It may seem a little weird that occasionally my writing goes off on a “music” tangent.
After all, I am a farmer with deep farming roots but somewhere along the way those roots got tangled up with a bit of music. Like horses and cows, you might say they’re not related but, by golly, those critters both eat grass, walk on all fours, and live in the same pasture. Of course, music and farming are related. And related is how this musical farmer has always thought of them.
Trombone playing’s been part of my life since I was 10 years old. I started out the usual way, learning the basics like how to put the thing together and which end
to blow in. Heck I even had to catch sixth and seventh positions with my right toes back then because my arms weren’t long enough! Reading music, a necessity comparable to a farmer being able to read words, was an important part of those beginnings. It would prepare me for a lifetime of venues all the way from village bands to the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra. I always had a nagging feeling, though, that there was something else in music, a certain “freedom” like cows being on the open range instead of fenced in. It took me a while to figure it out but when I did — the world of “jazz improvisation” blossomed before my eyes.
I didn’t start working on jazz improv until later in life but when I did, it came as naturally as falling off a log. I don’t mean to brag but I seem to have those chord changes waiting somewhere in my head, ready to “pour” out the bell of my horn. And that’s good because I’m not knowledgeable about music theory. I know not what I’m doing. I just do it purely out of ignorant bliss or, if you will, like those cows enjoying the open range.
That’s where farming and music are kin to each other. Farming’s 99 percent “improv.” Yup, farming hardly ever works as planned and practiced. We’re constantly at the whim of breaking equipment, wandering animals, and weather that can turn on you quicker’n the slap of a sloppy bovine tail. Like the other day, Betsy took the dogs out for their morning “constitutional” and called on her cellphone from deep in the woods.
“It’s a mess out here,” she said. I quickly headed out to see and when I got there, sure enough, an area of our sugar woods looked like a giant game of pick-up-sticks. It seems a mini-tornado had come through the night before and leveled both the maples and the plastic tubing system that we thought was all ready for sugar season next spring. We’ll have lots of unplanned work with the chainsaw and a laborious redesign of the tubing system — but the beauty of it is, we’re farmers, good at improvisation.
I’ll never give up reading music because I thoroughly enjoy sitting with a bunch of musicians and contributing to everything from Glenn Miller to John Phillip Sousa, but I also expect to spend the rest of my years as a farmer and jazzer working outside of the written page. As Carroll Bryant, another musician, said, “No matter how many plans you make or how much in control you are, life is always winging it.”
Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.
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