The Ravages of Brass Playing
25 Sunday Sep 2011
Any musician or music educator knows the manifold benefits and advantages that arts education of all kinds has for our children (see my earlier posts on this subject). It seems so obvious and proven beyond any faint shadow of a doubt that we all have worn dents in our foreheads from smacking them at the obtuseness of politicians who are determine to ignore the great advantages and joys of a well-rounded education that includes a healthy dose of creative arts study.
Why, oh, why do they think that way?! What is the matter with them? Is it so hard to discern that No Child Left Behind has fostered Every Child Left Behind?!
I may have chanced upon the answer to that question. Let us return now to yesterday for a short peek at a particular specimen of 130 year old journalism about the effects of brass playing; it is alarmingly difficult to refute the conjecture that this article is the secret central source of a certain attitude toward the arts apparently held by various contemporary politicians. Hold on to your hats. I quote (NYT article from July 28, 1880, public domain now, I believe):
The Brass Instrument Habit (anonymous)
It is generally conceded that the use of brass musical instruments has greatly increased in this country during the last ten years. Few persons, however, have any accurate idea of the appalling progress which this terrible vice has made. There is probably not a village in the whole country without its habitual and shameless players on the cornet, while the number of those who are addicted to brass instruments, either openly and to an extent which they call “moderate” or secretly and to a ruinous excess, is estimated by trustworthy statisticians to amount to fully 3 per cent of our entire adult population. In comparison with those figures the prevalence of drunkeness becomes insignificant and opium-eating hardly deserves notice.
The demoralization caused by the Civil War is doubtless due much of this giant evil. In the camp and the field men were brought in contact with the bugle, the cornet, the trombone, and the serpent. The natural horror which a pure-minded feels in witnessing the abuse of brass instruments vanished by degrees. The ears of our soldiers became calloused, and from listening with indifference to the abuse of brass by others, it was an easy step for them to adopt the habit themselves. The bugler brought his bugle home with him, and as he blew it in his house and on the street, his evil example contaminated the young and thoughtless. Then the long years of business depression, of bankruptcy and poverty which followed led many to drown their miseries in brass. The ruined merchant, or the mechanic without employment lost heart, and tried to forget his wretchedness by dulling his senses with the cornet or the trombone. Lastly, we must notice the pernicious influence of those unhappy men, Levy, Arbuckle, and similar offenders who have been made to minister to a depraved taste for brass, and have made this vice popular and even fashionable.
It is not necessary to take the extreme ground held by certain fanatics, that the use of brass instruments is in all circumstances wrong. Like ardent spirits, brass has its uses, and brass instruments may be played in such a way as to render it not only harmless, but beneficial. As to the use of brass instruments by that wretched class of beings commonly called by the degrading name of amateurs, there can, however, be no difference of opinion. They work far greater injury than the coarse and maddening accordeon [sic] and banjo. These latter are used only by the lowest class of the community, but the cornet invades our happiest homes, and the trombone counts among its victims the noblest and best men in the Nation. In this, as in the kindred vice of Intemperance in the use of ardent spirits, the course of the victim is steadily downward. Many a man has fancied he can safely blow a few notes on the regulation bugle. The horrible thirst for brass, however, once formed, constantly increases. Before long, the bugle is laid aside, and the fiery cornet takes its place. At first the cornet amateur indulges his depraved passion at home, and in the secrecy of closed doors and windows, but sooner or later he casts off shame, and is soon on his front piazza or heard at his front window practicing the “Mabel Waltz.” In many case he finds the cornet in its turn too tame to satisfy his unholy thirst, and he takes the destroying trombone to his lips. This is no mere picture of the imagination. There are scores of confirmed trombone players lively today who began their downward career with the comparatively harmless bugle or with a “moderate” indulgence on the cornet.
There are thousands of homes in this land made wretched because of the husband or the son is a slave to the baleful fascinations of brass. Many a wife has been driven to the terrible alternative of divorce or the stove lid, and many a fond mother has had her gray hairs by the cornet-playing of those who should have been the support and defense of the household. The ravages of brass instrument playing are not confined to the person and home of the players. In country villages a single cornet often depopulates an entire neighborhood, and destroys the value of real estate. There is a suburban town not many miles from this City which affords a melancholy proof of this assertion. Three years ago a man, the father of a family, occupying a house in the most beautiful part of town, suddenly fell a victim to the cornet habit. Within the following years seventeen houses in the immediate neighborhood were abandoned by their tenants, and could neither be rented nor sold; five persons living within hearing of the cornet became hopelessly insane, and the very dogs, realizing the hopelessness of barking competition with brass, wasted away and perished miserably. The miserable man who has caused all this ruin still survives and pursues his shameful course, and the law is powerless to protect or avenge his victims.
The most loathsome feature of this devastating vice is its tendency to corrupt young persons, even children of tender years. The boy who is too young to dream of drinking ardent spirits is not too young to blow the cornet. There are even men who take a diabolical pleasure in pressing the instrument to childish lips, and others who actually make it their profession to teach the revolting art of playing the cornet and the trombone to boys of 8 to 10 years of age. What must the future of that country be where the very children are thus instructed in vice? “When I hear the accordeon I tremble for my country,” said JEFFERSON. To what a frightful extent would that venerable man quake, were he now living, to see the gigantic proportions to which the brass instrument habit has attained.
The time as come when good men should everywhere join in an organized effort to stem the tide of brass which threatens to overwhelm our beloved land. We must demand a strict license law regulating the sale of brass instruments, and a “civil damages” act making the vendor of brass instruments and the amateur player thereon liable, jointly and severally, for all the damages to property and persons which may result from the use of any variety of brass instruments. Persons found guilty of playing the cornet should be punished with fine and imprisonment, and it should be made lawful for any magistrate to commit a confirmed and notorious trombone-player to the lunatic asylum, and to appoint a Receiver and Administrator of his property. Books, tracts, and lectures on the evils of brass instruments should be emplyed to develop a healthy public sentiment, and the young should be induced to join societies pledged to total abstinence from brass in every form. But there must be no delay. The evil must be met by legal methods now, or we must be prepared to see the shops of instrument-dealers mobbed by maddened women, and cornet and trombone players shot by infuriated men, whose wrongs have mastered and slain their patience and their law-abiding instincts.