Thursday, February 16, 2012


I guess life can be like a box of chocolates. Sometimes I bite into one of those rancid cherry-filled ones that make me gag. Bleagh. I hate those. Chocolate and imitation fruit are like fingernails on a chalkboard. Not that anyone knows what that is anymore. But life can sometimes be like that. You think you’re getting something amazing like caramel and peanuts and you get some limp-wristed and pale attempt at imitation awesome, and it might be awesome if it were real, but it doesn’t even go with what it’s been put with so not only is it not awesome or even imitation awesome, it’s infuriating, because who puts cherries with chocolate? Who!? It’s like wrapping a turd in a tortilla.

But I think life is more like a trumpet. At least it can be. Okay, it’s nothing like a trumpet. It would be more accurate to say that people are like trumpets. Okay that’s not really accurate either, the more I think about it. Let us dispense with the generalization, then.

Here’s what I mean to say: I am like a trumpet, okay? That’s what it is. I’m especially like the one I just bought. I told you in the Trumpet Crowdsourcing video I posted up that I could do it; I could find a decent trumpet for a couple hundred bucks. I did. After I tell you this story though, I’m pretty sure you’ll think it was God doing the doing and not me. And you would be correct.

I used Kickstarter to raise funds for the launch of my new studio. My goal was $500 and I reached that goal at the last minute on my birthday, thanks to acts of extreme generosity by some very dear friends. And, thanks to one interested student, I have begun to teach. He’s already showing improvement.

Helpy Helperton.
Now, just so you know, a professional trumpet can cost, brand new, at least $2000, if not $3000. That’s for a run-of-the mill type, the kind every serious high schooler thinks is the bomb. Rightly so; I have played some of those Yamahas and they’re a revelation. A really good pro-line trumpet will set you back about $5000, and there are some out there for $20k or more. If you want to spend less you’ve got to be savvy and you’ve got to do the research. I had a hunch I could find something decent—albeit old and used—for about $500. I just didn’t know how good it would be.

I looked on at first, knowing that’s where the local deals would be, knowing that I could play-test the horn before making the final decision (an important consideration not always available on Ebay). Of course there are some stunning examples on Ebay, some of them vintage horns made before 1980. It’s not that every trumpet made these days is junk. It’s just that they were freaking incredible back in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, that some of these  trumpets are going for $400 - $700, and these are every bit as good, if not slightly better than a brand new $3000 trumpet made recently. If you don’t mind a few dings and dents. You know, character. These old trumpets wear the passage of time on their sleeve, but then again so do I.

Red rot.
I perused the makers marks on Ebay with interest: C.G. Conn. Reynolds. Bach (that’s Mt. Vernon, not Elkhart). King. Schilke. F.E. Olds. Even a very rare Italian rotary trumpet by Rampone & Cazzani of Milano that switches from Bb to C with the twist of a lever. They were thinking of these things back in 1916. Very smart. Stuff that people aren’t doing now, except for David Monette, maybe, (Adam Rapa had him build a trumpet in low G, which sounds like the tenor sax version of trumpet; way cool and different) but his stuff is a little out of my price range.

Anyway, Ebay’s got the goods. I was “watching” a few items, and if you’ve ever done this you know what it’s like. Gratifying and terrifying all at once, because you’ve marked the item as something you want, but it’s still there for someone to buy, and what if someone else takes the risk and gets the deal and you don’t? ARRGH.

One day, and I don’t know really why, I started looking at Olds trumpets. Their student model Ambassador from the 50’s and 60’s is said to be every bit as good as the typical pro-line trumpet nowadays. I looked them over. In my price range, or just a little over it, there were Ambassadors and even a bashed up Super Recording, a Mendez, and some other stuff. Then, and again, I do not know why, I realized I hadn’t checked Craigslist in a week or two, and I decided to check it.

Polishing with a Dremel tool and Tripoli.
Up popped an ad for an Olds trumpet, $165. I looked at the single image. I typed in CTRL > + to zoom in on the miniscule thing, but the resolution was poor. “Huh,” I said out loud. I don’t remember Olds, or anyone else for that matter, manufacturing a silver plated student model trumpet, I thought. I looked at the price. “A hundred and sixty five bucks,” I said aloud.

I need to back up a little here. Kickstarter works like this: people pledge support over the life of the promotion, but if you don’t reach the goal, Kickstarter doesn’t run the transactions. If, however, you do reach the goal, they run the transactions and deposit the funds into your Amazon account (minus their fee). My Amazon account was bulging, over the weekend, with about $458, my net of $500. I requested a transfer to my bank on Sunday night, but Amazon says they need up to seven days to get it all complete, so I wasn’t expecting to see my bank account change until the subsequent Monday or Tuesday. But lo and behold, the funds popped up first thing the very next day.

Quite excited to be shopping in earnest, I got tapping and browsing, and that’s when I discovered the Olds on Craigslist. I called the number on the ad. I got the guy’s wife; she said he was busy with a client but that she would give him my number and have him call me back when he was free. She said she had picked up the trumpet at a yard sale and given it to her son to play when he was in high school years ago. Beyond that she had no information.

Looking better.
I sat down to watch Secretariat with my wife. I’d never seen it. I wondered if the guy was going to call me back or if he would forget. Maybe I would have to wait until the next day for a callback; I didn’t know.

