Although this habit seemed mundane to me at the time, one of the greatest boons to my musical development as a teenager was driving to the nearby music stores and looking through the available sheet music. Back then Mississippi was still granting drivers licenses to fifteen-year-olds, so I would have begun this particular habit sometime during or just before my sophomore year in high school, and I continued it on a fairly regular basis until leaving for college, and resumed when I was at home for winter and summer breaks. Wright Music Company (which no longer exists) on Highway 80 in Jackson had by far the best collection of advanced materials for low brass among the local stores—I still have the copies of the Hindemith Sonata and Creston Fantasy that I purchased after thumbing through the file drawer of trombone solos and finding them there. Both pieces were far beyond me then but in subsequent years I performed both from those same copies I bought from Mr. Wright. Mississippi Music had a respectable selection of sheet music back then in the old store on Robinson Road, and Ball Music in Pearl (also no longer in business) always kept a few things in stock, particularly method books.
One particular visit to Ball Music in either 1993 or 1994 remains a very powerful memory over twenty years later. Although I can’t remember exactly when it occurred, I remember what I bought, what Mr. Ball said to me, and what I was thinking at the time. In hindsight, I also realize how foolish I was, and how right Mr. Ball was. My teacher, Debra Johnson, had sent me to Mr. Ball to purchase my first Arban book. Jean-Baptiste Arban (1825-1889) was the cornet professor at the Paris Conservatory during the mid-nineteenth century, and first published his famous Complete Method for that instrument in 1864. This hefty volume is a treasure trove of study materials, definitely favoring the “technical” aspects of playing over the “musical” ones but still having some useful material for studying phrasing. It has appeared in numerous editions for trumpet/cornet, trombone/baritone/euphonium, and tuba over the past 150 years, and despite some rather dated ideas in Arban’s original instructions the exercises themselves are held in high regard by brass players and teachers throughout the world.
“Teenager Micah” didn’t know any of that, though. I had been told by my teacher to get this book (and warned that it was large and somewhat expensive), and so I set about getting a copy. When I walked in and asked Mr. Ball about the book he walked over to the display where the book was, handed me a copy, and said to me “Young man, you will use this book for the rest of your life.” I have to admit that my first thought when he said that was “Yeah, right, old man. I’m gonna pass this one off just like I did all of the other books I’ve been assigned so far.” I was a teenager, after all, and “knew everything.” I was a polite teenager, though, and had been taught to show respect to adults, so I didn’t voice that thought aloud. I thanked Mr. Ball, paid for the book, and went home to practice using my ill-fated folding music stand, which did not long survive having that massive tome placed on it.
In my defense, my experience with method books to that point was limited to the old First Division Band Method, the Rubank Elementary Method, the two volumes of Gerald Bordner’s Practical Studies for Trombone, and exercises we played during band rehearsals. With all of these I would simply pass off materials and move ahead. Repeating exercises was rare, and seemed unnecessary. I simply didn’t have a category for etudes and studies that would yield benefits from repeated study over many years. I soon would, though, as Mr. Ball’s words to me have repeatedly proven to be profoundly correct since that evening in his little store. Not only has repeated practice of the materials as written (in the trombone version) been helpful, but Arban’s studies were a big part of helping me to first develop my doubling chops on euphonium, then bass trombone (mostly by playing the scale studies down one or more octaves), and now tuba. When I was preparing to record my bass trombone album a couple of years ago I spent hours playing Arban exercises down one and two octaves, both to strengthen my low register and to build stamina in my left arm for holding up that heavy and awkwardly-balanced instrument during long recording sessions. While I vary the amount of playing along with students that I do during their weekly lessons, my students both present and past will tell you that I rarely leave my instrument on its stand when Arban is on the agenda for that lesson. I almost always play along, both to provide an example for the student and simply because I will benefit from another trip through those exercises.
These days few brick-and-mortar music stores keep substantial amounts of sheet music in stock. To be sure, the online dealers have both better selection and better pricing than most local businesses could ever hope to match, and the efficiency and convenience of a quick online catalog search to find and purchase a desired item is wonderful. Still, there’s something about thumbing through file cabinets in the corner of a store and discovering major works for one’s instrument that my students today will never know in the way that I did, and that is a loss worth mourning.
And so is the loss of wise words spoken from an experienced music store owner to an ignorant kid who has no idea what a great treasure he has just acquired.