By RA Monaco
It was a cornet for playing music, so I thought, yet it inspired empathy, built confidence, honored fallen heroes and saved lives, including my own.
It was a cornet that became a window into the minds and hearts of the indigent and their families whose disenfranchised cultures were oppressed and ignored. It was an instrument to feel the world, a ticket for travel, a gift.
It inspired possibilities unforeseen, to challenge the compromise of fundamental rights and civil liberties of the developmentally disabled, mentally ill and criminally accused.
In the vernacular of psychological variables, this cornet transformed the air it required into attitudes, values and fears over a lifetime. It revealed a road to discovery of desires, interests and passion. It became a vehicle for a journey that continues where the destination is not known.
This is where the journey began. Eisenhower was president and then Kennedy when I last remember my mother—I was just entering Junior High and then without warning she was gone. From that moment, the choices that one makes in life, understanding the world and the guidance in plotting the course of a lifetime was all on me.
Before my mother passed she talked my father into purchasing a cornet for me. I can recall overhearing the discussion as my father protested that it would end up in the closet—money wasted. While everyone was singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” I was listening to Al Hirt play Java and Never On Sunday—such a weird kid some might have thought.
Consumed with the colossal challenge of raising my much younger brother and sister, my father had little time for me though he always told me that I was capable of whatever I chose in life—I believed him and now understand the value of that most uncommon gift.
He got me a job at eleven years old in the back of a carryout pizza place working until 2 AM for sixty-five cents per hour—I’ve worked ever since. It was his way of keeping me out of trouble and off the streets. No one ever again looked at my report card—even to see whether I went to school. Every decision and step in my life from that moment on was mine and only mine to make.
Almost a teenager, I was left to interpret the world as best as I could and then live with my choices—survival is an innately human instinct. I was praised for being a hard worker and while in high school I worked with my grandmother in the back of another restaurant —she emigrated from Italy never having the opportunity to go to school.
In her late 70’s, she worked every day and never raised her voice or repeated herself, she expected me to listen and do exactly what she said without discussion. I was the only grandchild of 28 who was given that opportunity and it was an honor to work with her. She was all business all the time. Affectionately, I called her “Big G.”
By 1970 I was a Marine and a crew chief on a Huey helicopter. Ironically, I found that my early training on the cornet was my ticket to keep me from a tour of the garden spot of the world—Vietnam. I played “Taps” at a great many military funerals in a time when we were not heroes, but baby killers.
As a member of the USMC Drum and Bugle Corps, I played at changing of command ceremonies and parades and soon found myself playing with former members of the James Brown Band around Memphis Tennessee the year after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Fortunately for me, I learned that musicians are color blind—our ears don’t see color especially if you can play. I believe my mother would be proud.
Upon my discharge, I returned to Chicago and became a carpenter—something I’ve always enjoyed. I worked on the Sears Tower. I put down 60 floors of baseboard at the Newberry Plaza and have the knees to prove it. But, once again, my early training on the cornet was to influence my life as I began to get calls from local R & B bands around town needing a trumpet player for their horns sections.
It was around 1972 when horn sections and groups like Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears and Tower of Power were becoming very popular here in the City. The clubs on Rush Street—Mothers and Rush Up—had show bands and they wanted horns. Mostly, I worked with R & B bands—soul bands we called them—and began to tour from Chicago to cities like Boston and Kansas City. This was all getting in the way of my gig as a Local 7 Union carpenter which paid good money at the time.
Since there were plenty of guitar players around and not many trumpet players—so I thought—I decided to get more serious about studying the instrument. This was not a decision that garnered much respect from my father’s family—the smart cousins that went to college didn’t serve in the military and weren’t expected to get a trade. They, and their parents never hesitated to project their condescending attitudes that they saw me as immature and irresponsible—a musician.
Importantly, in 1974, I went to see the Buddy Rich Band at Mr. Kelly’s. Alone, they sat me at a little table right in front of the band. To this day, I can recall feeling like the hair on my head was being blown straight back—maybe it was the goose bumps on the back of my neck. That night changed my life in more ways than I could’ve imagined. I went into a practice room for 10 years after that—five hours a day, alone.
What I learned in those years was how to work at something, how to concentrate and dedicate myself alone in a practice room. I learned that perfecting the simplest one note was often the most difficult. From this, I experienced the highest form of collaboration that placed me in the most exact and precise mental space in the universe with 16—sometimes as many as 50—other people selflessly creating a whisper and then a roar so much larger than my own.
What I learned took me across Europe for several years where I played at famous places like Montmartre and Tivoli then back to California again where I worked with many behind the scenes studio musicians with whom I shared this journey. These were the people you hear each and every day yet rarely see their faces.
In 1987 I chose to forgo some expressed interest from the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra where the saxophone player that I had worked with in Europe, and before that Chicago, had landed. I opted to marry, raise a family, and go to law school. I pursued a career as a Deputy Public Defender—a straight gig as we call it—defending the indigent criminally accused and mentally ill.
Ultimately, the same skill I acquired from that cornet gave me the ability to obtain a Juris Doctor, become a trial lawyer and competently manage the burden of serious felony work and 50 to life cases, including challenging the California State Juvenile Mental Health system for the developmentally disabled. The California Supreme Court has seen no less than 10 Habeas Corpus petitions from me on matters of constitutional dimension.
But for that cornet my mother successfully pleaded and won from my dad, the humanity of my career as a Deputy Public Defender would likely never have occurred—a subject much too difficult to explore further in this space.
Importantly, the work ethic and determination demanded by that cornet—later trumpet—helped me to realize that my father gave me what he could, as did my mother—the rest was up to me, or so I thought.
Neuroscientists like Director Nina Kraus at Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory are now beginning to make a case that should require “society to reexamine the role of music in shaping individual development.”
Music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness explained Kraus who suggested that the relationship of music training is similar to physical exercise and body fitness. Importantly, we don’t have to be particularly good at it to gain the benefits. “It’s just about doing it,” Kraus says.
Actively working with musical sounds enhances neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and change according to Kraus. “A musician’s brain selectively enhances information-bearing elements in sound. In a beautiful interrelationship between sensory and cognitive processes, the nervous system makes associations between complex sounds and what they mean,” said the paper’s lead author.
“Musical training has a profound impact on other skills including speech and language, memory and attention, and even the ability to convey emotions vocally” according to her recent study.
In fact, musical instrument training may also reduce the effects of mental decline associated with aging according to the July issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The study found that adults who learned music in childhood and continued to play an instrument for at least 10 years outperformed others in tests of memory and cognitive ability.
But there is also good news for those who’ve not picked up the horn for awhile and returned to playing later in life notes Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, assistant professor of neurology, radiology and imaging sciences at Emory University in Atlanta.
While it’s not exactly clear what is actually causing the beneficial effect the hunch is that “it has to do with practicing, the continued stimulation of the brain” says senior scientist Cheryl Grady at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre, in Toronto.
At a time when about 14 million, or roughly 18% of the USA’s 79 million baby boomers can expect to develop Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia in their lifetime music may hold important holistic, as well as economic benefits for society as a whole. Just as importantly, cash-strapped school districts quick to cut music from the K-12 curriculum now seem a very short-sighted mistake.
In my perception of the world, music is an indispensable part of the human experience. To be deprived of music is to be deprived of much of the richness of being alive—it’s a gift and so much more.