Tag Archives: Trombone

The Tao of the Trombone


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.







More Wisdom from “Arban’s Famous Method for Trombone”

ArbansI’ve started working on a new series of exercises, and had to smile when I read this first line from Arban’s introduction:

The following fourteen studies were composed in order to inculcate in students an unconquerable strength of will.

I’m sure to many those words sound archaic. Strength of will?  Other than in a sports setting perhaps, where else would you hear something similar?  And yet, here they were in a compilation of exercises for the student of the Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments, the trombone.

I suppose my response was archaic, too.  My first response was to smile and my second was to think, “let’s get after it.”


Everything I Ever Needed to Know is in Arban’s Famous Method for Trombone

“The study of the scales has always been greatly neglected in works of the present description…it is of urgent importance that the scales should be diligently practiced…”

–          From Arban’s Famous Method for Trombone

After 45 years of off and on again trombone playing, you’d think I’d get that.  But I don’t.  I’d rather play something in my Fakebook, or slip in a Canadian Brass play-along CD, and imagine I’m a living oxymoron, a world famous trombonist. I’d rather peruse the latest mountain bike gear in Sierra Trading Post instead of actually hopping on my bike and spending an hour or two on the nearby trails. I’d rather think about working on my new novel instead of actually plopping my fat ass down on my chair in front of my computer and working on it. In other words, the curse of today, particularly for those of us who aren’t worrying about where our next meal is going to come from, or where we can safely sleep the night, is how easily it is to become distracted.  That’s the essence of so much of our culture.  It is all just one big distraction.

The recommendations that are scattered throughout Arban’s classic method for students of brass instruments (La grande méthode complète de cornet à piston et) first published in 1864 and never out of print since, are more than a sharp finger in the chest that reminds me of my poor practice habits, but are really pointed reminders of my failures as a person. What Arban is really getting at isn’t about practicing scales until they become part of my DNA, although that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but about doing the hard necessary work essential to becoming and remaining a competent musician. It isn’t about the scales, it’s about respecting my instrument and the music I play enough to become fluent in my art of choice’s language. It isn’t about joyless fundamentalism, but about disciplined practice so that my moments of just playing music for the fun of it are nourished and in effect, rewarded by the hours I’ve spent on the fundamentals.

I was thinking about this the other day as my leg muscles ached from a weekend hike. My son, Luke, and I had climbed Mt. Ellinor.  I was still paying for it. And even though I was able to make it to the summit and then back to the car again, I would have enjoyed the hike more if I’d done a some leg strengthening exercises the preceding weeks –in other words, if I’d practiced my scales.

I won’t go so far as to say that everything I ever needed to know can be found in my Arban’s practice book, but as crazy as it sounds, I think it might come pretty close.

The second choice

I confess it was a second choice all those years ago. I had wanted to play the sax.  I loved the sound, and the way it looked, and I decided that is what I had to play — and then I went home and my mom shook her head.  “Too expensive,” she said.  “Pick something else.”  At the time, I didn’t have a second choice.

But I ended up picking the trombone and stayed with it through split lips and braces and private lessons, all the way through high school.  During those years,  I became a decent player in some first rate bands and jazz bands.  In fact, our high school jazz band toured up and down the West Coast, winning contests in Newport Beach, Bremerton, and Moscow.

But the day after graduation, I quit.  I sold my horn and bought a mandolin. I thought that was that.

My first son Sam came along more than a decade or so later, and one Christmastime, I pulled out an old clunker horn I hadn’t been able to get rid of, and while he splashed around in the tub, I sat on the toilet and played Carols.  Just simple stuff I could pick out by memory. He was thrilled  by the sound, and I must confess, so was I.

So I’ve been playing trombone ever since.  And recently, I’ve been playing second trombone in the Walla Walla Symphony, sitting next to a guy who once played trombone with Blood Sweat and Tears.  He’s a “real” player. I know I’m just a hack, but I’m a decent hack, and so with a little regular practice, I can hang in there with Dave on even the most gnarly riffs.

So I play the trombone.  And it isn’t a second choice, not anymore.  Funny how that happens in life. A choice made in desperation, or as a compromise, becomes something wonderful.