The other day I realized that I’ve been playing the trombone for nearly 50 years. And during that time, it hasn’t just been my musical instrument of choice, but a teacher. It began shaping me when I was ten-years-old, and continues to do its work even now. In our age of distraction, it reminds me every time I sit down to play or practice that the rewards from music-making increase the more time and attention I give to my horn. I can’t play for five minutes, flit onto something else, and have any hope in maintaining my chops, let alone improve them and my technique.
In other words, devoting myself to the trombone has taught me the value of discipline and delayed gratification, the value of hard and persistent effort over not just days and weeks, but months and years. I’ve learned that even mediocrity takes effort. And finally, I’ve been taught the joy of being part of a collective effort – a duo, trio, quartet, combo, band, orchestra and so – sublimating and blending my individual contribution into a large whole can at times produce something that is transcendent.
The goal is beauty. How many other activities can claim that?
In part, I suppose, I believe in God because of music. When I’ve been playing my trombone, I’ve had moments where I’ve been part of something that has been close to perfect. At those rare moments, I’ve felt something akin to an electric charge race up my spine and been nearly overwhelmed with joy.
I suppose some scientist could explain my feelings away, dismissing it as a byproduct of some hormone or another triggered by something or other.
Bullshit, I say.
I’m convinced that those feelings are God-inspired, and in some strange mystical way, at those moments, I’m within shouting distance of the outskirts of heaven.
What I’ve also discovered is that music isn’t the only way to get there. I’ve had the same feelings of joy rowing in an eight-man shell, racing across Lake Washington’s bone smooth water in the pink light of early morning, oars rising and falling to a cosmic rhythm. It is still a mystery to me how playing a trombone can be like rowing a Pocock-built racing shell or climbing a mountain.
I have some ideas, but there’s also joy in contemplating the mystery.