Months ago I polished my silver-plated trumpet for the first time since I bought it.
I didn’t do “seven minutes in heaven” with a new horn at a music store in spring of 2004. Mr. Danny Barber and I arranged a parking lot rendezvous outside of “Lunkers” restaurant in Edwardsburg, MI. He played this 1974 Benge when it was new, while he was with Maynard Ferguson’s band. I’ve had it for just over 16: sixteen years accumulating silver oxide.
As the pandemic lifted in 2021, I polished it…
…and decided I would write a poem using the instrument as an analogy for my spirit…
Two or three notebooks are littered by poetic ‘stumps’ of this idea. They’re more like half-bald saplings, still reaching for the canopy, but I like to call them “stumps” because I ‘get stumped’ and don’t know where the piece is going next. I don’t abandon it, intentionally, but poems like these get folded into notebooks. They whither in the shade of mundane distractions.
Now that the instrument is tarnishing again, I have a new opportunity to visit this topic.
* * *
Perhaps writing some expository prose will get the right juices flowing, compared to agonizing about every syllable.
I watched a decade-and-a-half of rain-clouds soaking through my most prized appendage. I love her, this horn with a vintage greater than my own. I wouldn’t buff glints of youth into her skin, would rather highlight the tints of taint. Exposure cannot be stopped so I indulge. I let her ferment to the point of being distinguished. I let time paint us with shades of antiquity so we could darken together.
The ring of brass does not tarnish. Silver-oxide only cloaks silver, itself coating the raw-brass beneath. Timbre comes from the resonating tube beneath. I like the term ‘patina’, as if it were the name of a dancer. Patina’s experience adds color without losing expression. Patina knows and shows what matters; the performance that leaves its bell, maintained by the maintenance of the instrument beneath the silver shell.
I admire the beauty found in the process of ripening: summer greens maturing into Autumn’s smear of reds, oranges, yellows– later, wet near-blacks and crunchy pale-browns. I mused about how the grain of a violin slowly aligns to its purpose but that’s not how brass instruments work so I had to crop that out. That began my segue.
The trope I wanted was to rediscover brilliance. I worried my brass’ ring would be lost in murk. The film of silver oxide, however thin, represented something other than the pristine ideal. I wanted to remember her glory, maybe see her as Danny Barber had when he stood next to Maynard.
The trope I desired came and went like a flash of sunlight, refracted. Sunlight came through the window and found a metallic, lustrous curve where it could gather like a breaking wave and splash my living-room wall. If I farmed my stumps, I’d find just as many celebrations of new and bright as of rich histories and under-valued noir. I want a phoenix moment: the graceful old bird dies under the polish cloth and a white-hot revitalized horn emerges. I came close: the kinks still held onto the shade. That, too, is beautiful for its contrasts.
Only stumps were written. The horn grays as the tarnish returns, slowly. My spirit didn’t become permanently white-hot and inextinguishable. Neither the silver-shell of the horn nor the gilded edges of my words contained what I wanted to find…
* * *
I imagined Copper and Zinc as a couple in a marriage we call Brass– lacquer, silver, or gold finishes add distinct flavors but don’t change instruments’ core properties.
Making polished silver my metaphor for restoration is ludicrous: she’s not made of silver, just protected by it. Every horn is an alloy, a mix, a practical assembly of complimentary metals in a 2:1 ratio (more or less). Copper sounds richer, is conductive, workable, more valuable, and yet also vulnerable to corrosion. Zinc is supportive. Zinc is present just enough to defend from rot– too rigid to ring true by itself. So there’s a different metaphor lurking beneath the surface: this object is made mostly of an inspired material but has enough pragmatism to keep its metal, melted in tandem as they are.
