Only through default and seniority did I find myself the first trumpet in my high school orchestra. It was not that the other two trumpeters had more talent or less talent than I; it was that NONE of us had any talent whatsoever. So, since I was the only senior, I was designated first chair. As such, when the holiday show loomed, I was responsible for playing the melody line for a brass quartet that serenaded the audience with Christmas carols as they found their seats.
Our quartet stood in the rear corner of the gymnasium beneath a practice basketball hoop and adjacent to the restrooms. The guests were mostly adults, accompanied by their children, who had been urged to attend by their teachers. While holiday shows at schools with major musical arts programs are doubtlessly entertaining, perhaps even thrilling, my small school produced a show more out of habit and obligation than inspiration. Accordingly, I approached my star turn unenthusiastically. Since the carols were familiar and musically simple, my conscious anxiety level was minimal.
My sub-conscious apparently felt differently. As Mrs. Arditi, the Spanish teacher/orchestra conductor lowered her baton to launch our version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” I pursed my lips over the mouthpiece, positioned my tongue properly between my teeth, blew, and… absolutely no sound issued forth.
The trombone and second trumpet beside me soldiered on, “boo, ba, boo, ba,” etc. Even Jimmy Prall, the French hornist who had never in his life hit a note cleanly and on time, was producing sounds. But from the first trumpet, nothing, nada, zilch.
People turned to stare. Mrs. Arditi appeared to be apoplectic, her face contorting as her eyes grew huge. “Boo, ba, boo, ba,” my cohorts continued. I blew harder and… nothing. I became tenser and tenser, my face red with embarrassment and exertion, but still, not a sound. I took the trumpet from my lips for a moment and tried to separate from my own body. I thought it might help if I could witness the calamity that was occurring to me as though it were happening to someone else. I glanced around for an escape route. I feared Mrs. Arditi might faint.
The “Merry Gentlemen” finally rested, though my non-performance meant that no one in the audience was aware of the identity of the intended piece. My three cohorts turned towards me and tried desperately to stifle laughter. Mrs. Arditi instructed us to turn to “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and screwed up her face as though to beg my cooperation.
I shrugged helplessly, hoping for a better result. Alas, none came. Our quartet commenced another carol without a melody. I pursed my lips. I sucked in more air. I blew harder. Nothing. Some of the audience began to titter and point. Mrs. Arditi stopped us in the middle.
“I’m so sorry,” she announced to the audience. I heard some scattered applause and relieved laughter. But most people quickly returned their attention to their conversations and their
search for seats. I knew that my musical performance career had ended that evening. The next day, I saw Mrs. Arditi in the hallway and told her I was sorry.
“What happened?” she asked.
Lacking any explanation, I decided to try humor. “I thought I was playing ‘Silent Night.’”
For some reason, she was not amused.