I met the band teacher who said he’d be happy to have me join the class but there was a catch. Band started in 5th grade and even though I was in 6th grade, I would have to be in the 5th grade band. Nevermind that I already knew how to play the trumpet—I played in church every week. But, I played by ear and they had some strange notion that I needed to learn to read music.
I didn’t like the idea of being a grade behind in anything, and said so. The teacher assured me I’d have the opportunity to move to the 6th grade band later in the year.
Everything was fine for a while, until the band teacher figured out that after several months, I still didn’t know much about reading music. I’d faked it up until that point. It wasn’t hard to do; anytime we were given a new piece of music, the teacher would play it to show us what the notes on the paper were telling us to do. That was enough for me, I played by ear so when it was my turn to play, I just replicated what he had done.
Then, one day, after distributing our latest sheet music, the teacher said, “And Bruce is going to demonstrate the trumpet part for us.”
“Oh, no he isn’t,” I said. I couldn’t. I hadn’t really paid attention to all that nonsense about reading music. And since I hadn’t heard it, I had no clue what it was supposed to sound like.
Apparently, he’d known this for quite awhile—when I played, he could see my eyes were not moving to follow the notes. What’s more, he’d been marking me down for it, he said. Of course, he used the occasion to stress the importance of reading music.
My opinion was, why would I want to be tied to what was printed on paper? What if I needed to improvise? What if I wanted to play my own style? The teacher, he didn’t like my arguments. But, I was stubborn and still didn’t bother to learn to read music. It sort of became an on-going dispute between us. I’m not sure either of us was convinced by the other’s opinion.
Then came the concert. Another student and I were chosen to play a duet. It would be just the two trumpets, no band to help us out. I was to play the lead and he would be the backup. We practiced at school and everything sounded great. But when the night arrived, the other guy didn’t show up.
I figured the teacher would cancel the piece—after all, I’d already played one solo. No one wanted to hear me play twice, I thought. But no, he told me to just play my part—by myself.
Well, I thought that would sound pretty lame, with lots of dead space where the other trumpet should come in. But, it was an easy fix. I just played both parts. Now, obviously, I couldn’t play the harmony—I only have one mouth. But I did most of my part and a lot of the other guy’s. I guess you could say, I improvised.
The audience had no clue; they just thought it was another trumpet solo. The kids in the band were impressed though. And the band teacher? Well, I guess he didn’t want to admit that playing by ear had its advantages, ‘cause he never said a word. But the next week, I was graduated to the 6th grade band!