Around 8:30, in the middle of the movie, the phone rang. I answered. It was the guy with the Olds. I asked him for some pertinent information on it: serial number, any engravings or markings, do the slides move, do the valves move. He replied that everything on the trumpet worked, then rattled off the serial number. That dated it to the late 50’s, when Olds moved production from LA to Fullerton.

And then the piece de resistance. “It says, ‘Opera’ on the bell,” he said.

“Does it,” I said, trying not to sound too interested. The word rang into the deepest recesses of my brain, setting off vague alarm bells that said in essence, jump on it. “Is it too late to pop over?” I asked, looking at the clock: it read about 8:45 at that point.

It was not too late, he told me, and said I could even play the thing as much as I wanted in order to make a good decision.

When I finally got to his house, which is in Caldwell, it was about 9:30. He cracked the case open on a genuine F.E. Olds Opera Bb trumpet, about 60 years old. It needed a good cleaning. There was a cobweb in the leadpipe. The first note I played came out very mellow, forced, soft. I removed the cobweb with the snake brush that came with the trumpet and tried again.

My Olds Opera.
Clear, bright, eminently modulatable, easy and free was the tone, the sound that came out of this fine instrument. It has been languishing for God knows how many years, waiting for this moment. The moment of its rediscovery. The moment it could be used for that which it had been built. The moment I took it up.

I played octave slurs with ease. It was fluid, easy, fine. It worked with me, greeting me, inviting me on, hinting at undiscovered delights in musical expression. One of the valves was quite slow; I oiled it and it loosened right up. There was “red rot” all over the finish. The bell had a gigantic patch on it, the size of a nickel, where there had been a hole. It was obvious that the thing had been munched at some point and then been repaired—brass is like paper; it can crumple and even rip. The munching was pretty bad, I guessed, to produce the need for a patch like that. It was a little hideous, but it played like a marvel. It made me sound better than I am.

“I’ll take it,” I said. I gave the guy $180 and told him to keep the change. It felt right in my gut, which, by the way, has grown to be so prodigious that I cannot ignore it even when I want to. Cue the rimshot.

I didn’t know until I got home that what I had bought was what I had been looking for in a trumpet all along. See, a really nice friend of mine shipped an old Conn trumpet to me on his own dime about a month ago, telling me to find a use for it or pay it forward. The Conn is nice, but it has issues. There’s a certain telepathy, I guess, that develops between a musician and his axe, and the better quality instrument he’s playing, the clearer the link and the better the result. With the Conn there was a blockage for me, and I deduced that it was rooted in the bore size.

See, most manufacturers today have settled on a bore size for trumpets, measured at the 2nd valve slide, of either .459 or .460 inch. That’s ML or medium large bore. The Conn uses a stepped bore design that’s supposedly a revelation in playability, but it’s really small at .438 and one cannot argue with physics—you can’t move the same volume of air through a .438 aperture that you can move through a .459 aperture. I played on a .459 trumpet for years; I know what they feel like. I had developed hunch that a large bore trumpet would suit my style of playing quite well. Since I’m so full of it. Hot air, that is.

I did more research on the Olds after I got it home. Turns out it’s an XL extra large bore instrument, at .468 inch. In trumpet terms, that’s like the difference between a wheezing 4 banger grocery getter and a supercar. No wonder it played so light, so easy. I could play just as effortlessly at pianissimo as I could at fortissimo. It was second nature.

I also found out that Olds Opera trumpets are quite rare; not many were made in the first place. That’s why there weren’t any to speak of on Ebay. Well, there was one, but it was way out of my price range at $3000. I think the guy’s asking too much, but if people will pay it, I suppose on some level the price is right. I think he will get a buyer, eventually. As for my Olds Opera, it’s been cleaned pretty well, lubed, and is now in fighting trim. I’ve played it at length once, as of this writing, and I can tell you something: I’m not equal to it. It makes everything easier—far easier. It may need some more work, like a professional valve job, but it’s still a precision tool. One has to know how to use it. I’ve not yet discovered the limits of this beast. It takes everything I can throw at it and demurely asks for more. It’s like that Bill Cosby sketch where they’re playing buck-buck, where Cosby tackles one of the rough kids and the rough kid says, “what was that? A piece of paper?!” This Olds is enormous.

Trumpets are like people. There may be some that look the same, have the same model number, or similar outward appearances. Some are old, some young, some understated, some larger than life. Some, also, were made to endure. Some wear their “red rot” as a badge of honor, a testimony to the hardship they’ve had to endure. The character that accumulates like a crust, tempering, even armoring the glossy and perfect shine that lies beneath, ready to be revealed by loving hand. Tubes of cold metal can be made to sing like angels, trust me. I know. It is the same with these elegantly designed but fatally flawed sacks of dirt we call our bodies, our temporary homes. We too can be made to endure, to become warm and glowing under loving hand, indeed, to sing.

This now is what I have purposed to do with my own life. This Olds Opera, so very much like me, is the mouthpiece for my song; the instrument of choice. It’s seen better years, yes. It shows its battle scars. It’s been bashed and repaired and it shows. But the sound it makes! There might come a day when I plunk down the 2k that will be needed to completely restore it. But that might not be money well spent. It may be that the imperfections, the patched holes, the dents, the patina produced from sixty years under the sun, the rarity of an unconventional large bore, the quality of its hand-crafted build… these make it sound so good. And I think when beauty surprises us in unlooked-for places, well… it’s all the more arresting. To a guy with his own scars and issues, I probably couldn’t have paired myself with a better trumpet. And to all my Kickstarter supporters, thank you. You’ve invested in the beginning of something, well, XL.