Let It Slide

My Trombone Years

I think I was in the fourth grade. My parents took my older brother and me to the studio of an “elderly” (which probably meant only that he was older than my parents) music teacher in Kingston, New York. We were there to pick instruments we would then learn to play.

My brother immediately chose the clarinet, which he plays to this day. I wanted to learn the trombone. I don’t know why I wanted to play the trombone — it was probably a vague and unsupported idea that it would be cool and fun. My brother had his new clarinet case in hand when I told the ancient teacher my decision.

“His arms are too short,” he said. “He will play the trumpet.”

Why do people play trombone?

Because they can’t move their fingers and read music at the same time.

The trumpet and I didn’t get along. I like to think that it was because the trombone and I were meant to be together, but in reality it’s far more likely that I just really couldn’t move my fingers and read music at the same time — unlike my brother, who does both just fine. I practiced my trumpet lessons a little, but my heart really wasn’t in it. I dropped trumpet study in fairly short order. I bided my time, imploring my arms to grow.

What’s the best kind of trombone?

A broken one!

According to the Online Trombone Journal, a trombone is

a brass instrument consisting of a long cylindrical tube bent upon itself twice, ending in a bell-shaped mouth, and having a moveable U-shaped slide for producing different pitches.
Sound is produced by a trombone when the player buzzes his or her lips on the mouthpiece. This sets up a standing wave in the body of the instrument that is amplified as it approaches and then leaves the bell. The looseness or tightness of the player’s embouchure (the way the player’s facial muscles and lips are set as they blow into a wind instrument) contributes to the pitch of the notes by determining which part of the overtone series is being activated.

But the slide’s the thing. It’s what makes the trombone the trombone. The specific pitch produced by the trombone is determined by the position of the slide. There are seven “positions” that are a half-step apart in pitch. These positions aren’t marked, like frets on a guitar or valves on the cursed trumpet; the trombonist must learn — by ear, feel, and muscle memory — where on the slide the notes are.

How many trombonists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

One, but he'll do it too loudly.

Finally, in sixth grade in Durham, North Carolina, band was offered as a for-credit course — and I got my first trombone. It was a bare-bones model, not unlike the one in the picture above. I could barely reach seventh position, but that wasn’t a barrier to learning the basics.

One of the first things a beginning trombonist learns is just how loud the damn thing can play. The sheer volume that can be produced by a trombone is a major temptation for the beginning player, but it is also an incentive to develop the breath and embouchure control needed to produce a big and clean sound.

A more immediate incentive to become a good player is that, once you start playing an instrument, you become intensely aware of its presence and role in the music you listen to. At that time (the late 60s) there wasn’t much use of trombone in rock music, which is what we were into in those days. Soon, though, bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago made a place for horns in rock and pop. In the rare instances when I listened to concert music (apart from what we played in band), I learned to pick out the trombones and their parts. More often, though, it was the lack of an important trombone part.

Big breakthroughs in my understanding of and feeling for what the trombone could do began when I was able to join the high school jazz band. We played arrangements of contemporary pop tunes, standards, and some big band classics. I did my first writing for that group, an arrangement of Chicago’s “Beginnings,” which I naturally made feature a trombone.

How can you tell that a kid on a playground is a trombonist’s kid?

He can’t swing and he complains about the slide.

Jazz opened up new ways for me to hear and to play. But what really turned me around were my first experiences with “avant-garde” concert music and my discovery of Sequenza V by Luciano Berio. The Sequenza redefined the trombone as a solo instrument with its drama and virtuosity, and expanded the sound-world of the instrument with its special effects, including multiphonics (producing more than one note at a time) and vowel sounds. These ideas found their way into my jazz band solos. (Once.)

I played the trombone all the way through college, beginning as a performance major but quickly changing to a composition/theory major. I still played to fulfill ensemble requirements as a comp major until graduate school, when I sang in the large choir. When I taught music at a residential science and math high school, I sat in with the trombones in the wind ensemble and learned other instruments.

I haven’t played a trombone in nearly 20 years. It remains my first musical love, and I frequently give it a major role in my music. It stills speaks to and for me.

What do you call a guy who knows how to play a trombone and doesn't?

A gentleman.

I don’t know about that.