In high school, I played the trumpet. Baseball was my first love, and I would have much preferred playing on a baseball team than lugging a trumpet back and forth to school.
But skill conspired against me, so somewhere around fifth grade, a friend and I wound up with trumpets in our hands.
We attended band class every day, and we were required to practice five nights a week as homework, 30 minutes per day.
And 30 minutes per day is what I put in; not a second more. My mom’s kitchen timer clocked me in, and when the bell went off, I stopped practicing in mid-note, plopped the trumpet into its case, and set off to find out what was on television.
My friend’s house was on the way home, and when I stopped by — no matter the time of day or night — I’d usually find him with the trumpet in his hands. He didn’t have a timer, didn’t really need one, because he played as long as he wanted, just for the fun of it.
So he was dedicated, and I was diligent. And I would say most students filling the chairs in band class were like me. We were punching the clock, putting in our time and then moving on.
Some of us were members of a smaller jazz band group (extra credit, plain and simple). If you know anything about jazz, you know that it’s music with no boundaries or rules; it just ebbs and flows, seemingly on its own. You have to know what you’re doing to be a jazz musician.
The band director liked to give each of us a chance to showcase our talent, so to speak. Whether we wanted to or not, at some point we had to lay down the main track while the rest of the group played background. For the lead, there was no music to follow; the assignment didn’t require specific practice time, and there was no right or wrong. It simply required us to step up and play from the heart, drawing upon all of our years of practice. I believe it’s called a “riff” in the music world.
Having labored woodenly and just long enough over the music I had been provided for the prior eight years, I was in trouble.
As the band played behind me, I stared at the wall, my lips jammed into the trumpet’s mouthpiece, and nothing came out. Nothing. Listening to the music, I didn’t feel anything — other than fright. Years of practice had come down to this: I wasn’t a musician; I was a robot.
I slumped down, defeated, and wondered how more than a thousand hours of practice left me so woefully unprepared for my star turn.
And then my friend stood up for his shot, and he literally channeled Louis Armstrong. His music twisted and turned and dropped and climbed rhythmically, and the band fed off his energy and scaled new heights of its own. When he finished, there was an almost audible gasp of satisfaction in the room.
The instrument in my hands was workmanlike but nothing more; the same instrument in his hands was melodic and polished and inspiring.
I’ve often wondered why he was so good, and I wasn’t. In the end, it’s simple: My friend loved what he did, and it showed. I didn’t, and that showed, too.