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The Last Great Trip

The Last Great Trip

Notes from the Pandemic

Before the pandemic, before masks and social distance and hand sanitizer, what was the last great trip you took?

For me, the answer is easy and the memories vivid. In early February, just a few weeks before the door slammed shut, I learned that two of my favorite people would be be in Texas at the same time, and I decided to join them.

This may not sound unusual until you realize the two of them live over five thousand miles apart. Mike Starbird is a math professor and award-winning teacher at the University of Texas in Austin, and Tony Plog is a composer and brass guru in Freiburg, Germany.

I learned that Tony would be in Waco, just ninety minutes’ drive from Austin, giving masterclasses at Baylor University. I had to go. The three of us had to rendezvous. No question.

I flew from Nashville to Austin, where I spent a day or two doing what you always do with the Starbirds—have fun. This time it involved breakfast burritos, walks around the block, and Mike’s 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a project that had become his life’s work. I may have put in six pieces, after which we hopped in the car and headed off to Waco to see Tony’s masterclass.

We met Tony for lunch at a Thai restaurant near campus. (What is it about brass players and Thai food?) With him was Wiff Rudd. No, that’s not a typo. It’s an actual guy. In fact, Wiff is one of the finest trumpet teachers in the world and—along with his colleague Mark Schubert, who joined us for lunch—has made Baylor a mecca for young American trumpet players.

While we ate, Mike and I listened as Tony, Wiff, and Mark swapped hilarious stories about brass players. Funny stories are the other thing, besides Thai food, that brass players share. Tony had a fresh batch from Europe.

Afterward, we packed up our chopsticks and headed for Baylor University, where Mike and I were greeted with a surprise: since Tony had already done several sessions with the students, he and Wiff had decided the afternoon’s talk would feature Mike, Tony, and me, discussing music, math, writing, and our friendship. (Glad I didn’t order that beer for lunch.)

I started off the talk by describing my years as a young trumpet player in L.A. where, along with Tony, I had a front-row seat to a golden age of brass playing. I told how my dream of a career as a symphony trumpet player had crashed and burned at the University of Southern California, clearing the way for my career as a writer.

Mike stood up and basically told the kids I was crazy—that my life could have headed off in any number of directions, and so could theirs. He followed up by exploring The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, a wonderful small book he wrote.

Tony pulled it all together under the rubric of music and life, then closed out the afternoon with more brass stories, and we were done. The students seemed to enjoy it, or at least that’s what they said as we posed with them for pictures. The photo at the top of this page shows (left to right along the front row) Mike, Tony, me, Mark, and Wiff.

Next we changed places with the students, and they played for us, showing an amazing level of musicianship, maturity, and comaraderie. That might, we were invited to Wiff’s house, where he and his wife Jeanette hosted members of the Baylor brass department, spouses, and kids.

At the end of the day, driving back to Austin, Mike and I agreed that the high point of our visit had been that dinner. Sitting around the table, watching the smiling faces and listening to the shared concerns, we witnessed a rare thing in the world: not just friendship but community, marked by the same warm glow we had felt that day among the students. Clearly those kids were learning more than just music.

Back at Mike’s house, we spent an hour or two chipping away at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, then I got on a plane and headed home. I didn’t know it, but I wouldn’t take another trip for a long time.

It was my last great trip. What was yours?

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