Blowing My Horn
Trumpet Practice by Norman Rockwell (1950)
Duke McGuirl arrived at St. Pat’s with high hopes. He’d just retired from the RCAF Central Band where he played the saxophone, the clarinet, the flute and a number of other instruments. He was also in the band that supported the weekly talent show that played on CJOH, the local TV channel in Ottawa. So he was something of a local celebrity, at least to my father who was somewhat musical, and had served in the Air Force during the War and liked the big band sound, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington especially. And Duke McGuirl was kind of a local Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman.
I’m sure the high school felt it was a coup to get someone of his calibre as their musical director, school band leader and one of only two music teachers, the other a nun who’d once been told she had a good voice.
The year prior to Duke’s arrival saw St. Pat’s, a boy’s school, move to a new campus shared with Notre Dame, a girl’s Catholic high school. While the curriculum of the two was generally separate, the music class was co-ed, much to the delight of the boys and perhaps to the girls as well. Students had a choice: join the band with Duke or take singing classes with the singing nun. They lined us up in the auditorium and asked us to indicate our choice by moving to one side or the other. Most of the cool boys—a group I aspired to but never achieved full membership in—and most of the pretty girls moved toward Duke’s side of the room, so my decision was a no-brainer.
In the first class, we chose our instruments, and the cool boys gravitated to the trumpets and trombones because of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Plus those instruments were played at the very back of the tiered orchestra stage, the best spot for trouble-makers and disruptive teenage boys. The French horns sat in front of us and attracted mostly girls, which was a double bonus.
Duke stood at the podium below us, fiddling with his baton, where he explained the plan. Behind him was a backdrop of five soundproof practice cubicles, like old-fashioned telephone booths.
“We’re going to work really hard, learn to read sheet music and play some simple tunes to start,” he explained. “Then we’ll move to some more difficult pieces and build up our repertoire. In June, we’ll hold a concert for all your parents and friends, and maybe, just maybe, I can get us on the CJOH talent show, where I play every week.” He seemed quite excited by this!
Duke handed out sheet music, explained the rudiments of how to read it, and the band began to play.
Badly. Very badly. But Duke was undeterred.
As the weeks went by, the orchestra played virtually unrecognizable versions of Happy Birthday, For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and other old chestnuts, as Duke waved his baton and tapped his foot in time. At least once every class, he’d rap his baton on the podium and stop our playing. He’d then say something like, “There’s something not right with the flutes, can just the flutes play it? They would, he’d offer his corrections, ask them to play again, raise his baton, and we’d move on with the piece.
Again, from time to time, he’d stop the music and say, “There’s something not right in the trumpets, can the trumpets play it? I learned that if I refrained from playing and just went through the pretense of playing, standing with the other trumpets, our trumpets perfectly horizontal, my cheeks inflated like I’d seen Louis Armstrong do it on the Ed Sullivan Show, he’d nod at the trumpets, and we’d move on. I had not developed any ability to read music and could not make a sound even approaching music to issue from my trumpet.
As bad luck would have it, one day, we were halfway through a pathetic version of Mary Had a Little Lamb when Duke interrupted our playing in his usual manner, dropping his baton to tap it assertively on the podium. “There’s something not right with the trumpets,” he said. “Trumpets, please play the bars.” The trumpets rose in their usual dramatic manner, raised their instruments and played. As usual made a show of buffing up my cheeks and not blowing.
Despite not blowing my horn, Duke again tapped his baton on the podium and said, “Sorry that’s still not right. John, would you play it, please?”
The room went quiet. The trumpets and many of the other so-called musician friends were aware of my inability to sound a note, and they knew the gig was up. My goose was cooked.
I rose from among the now seated trumpets and began to blow. An unrecognizable sound at an unrecognizable tempo and beat issued from my horn.
The room went quiet once more for what felt like a long time. I thought Duke was going to break into tears. Empathy is not common in teenage boys, but I felt bad for him and guilty. He knew at that moment there would be no end-of-year concert where he would take a bow to thunderous applause by an audience of family and friends who would turn to each other and say, “It’s a miracle he was able in one short year to turn his class into performing musicians who will probably win the CJOH talent contest.”
But Duke didn’t break into tears. He snapped his baton in two and said, “You little bastard! You take your trumpet, and you get into that practice room, and you blow till I tell you to stop.”
Which I did. In solitary confinement in the practice booth till school ended in June.
In the last class, Duke asked me to stay behind after the others had all left. “John,” he said kindly, “you don’t have much talent for music.” I wanted to feign distress at this declaration and say something like, “But music is my life, Mr. McGuirl.” But I hesitated. Even I knew this was not a moment for my usual teenage cynicism.
“I’m going to give you a pass in the course,” he continued, “on one condition. Music is an option next year, and I don’t want to see you in that class.” I agreed.
I have taken a liking to the big band sound, and when I hear Benny Goodman or especially Duke Ellington, I can’t help but think back to Duke McGuirl. He went on to great success at St. Pat’s, conducting the student orchestra, conducting in the pit for both amateur and professional productions at the National Art Centre and other venues.
Many years later, I learned that he’d died of Alzheimer’s, and I hoped that in the ensuing years, he’d mercifully forgotten all about that boy who couldn’t play a note.