Monday, November 21, 2011

How the trombone is saving me

I have a bachelor's degree in trombone performance.

That might explain a lot, I don't know. I do know that a lot of people in music ministry are former trombone players. (That is less a statistical claim than a surprising observation that continues to be borne out, the longer I do this work. Our trombones are in the closet, and only under the right circumstances do we mention this part of our past.) I have theories about why that might be so. But my favorite explanation comes from a trombone joke:
Q - what kind of "Day Timer" does a gigging trombonist use?
A - Year-at-a-Glance
Sorry, I guess you had to be there. Or be old enough to know what a Day Timer is. Or, just play trombone.

Gustav Holst was a trombonist. But you never hear him talking about it, either. According to Wikipedia (where this sentence has an actual footnote): "He also started to play the trombone when his father thought this might improve his son's asthma." Which makes me wonder, did I get adult onset asthma because I abandoned the trombone?

In the second half of my recent sabbatical, I began to spend the early afternoons, after lunch, making music in my home. I sat down to work at the piano (a lifelong exercise in self-loathing), I went to my music corner and picked up the concertina, the recorders, and the melodica - in succession, of course, not all at once. And I returned to my trombone.

Not, I must say, to "my beloved trombone." I sold that while in college, and have regretted it since the day it left my hands. I still don't like to talk about it. But I returned this summer to regular practice times on the only trombone I've played since 1975. I started playing 5 minutes or so a day - just getting the lip to work again. I dug out old exercise books and working through etudes and melodies. My time creeped up above 15 minutes a day. I pulled out all my Bill Pearce gospel and hymn solo books, though I could only play a handfull of them due to their high range. (Could I really play that high, all those years ago?! Apparently. At least no one ever asked me to stop trying.)

When I came back to work in mid-July, much of that early afternoon practice time dropped off. The piano . . . well, enough said. The other small instruments . . .  well, they're more than toys, but not essential to what I do or how I identify as a musician. But I did not want to give up my little progress on my old trombone. So, as often as I can - 4 or 5 mornings a week - before I come into the office I slip into the basement, take the horn off the stand, and play through a page of melodious etudes, then the next in a book of classic old songs arranged for trombone (it was probably really cool before I was born), and end with a tune or two from a fake-book. So: technical workout, working a tune, and improvisation. It only amounts to 10-15 minutes a day, 20 minutes on a really good day. But I find it hard, every time, to put the horn back on the stand and then get on with my day.

The trombone is saving me by making me fall in love with music-making again. The joy of just simply making music, of discovery without obligation, of failure without repercussions, of fun just for the fun of it. As my bass playing friend always said: "That's why they call it playing music."

I'll never make my living at it. The chances of anyone hearing me play alone are extremely remote. But I am deeply thankful for the gift this old beat up Bach Selmer is giving me.

Now if it can also cure my asthma, well, so much the better!

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