Archive for July, 2019

The Summer of 2019

Well, the summer of 2019 is upon us and many things have slowed down.  People take vacations and try to get away from the hubbub of daily life.  Schools are out for the most part, and in the heat of the summer, relaxation is the order of the day.  I, too, have relaxed.

One regular part of my life that takes place largely during the school year are the weekly rehearsals for the concert band I play in.  And so, with band practice over for the summer, I had occasion to pull out my trumpet and give it a thorough cleaning.  It hadn’t been cleaned for over six months, not since I cleaned it during the Christmas holiday.  Cleaning a trumpet requires complete disassembly.  Not only does the mouthpiece come out (and get thoroughly reamed out with a stiff brush made for the job), but all the valves and each of the tuning slides have to be removed.  A trumpet has four tuning slides, one for each valve and one larger one that tunes the instrument itself.  Everything comes out.  If I wanted to disassemble any further, I’d have to get a soldering torch and unhook the different connections that hold the body of the trumpet together.  (Not a good idea.)

Now that everything is out, cleaning begins.  First I flush the entire basic unit with hot water and set it aside and turn to the valves.  The valves change the air flow through the horn and are what make it possible to play all the different notes called for in the music.  They are the most sensitive part of the trumpet, and I clean these with a rag soaked in isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol).  This removes all the old valve oil and any contaminants.  Note: Valve oil is slightly different from most lubricating oils because valve oil is an evaporative oil.  It doesn’t build up like other oils, it evaporates, and has to be replenished from time to time as one plays.  But contaminants, usually solids from saliva and in the water that condenses in the horn as one blows through it, do build up and they have to be removed.

Now the valve housings have to be similarly cleaned with alcohol, and everything allowed to dry.  I wipe off the Vaseline from each of the tuning slides and replace with clean Vaseline and put them back in their proper positions.  I add fresh oil to the valves and replace them in their housings and screw down the valve tops.  Success—we are done.  The instrument is in playing condition.  Replace the mouthpiece and away we go.

The whole process takes about half an hour, and there’s a real element of satisfaction in having a musical instrument that is clean and functioning properly.  The valves operate smoothly and the tuning slides slip in and out easily.  (That’s one way to tell if an instrument needs cleaning—the valves start sticking.  That can be awfully annoying if it happens during a concert.)

But in the world of trumpet playing, that’s the easy part.  Eventually comes the more difficult part: the actual act of playing.  Band practice will resume in August, and new music will be distributed.  I’m not a professional trumpet player; it can take me several months to master a piece of music.  By “master” I mean simply play the right notes.  I know how to blow through the horn to produce a sound, and every now and then I press down one or more of the valves to produce a different note or two, but putting all that in the proper order as called for in the music is a different matter.  A tricky passage can take a while to learn, but the final result is what we call “music.”

Music is a lot like writing.  At their heart, both are subjective pursuits.  Good music exists in the imagination of the beholder, as does good writing.  To a great extent, you know good music or good writing when you see it or hear it.  Anyone can string words together in sentences, but that doesn’t necessarily form good writing.  Likewise, anyone can play a set of notes, but will it always be good music?  Writing takes practice, just like the music, and the number of wrong notes in either can be, well, large.  For me, playing a trumpet is usually a straightforward process.  I practice the difficult passages over and over until I get them right.  Writing, though, can be sporadic.  Writing here and there, areas of relative calm followed by times of zealous production.  But in the end, one validates the other.  I take a break from writing to play.  I take a break from playing to write.  Does one help the other?  Perhaps only in the sense that one allows oneself to take a break from one to take up the other.

Either way, nothing is lost.


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The “Was” That Was

Every now and then I run across, or am asked about, the admonition that new writers learn, to limit the use of “to be” verbs in their writing.  Instead of writing, “he is/was,” or “they are/were,” instructors say, “Try something else.”  It’s good advice, as having a bunch of “was” or “were” in one paragraph or even one sentence can be trying to the reader.  Many beginning writers, myself included, have fallen into the trap of using “to be” verbs too much without realizing it.  But replacing “was” or “were” (let’s assume here for the sake of simplicity, that you write, like so many of us do, in the past tense) can be tricky.  Generally, you can’t simply substitute another verb for the “to be” verb, and keep the sentence logical and meaningful.  How does one get out of the trap of overusing “to be?”  Here’s one approach to this problem that has worked for me.

To be brutally honest, in most cases you’ll have to recast the sentence.  That sounds time-consuming, but the advantage of recasting the sentence is that it can lead to room to add more detail than with the “to be” verb in it.  It can even lead to a sentence that will have more detail in it than two sentences, but without ending up with a run-on sentence where two sentences are joined with “and” or some such conjunction.

Take the sentence, “He was six-feet tall with a physique like a linebacker.”  That’s okay, but it can be improved by removing the weak verb “was” and rewriting the sentence and adding detail.  “His physique, like that of a linebacker, gave him a youthful look well below his actual age of ninety-seven.”  Not two sentences, and not a run-on sentence.

Another example:  Instead of “The town was situated on a hill overlooking the bay.” write:  “The town, situated on a hill overlooking the bay, served as a beacon for mariners trying the find the narrow inlet.”  Again, more detail, yet the same emphasis is still there.

Remember this:  “It was a dark and stormy night”?  This can be improved by eliminating the “was” and adding more detail.  “The storm came up quickly during the night, lashing the shore with seventy-mile-an-hour winds that blew the shutters on the old house onto the beach.”  Detail, detail.

This advice certainly isn’t meant to be all-consuming.  A few “was/were” verbs aren’t going to consign your writing to the trash bin, but too many can make it difficult to read.  Sometimes a few simple sentences with “was/were” are appropriate.  But constantly being told “he was . . .”  “she was . . .” and so on, gets tiring and it indicates a serious lack of imagination as well as laziness and even sloppiness on the part of the writer.  Take the time to do it not just “right”, but well.

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