Archived Opinion

Pleasantly unearthing a few long-dormant memories

I unpacked my *euphonium recently — my first love was music; writing was a fallback position — and started fooling with it again. Despite not having held this horn more than just a few times in some two decades, I’m rediscovering deeply familiar patterns. I’ve also suddenly grasped that I’m less thinking and more instinctual than I might prefer to believe: Methods of doing and being have hardwired my brain.

I found myself holding and inserting the mouthpiece into the instrument in a particular manner — into the horn’s leadpipe, a quick turn to the right and click, the mouthpiece shank is locked safely into place. The euphonium I cradle in a certain way, a familiar, comforting feeling of completeness in my arms, like hugging a child or embracing a lover. The warm-up I used for so many years, too many years ago, I remember perfectly; though the sounds I’m producing are less than pleasing to my ear. I remember what a euphonium should sound like, and this isn’t it.

Patterns and habits dominate me much like my old cat has patterns and habits that dominate him. Edgar is physically beyond catching prey, but still he twitches into kill-it mode when birds land near his sunning spot on the porch. The grooves are deep. Say a Carolina wren lingers and Edgar hears the call of the wild, he forces himself up and starts a geriatric semblance of a stalk. Reality intervenes in the form of achy joints and molasses-like movements, and the old cat soon gives up the painful creeping in favor of comfortable snoozing.

Edgar can no more stop hunting prey than I can forget the warm-up I once sailed through as a mere introduction to hours and hours of daily practice. Today, the warm-up exhausts me, as the mere acts of twitching and attempting a stalk exhaust Edgar.

You could argue that Edgar’s response to birds is instinct and not habit, but I don’t think that is true, or at least not true in totality. I have another cat that “kills” socks. So I feel safe, sort of, in arguing that Edgar’s incessant bird stalking is in some part, at least, habit too.

Do something long enough, create an inner pattern, and it becomes part of you. For better or worse, we are what we do and do.  

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Patterns are internal and external, of course. The word “patterns” speaks to habit, but more generally to repetition. Not surprisingly, once I started thinking about patterns, it seems as if I see them everywhere: patterns that drive my behavior and ones that occur in a much broader and more universal sense.

A week or so ago I was driving along the road paralleling the Tuckasegee River between Webster and Dillsboro. It was late afternoon. The sun backlit the trees and cast amazing shadows onto the blacktop. I found myself mesmerized and lost in those shadow trees, something incredibly beautiful that I normally would have driven over without appreciating.

Artists, I thought, notice such visual patterns as a matter of course. How wonderful that must be. I’m more likely to notice patterns in sound, both by ear and through the eye in my mind’s hearing, than I am visual repetition.

Spurred by the late author Frank Kermode’s wonderful book, Shakespeare’s Language, I recently reread “Hamlet” to enjoy the patterns our greatest playwright wrote. It was as if a whole new play with endlessly fascinating repetitions opened before me.

Kermode noted that Shakespeare played with hendiadys (hen-DYE-a-dees) throughout “Hamlet.” This is a literary device by which two words are linked by a conjunction to express a single idea. Or put another way, you express a single idea using two nouns instead of a noun and its qualifier. One modern example I found: “he came despite the rain and weather” rather than “he came despite the rainy weather.”

“The doubling devices give the verse its tune, or might perhaps be thought a sort of ground bass that sounds everywhere, sometimes faintly, and the few interruptions in it derive their power to surprise or amuse by the very absence of the now familiar tune,” Kermode wrote.

Examples from when Hamlet first sees the Ghost: “spirits of health, or goblin damn’d,” “airs from heaven, or blasts from hell,” “intents wicked, or charitable.”

Shakespeare was playing with his patterns. I suspect he did so with gleeful abandon (should I write, with glee and abandon?), caught in the endless possibilities of doubleness.

On a much more mundane, me-not-Shakespeare level, I found myself caught like that by those tree-shadow patterns. I just couldn’t quit seeing them after noticing them. And I haven’t quit thinking about them since.

*Euphonium: A member of the low brass family that is pitched the same as a cello or tenor voice. This is a lovely, versatile instrument that is sadly neglected in the U.S., with players relegated in this country to professional status only as members of military bands. At a certain point in my 20s, while busily auditioning for military bands in Washington, D.C., it dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t well suited for the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy or Coast Guard … way too much telling on my part, as it were.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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