Here comes an essay: I tried to make myself 1:1 and now I’m too rigid. I was tired of corroding and hurting so I’m much-too-zinc with a coppery spirit trying to break free. That would bring us full-circle to silver: the art. Nickel-silver, honestly. Whether shining brightly or inking proudly, the nickel-silver (the art) protects the alloy beneath from my acrid fingers, protects my skin from metal poisoning. It’s in my mouthpiece, the pistons, the keys. Nickel-silver could mediate for Copper and Zinc, if that was an essay I wanted to write.
But I neglected something: it’s all one big hole.
Not a whole. A hole.
* * *
I tried sleeping on the idea but it hasn’t become more easy or comfortable.
I stare at the hole where I would insert the mouthpiece and think about where the sound goes and what it is. Sounds are made of air and vibrations. The string of a guitar vibrates when strummed, the head of drum when struck. The aperture on a flute vibrates when air rushes over it– its metal vibrates but mine does not: it only captures and directs the sound. *buzzing my lips* See? The sound comes from me. *sipping tea and typing*
Saxophones borrow their vibration from the stalks of plants (reeds), and my brass horn borrows from the mouth of an animal: me. The Mouth is the source of The Voice, literally and figuratively. The tongue is the point of control, though to sing is to vibrate the folds in our throat. When my throat was tired of growing (in puberty) I stuffed my voice into my instrument during church. I didn’t have to listen to the crackle and squeals of my voice, like a wet wood in a hot fire. I could funnel my voice and put it into my hands, control it with the pistons beneath the keys. I pushed from my deepest place — the diaphragm — over my vibrating lips, and into the space inside that hole.
I squeeze inside the hole on the other side of my mouth, tumbling ahead of building pressure, and around the bends in a cornet. A cornet’s bore is subtly like a snail’s shell, starting narrower and curling around itself. The vibrating column of air lives inside the shell of metal, safe, like I want to live.
I jam into the hole, feeling for the creases in the tunnel where plaque is hiding. The cleaning-snake I bought has become too soft from so much use and I can’t get it to reach everywhere inside. My consciousness has become too soft from so much abuse and I can’t reach everywhere inside of me. I search for the deep place inside of myself that doesn’t emerge from merely thinking. Often I’m disappointed after cleaning my trumpet to find that I’m still in whatever slump I was trying to break, hoping that I’d dislodge some clump of mystery sludge and things would suddenly sound brilliant.
“It’s not the wand, it’s the wizard,” my ex-bandmate used to say. He meant that the musician makes a bigger difference than the instrument. We all know that he’s right but not absolutely. The better-suited the wand to the task, the more easily the wizard can bend it to a wizard’s task. None the less, not ‘wand’ is great enough to compensate for lack of magic in the wizard. “But this musical tool! But that musical tool! People who’ve barely played sound amazing!” ~ the engineer is the wizard. Those wands only do what the wandmaker programmed them to do.
Though now I’m a sliver of a luthier, since I made minor modifications to my guitar and started getting better on it at a feverish pace… wandmaking. Magic. As I plucked I recalled that I didn’t intend to become a guitarist ~ I bent the instrument to the needs of a project.
When I close my eyes, I can hide inside the shell of my horn and it doesn’t matter what it looks like and I’m not aware of how tarnish changes the instrument, only how tarnish changes me.
I need to post this and move-on more badly than I need to find the exact words to describe where my poem is going. Originally, I wanted to lift-up both the beauty of experience and the beauty of renewal, reviving my faith in the process of polishing without losing my appreciation for ferment. However, my original reasoning still rings true: I’m the critical component.
It’s funny I never mentioned the pride I take in still practicing regularly. Many older players with extra retirement money (and goddamn them for living and working in easier times, I can’t let my bitterness go without harnessing it first)– yes, many retirees collect beautiful horns and only ever clean dust from their surface or play perfunctorily in community bands. I took pride in continuing to play, to extend my ability to improvise, to keep the possibility of creating something alive even when my life and career seemed as if it were going somewhere else.
But my ‘serious’ vocation never went anywhere. Now, I’m crawling inside the instrument’s bore, boring inside a crawling feeling in myself…