Listen. I can’t play the trumpet

Last Friday I was the ‘musical director’ of Inexpert 2018, ‘a social experiment disguised as a conference’, organised by Steve Chapman, who has form when it comes to ‘being playful with not knowing’.

All the speakers had been invited to talk about things they knew little or nothing about. The audience were there to share in what happens when the normal rules of conferences are removed. I was there to bring the music. I played the trumpet.

I cannot play the trumpet.

Steve cautioned us as we left: ‘Inexpert is like a roast dinner. It will keep cooking once you’ve taken it out of the oven’. How true that’s been. Most conferences leave me with a few pages of doodles in my notebook and a backlog of emails. Inexpert left me with a headful of questions, and a nicely disconcerting sense of not being able to ‘file away’ what happened in any of the usual ways.

Was that magical and profound? Pointless and ridiculous? An intimate sharing of vulnerability? A self-induced act of public shaming? All of these things? Why was I intent on labelling it anyway?

Lots of other people have written about their experiences of being in the audience, so I won’t do that. Instead, I want to write about my experience playing the trumpet. I want to capture something of the sense of what’s happened over the last few months before I forget — or more likely, before it starts to congeal into a ‘funny story’ about how hilariously crap I was. Because while it’s true that I was hilariously crap, and that was all part of the glorious mess of the day, the truth is that before all that, something else happened, too.

So here we go:

Full disclosure: I am not a total musical novice. I can play the piano a bit, and the ukulele quite well. I can read music. About thirty years ago, I played rhythm guitar in a pub band for a few months. But since then, the only experience I’ve had of playing to an audience was when a ukulele group I joined did a Christmas singalong at a care home. The residents stopped us half way through ‘Frosty the Snowman’ so they could do their raffle.

The trumpet has always fascinated me. How do you get all those notes out of it when there are only three buttons? Also, trumpets are serious. Trumpets blare. Trumpets say LISTEN UP! I AM HERE! THIS IS ME!. And trumpets are really unforgiving: blow them wrong, and the notes wobble and crack in excruciating ways.

In contrast, ukuleles are a sort of joke instrument. They’re all sorry excuse me no it’s OK you can’t hear me. Ukuleles sound slightly out of tune at the best of times. Once, I played the wrong chords through an entire song on the ukulele and nobody noticed.

You can do the psychological unpacking of that for yourselves.

So this is what happened: in January I told Steve I’d always wanted to play the trumpet. He said great, you can be Inexpert’s Musical Director. I thought brilliant, there’s the motivation I need.

I bought a trumpet.

I then spent a week not being able to get a sound out of the damn thing. By the end of week two I could play five notes before going dizzy and gasping for breath. It occurred to me that although I was happy to be ‘inexpert’, I didn’t want to be, like, ‘total shit’.

So I knuckled down. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. I learned about embouchure (the shape of your lips on the mouthpiece). I learned about harmonic series (how the way you blow produces different notes, even without pressing the buttons). Ah! So that’s how you get all the different notes! And oh right, they’re not ‘buttons’, they’re valves. Things started to make sense.

And then, just as soon as I started to make a bit of progress, the information became intoxicating. Even though the whole reason I was doing this was for Inexpert, I started having fantasies of expertise. I started compiling Spotify playlists of great horn players, buying sheet music to play ‘just as soon as could play a bit better’, and saving links to the beautiful vintage trumpets I would treat myself to when I started my own jazz quartet…

What was I doing? I still couldn’t play Three Blind Mice, and yet I was already fantasising about how I was going to give up being a writer and become a professional horn player! I was filling myself up with trumpet-facts in lieu of actually practising, and trumpet fantasies instead of just accepting where I was and the reality of what I was doing.

I even found myself having a sort of reverse-anxiety dream, in which I turned up at Inexpert and played too well, and had to flee the building as Steve looked on, his face ashen with betrayal and disappointment.

What the hell?

One of the gifts of the whole Inexpert process is how it forces you to notice your own reactions more carefully. I deleted my Ornette Coleman playlists and started again.

The thing that makes the trumpet so punishing to learn is also the thing that makes it magical. With a piano, you press a key and a note comes out. With a stringed instrument, you pluck it or bow it or whatever, and it makes a sound. It’s not quite as predictable — fretting and strumming take practice — but at least the physics of it is there to see: the string gets shorter, the note gets higher.

But the trumpet? The process of getting a single note out of it is almost mystical. You blow into it — no, blow isn’t quite right, it’s more like concentrated breathing — and sound happens. Every nuance and waver in your breathing is reflected and amplified in the note you get. And to go higher, you need to… well, when it comes down to it, just need to just breathe differently. That’s pretty much all you can say about it. It’s not like pressing a higher key or a higher fret. You can’t see or touch the thing you need to do differently. There’s physics that explains what happens — you make a smaller hole with your lips so the air moves quicker — yet that doesn’t help you actually do it.

Every note is a little leap into the unknown. You need to sort of feel for it. With your breath.

Over the next couple of months, I did a lot of feeling for it with my breath. Sometimes an hour or more a day. Most of the time, I let go of the idea of even playing music, I just tried to play simple scales as cleanly as possible, to find each note like finding I was trying to find a sure footing on a loose mountain path.

It was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. It held me completely in the moment day after day. There’s something about how, because your hand only has one position, and the muscle movements in your mouth are so tiny, when it goes right, it’s like you’re simply imagining the notes into existence.

As Inexpert drew closer, I got together some music and ran through them a few times. Not too much. Though now that was less of out of not wanting to being ‘too good’, (ha!) and more because I didn’t want to set too much of an expectation. Steve requested ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ as the opening number. I decided I’d improvise a couple of the other pieces.

Stepping out onto the stage was fascinating. I reckon I’d put in around 200 hours of practice to get me to that point. I’d taken it seriously, yet I think, ‘held it lightly’. I wasn’t nervous exactly — there was no expectation that I was going to sound any good, after all. I noticed an urge to want to make it ‘the right kind of wrong’. I tried to let go of that.

To paraphrase Marilyn Monroe: I just put my lips together and did some concentrated breathing.

I’m not gonna lie, I sounded terrible. And yet, damn, I think it’s kind of glorious. Gloriously, awfully, wonkily, exuberantly, mindfully terrible.

Which, it turns out, I think I’d trade for ‘quite good’ almost any day.

I’m trying to resist ‘finding lessons’ in what we all did at Inexpert. But ah, fuck it, here’s mine: at first, I had reservations about the whole endeavour. We live in a time when expertise is deliberately denigrated for political gain, and where the mansplainer is being called out for the bore and bully that he is. Does the world really need more inexpertise, flaunted so brazenly?

Turns out, yes. Of course we do. Because there’s a world of difference between the pseudo-expert bullshitter hiding their not-knowing in order to play power games, and those who openly admit they don’t know, and invite others to playfully discover what we might all learn, together, from that.

But for me, the real work happened in the months before the conference, in what happened when I took a run at learning a ridiculously big skill.

Starting out always feels daunting, disorientating. You’re lost in a fog. You’re terrible and clumsy in ways you couldn’t even imagine were possible. Sure, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step — but sometimes when you take that first step you realise you’ve actually started out on a journey of ten thousand miles, in the dark, and you appear to be wearing flip-flops. Our instinct is to get moving, to get those first few tricky miles over and done with, to want to get to the point where the journey really starts.

What I will tell myself more: resist that. Feel the stones under your flip-flops. This day of the journey is the only day that matters.

Also, we got music.