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LearningMusician Features >> My Turn

The Trumpet Shall Sound: Getting a Second Chance at Brass

Meg Wilkinson
Contributing Writer

Meg Wilkinson writes:

"Trumpet!?! Why trumpet? I can't picture you playing trumpet... I can't picture anyone playing trumpet!"

That was pretty typical of the reactions I got when I announced last summer that at the age of 52, I was learning how to play trumpet. I was so excited that it was all I could talk about, but to my friends and family, it had come out of the blue.

I had never told anyone about this lifelong dream.

One day in the fall of 1959, the year I was in kindergarten, I had some childhood illness and couldn't sleep. My mother let me watch a movie on TV with her. It was Beau Geste, the classic mystery/adventure story of three brothers who run off to join the French Foreign Legion. Much of it was lost on me, but I knew Digby the bugler was my hero.

When my mother told me the movie was based on a book, I begged for her to get it for me. It became the most read book of my childhood, first and repeatedly as a bedtime story. Once I could read on my own, I read it many more times. My favorite scene was when Digby stands alone with his bugle, bluffing - playing a charge and pretending there's a whole army that's going to back him up. I'd stand on an old stump in the back yard with a little red solid-plastic bugle, and I'd be Digby, blowing that charge. I'd never get to the part where he gets shot and killed; I didn't like that. It was the moment just before, when he knows he's put everything on the line and doesn't flinch. He had such incredible valor.

Original movie poster from Beau Geste

As time passed, I noticed how in myths and legends, trumpets were always chosen as the noble instruments of angels, gods and heroes. They might play harps or flutes during their leisure time, but when there was work to be done, they needed the trumpet. The instrument could bring down the walls of Jericho, start and end wars (or even worlds), announce the arrival of kings, or, like Triton, recall the tides and waves from the flooded land.

When I was very little, even before discovering Digby, I had been asking my dad to play a certain record for me over and over again. After I grew old enough to put it on the turntable myself - somewhere around age six or seven - I learned its name: Haydn's Concerto in E-flat major for Trumpet. Now I discovered other musical passages that I listened to repeatedly, delighting in the way they stirred me. The most important of these was from Messiah: "The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible." Now that's a cool instrument!


In fifth grade we could choose to learn flute, clarinet, trumpet or trombone. But "everyone knew" that only boys could play brass. Only girls could play flute; clarinet was open to both. My older sister had chosen flute, so I assumed that was the correct answer, and did as she had done, although later I switched to clarinet. Later still, I went back to flute, but never got past "advanced intermediate." I've never been inspired to practice hard. Even after all these years, pretty much every time I hear a well-played trumpet, I think, "I wish I could play like that." But I've never once thought that about flute.

In my sophomore year in high school there was a girl, Adele, who went to school with us only for her senior year. She played first trumpet in band. I found out I'd been lied to: Adele proved that not only could a girl play trumpet - she could play it very well. But by that time, I thought I was already too old to learn.


Fast-forward thirty-eight years to last summer. I was writing a novel about a trumpet player. The more I got into it and tried to imagine the joy he felt when he made such beautiful sounds, the more difficult it became to realize I'd never given it a chance. What if it were possible for me to play trumpet? What if I could actually experience that joy directly for myself?

But what if I was too old to learn? After all, I'd thought I was already too old at fourteen. Could I justify wasting time and money on something so unlikely to pay off?

But how could I not give it a chance?

In July, I went for a camping trip with my family. I was becoming obsessed with the idea of playing trumpet. There was a little hill near the lake and I could taste how wonderful it would be to stand there and play beautiful melodies on a trumpet. That was what did it: being able to hear in my imagination what I wanted to play for the birds and trees.

"....every little success - a note that really resonates, another step higher, a few metronome marks faster, mastering the fingering in a difficult passage or the rhythm in a jazz tune - makes it even more fun."

As soon as we got back to town I rented a trumpet. I decided I wouldn't prejudge my ability. I'd commit myself to going as far as I could in the three-month minimum rental period, and then decide if I'd continue. I also decided to take lessons to give myself the best chance for success. With a little research, I found a teacher who met my criteria: a successful professional trumpet player with many years of teaching experience who was at least as old as me. This last one was important. I was uncertain enough already, and didn't want some arrogant young hotshot who would be condescending.

Making it Happen

I'm now in my tenth month. Not only has the excitement not worn off, but every little success - a note that really resonates, another step higher, a few metronome marks faster, mastering the fingering in a difficult passage or the rhythm in a jazz tune - makes it even more fun. The hardest thing has been to limit my practice so I don't wear out my lips. I'm working hard, and delighted at how quickly it's paying off. There are good days and bad, but every now and then I have a day when I play better than I've ever played before, and it feels wonderful.

I've joined a community band, and am thoroughly enjoying it. Unlike playing clarinet in a large section, I can hear my contribution. There is something so much fun and so exciting about being part of a group of musicians even when I'm just counting rests and watching the music go by.

One of my goals is to go to a hill in a local park and play "Taps" as the sun sets, then the "Pie Jesu" from Faure's Requiem as the full moon rises. And when I'm ready, I plan to join Bugles Across America, an organization that provides civilians to play Taps at veterans' funerals. My pipe dream is to play Hummel's trumpet concerto with an orchestra. Some days I take out the music and play the easy bits. I have no idea if there's any realistic chance of this becoming reality, but it doesn't matter. In my imagination, I can get as much fun out of a brass piece of plumbing as I could out of that little plastic bugle I had in kindergarten.


"I may appear to be a very ordinary middle-aged woman, but when I pick up my trumpet, I become the hero of my own myth."

I read an article about keeping your mind sharp as you age that said learning a new mental skill was good, but combining that with a new motor skill was even better. The top recommendation was to learn a musical instrument. And an article in last August's Scientific American suggested that experts are made, not born - that motivation and practice are far more important than any sort of innate talent. It said ten years of hard work was what it took. That'll put me at 62, which should still leave me plenty of time to enjoy it.

In the meantime, I'm thoroughly enjoying the process. The most wonderful thing is that every time I play trumpet, I can connect to that little girl who wanted to be Digby. I may appear to be a very ordinary middle-aged woman, but when I pick up my trumpet, I become the hero of my own myth. On days when I get discouraged and frustrated with setbacks, I remind myself of one friend's reaction when I told her I was learning trumpet: "Oh, yes. That's perfect! You have enough panache to play trumpet." Well, maybe I don't - but Digby does. LM

Meg Wilkinson has cooked for a dude ranch, fished for commercial salmon on a 24-foot open dory, taught mathematics at a university, developed software, written articles for an encyclopedia, and a bunch of other things in between. When not practicing trumpet, she is currently working towards fulfilling her other lifetime dream of becoming a published novelist. She lives in soggy Seattle with her husband who has shown remarkable forbearance. She may be contacted at megwilkinson {at} hotmail {dot} com.

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