we would face the least difficulty, and where we could do the least harm to the group.

Though they were the easiest parts available, they were still a steep challenge for novices like us. So my father wood-shedded them with us. Ta and I would sit next to each other facing the music on the stand. Dad sat behind us, following the music through the space between our heads. We worked through our parts line by line or measure by measure, finding the places where we had difficulty and working out the notes.

For this one particular incident, I don't remember whether Ta was there, or if Dad was working with me on my own. There was a measure where the rhythm was especially tricky and Dad asked, "Where's beat 1?" I pointed to the beginning of the measure.

"Where's beat 2?" I pointed to a spot later in the measure.

"Where's beat 3?"

"Uh, ... here?" and the indistinct motion of my finger matched the hesitancy in my voice.

"Don't guess. Know."

Not everything in this life is knowable. But many things are. And if they matter to you, you shouldn't guess at them; you should put in the mental effort to know them, not just guess.

It was a lesson memorably delivered.

"High tide, I see."

One of many Charles Addams cartoons I remember from afternoons
reading in Mr. Pettipaw's living room.

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