Lives are like tapestries with almost countless, interwoven strings and colors and fabrics combined into a single entity, the pieces often unaware of their connectivity.
It’s often only on reflection that particular threads – or people – are recognized for their impact.
Barbara Deur plays trumpet in the Alpine Orchestra. She’s played the instrument for 60 years.
Being in the brass section was a rarity for a woman of her generation. Just not in Deur’s world.
Elizabeth Coffey was Deur’s grandmother, an Irish immigrant who played in the only women’s touring band in the United States at that time. When Deur was entering the sixth grade, her grandmother, just shy of 70 and living with the family, took her into the attic and showed the girl a cornet, which the elderly woman still played. Coffey began teaching her granddaughter the joys of music.
Deur’s grandfather was also a cornet player, a soloist. He filled in for the renowned composer/conductor John Phillips Sousa when he was out of the country. Another thread was added to her musical tapestry.
But it was the grandmother who wove the most threads into the young girl’s life.
Deur recalls her grandmother awakening early most mornings to go outside and listen to the music of birds.
“There was something about her,” Deur said. “She had a great attitude about life. I wanted to be like her.”
Her grandmother also loved boxing and would listen to matches on the radio.
Musical fabric surrounded the young girl. Her mother sang, and her father taught himself the saxophone.
Today, an adult, Deur has added to her musical embroidery as her daughter sings in a Celtic group, her older son plays keyboard and guitar and her youngest son plays violin.
Without knowing it, Barbara Deur began creating a pathway for other musically-inclined women simply by emulating her grandmother.
A woman on a brass instrument isn’t the norm today but in Deur’s school years, six decades past, a woman on the trumpet was rare and did not go unnoticed.
“A few times some guy gave me a bit of flack, but I didn’t pay attention. I was too busy playing and practicing.” Her hard work resulted in Deur typically occupying the first chair, the location of the best player of an instrument.
When Deur attended high school music camp, she didn’t see any other female trumpeters. “There were not a lot of us then. I never thought it was strange because my grandmother played cornet. I was sort of oblivious, I just practiced.”
Later in life, playing with the Cedar Rapids Symphony in a brass quintet, an older man approached her to compliment her playing. Before walking away, he added, “But I still don’t think women can play as well as men.”
Deur says his words didn’t affect her. “I knew I was a good player. He meant well but was a little misguided.”
That’s the advice Deur gives today to her female students. Know your worth and keep things in perspective.
“The important thing is to blow it off and keep practicing. It’s just one person’s opinion.”
Deur is passing her grandmother’s confidence and passion to a new generation.
“I have an outstanding female student right now that comes up from Westcliffe. She just made it to the all-state band. She doesn’t let things like that get to her.”
A colorful thread is transferred into a new life.
If she only mastered an unusual instrument for women (at the time), Deur would be memorable. But she also returned to school later in life, becoming an oncology nurse at the age of 41, while rearing three children as a single parent and playing in the Iowa Brass Quintet.
She also rode a bicycle across Iowa and Wisconsin, did a week of “Hello Dolly” (as a member of the pit orchestra) with Carol Channing, worked for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus band and rubbed shoulders with Michael Landon, Johnny Crawford and Duncan Renaldo in her first professional gig as a rodeo musician.
So many colorful strings, interesting when viewed alone, forming a beautiful life when woven together, the entire tapestry originating with a single thread from a grandmother – a woman who was merely eager to share her lifelong passion with a child.