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A Tribute to Joe

I started playing the trumpet when I was in fifth grade.  I took to it quickly, and it wasn’t long before my grandparents had found a private teacher for me, named Jose (Joe) Saloio.  (I hadn’t asked for one. That said, my brother, an excellent musician three years my senior, had a private clarinet instructor, so I went with the flow.)  When I showed up for my first lesson with Mr. Saloio, I recognized him from our church, an older man with a kind face who reminded me much of my grandfather, with a full head of white hair, glasses, and a deep voice with just a hint of an accent.  When I sat down and played my first note as a warm-up, Mr. Saloio reacted with a surprised comment.  “Wow, nice tone.” (I didn’t know at the time that compliments from him were only earned, not simply given.) He had a great tone himself, capable of producing a remarkably sweet sound on an instrument often known for its power rather than its beauty.  I tried hard to emulate his sound, though I had no chance to match his skills.  For a while, I advanced quickly.  Every time I added a note to my range, he would jokingly grab my bicep, and we quickly worked through the beginner books into more advanced work.

However, within a year, I began to struggle.  It was a point in my life where I was bored by music exercises.  I was regularly writing songs on the piano and that was easy. It was like shooting hoops in the backyard: no pressure, no criticisms, just getting lost in my own creativity.  The intervals, scales, and lip-building exercises were chores, like picking up the trash or unloading the dishwasher. I knew I had to do it, but I didn’t enjoy it. To ease the boredom, I would distract myself by trying to practice the trumpet while playing video games.  The saying goes, “Amateurs work until they get it right. Professionals work until they can’t get it wrong.” I was definitely going the amateur route. Once I got an exercise right, once, I’d move on (playing another inning or level in Sega in between). What seemed like 45 minutes of practicing was probably more like 10-15 total.  It was a poor effort but I had convinced myself it was a solid effort.

Needless to say, I couldn’t slip this by Mr. Saloio.  For weeks, he had started to speak about some of the other students my age and how well they were doing.  He was trying to tap into my competitive side, and while I definitely wanted to be better than them, I wrongly assumed I could be, so long as I kept doing exactly what I was doing.  One day, as we started up on a new book in our lessons, I was doing a terrible job sight-reading, making numerous mistakes I had no business making.  Finally, Mr. Saloio picked up the book and slammed it shut, saying, “You’re not ready to handle this level then,” and threw the book back in his filing cabinet.  I was thoroughly embarrassed; all of the other students were already onto that book, and I had proven that I couldn’t keep up. When the lesson ended shortly after, he asked to speak with my mom privately.  In school, I always did my homework, studied for tests, and behaved well in class.  But I still knew that when a teacher had to talk to my mom behind closed doors, I was in trouble.

On the car ride home that day, my mom, as expected, tore into me.  Of course, now that I am a parent, I can better understand that Mr. Saloio’s talk probably embarrassed her as well, and my parents weren’t going to accept such a lackadaisical effort on my part or keep wasting their money on lessons.  But she also gave me an out. “Do you want to just stop taking trumpet lessons?”  At the time, the answer truthfully would have been yes.  I was battling the perils of middle school: puberty, crappy teachers, crappier students. I was growing apart from many of my childhood friends while not having many obvious replacements.  The best outlets for me were distractions from reality: playing sports by myself in the backyard, writing songs, and playing video games.

Of course, I didn’t have any of this introspection at the time. I just knew then that if I stopped taking lessons, that I would somehow regret it, not to mention disappointing my family, and Mr. Saloio.  So I shook my head no, and I continued on with my weekly lessons.  I took away some immediate lessons learned from that incident: that I couldn’t expect to skate by on talent alone, that I needed to apply myself in music the same way that I did in the classroom, that I needed to prove myself to avoid any future embarrassing call-outs.  But over the years, I kept coming back to that moment the further I advanced in my career.  The memory was a frequent (and needed) reminder that I could control my destiny by maximizing my talents through a solid work ethic; without hard work, no matter how easily something might have come to me, I wasn’t going to succeed.  And I also realized that I was motivated by those who doubted me (even if that doubt was self-inflicted).  

