Wallis Bird: Instruments For Older People Appeal

Wallis Bird: Jens Oellermann

Image: Wallis Bird: Jens Oellermann

We believe that it’s never too late to start or return to an instrument you’ve longed to play! We caught up with multi-instrumentalist Wallis Bird who has recently taken up the trumpet.

Wallis, you’re already a world-renowned singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Why take on the trumpet as well?

I thought it would be nice to break up my day by learning a new skill during this pandemic. I’ve always been drawn to the instrument because of it’s ‘human’ quality; the sound of the breath, the direct reflection of the player's personality. It’s a highly emotional instrument in that it can be as powerful as a thunderclap then deathly solemn. Its size and weight make it perfectly mobile. I find also that technically, it is a relatively straightforward instrument to begin learning, the basics are mouth position, steady flow of breath and then the notes slot into their place. After that it’s breaking the rules and finding your vibe.

When did you start learning to play the trumpet, and how have you been finding the process so far?

I’ve had my beginners pocket trumpet for around 10 years and only took it out of its case once every year or so. I started practising in a real way just over a month ago. I play about 30 minutes to 2 hours a day over the course of the whole day. 5 mins here, 20 mins there. Each additional minute I play yields a noticeable return which makes it a very satisfying learning process. I’m not strict about doing it every day, but because it’s been so enjoyable I basically have it painted to my face! I really consider it a friend or similar to having a pet in that I love clapping eyes on it!

Are you getting lessons or teaching yourself?

A mixture of things. I learned the very basics from my friends. After that I went into my own bubble since I love to teach myself / relish in my mistakes early in any process. I watch online tutorials when I feel like I can move onto the next step. Soon I’ll get some lessons.

Do you have any particular practise routine?

Most important for me right from the beginning was to lock in a ‘default’ positive mindset towards the trumpet. I must never look at it as a chore or annoyance, only positive. At the cozy times when I’m lazy or tired or blue, I want to turn to this trumpet because it makes me feel good. Its purpose is to make me feel good. I even talk to it sometimes and smile when simply looking at it.

Trumpet players state that before you begin practise you should do about 5 minutes
'buzzing' with only the mouth piece to warm your lips up. After that I begin by making some absolute nonsense noise. Then I find something simple like holding a steady note. I repeat that over and over, find the variable beauty in one single note and try to repeat those variables. If I want to break into noise or go for a melody, I follow my instincts. I make sure to salute myself when something hits right and repeat it over and over. Repetition and playing patterns slowly is key to progression.

Is there a trumpet player you dream of emulating? I know you mentioned Chet Baker on your Instagram – he’s a favourite of mine too!

Yes I love Chet. I heard him when I was very young. What struck me most was that he sang just like he played. To actually sound like an instrument blew my tiny mind. That was my introduction into the instrument being an extension of the soul. He had a tragic-romance vibe which touches me deeply.

Nowadays, I’m being shown more and more players. My new crush is Clifford Brown - a joyous jaunt of singalong and dexterity but played in an everyman way.

Do you have a “desert island” trumpet piece or video that you’d like to share?

‘Water He No Get Enemy’ by Fela Kuti. I could listen to that song all day every day.

Fela Kuti – Water He No Get Enemy

What have you found most enjoyable about the process to date?

How I’ve gained a new friend in the trumpet. How I’ve watched myself bend and grow physically and mentally through learning - which makes me thirsty for more. I feel revitalised and happy within because of it. Excited to imagine a time in the future when I can play everything I could want and especially imagining the parties, situations, jams I’ll end up in with this new friend. It’s opened up my heart in a surprising new way.

Do your neighbours share in your enjoyment? I’m learning trumpet myself, and I live in a terraced house, so I have to be very considerate when choosing my practice hours...

There’s a couple things to be said here about that. I personally adore hearing someone learn a new instrument. The out-loud fragile compulsion of it. Firstly, I take all the measures I can to protect sound spill from my end because my walls are direly thin, but after a certain point they hear it or they don’t - and that’s just life!

I play notably quiet, save the rare occasions I have to be loud. And I’ve had every kind of cruel to encouraging neighbour possible so I’m a respectful neighbour with an aim to work noise issues out.

In Germany where I live there are rules when you can and cannot make noise: 7am -12pm is cool. Then midday quiet until 1pm and afterwards I can make noise until 10pm. This should be a universal standard because once we all work within those parameters, we all know where we stand. Having lived with neighbours who complained of my mere walking in my apartment I’ve learned to let go of being afraid to ‘live’ or make terrible trumpet sounds. Lastly, I firmly believe incidental music flowing into your day is healing, important, humorous, and gives one perspective to live and let live.

Do you have any advice you’d like to share for anyone thinking about taking up a musical instrument as an adult?

DO IT! I gave myself a 40 day challenge so I could have a goal to stick to and clearly measure my progress which has been great craic. And if you’ve gotten this far in the interview then you know how good it can feel to learn a new instrument - so do it!

Irish artist Wallis Bird has been enrapturing audiences for over a decade, playing over 800 shows in that time. Wallis has won multiple international awards including two Irish Meteor Awards, and the prestigious German ‘Musikautorenpreis’ - a national award chosen by composers and awarded to their peers. She has also received nominations for the 2019 International Folk Music Award and the Irish Choice Music Prize. Her irrepressible energy on stage is one of her trademarks; even the Irish Times once noted it could ‘kickstart an entire economy’. In 2016, she played a 12-hour free gig in aid of refugee charities, even finding enough strength to play an encore.

In September 2019, Wallis released her 6th album, Woman, which covers all of the major life changes Wallis has experienced since her last album Home in 2016. “The world’s changed a lot, and I’ve changed with it. The #MeToo movement, Repeal The 8th, Black Lives Matter, Trump, Brexit, the rise of racism, the environmental crisis. And, I’m 36 now, so I’m officially a woman!" In June 2020, Wallis began her 'Retrospective Sessions' in which she performed all of her 6 albums virtually in 6 monthly concerts streamed live from various venues in Berlin including SchwuZ, Alte Försterei, Cassiopeia and Liquidrom.