Monday, August 16, 2010

30 Days of Smell

Day 16: Valve Oil

On Saturday, I did something I haven’t done in a couple of years. I got out my French horn and played it for our grandson. He is almost a year old but seems to love music and sounds. He plunks the piano, bangs on our tom-tom, and when I got out my horn and played it, he sat listening--mesmerized.

For not having played in a couple of years, I didn’t sound too bad. I was a French horn performance major at Indiana University and my tone had the reminiscence of someone who once played well, but my technique was a different story. I felt clumsy and had no embouchure what so ever. What really stood out to me through this experience was all the seminal smells.

When I got my horn out of its case, I smelled the scent of must and brass inside. I cradled my horn in my arms, slipped in the mouthpiece and could smell the inside of the lead pipe--a combination of old saliva and metal. I took out some valve oil and oiled the rotary valves. Wow. I had strong, distinctive memories flood my mind: my first horn professor, John Miller who played with the ISO; Philip Farkas, my horn prof at IU; playing in orchestras in high school and college; friends who were horn players like Patti, Jill, Eric and Chris. I wonder what has happened to them?

These aromas were nostalgic ones—some of the most powerful smells I have smelled. In part, it might be because they were not subtle odors. Valve oil, slide grease and musty brass are very strong and distinctive smells. But what I think made them really powerful was the ambush of profound memories of people and experiences that have shaped my life.

Even though I don’t play my French horn much now, I know that my experience as a young musician molded me in significant ways. Even today, I think my sense of cadence in writing and speaking was shaped through learning to phrase music. My love of the arts, the intangible gifts of sound and sight that speak so directly to my heart were nurtured through learning this wonderful instrument.

Even to this day, no matter where I am, if I hear the sound of a French horn, I am immediately and uncontrollably drawn to the sound—just like Eli--mesmerized! How has learning a musical instrument shaped your soul? What smells do you associate with that instrument?

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