March 27, 2018

School of Honk!, and learning to play Trumpet

I've not been posting as much the past year or so, mainly because I've been working less on the type of projects that I've come to see as good material for the blog. House maintenance and the like just don't motivate me enough to share here as other projects do. In addition to less bloggable projects though, I have been spending a significant fraction of my free time on music and language learning. I though I might make some posts in those areas over the coming months.

In the music area, I sort of unexpectedly started playing the trumpet in August. Yeah, sounds funny, right?

Somerville is home once a year to a fantastic festival called Honk!, wherein boisterous street bands come from all over the country and even internationally to play on street corners and parade around the streets. It is a good time and we have been going down to Davis square for years to take in some of the energy and music during the weekend of Honk!

Just over three years ago, some local enthusiasts and musicians organized an open community band inspired by the Honk! festival called School of Honk. It welcomes newcomers, even if they have never played an instrument before, and I think for all the green members the music comes off as pretty damn good. The band owns and maintains a number of loaner instruments for newbies to use. They run a summer camp which Child 1 went to last summer.

Child 1 has always liked brass bands, since she was very little, and has enjoyed going to Honk! So she was psyched to attend the summer camp with her clarinet. The camp did not disappoint, and she had so much fun that she wanted to start going to the weekly meeting for SoH every Sunday. She made some friends at camp and loved the energy. Now it is without a doubt her number one favorite thing in her life.

The first event we did post-camp with the band was to join them on a trip out to George's island in Boston Harbor over the summer. We explored the island for a while before the music started

 then Child 2, Child 3, and I followed the band around while Child 1 paraded and played with them.

These people sure looked like they were having a good time!

Some weeks later, I took Child 1 to drop off at SoH sunday session. People were not really sure if it was ok to drop off a 10 year old, so I just stayed there to watch. One of the leaders of the trumpet section, Candy, came over and strongly encouraged me to blow a horn even if it was the only time I'd ever do it. She said trombone is easiest to get sound out of for a beginner, but I felt like it is such a large instrument it could be hard to transport by bike. Plus I've always liked how the trumpet sounds. So I grabbed a trumpet and paraded down Main st. with School of Honk to Kendall square and back. I tried to copy other trumpet players in fingering some of the songs, and the more experienced players were helpful and generous with occasional instruction. It is even possible I made the right note a couple times.

Parading with the band, draped in a borrowed polka dot scarf and blowing a plastic trumpet, I could see delighted, shocked, and nonplussed bystanders witness our passing by, many of them whipping out their phones for a video. Almost all these surprised people were smiling. Between the music, the spectacle, and the welcoming atmosphere, this was a ton of fun! And Child 1 had a blast and was highly committed to continuing to attend.

So the very next day I bought a used student trumpet off craigslist for $80, and I go with Child 1 to the Sunday SoH get together every week we can make it.

I don't practice as much as I should at home, but it is surprising how fast I've been able to develop some basic skills. After 6 months I can sort of play about 3/4 of the songs, especially if I can keep an eye on an experienced player nearby to remember the fingerings and get the timing right for when to come in. I can't get past F at the top of the treble clef yet, and my face gets tired quickly while playing, but I can feel improvement happening. There are quite a few people in the band who play very nicely and were beginners just like me only a year or two ago.

Meanwhile this experience has made Becky and my neighbors appreciate the trumpet much less than they used to. I tried playing with a practice mute, but it makes playing much more difficult, even after I drilled some extra holes in the mute. Sometimes I play with the bell facing a crumpled up blanket sitting on my lap some centimeters away, which helps limit the volume. Actually the second mute I got is much freer blowing and works pretty well. This "bubble mute" by Jo-Ral was more expensive and doesn't stay in the trumpet as well, but it sounds better and is not too difficult to blow through.

Still not quite like playing unencumbered but ok if I need to be quiet. As I get better, it gets easier to play with less volume, and my playing gets less annoying for others to listen to. Or maybe they are just getting numb to the barrage of horn sounds? I am still awful at improvised soloing but I have faith I'll get better if I keep working at it.

In the fall, Child 1 and I got to perform with the SoH band in the actual Honk! festival. We played a set in Davis square

and Blackbird Special on a stage in Harvard square. The band dress motif is polka dots, so I got some fabric and sewed Child 1 a dots shirt to wear for the festival.

The kids worked on their own little projects while I was making the shirt.

Just about a month ago, Child 2 and I started joining the SoH dance section when it is running (once a month usually). A few awesome dance leaders choreograph group numbers to SoH songs and teach the rest of us. This is really fun and adds another dimension to the SoH experience. Becky even came to dance section for the SoH party around Mardi Gras time.

Child 2 got a cheap melodica from Amazon and has started hanging out with the reeds section during non-dance sundays to start the process of learning the songs.
She plays piano pretty well, so the main challenge is learning songs and figuring out how to play whilst holding the instrument and blowing in the tube, parading down a city sidewalk.

Child 3 has gotten interested too, and says he wants to play trumpet with me. So we've started practicing a little a few days of the week. When he can play the notes for middle C up to B he will be ready to start learning some songs. His favorite one right now is African Marketplace, which I know 100% and play around the house frequently. He is learning a low section which only uses C, D, Eb and F#.

Here are Child 3 and Child 2 helping me give my trumpet a bath.

Maggie (a trumpet section leader) gave a great lecture on brass instrument cleaning and maintenance at a trumpet sectional meeting and we wanted to put the instructions into practice. The valves are definitely smoother and faster since the deep clean.

SoH is absolutely awesome, and we are so grateful to all the people who put in their time and energy to make it happen. I have never experienced anything nearly as fun and rewarding when it comes to playing music, so I am eager for us to take advantage of this opportunity while we can. Everyone is friendly and supportive and the music is great. We donate as much as we feel able to help with the cost of keeping it rolling.

I actually stopped practicing my fiddle in January in favor of focusing on trumpet, and have also set aside the concertina I got last summer. At present I have a wonderful venue for playing every week on trumpet with an amazing group of people (including my kids), so I want to maximize my uptake of that while possible. Whenever I find myself not going to SoH every week for whatever reason, I'll pick up the fiddle again. Or maybe after I get to a minimum functional level of skill on trumpet.

If you live in the area and have ever had a desire to play this kind of music, you should come check it out, even if you have never played before. We meet on Sunday afternoons, in various locations in Cambridge and Somerville. Check out the website and get on the email list to find out where we are meeting every week!