Nice Guys Finish Last

During my sophomore year at Anchorage High School, in 1958, I sat first chair first trumpet in the band, as well as playing first trumpet in the high school orchestra and playing in the the Anchorage Little Symphony. In my mind, and certainly in the opinion of my trumpet teacher and most of my friends, I was the best trumpet instrumentalist in the state. But first chair first trumpet actually meant 5th chair out of 26 trumpets. Ahead of me sat 4 seniors, two playing solo cornet parts, and two playing the first cornet parts. I enjoyed playing my part and bided my time, because come Senior week in late May I would get first chair, solo cornet by default when these four seniors stopped attending regular classes in preparation for graduation.

But the state music festival, held in Anchorage every year at the end of March and featuring a massed band comprised of eight or ten different school bands, became my opportunity to usurp the coveted first chair position. By tradition, the Anchorage musicians always sat first, followed by Fairbanks players, then on down the line: from the largest school in the state to smallest represented school.

Music Festival Massed Band. Photo from 1958 AHS Yearbook
Music Festival Massed Band. Photo from 1958 AHS Yearbook

The difference between the “trumpet” parts that I was playing and “cornet” parts the seniors were playing was tremendous, and very basic. Although in actuality played by either instrument, in true band voicing the melodic parts, which required a nicer sound, were played by the cornet, a shorter, sweeter sounding instrument. The trumpet, a more brassy sounding instrument, played the “trumpeting” parts: Those rapid-fire, rhythmic parts you usually heard in marches by John Philip Sousa. Trumpet parts required good range, flexibility and sharp tonguing. I covered both parts’ requirements well, with a sweet sound most conducive to solos, and good technique for playing the flashy trumpeting parts.

The massed band practiced in the Anchorage High School gymnasium, the only hall in town large enough to hold this massive band of 500 or more students. Every band in attendance had practiced all the music before coming to the music festival, and the practices with all the bands “amassed” were just to put the finishing touches on the music.

Traditionally, the couple of concerts held by the massed band — and massed chorus and massed symphonic orchestra — were played to standing room only audiences. The music festival was an opportunity for individual players to meet other state musicians, for band leaders to posture and strut – especially our band leader – and for soloists and small groups to compete in adjudicated appearances. And not insignificantly, it was another of the rare “artistic” offerings for enjoyment by the Anchorage residents.

In the massed band I sat about twentieth chair; many solo cornet and first cornet players sat ahead of me, all of whom, I felt, were less accomplished musicians than I. In fact, most of the musicians from the smaller schools hardly knew how to hold their horns: Playing them was usually out of the question.

Our program contained many of my favorite band pieces, including tunes from several currently popular musicals: “If I Loved You” from Carousel; “I Could Have Danced All Night” from The King and I, and others. The tune “If I Loved You” featured a cornet solo. Naturally, the Anchorage first chair solo cornet, my friend Richard R., played the solo.

Our conductor this year, as in most years, was a guest from out of state. I think he was the conductor of the University of Montana Concert Band. As we played this piece he suddenly stopped the rehearsal: He didn’t like Richard’s tone. And he launched into a lecture on the need for good posture (Richard’s was normally sloppy, but this year, as a senior sitting first chair he really played big shot and slouched even more), good embouchure (the position of the lips on the mouthpiece), and the good tone produced by all of this good posture and embouchure. After his tirade he said he was going to replace Richard as first chair so someone with a “sweet” tone could play this tender solo.

He started with Richard and went down the line, having each person play a C scale, up one octave and back down. This is such basic technique, but he was listening for something: a particular sound. He went from one end to the other – perhaps eighty or ninety trumpet players from around the state – having each of us in turn play the scale. Some were OK; some were painfully awful. When all had played, he pointed to me and asked me to play the C scale again, and I did. Then he told the band to listen to me play it yet again, because “this is the way it should sound!” And I played it yet again.

He then had me move to first chair, solo cornet. As a sophomore, I was sitting ahead of every other high school trumpet player in the state! I tried not to let my head swell too much. Inside, I knew I was sitting just where I deserved to sit. We continued rehearsal, with me now sight-reading every note I played: Remember, I did not play this part in our rehearsals: I played the first trumpet part.

But quietly, to myself, I praised this outsider who really knew his music, and really knew the value of a superior performance.

We finished the lovely ballad with the sweet solo, and moved on to a march. A Sousa march. The kind that has a lot of “trumpeting” passages. We played through it partway and he stopped the band again, banging his baton against the music lyre in frustration.

“No! No!” he shouted at the “trumpet” section. “The trumpeting parts must be clean, crisp. They must stand out.” We played it again. And again he stopped the band and berated the trumpet section for not being able to play their part the way it should be.

“Is there anyone playing a cornet part that has played this trumpet part?” he asked. “If so, I need you to raise your hand.” And he pointed to several of us – yes, us: I raised my hand too – and told us to move to the trumpet section so we could play this part and show the other players how it should be done.

So, I moved from first chair back down to twentieth chair and we played it again. “Bravo!” he shouted, obviously pleased with the change he now heard in the trumpeting part.

“Everybody keep your present seats. This is the way we will play the concert,” and with that we continued rehearsal.

I had been first chair solo cornet for about thirty minutes.

Throughout the rest of rehearsal, during the concerts themselves, and ever after that, I secretly loathed this interloper who obviously knew nothing about music or musicians.

Gene Brown is a 1960 AHS graduate who played trumpet in the Navy for seven years before going into banking. During his Navy years he began writing short stories and continues to write for the pleasure of friends and family. Having retired from 'real' work in 2006 and a widower since 2008, Gene now plays trumpet in several local swing and jazz bands and is working on an historical novel about Japan, his wife's homeland. His family owned the flying school at Merrill Field in the late '40s, where he was a frequent passenger in a Super Cub.

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