Note: This was originally published and sent out on The Listserve, on 10/8/2014, while I was off getting married. The response emails brought me a ton of joy. I’ve promised to share some more thoughts on the below, but haven’t found the time yet, so first I thought I’d publish that story again in its entirety as it ran. If you aren’t signed up to participate in The Listserve, do it now.
With all due respect to the brilliant Langston Hughes poem about racial and economic inequality, in other contexts a dream deferred isn’t always so bad. This is a story about bottling up something you are so passionate about that you might not be ready for in an earlier time in your life, only to revisit it years later to satisfying ends.
Throughout middle and high school, I studied flute. Most of the music I was interested in was composed and played on trumpets, pianos, saxophones, trombones, but not so much flutes. So I drew my ear training and inspiration from the greats that played other instruments. It’s the usual suspects for a teenage jazz fan – Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker. I also listened to flute players like Herbie Mann and Yusef Lateef, but their recordings were few and far between.
When I got competent enough to improvise, I’d have all of these licks in my head that I’d memorize from the greats – Parker’s fluttery runs that would make your heart leap out of your chest, Monk’s inexplicably dissonant but melodic passages, dark, brassy riffs from Miles. But when I tried to replicate them on the flute, they’d sound incredibly corny. The notes were right, the feeling in my head was right, but what it sounded like coming out of the instrument was all wrong. Saccharine. It’s not what I wanted to sound like.
I don’t know why I stopped playing the flute in high school. In my back-narrative, it’s because I could never get it to sound like what I wanted to sound like, but it could have just has easily been because of the social stigma of a dude playing jazz flute in his mid-teens in a city and a school that’s not really about that kind of music. Or maybe I just got into girls and that was that. Whatever the reason, I stopped playing flute and didn’t pick up another instrument for over 20 years.
Then on my 39th birthday I remembered that I’d always wanted to play the trumpet, but was always worried I wouldn’t be able to pick it up. It had seemed like such a different instrument, and so hard to make so many notes out of just three keys. I can’t say that I’d consciously thought about it much in the intervening years, but for whatever reason I’d long since put it away as something I’d just never do.
On that day as the notion emerged in my mind, all of the worries and concerns suddenly evaporated. Who cares if I’ll never be good? Who cares if I try it and then decide that it’s really not for me? Why the fuck not? If I can just learn *how* to play enough so that I can decide if it’s something I enjoy doing, then it will have been worth it.
I bought myself a beautifully restored trumpet from 1947, and have been taking lessons for the past 4 months. And I love it. Just the ability to produce a clear, resonant tone is its own reward and continues to give me a thrill. With no pressure on myself to be great or even good, practicing is a pleasure. I now routinely pack for business trips differently so that I can bring my horn with me. Making small, incremental progress is incredibly rewarding. Whereas it once would have been tedious to spend long stretches of time just focused on exercises and sound production rather than playing songs, it now feels like a gift.
I’ve got more to say on this, but for now I’ll just leave you with these 600ish words and this thought: it’s totally fine to leave some passions alone until you’re really ready to take them on.