In The Corner

They put me in the corner the last time we met.  Yes, me…the French Horn player.  Our little brass ensemble was practicing for an upcoming performance and our usual venue for rehearsals was unavailable, so we squeezed into a small space at another local church.  And I–I had to play with the bell of my horn facing directly into the corner.  I can almost see the communal shrug as each of you reads this and wonders, “So what?” 

Playing in an ensemble, as I have mentioned before, requires that we listen.  Listen to the group; listen to our own sound.  I usually play into open air, with the bell of my horn facing behind me. All of the sound I hear is ambient sound.  I don’t detect the notes exactly as they are emitted from the bell, but instead the air in the room and nearby walls reflects it back gently.  I like the way I sound in the middle of the room.  The corner?  Not so much.  As I played at the rehearsal, I could hear every mistake, every hesitation, even every slightly out-of-tune note, plainly.  The corner captured my exact performance and returned it to my ear instantly and at full volume.  It wasn’t really that pretty.


For some reason, as I write this, I am back on Mr. Cox’s farm in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Dad and the older brothers are standing  with him at the barbed wire fence talking about the old man’s latest Brahman bull acquisition and speculating about how mean the big fellow really is.  I, after a moment or two of interest, become tired of the subject and wander off, to explore a nearby grain bin.  These galvanized storage buildings fulfill many functions for different farms, holding seed for the farmers who are preparing to plant crops, as well as storing the crop itself in the fall, but Mr Cox simply uses them to protect his hundred pound bags of cattle feed  and a few mineral licks from the greedy bovines and the weather.  As I open the door and peek in, I make a noise and immediately hear the strange, reverberating echo of the sound.  “Hey!” I exclaim.  The word comes back to me several times, almost like Fat Albert of Bill Cosby fame, but more softly than the original,  “HeyHeyHey”.   I am bored no longer!

I step fully into the grain bin, closing the metal door behind me.  It is dark, but my young eyes quickly adjust to the dimness and notice rays of light filtering down from the cone shaped ceiling.  Within moments, I am in full voice inside the little storage building, as I sing, “To God be the glory, great things He hath done.  So loved He the world that He gave us His Son.”  At first, I am impressed by the big sound of my voice, and sing even louder.  Then, I start to notice something.  I can hear things more acutely.  My voice cracked there for a second;  that last note was really out of tune.  So I hit it a time or two more, “…done…done…done.”  Within a moment or two, I am satisfied that I have figured out the pitch and move on to the big finish, “…And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.”  Only tonight do I finally imagine how the racket I was making sounded to those standing outside the building.  Inside the building though…inside the building, the sound was astounding!  I was a great singer!  Well, after I fixed the intonation, I was a great singer.  And, the voice crack stopped happening for the moment.  (It would get a lot worse before it finally got better.)  The bouncing of the sound off the walls and ceiling in that little building was a wonderful tool…to teach…to encourage…to embolden.  It happened over forty-some years ago and I still remember the song and relive the astonishment as I recall the experience.

As I come back to the present, I start to think that the corner of the little church is no less of a classroom for me.  The horn is not at fault for my bad notes and intonation problems; I am.  As we practice for the next hour, I make adjustments, playing softer here, being careful to tongue the notes properly there.  Always listening to the others along with myself, I make the necessary corrections to be a part of the ensemble.  Aside from very tired lips, at the end of the practice time, I am pleased with the result.  It is a lesson that I will remember.  I just needed a little reminder that I don’t always sound as good as I think I do.

What made the difference in both of these examples?  I needed a mirror for my sound.  In the grain bin, the hard metal sides of the building directed the sound right back to me and let me hear what I really sounded like.  I remember it as an intensely satisfying, but educational experience.  The same could be said for the corner in which the horn was played.  Sound waves which were normally lost to the ear were directed right back and gave evidence of problems.  Was the corner fun?  No.  I didn’t really want to play there.  Was it beneficial?  Time will tell if the results are long-lasting, but it was certainly helpful for that session.

“I want to bounce something off of you.”  I take those words more seriously these days, when I hear them from a friend, understanding that the speaker is concerned that his thoughts about an issue need to be subjected to a process roughly like the sound mirror described above.  When we operate in a vacuum, so to speak, we start to lose perspective, we begin to think that we are invulnerable and need nothing beyond our own authority.  It is the wise man who seeks advice and looks into the mirror of collective wisdom. 

“I want to bounce something off of you.”  A customer said those very words to me this morning and we talked about this local musician’s ideas for sound amplification at an upcoming engagement he has scheduled.  It is a bit ironic that his idea, if implemented, would have resulted in the bouncing of sound around the venue in such a way to cause uncontrollable feedback in the sound system.  He was happy that he has spent the time and made the admission that he needed another point of view.  The performance will almost certainly go better because of our discussion.

How about it?  Are you a Lone Ranger?  Don’t need anyone?  Life goes much more smoothly when we have companions along the way to offer perspective.  It’s not always what we want to hear, but when we heed wise counsel, we avoid a lot of unnecessary noise and jumbled results.  I’m glad to admit that I know many wise people who can offer just the right feedback at precisely the needed moment.  You probably have some of those too. 

It may be time for another visit to the grain bin soon.  I’m probably about due for a tune-up.  You can tell me if it helps…

“Praise the Lord, praise the Lord.  Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord. Let the people rejoice.
Oh, come to the Father through Jesus the Son
And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.”
(“To God Be The Glory” by Fanny J Crosby~American poet and hymn writer~1820-1915)

“If you have a good friend, you don’t need a mirror.”
(Bente Borsum~Norwegian actress)

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

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