She enjoyed being a wife and mother, but still felt discontented, disconnected from who she once was. Until she finally returned to her first love: music.
Apr 25, 2017
I took a bite of watermelon and wiped away the juice dribbling down my chin. The stirring strains of a Sousa march drifted over from Ester Park’s open stage. I scanned the crowd at this quintessential Fourth of July celebration, looking for my husband, Jim, and four-year-old-daughter, Aurora. People chatted in line waiting on their barbecue. Families lounged on picnic blankets spread on the lawn. In theory, it was a perfect day. Not that I was feeling anything close to perfect.
We were spending the summer in Fairbanks, Alaska. Jim owned a microscope sales and service company, and he’d developed a large social network. He’d always been good at that—fitting in, making friends, finding his niche. Not me. I missed my routines and friends in Montana, where we lived the rest of the year. Even then, I’d been struggling.
I helped Jim with his business, but it wasn’t my passion. And as a newish parent, I’d been feeling disconnected from who I’d been before. Now in Alaska, I felt that sense of disconnection even more. I took care of Aurora. I volunteered at the farm next door to our rented cabin. Life was full of blessings. Yet something was missing.
I finally spotted Aurora and Jim over on the swings, but as I started to make my way toward them a conversation caught my attention. “I can’t stay,” a woman told her friend as they filled their plates. “I’m in the community band, and we have a concert this afternoon.” My ears perked up. Community band? What was that?
In high school, band had been one of my passions. There’s no clearer sense of purpose than being part of a group that is working together to make music. I could still remember the thrill of every instrument sounding together in perfect harmony. I wasn’t the greatest musician, but my insecurities melted away with a trumpet in my hands.
At college there weren’t as many opportunities for me to play. I wasn’t a music major. I put playing in a soundtrack orchestra on my bucket list, though just for my own pleasure.
On my daily run, I would listen to movie scores. A favorite was the Jurassic Park theme, by John Williams. Its soaring trumpets practically lifted me off the ground. In my mind, I became one of the musicians. I stood on stage hitting every note. But the years ticked by, and my trumpet remained in its case. It hadn’t even occurred to me to bring it to Alaska for the summer.
As soon as we got home from the picnic, I looked up the Fairbanks Community Band. The website explained that it existed to give people of any skill level the opportunity to make music. No auditions. Anyone was welcome. How had I never heard of this before?
I clicked on the band’s calendar. They had an open-air concert coming up. I have to go, I decided, entering the time and date into my calendar.
We were so late on the day of the concert, it had already started by the time we arrived. We settled into our seats while the band prepped for the next number. The first haunting notes of a familiar melody echoed through the pavilion. I gasped. The Jurassic Park theme! Goosebumps prickled my arms. Was God speaking to me?
It seemed the show was over before it started. I wanted to talk to the conductor, but doubt glued me to my seat. It had been so long since I’d last played. Would I even remember how? What if I was terrible? This was a bad idea.
“If you don’t go up there, I will,” Jim said. He had always encouraged my passion for music. “If you don’t take this opportunity to do something just for yourself, Erin, you’ll regret it.” He was right. I gathered my courage and walked to the front. One of the band members smiled. I asked how I could join. “We rehearse once a week,” she told me. “Just come!”
“My trumpet is in Montana,” I said.
“I think we have one you can borrow,” the band manager chimed in.
Twenty years is a long time, and I felt every minute of it when I brought the trumpet to my lips. I couldn’t remember basic note fingerings. My embouchure was weak. And my breath control was nonexistent. The first time I rehearsed the Jurassic Park theme with the band, I couldn’t even keep up on the page, let alone manage any of the high notes I’d played so skillfully in all of my daydreams.
Once I finally found my place, almost every note I played was wrong. Practicing at home was no easier. Just a few notes were enough to send Aurora running from the room. “Too loud, Mama, too loud!” she’d cry.
I struggled on but couldn’t help asking myself if it was pointless. Shouldn’t I be spending more time with Aurora and Jim? Practice was frustrating. I sounded terrible and felt like an impostor in the band. Maybe I was kidding myself, thinking I’d ever be good at this again.
The other band members kept me going. They laughed off my mistakes and helped me improve. Everyone made me feel as if I was part of something, a valued member of the group. Practicing each day still felt scary. But it started to feel brave too.
It’s impossible to disguise mistakes when playing the trumpet. It’s a loud instrument that often carries the melody line in songs. When you can’t hide, you’ve got no choice but to play as confidently as you can. The more I let go of my insecurities, the more things started coming back, like the passion I had in high school. Then one day, Aurora marched into our practice room blasting her own plastic trumpet. We weren’t just making music—we were making memories.
Summer ended, and we returned to Montana. I found a community band in Billings, not too far from where we lived, and signed up.
Everything was going fine until I learned the other third trumpet player would be away for the next performance and I would play his solo in my first concert. “You can do it,” bandmates told me, but I wasn’t so sure. I practiced the part endlessly. Usually it came out right in rehearsal. But not always. What if I messed up during our big show?
We took the stage, the lights dimmed and the audience stilled. The butterflies in my stomach started doing somersaults. I lifted my horn, felt the cold press of the mouthpiece against my lips. The slight tension in my embouchure. The weight of the horn gripped in my hands. Taking in a breath, feeling the air filling my lungs, I said a prayer.
Our conductor lifted his baton. The musicians around me raised their instruments, waiting for the cue.
I kept praying until the conductor gave the downbeat for my entry. Here we go. There was the buzz of air as it passed my lips, blossoming into sound as it vibrated through the horn, becoming music as it exited the bell. One correct note followed another, the tones blending with the lingering melody of the first and second trumpets’ parts. I thought my heart would burst with joy.
Jim and Aurora beamed at me from the audience. I was still light years away from my daydream performance. But I’d learned I didn’t have to be perfect to love playing. After 20 years, I’d rediscovered this simple pleasure and there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be. No matter what sound came out of my trumpet, by picking it up, I’d hit the right note, one I knew I could hold for the rest of my life.
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