Lessons with Mr. Saloio were different after that.  I blossomed as a player over the next two years, landing first chair in the Western MA Junior District orchestra in eighth grade.  Mr. Saloio told me (both as a compliment and as a motivator) about the parents of students who didn’t score as well who wanted to sign up with him because of where I placed.  Unfortunately, just as I was peaking going into high school, I got braces. For the next year, I couldn’t play more than 10-15 minutes without losing my chops, in spite of trying to play through.  I had permanent grooves in my lips, sores created by applying the pressure of a mouthpiece against a set of teeth lined with metal.  Often they would start bleeding halfway through a practice session.  I tried everything from wax, mouthguards, and bigger mouthpieces to make things more comfortable, but nothing really worked.  As a result, I simply couldn’t advance.  Mr. Saloio would often pause and shake his head in our lessons after my lip blew out, saying, “You had been doing so well.”  After my lessons, he would ask my mom, referring to my braces, “How many more years?” Even after they mercifully came off, the damage persisted.  I had spent so long trying to adjust my playing to the braces that I couldn’t get comfortable playing once the braces were off. Mr. Saloio knew I would be studying music in college, but concentrating on composition rather than trumpet. I always had to remind him that this was always my primary interest, that it wasn’t the braces or anything I was doing or not doing in our lessons.  Unfortunately, I stopped lessons toward the end of my senior year of high school, as I was done performing at that point, even in the high school band, and I was so busy with so many other extracurriculars that it was difficult to keep up with the practicing.

Even though I stopped taking lessons, Mr. Saloio was never far from my mind.  When I got to college, I was advised to go right into Music Theory II, as the fundamentals class would be too easy for me.  I resisted, insisting, having never formally taken a music theory course, that I didn’t want any gaps in my knowledge to derail me. As I went through the fundamentals class, however, I realized that everything they were teaching were things I had already covered in my trumpet lessons.  I figured out that Mr. Saloio’s handwriting wasn’t all that bad, and that there was a reason he kept things like the “ii” lowercase and the “V” with the small 7 next to it.  We never talked in depth about those figures and symbols, but I had learned what he meant by them in how we approached those exercises (both in fingering exercises and when doing improvisations), and the music courses in college provided the final few synapses to put everything together.  I cruised through my theory courses, and realized I owed a lot more to my trumpet lessons with Mr. Saloio in my college music preparation than I could have imagined.

After my mom once told me that she ran into him around town, I decided to write him a letter to tell him exactly that.  Looking back on it, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to thank him and let him know the impact he had on my career.  I also started practicing the trumpet again and, this time, everything came back. Not only did I finally regain my lip the way I had before I ever got that damn metal put in my mouth, but now I was armed with all the theory knowledge I needed to make myself a better player.  I remember Mr. Saloio had once told me that, due to illness, he spent almost fifteen years not touching his instrument, from high school until he was almost 30. “It always comes back,” he said. “You have to build your lip back up again, but this,” he said, wiggling his fingers, “and this,” he said, pointing to his head, “that sticks with you.”  He was right.

To this day, when I practice (admittedly, usually more on the piano than the trumpet these days), I think of elements of Mr. Saloio’s lessons that toughened me up as a musician: the circled R (meaning you had to review the piece the following week, having “failed the audition” to get it right the first time), the circled M (memorize the piece for the following week), the transposition exercises of writing three completely unrelated keys above the exercise, requiring me to play those pieces in any seemingly any key, on the fly.  Now I’m the one in charge of assigning myself the circled Ms and Rs, when I prepare for my regular piano gig at church.  And I’ve had to transpose countless times on both the trumpet or piano, something that might not be all that surprising to professional musicians, but an invaluable tool nonetheless.

When I moved back home for grad school, I paid Mr. Saloio a visit.  It was a long time ago now and I regrettably don’t recall all the details of what we talked about, but I remember cherishing the opportunity, in his own house, to express again how much of an impact he had on my career, and to get to hear some stories of his amazing teaching and performing career.  When I was leaving, he told me that if I ever wanted to get together and play some duets, I should give him a call.  We always had fun playing duets together. But my lip was out of shape again at that point and wanted some time to get it built back up.  Then I got sucked into the grad school schedule and the offer slipped my mind.

Years went by and eventually he wound up at the same assisting living center as my grandmother.  She would always let me know whenever she saw him, and that he remembered me and said to say hi.  It was always humbling to me that someone who had taught so many brilliant students over the years would remember me, when my playing career never really went anywhere by comparison.  It also came as no surprise to me, or probably anyone who had ever met him or played with him, to read that he was still playing gigs regularly, even after he had turned 90.  

This past Monday, my 5 AM alarm on my old iHome docking station selected “Stardust” by Dizzy Gillespie.  I have hundreds of songs on that iPod, and few trumpet pieces (far fewer than I should). My wife heard the piece come on and, without knowing the piece or the artist and still half asleep, mumbled, “Nice tone.”  The same thing Joe said the first time he heard me play. I didn’t know until a few days later that Joe had passed away that same day, at the age of 96.

Joe taught nearly 500 students over the years.  I am humbled and grateful that I got to be one of them.  It has been over twenty years since my last lesson with him, but he is still, and always will be, my teacher.  Heaven’s trumpet section just got themselves a ringer.

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