Two years ago, when Robert Frumkin turned 50, he said he hit his “midlife crisis.”
But instead of buying a new shiny sports car to speed around Brooklyn and feel younger, he bought a shiny new trumpet and started practicing.
“This is my midlife crisis thing. I decided against buying a red Corvette and bought a trumpet,” Frumkin said, who was playing his Bach in a tunnel in Prospect Park leading from Grand Army Plaza to Long Meadow on Friday.
Frumkin, 52, is a college English professor at New York University, St. Francis College, Brooklyn College, among others. And for the past 18 years, he has taught James Joyce’s Ulysses, exclusively.
And to take a break from academia, he said his favorite spot to practice his new hobby is under the arched ceilings of the tunnels throughout the park.
“I came out because the echo here makes anybody sound incredible,” he said explained, as his fingers were poised atop his horn’s turquoise keys. “My son, who plays the saxophone, turned me on to this spot and it’s my third time here.”
Interestingly enough, although Frumkin is an avid reader he cannot read sheet music. Instead, he taught himself to play the trumpet by ear—mimicking technique musicians like Chet Baker learned his craft.
“I’m a fraud, I can’t read music,” he said while in the dark tunnel between playing Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely. “But I don’t believe how students are taught music by sight reading. I understand why musicians are taught to read, but if I were to teach music I’d use the ear.”
Frumkin remembered when he went to see Sean Lennon (John Lennon’s son) play a concert he was disappointed to see him fumble through sheet music.
“Sean Lennon can’t play without reading music, and I think that’s sad,” Frumkin said, who has lived in Park Slope and now Prospect Heights since 1987. “Sight music is a barrier for people who want to play. I love reading literature, but hate reading music. So playing by ear and along with records is a nice contrast.”
He said that his favorite musicians learned to play by ear, from Frank Sinatra to Jimi Hendrix.
“Sinatra was so amazing because his ear knew the music. And his sense of rhythm is what makes him so great,” he said. “But he’s hard to play along with because he is so sophisticated.”
Frumkin said he got the idea to play the trumpet when his two sons, 12-year-old Bruno and 15-year-old Thelonious picked up the saxophone and trumpet respectively. And now, playing the horn is his way to pass the time between classes.
And on Friday, he put on Louie Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely on his iPod, connected it to speakers and played along.
“It’s a great hobby and a great thing to do at 50 years old, especially if you had a bad experience playing an instrument as a kid,” he said, explaining that as a child he tried to play classical piano but had a hard time playing the “complicated sight music” and dropped it. “I found that playing an instrument when I’m older is easier than when I was a kid. I have more patience.”