What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.

— Joseph Tussman

As a trumpet major in college, I was forced to learn to transpose.

Transposition is confusing and not particularly interesting, so I’ll limit my explanation to two short paragraphs.

Professional trumpet players often must read music in one key—C, let’s say—but play that music in another key, like the key of A. They have to mentally move the music up or down a line or two. Transposition is necessary for many reasons, but the main reason is that much of the music performed today was written a century or more ago, when trumpets were built in different keys than they are now.

No one’s manufactured a trumpet in A for a hundred years, but Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique is still a perennial favorite, and its trumpet parts are in the key of A. If you’re an orchestral trumpet player, you have three options:

  1. Rewrite the entire part (nope).
  2. Dig up an A trumpet somewhere (nope again).
  3. Transpose the music in your head so you can perform on your regular C trumpet (Are those my only options??)

Transposition is a little ridiculous, but it’s also the least-bad option.

Twenty-year-old Jonathan, though, didn’t see it this way. He thought transposition was just about the dumbest thing ever. “You want me to play the music in a different key than written? I’m sorry, that’s ridiculous. If you want it in another key, print it in another key.” I rejected transposition on principle. On principle, I say!

Refusing to work hard at such a silly task, my transposition skills grew little even as the skill became a necessity. I was in graduate school before I learned to transpose well, and I never truly mastered it.

Transposition 1, Jonathan 0.

Why did I fight such a pointless battle?

I saw the world as I thought it should be, not as it was.

Such attempts to bend the universe to our worldview are bound to fail, yet we indulge them anyway.

  • A business owner insists that marketing is nonsense and that customers will come to him.
  • A sedentary person believes that the health benefits of exercise are exaggerated, that it’s not worth the time.
  • A frustrated student maintains that math is pointless.

Knee-jerk skepticism feels safer than banishing our ego and admitting ignorance, but in the long run, it’s deadly.

It’s worth asking ourselves regularly, “What am I refusing to understand?”