A Matter of Degrees

The hottest summer I can recall.  Yes.  I think this may be the worst in my adult life.  I’m sure there were hotter, when I was a child in the far southern tip of Texas, but those have faded in my memory.  And, since my guess is that you’ve heard quite enough complaining about the weather, I’m going to change the subject and spend a little time talking about Christmas.  Why not?  Christmas in July!  It seems as good a way to get through the heat as any I know of.

Photo: Calsidyrose

I go back in my memory about ten or twelve years, to a frigid early December evening.  As we approach the winter solstice, the days have been compressed and darkness encases the little town I live in for all too many hours.  I am in a suit, much too light for the twenty-five degree temperature outside, but having no overcoat, it is all the protection from the blasting North wind I have available.  Why am I in the suit?  It is the first night of the annual candlelight service at the local university and I have, once again, allowed myself to be manipulated into playing my French Horn with the brass group which will perform a twenty minute instrumental prelude to the choral program for the next three nights.

Arriving nearly forty-five minutes early, I find the parking lot by the building closed off, reserved for VIPs.  I head on to the next lot, only to view an expanse of tightly parked cars.  No room.  I glance over to the front entrance and see the mass of people already swelling, huddling close to keep warm and I keep going.  Finally, a parking place is found, nearly two blocks from the venue and I am running, late for the call time, through the frigid landscape.  When I finally push my way through the packed crowd, I am cold and annoyed, not the two best conditions for an auspicious start to a performance.  It will get worse.

As I warm up, I realize that I have picked up the wrong mouthpiece for my horn.  A minor annoyance, one might think, but for me, it is a major catastrophe.  After a warm up, we play a piece or two to allow our tuning to settle and to induce us into the ensemble mode.  I am playing badly, but, having been assured all my life that a bad warmup is a sure sign of a good performance to come, am willing to let it go.  The problem is that the whole thing goes downhill from there.

On stage, our performance begins with (wouldn’t you know it?) a horn solo.  A bad attack of the first note, turns into a struggle to hit and hold every subsequent note thereafter.  In the middle of the second piece, I forget a key change and play an A two or three times, where the composer was hoping I would find an Ab.  The entire program is cut from the same cloth, with bobbles and wrong fingerings, along with some serious tuning issues.  It is, to put it bluntly, my worst performance in memory.  I am mortified.  It is as if the cold from outside has made its way into my head.  I am stone cold!  As I head outside into the icy, windy weather afterward, I have no intention of returning for the following two nights.  They can find someone to fill in for me.   There is no way I am going to be embarrassed like that again!

After a night to rest and a day to mull it over, I actually did show up for the next night’s program.  With the correct mouthpiece.  On time.  It was quite possibly the best performance I had ever played.  My solo parts were impeccable, the tone almost heavenly (I have witnesses), and I missed not a single note the entire evening, a more-than-minor miracle even on my best day!  I’m convinced that anyone who had been there the night before would actually have thought that the group did recruit a new horn player.  I was red hot!  No one was more surprised than I, especially after the previous evening’s fiasco. 

What made the difference?  Well, besides the mouthpiece, I couldn’t tell you.  What I do know is that sometimes, you just show up, no matter how much you want to quit; no matter how much you want to never attempt a thing again.  Here’s another wrinkle…I have experienced situations like this any number of times in my life, but it is just as likely to turn out the other way around.  A quarterback who completes every pass in one game, throws four interceptions and fumbles the ball three times the next.  The pitcher who throws a perfect game one night, comes out for his next appearance and gets pulled in the third inning because he walks the bases loaded and then, hitting the next batter, walks in a run.  We simply remain faithful to what we are called to do.  Even when we don’t feel like it; even when it takes every fiber of our being to walk out onto that stage.

Now, it’s your turn.  The stage of life awaits.  Did you fall down the last time you tried your balancing act?  Give it another shot and head out on that tight-rope one more time.  Did you flub your lines as you articulated them during your last speaking part?  The only way you’ll get them right is to walk out again…and again…and yet again.  I’m not sure that it ever gets any easier.  We just realize that we have a task to do.  And, we do it. 

The air conditioner has just come on in here, reminding me that it’s not really winter outside, and that it’s supposed to reach over one hundred degrees again tomorrow.  Ah well, hot or cold, we keep doing what we do, putting one foot in front of the other, just one more step closer to the prize.

How would you like to play through a piece or two with me along the way?  You might want to bring the right mouthpiece…

“A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success.”
(Elbert Hubbard~American publisher~1856-1915)

“We fall down.  We get up.
We fall down.  We get up.
And the saints are just the sinners,
Who fall down and get up.”
(Bob Carlisle~American singer/songwriter)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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