I was trying to fall asleep on Monday night, the day before my class, but the thought of my long-gone days as a brass instrumentalist popped into my head and I had to get out of bed and write. The night was warm and quiet as I slipped out to the balcony of our apartment and seated myself at the patio table, with the living room light illuminating my notebook just enough. The scents and sounds embedded in my memories of my time behind a music stand tumbled onto the page...
It’s been years since I held a horn to my lips. I miss the tang of brass and oil in my nostrils, the cool metal mouthpiece unyielding as I begin to warm up. I miss counting rest bars and holding whole notes, interpreting a wall of sound from black symbols on a white page. I miss playing with a group, layering my part into a fluid, cascading arrangement.
Once, I was a member of the Salvation Army youth band. I was third chair cornet, but as there were only four cornet players, this merely served my purpose of not being first chair – a spot reserved for the soloist and the best musician in the section. My part was the harmony – the often unnoticed, often offbeat counter to the melody – and I liked it that way.
The cornet was a popular choice for brass bands in the UK, where the Salvation Army was founded, while military and marching bands favour the sleeker, more commanding trumpet. They are essentially the same to play, with three valves, a conical, tubular construction that curls around and ends in a bell, and the same pitch of B-flat. In defence of the cornet, it has a humbler, sweeter sound, and is not so brash as its long-stemmed cousin. The trumpet might have a greater volume, but when played skilfully, a cornet has no trouble reaching the depths and heights of the scale, and its mellow tone does not restrict a player from pelting out sharp, crisp staccato marches.
I miss the confident weight of an instrument in my hands. Not so heavy as to drag my arms down, my slightly battered cornet – which belonged to the church – gave me a reason not to slouch in my chair. Its care became my responsibility, and knowing that I had cleaned and polished it gave my twelve year old self a certain pride.
Cleaning a brass instrument, now, that is a funny business. First of all, you hope that the band leader has not given you a horn that has languished in a cupboard for a decade or more. Second, you must find an old towel to lay in a warm bath to prevent scratches – both on the tub and on the instrument. Third, you must note which valve is taken from each of the three slots as you unscrew them and lay them gently in the water.
Once the cornet emerged from the towel-padded tub, the drying, oiling and reassembly could begin. Oiling the valves was always my favourite part of maintaining my cornet. Mine had shiny mother of pearl discs where my fingertips rested on the piston valves, unlike many of the newer, mass-made cornets. The oil that lubricates the piston valves has a scent not unlike olive oil, but it is much less viscous.
Even with a minor dent in its bell, I was proud to play my cornet, harmonizing with the other parts. My lips would buzz and strain against the cup of the mouthpiece, warming it and coaxing it to become an extension of my lungs and my lips and my tongue. The valves, when depressed, changed the way the air flows through the cornet, altering the pitch as I played. I grew to be a more confident player, mastering hand-eye coordination and posture as my ability to read sheet music grew.
Right foot lightly tapping against the heavy black music stand. Breath even and controlled, with a bit reserved for that sustained note at the end of the phrase. Reading the music and watching the conductor out of the corner of my eye. Adjusting my volume to blend in. During the rest bars, discreetly opening my spit valve – the owner’s manual would call this the water key – and blowing to dislodge any spit that had gathered. More than once a bandmate’s eagerness resulted in spit on my shoe, but water in the tubes could block an otherwise even note. I loved to soak up these gems of experience from my grandfather, who played the baritone in the senior band.
My family’s move abroad halted my progress in the band for a time, but in first year university I began to play again – this time, with a baritone. Baritones look somewhat like a small tuba and the bell points upward instead of toward its audience. But it had three valves, and the band was sorely short of baritone parts to round out the group that was traveling to Hong Kong. I picked it up and six months later, I was on a plane.
I took piano lessons for two years, but aside from the impossibility of finding a piano-friendly apartment, tinkling the keys didn’t appeal to me as much as playing the cornet. Brass music captured me from a young age, and the crush of sound that builds with a crescendo still thrills me.
Since my trip to Hong Kong in 2001, I’ve had little motivation to buy a cornet of my own. It needs the richness of other parts to be in its element. Apartment dwellers might tolerate the romantic tone of a well-played violin or flute, but a horn is not the sort of instrument your neighbours rejoice in listening to.
* Written at midnight the day before my weekly writing class, and mostly from memory. Any instrument-related errors are my own.