• Whittlin’s: Learning from the master
    March 17,2014

    They say you’re never too old to learn, and believe me, my 66 years are living proof of that. One of my most memorable lessons came by way of music from a great teacher.

    It happened a few years ago but has recently resurfaced in my mind through the sudden death of my friend John Mead. John, a fellow trombone player, was 10 years older than me. We were kind of the “odd couple” as trombone players because he had a doctorate in music, taught at the college level and played professionally. I, on the other hand, picked myself up by the bootstraps. My playing was nurtured much like the crops on our farm, with a lot of hard work sprinkled with a little TLC.

    Over time, the fruits of my playing developed well enough to find me in some of Vermont’s popular groups including the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra. It was in the VPO where, playing the second “bone” part, I first heard of a dynamo who would soon be our principal trombonist. Knowing that I would be sitting right beside him made me a bit nervous to say the least. I sat rigid on the edge of my chair like a toy soldier when John Mead, a tall man with a gray beard, approached. He held his horn in his left hand and stretched his right hand out for a shake. “I’ve heard about you” he said. “You’re the maple man.”

    And that was it. Quicker’n “Flight of the Bumblebee,” John had beat me to the draw, totally disarming my fears. On top of that, he quickly proved to be a typical trombone player, a special human being predisposed toward practical jokes, wry comments and roguish grins.

    Before long, he became my mentor. Whether carried by his interest in me as a maple sugar maker or recognizing my raw musical talent, he offered both critique and praise of my playing. With each passing measure, I felt myself improve.

    One time after we had played together for about a year, he turned to me during a break. “When we get to that passage” — he pointed to a few measures on his music marked pianissimo that had notes way up high in the trombone range — “I want you to play those measures for me.” He explained that through some past chemotherapy treatments, he had lost his confidence in playing high pitches at low volume (and I’m totally convinced he made that up for the sake of my “lesson”). He ended his request with another of his roguish grins and beckoned toward the conductor, “We can’t let him know we’re doing this.”

    John’s request put me right on edge because the part I was asked to play, although soft and subdued, was critical to the piece. I knew that any classically trained ear in the audience or among my fellow musicians would be zeroing in on that passage like a hawk to a field mouse.

    Having this great man place his confidence in me, however, spurred me on. I played the passage fine during the following rehearsals and again in the first of two concerts. John complimented me and even said the conductor had been praising him on the quality of it all. Although feeling great about my covert début as “principal trombonist,” I could not totally relax yet because we still had one more concert to do. Just before the downbeat of that concert, John dropped his bomb. Turning to me with a veritable masterpiece of trombonist grins, he said, “Y’know, Burr, nobody has ever played that two concerts in a row without really screwing it up.”

    “Oh, c’mon, John, don’t do this to me!” I exploded to his face, but behind his back I was thinking, “I’ll show you, you son of a *#%&!!” I held it together through the first part of the concert. When those dreaded measures were suddenly upon me, I breathed deep, visualized the first critical pitch in my mind, and nailed it like a seasoned professional.

    Thoroughly convinced that passage had never been played better, I turned to John. “Never two concerts in a row, huh, big guy?” I mimicked, fishing for praise.

    “Oh, OK” he said, “Once in a while there’s an exception.” He knew what he was doing.

    I walked away from that musical event not only feeling great but with a new level of confidence that still carries me through both my lives of music and maple. One of our country’s early “mentors,” Ben Franklin, said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn,” and he knew our country would do so.

    Trombonist John Mead’s adjusted version for me was, “Y’can’t do that two times in a row without screwin’ it up,” knowing I would have the same success.

    Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.

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