Trumpet voluntary

Within 32 bars of hearing and seeing the school orchestra for the first time, I knew I wanted to play the trumpet. As the years rock by at presto pace, I have no idea now of how good the performance was, or what piece was played. But I do know that as an eleven-year-old with musical aspirations, those combined sights and sounds were a landmark moment in my life. Percussion did not feature in the orchestra’s line-up; letting anyone loose on cymbals or timpani at our school would have been courting disaster but, that aside, there was a full complement of instruments. Strings went from double bass and cello through to viola and violin, woodwind featured flute, clarinet and oboe. The glittering brass section included euphonium, French horn, trombone and trumpet. Everywhere was vibrant music and movement. Sawing bows, swaying bodies, fingers dancing on valves or keys, bobbing heads, faces masks of concentration, with eyes darting between sheet music and the baton-brandishing conductor. My own eyes lingered mainly on the trumpet players. Straight-backed, slick, and seriously cool as they took the melody, but somehow even cooler when resting between musical passages, the bells of their instruments perched and ready on their left thighs. It is not for nothing that certain brass instruments are also referred to as horns.

At breaktime the following morning I sped, prestissimo, to the classroom where the head of music lurked among dusty scores and folded music stands. To us he seemed ancient but was probably not yet 60. Tall, gangly, with a bald, thin head that hung like a vulture’s on an elongated neck, and eyes that peered through steel rimmed glasses, he was neat and contained with baton in hand but ungainly and lollopy when moving about. This being the early 1960s, we naturally called him Elvis. “Please sir,” I said nervously, “I want to play the trumpet.” “Eh?” he replied vaguely, without looking at me. “The trumpet, sir,” I repeated, “I want to learn to play the trumpet.” He turned and stared at me for long seconds. “What is your name, boy?” he asked, finally. “Rigby, sir,” I replied. His head sunk lower as he eyed me again. “Well, Wrigley,” he said, rising to his full height, “I have good news for you. You have an excellent embouchure.” I gasped. An embouchure! Me! I had an embouchure! And an excellent one, too!

This being the early 1960s, we naturally called our music teacher “Elvis”

I didn’t ask what embouchure meant as Elvis led me to a freestanding wooden cupboard, which had clearly started out life as a wardrobe. “Yes, Wrigley,” he continued, “I see that you have a particularly fine embouchure – for the tuba.” He flung open the doors and there, forlorn and neglected, stood a tarnished tuba in desperate need of a polish. Of course, I told myself after signing up for lessons, I was destined to become the missing bass line in the brass section, the bottom end. So, I learned to play the tuba or, in my case, the E flat bombardon as it is more formally termed. I embraced my musical mission with gusto, even taking the tuba home at weekends, paying half fare on the bus so that it could occupy the seat next to me. And after months of dedicated practice and polishing, plus the unfailing attention of an incredibly patient, peripatetic brass teacher, I finally took my seat in the back row of the orchestra. I grew to love that instrument, because it began my musical education and set me on the journey that led to music being a major part of my professional life.

And as well as revealing that embouchure which, in musical terms at least, means the shaping and application of the lips to the mouthpiece to produce sound, the tuba also taught me how to breathe. Properly, I mean. It takes a lot of puff to make an E flat bombardon actually bombard, as the expelled air must travel through thirteen feet of gradually widening tubing before emerging as notes. Correct technique is essential: breathing in through the nose to fill the lungs and expand the diaphragm rather than the chest. Rather as a sergeant major might once have instructed a squad of new recruits. Singers also perfect the correct breathing technique and it’s highly instructive to see sporting stars go through their own breathing routines at critical moments. Watch rugby union’s Scottish fly-half, Finn Russell, before a crucial place kick. He settles the ball, studies the angle and distance several times, steadies himself, and then takes one deep, stress-reducing, muscle-relaxing, heartrate-slowing breath. After a final look, he launches into the kick and, nine times out of ten, the ball sails between the posts and Finn turns away as cool as a cucumber.

Sometimes, seated at my desk or lying in bed, I suddenly think to myself that I’m not actually breathing. I am, of course. But barely and shallowly and pretty ineffectively as far as the benefits of proper breathing are concerned. So, take my advice and devote a little time each day to few good, deep breaths – especially if you’re considering taking up the tuba.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter

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