It’s not super well known, but spent a lot of years playing trombone at least once a week. I played nearly non-stop from fourth grade up until my early 30s. From high school on I didn’t even take the summer off – I’d still be playing a few times a week. If you add all of this up, it’s roughly 20 years.
Most of that time was spent in a church setting. The church I attended from tenth grade until I left the church for good (again, in my early 30s) had a band. The membership varied from year to year, but I was one of the few constants. When I started playing in it it was mostly made up of professionals from the Air Force Band of Flight, and by the time I left it was mostly just a bunch of amateurs like myself.
The few years I spent playing with professionals taught me a lot. In school I learned how to play an instrument, but I never really learned how to play trombone. There is a difference in learning how to play an instrument, and learning how to play it like it’s meant to be played. Each instrument is different, with different histories and backgrounds, and to play it right, you need to learn about the instrument itself… it’s color, it’s timber, etc. It’s all unique to the horn you’re playing.
Since I was performing weekly, I was forced to get really good at sight reading. This is a hard skill to learn. Learning that it’s okay if you don’t make all of the notes – drop the ones you can’t play – but whatever you do, don’t get lost. My high school band (like all school bands, pretty much) went to “contest” each year. Part of the things the band had to do was sight read. We’d practice for weeks leading up to this. The teacher would give us a pile of music to read as a group, and we’d hand it back in at the end of the class. This was always super easy for me, because I was doing it each and every week, and learning from some of the best in the business.
I loved playing next to folks that really knew how to play. I learned so much, and had a lot of fun doing it.
But the good times didn’t last for forever. The group at church changed over the years. It got smaller and smaller. The professionals moved on. The music minister we’d had for forever moved on, and the new person came in totally determined to do his own thing, and tossed out all of the charts I nearly had memorized… and the new ones were super hard, and way beyond my ability to play. (But not read!)
At the end the weekly practices had gone away, and we were down to just a brief read-through before the first service, if we even got that at all. The thing I had totally loved to do changed radically, and not in a good way.
I tried complaining about this (the pieces were so difficult that I needed more than one read-through), but no one really seemed to care. It all fell on deaf ears. I felt like the band was no longer anything anyone cared about. Like we were just an annoying thing in the way that ate into time for sound checks before a service.
Finally, I hit my breaking point. I’d been really upset at how poorly a service had gone (one were we didn’t even get a single read-through – meaning I was sight reading for the performance), and when I said something about how we need more time, and more people (it was down to just a small handful of people at that point), they fired back with “well, maybe if people want the honor of playing in this building, they’d get here earlier.”
I was crushed. I felt like not a single person cared. I’d put 15 or so years of my life into this group, and we were just being tossed away. That was the day I walked out of the doors and never came back.
When I left the church, I thought for sure that music was just something I was going to have to give up. My trombone sat in my closet for many years, because I was scared to touch it. Just looking at it brought back all kinds of memories that I didn’t want to feel. All that angst I had from watching the group at church get tossed away would just bubble to the service and I’d be overwhelmed with emotions.
Playing trombone wasn’t the only type of music I did. I was also in choir, and had a pretty good range and ear. (Playing trombone helps a lot with your singing skills – both require you to find the right pitch yourself.) I had a pretty good range as a vocalist. I could sing bass and tenor, and just about anything in between.
When I transitioned, I re-learned how to talk. My vocal range changed. It’s much higher than it used to be. (Not because of hormones… they have nothing to do with it. It was just shear determination that I was going to pass all of the time, darn it.) I had to give up the range in my voice to do this. I bet I could sing alto, but my days of singing bass are long over.
It’s kinda weird. Trombone (and tenor and bass vocally) are all bass clef. I can barely read treble clef, which is the one most people think of when you show them a piece of music. If I were to try to sing alto, I’d have to learn how to read pitches all over again. Sight reading would be hard.
I’d just kinda felt like my days with music had come to an end. I couldn’t touch a trombone because of bad memories, and I could no longer sing the parts I used to. (Nor would I want to even if I could!)
It made me really sad that I’d lost something that was a big part of my life for so long.
Flash forward to a few years ago. I somehow picked up an interest in some forms of jazz music. (Namely pieces from the Great American Songbook.) I started listening to Great American Songbook music on the radio. I learned a few of the standards and could pick them out by ear. I’ve learned how different you can do a single piece by playing it in a lot of different styles, or changing the words slightly… all sorts of little tweaks you can do. (I’ve also learned that I like Frank Sinatra’s songs, but I can’t stand listening to him. Hello, Frank. Dynamic range is a thing!)
I sorta fell in love with Jonathan Schwartz when he was a program director for XM Radio (this was before the merger ruined XM). His tastes in music matched mine, a lot, and I’d listen to his program every day at work.
XM got rid of him a few years ago, but I found that he has a streaming show on the Internet weekly, so I still listen to him nearly every day. His radio show is one of the things that I listen to while at work, even. I’ve learned so much about that style of music… and the flame kinda got relit.
I’ve been listening to the Great American Songbook for a few years, and started to long to get back into music, but never really got up the courage to do so.
Until a few weeks ago. 🙂
In Rocket City we have a giant piano on the floor in the loft. Normally it’s for running on, but you can play it by touching the keys, too. There’s a game that myself and few others play (hi, Mr. Genesis!) where we’ll play something and see if other people know what it is. Normally I just kinda goof around, but a few weeks ago I really wanted to play… but I can’t read piano music. (It’s treble clef.) Soo… I looked up trombone music, because I can read that.
I spent a few hours playing trombone music on that piano on the ground (poorly, I might add), but that was enough to do it. Just reading music again for the first time in ages… having to think about time signatures, key signatures… having to remember that accidentals carry though the measure… how repeats, codas, and other things work… it all just started flooding back into my head. All this knowledge I forgot I had. Knowledge I had made myself forget about because it reminded me of a horrible time in my life… but this time I was surrounded by friends… and playing songs that I know very well from the radio, but aren’t church songs… it was… amazing.
Finally it all started to click that “you know, there’s stuff other than church music you can play. You listen to it every single day.”
On a whim I went online and just started searching for trombone music, and was reminded about “The Real Book,” which is a collection of jazz standards. When I last looked at one of these, I didn’t know any of the songs in it…. but now? I know like half of them, and learn more every day.
Finally, just in the last few days, I dared to get my trombone out of the closet. I set it up on the stand. I bought Vol 3 of “The Real Book,” because it has “I Left my Heart in San Francisco” in it… and I’m having fun playing music. But this time? I’m just doing it for me. 🙂
I’m really rusty. You can’t take that many years off from playing a brass instrument and not have some rust. Towards the end of each session where I play (for no reason other than it’s fun!), I’ll grab my iPhone and record a little bit. I have a long ways to go, but if I listen realllly closely, I can hear the way I used to play hidden in there. It’s coming out little by little. I’ll have a terrible couple of measures, followed by a few where I’m all smiles as I listen. It’s still there. I still have it.
It’s so nice to have music back in my life. I took it back from the bad memories. They may have robbed me of it for almost a decade, but it’s mine, darnit. And I’m gonna keep it. ❤