Where My Trumpet Skills Led Me

By Mayer Smith


I’m the youngest of the 10 kids in my family….and, at 94-1/2, the only one alive. Growing up, every child but one learned to play a musical instrument. But Boy! Could that one sing! I remember a couple of occasions where we played together as an orchestra.  That was tough to arrange because it was hard to coordinate the available hours of grocery store workers and students.

We had 2 violinists, 2 pianists, a clarinetist, a saxophonist, a trombonist, and 2 trumpeters (I was one of those starting at age 8 or 9).

Music lessons were 50 cents per ½ hour.  Mr. Michaelson, the teacher, took a shine to me because I was able to master the lip movements and breathing that were essential for the instrument in addition to being able to follow the music.  In other words, I became a pretty good trumpet player.

He and his wife had no children so he sort-of adopted me and took me to special concerts.  I remember his taking me to see The Pirates of Penzance at the James Theater where we sat right next to the orchestra pit. The James was actually a movie theater that also attracted stage presentations.  Because he taught some of the musicians there, we got in free.

Would you believe, I saw Nat King Cole there in that little town of Newport News, VA with his combo in his early days! I believe admission was 25 cents at the time. A pricey sum then for a child in the early 1930s.

Things went along smoothly during my grammar school days until my parents decided to send me to a Yeshiva in Brooklyn when I was 11.   However, the school system did not lend itself to my mixture of Hebrew and English classes. Because I could not speak Yiddish, I was placed in a class of 7 & 8 year-olds who were already translating Joshua from Hebrew to Yiddish!  When I turned 13 and became a Bar Mitzvah it was not possible for me to meet with English classes and Hebrew classes because they were in different buildings some distance from each other.

At that point, I had already given up the trumpet; but it enabled me to transfer the blowing ability to the shofar later in life.  All I had to do was adjust my lips to the different shofars I would encounter over the years. Not all ram horns were alike! Some mouth openings were perfect while others had serious defects to adjust to.

Years passed that included high school and being in the army for three years during World War II, and getting married in 1946. In 1950 our family of three (including Carol) moved to Arlington, VA.  We immediately joined Arlington Fairfax Congregation with Rabbi Noah Golinkin.

Because the Rabbi heard me praying aloud with mastery of Hebrew, he asked me to lead a Friday night service.  Reticently, I agreed. Actually, my knees were knocking the first time I led from the bimah.

I simply utilized the holiday melodies I had learned in my younger years in congregational participation and in my early teens as part of a boys’ choir quartet, not knowing that my renditions would be so well received.  The congregants thought I was a professional Chazzan!

And there you have it.  Trumpet/shofar – Yeshiva Hebrew + voice/Chazzan – including leading services on the High Holy Days!

Note:  I never ever charged any congregations for my cantorial services.  One young congregation liked my services so much they insisted on paying me at least $1,000.  I endorsed the check over to another struggling congregation.