Friday, October 17, 2014

Wind in My Sails

This cornet is exactly like mine (including the case)
You can get one for under $100
After 20 plus years, I recently picked up my cornet and started playing. It's not a fine instrument, my cornet. It has age, and character. The first valve sticks sometimes. The sound is a bit bright, a bit stuffy, and the mouthpiece is bowl-shaped instead of the more typical V you want for a cornet. On the other hand, I haven't had so much fun in years.

What's fun, oddly, is the discipline of doing something that has no professional purpose or possibility. Writing used to be that way, and then I got the crazy notion of trying to publish some things (not that I try that hard, but I do try). On cornet, I'm just a guy in his forties blowing sound out of a brass pipe.

But the process of learning to hold the instrument to my lips, and create from my body a sweet sound, is its own reward here. Most of my playing is done in a practice room at the college. If other people can hear me, they mostly have my sympathy. I'm not there to impress anybody. I just want to do it right, not because of some duty but for the sake of creating a pure sound, a sweet and clear tone.

Not many things in life are like this, I think. Most of what we do is for duty--that's been my experience. Why else do I get up at the crack of dawn? Why else do I read certain books and put in my hours and go here and there running around in the car? All of that--a good chunk of my life--is for nothing but duty.

But playing a horn that nobody can hear, and disciplining my body to learn to breathe, and my lips to buzz, and my jaw to stay in position ... all this is just completely outside of any necessity whatsoever. I'm doing it because I want to. And nobody else wants me to ... er ... expects me to.

I guess writing is like that still, even in spite of my feeble efforts to publish what I've written. I don't do any of that because I have to. I'm not a starving artist with no other skill set. (Maybe that's why I'm not more driven to send out my work.) Nobody's expecting me to write something or put it in the mail. The closest I get to that is writing I do for work which, partly for that reason no doubt, feels like drudgery and toil. And I suppose disciplining myself to learn the craft of fiction, how to shape a narrative, how to hone description and bring out voices and delve into the red blood of a character ... all that is for the sake of doing it right, getting that "clear tone," too. I do want to make my stories sing, for myself first and foremost. And here comes the other reason I don't send things out as diligently as I should: I can hardly get a better rush than when I know the story is right, in the quiet of my own study. (And more often it's something far worse than a rush that I get back from my endeavors to interest an editor in my delicacies.)

At some point, I know, I am going to want to step out of the practice room and play a few tunes in the hearing of human ears. I'm not there yet, but when my horn is responding to me the way I'd like it to, that moment won't be far behind. Even then, it won't be performance that I'm after. I'll want the joy of playing with other musicians, contributing my horn's voice to a larger whole, on the sweet sounds set down by a genius. If writing could somehow be more like that, I suppose I'd be less timid. But every bit of words scratched on paper--even this half-random blog post--feels like a performance, even if only to me. When it's read, there's a finality to it that a musical rehearsal doesn't have. That's not always true--critique groups break the rule there--but it's often enough true. And out there in the world of professional performance, there be wolves and dragons.

So maybe that's my last hurdle, the reluctance that keeps me close to the vest. Who knows? Who cares? What matters tonight is that I've found little gusts of joy that, in spare moments, refresh me, like a cool wind on the sea, filling my sails.

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