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Baptism by Fire

Over the years I’ve had plenty of experiences having to learn new things under time pressures and out of urgent necessity. While this is never the preferred way to learn, it can be pretty effective. And I’ve been lucky enough to have survived them all. One of the least-dislikedfondest, was how I got started playing trombone.

I joined band in high school as a freshman. Not having much experience with any band instruments, I got assigned bass drum and quickly was up to speed, albeit with an aching back. I continued in the drum section into sophomore year and had started dabbling in toms and snares. But our drum section was well endowed with other, more-talented players and some other areas were underrepresented. My band director, ever vigilant, convinced some of us to switch to other instruments to meet the needs of the program.

Winds be like, "I can still play" (showing a damaged reed on a clarinet)

Near the end of marching band season, I started learning clarinet. But it wasn’t long before I decided I didn’t like it. Too squeaky and reed maintenance was way to fussy for me. Somewhere around late Winter, I think, my director let me switch to trombone. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. Besides, the only good trombone player in the band was a senior and the band was going to need more trombone or baritone players soon….in my mind, next year.

I was playing trombone at infrequent practices and lessons but, being a slacker, I wasn’t doing much to get up to speed. Those days, when I did expend effort on practicing music, I think it was mostly focused on something cooler, playing rock and metal music on my guitar.

Close to the end of the school year, I showed up to a lesson and the band director gave me the news: I was going to have to learn a part including a trombone solo in the next two weeks. Rich, the senior trombone player, was doing something college-prep related and was going to be out of town for the new class orientation performance.

Every Spring, a few weeks before the end of classes, the school would hold an incoming class orientation for next year’s students where the school would give them a taste of everything it offered. The band typically had a handful of more-talented players do some sort of catchy ensemble piece to woo the musically inclined to join. That year, it was a small quintet doing a dixieland style rag. Not only was I not going to be able to anonymously hide among a bunch of poorly-tuned peers, I was going to have a moment where I was the only one playing apart from some rhythmic backing. I was incredulous…in denial…actually going to have to learn to play my instrument.

My recollection is the solo was about like this. Not too tough for a experienced player, but a tall order at that range and tempo for an unmotivated teenager with maybe 3-4 instrument hours under his belt.

A rendering of the solo by my notation program.

Long story short, I got scared of failing miserably and looking like a fool, I started practicing, and pulled off an adequate performance. It’s funny how the pressure of a commitment to others can help one rise to the occasion when nothing else works.


That was almost 32 years ago. I stopped playing trombone while in college. I stopped playing guitar just after college. Sure I pick up the guitar every once in a while and reminisce and am amazed at how much I’ve forgotten. It’s been more than 25 years since I was an active musician, since I made other stuff a priority in my life, while always wanting to return to being a musician.

My wife just recently convinced me to take it up again. Having had such trouble carving out the time for music in the past, I knew the only way I was going to pull it off was to make a commitment I couldn’t easily back out of. So here I am, scrambling to relearn the instrument with a gig a week or so away and not even 10 recent instrument hours or rehearsal

In addition to my gig material, I decided to practice that solo from high school, just for fun. I can sometimes play it almost passably, but not quite up to tempo and without the tone or control I ultimately want. My standards have risen since high school, so I’m far from satisfied…but I’m on my way.

A checkpoint of where I’m at relearning my instrument after a looong time of not having played.

It’s funny how the pressure of a commitment to others can help one rise to the occasion when nothing else works. to the occasion when nothing else works.

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