Lights Go On Part II: The Birth of Passion

A student of the newly opened mariachi school, Ollin Yoliztli, plays his trumpet before the start of a a free concert perform
A student of the newly opened mariachi school, Ollin Yoliztli, plays his trumpet before the start of a a free concert performed by the school's female students to mark International Women's Day in Mexico City, Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

I learned how to read and write music before I learned to read and write English. You might be wondering, why? Were his parents task masters? Was he a child prodigy? Was he forced to learn this? No, no and no.

Why then?

My passion for music began at the ripe age of three with my first memory of my dad.

I was standing in the foyer of our home, peering into the living room, listening to Dad play "Meditation from Thais" on his trumpet. For those of you who are familiar with that beautiful melody, it is not one which you would ordinarily acquaint with the trumpet, as it was composed for violin. But playing it he was, and I... was enthralled.

Dad stood in a humbly majestic manner, his elbows raised regally and just below shoulder level, in embrace of his Pre-war French Besson Meha trumpet. His left hand gripped the trumpet's valve casing with delicate intention -- the first three fingers of his right hand rested atop the valve caps -- his right wrist was bent slightly backwards as if reclining, his right hand hovering over and gently pressing the valve caps, as if massaging the nape of a cat.

Entranced, Dad's eyes were closed as he played. His lids would open briefly as he took in a fresh breath of air and it was in those moments that I first saw the rapture in his eyes. Instantly infected, I wanted a piece of that rapture.

Originally self-taught, Dad was a gifted trumpet player who had toured around the country with various bands from the age of 16, eventually playing in the studio orchestras of MGM, Fox, Paramount and RKO. He had studied at Juilliard, student of the famed player, Max Schlossberg.

Music was Dad's passion; the ecstasy witnessed in his eyes was a gaze he reserved explicitly for the times he created that organized, magical sound.

As he played, "Meditation," the air was full of enchantment and I was captured in its web. Dad was not aware of my presence. A day or so later, while entering the living room looking for a toy, I spied his French Besson nestled in its case in the corner of the living room. Usually kept safely up on a shelf in the hall closet, it was as if I had discovered a hidden treasure. I couldn't resist.

Slowly, carefully I opened the case, and bore witness to the magnificent instrument: its beautiful polished brass appeared as gold to me, and it rested, as if asleep, snugly cuddled in its case's plush, rubescent velvet lining.

Cautiously I placed my small hands on the trumpet, lifting it from its leather padded, spring loaded valve casing sheath. I imagined the rich melody of "Meditation" might still be resting within the curves of its golden-brass tubing; I believed that if I just held it to my lips, that I could recreate that captivating melody. With clear intention I lifted the Besson to my face and closed my eyes, gripping it as Dad did, pressing it to my lips.

In what memory dictates was that selfsame instant, I was standing, looking down, and weeping -- I was glancing at the floor, upon the bent bell of the Meha that had slipped from my three-year old's grasp. Dad heard the dreaded sound of his trumpet hitting the floor and rushed toward me. I'll never forget the grimace on his face, seeing his Besson crunched and creased as if it had met up with a Ford.

But then, something occurred that completely took my by surprise. Immediately Dad knelt to hold and comfort me, holding me tight to his chest. Then he said these words.

"Oh, Son, I shouldn't have left it where you could get to it. Of course you wanted to play it."

Dad celebrated my curiosity, even though it occasionally caused him pain. As he lovingly caressed the back of my head, my tears wetting his collar, I struggled to explain why I had tried to play his trumpet. Dad's hands softly slid from my head to my shoulders and he held me at arms length, looking into my eyes:

"Its okay, Son, we all make mistakes. This is how we learn."

A couple of years later, Dad apparently saw something in my eyes one evening, when my dexterity had developed and my hands had grown a bit. He beckoned me into the living room. There, resting on the sofa, was an open trumpet case. Inside was a gleaming trumpet. I hoped against hope, then he said,

"This is your trumpet, Son."

As I reached in to take it from its case, clutching its cold precious brass body to my chest, Dad continued,

"Son, I shared the story of what happened with you and my Besson with Sonny Heideman, one of the trumpet players that I work with at RKO. He was touched by your intention and today he brought me one of his older trumpets from home as a gift to you... with every opportunity comes an equal responsibility. Are you ready and willing to take that on?"

"Yes, Dad," I said through my smile so broad that it hurt. "But what does that mean?"

"Well, Son, it means that you must practice at least five times a week."

"Oh, I will, I promise."

"And at your age, I should think that you should practice at least 10 minutes a day."

And so it began. I fell in love with Sonny Heideman's aged Bach Stradivarius trumpet. It did not gleam like my dad's Meha, but it was mine and I cherished it. With my enthusiasm, it seemed as though I learned to play "Long, Long Ago," within weeks.

My older brother John had begun playing trumpet before me and soon we played duets together. In fact, "Long, Long Ago," was our first. As John and I learned the trumpet, we developed a keen desire to read and write music as well.

I still play that trumpet. To this day it has never slipped from my grasp.