Last Saturday night, thanks to Alan, a Welsh ex-pat and my new trombone brother, I went to the trombone studio recital at the Conservatory here in Bordeaux. Considering the name of this blog and the picture hereon featuring me holding one I figured it was about time I wrote something about playing the trombone and this recital reminded me of a few things.
The first was that I have no idea how to take a decent picture with an iphone or if it's even possible. The inspiration for this post occurred to me early in the recital so I thought it might be nice to have a picture or two to illustrate my points. The one you see here is the absolute best of the lot so I'm adding cell phone photography to the list of things at which I'm incompetent.
The Conservatoire de Bordeaux Jacques Thibauld is a municipal school for the performing arts with students ranging in age from 6 to 18, although one guy looked almost my age. As the 20 or so members of the trombone studio gathered on the stage, the youngest carried horns that were as tall as they were, perfectly illustrating one of the inherent difficulties of this sonorous but frustrating instrument. Just the same, I was happy to see that so many kids, especially the girls, were starting their musical life with a trombone. The excitement you feel at that age about playing a musical instrument overshadows everything else, which is fortunate since they probably don't know what they're in for.
(For any philistines with no prior knowledge of the trombone, or who might play the trumpet and so probably stumbled upon this blog while surfing for pornography, I'll try to keep any descriptions of the technical aspects as simple as I can.)
The trombone is the only commonly used wind instrument that doesn't have valves or keys, pitch being changed by moving a slide. It's a pretty simple contraption with only one moving part, however that's where all simplicity ends. Learning to play it with any degree of skill is daunting enough that few people have the persistence and desire to stay with. I gave it up myself after high school, convinced of the futility of trying to ever be any good.
About playing the trombone, even the great J.J. Johnson has been quoted as saying, "There's an innate clumsiness about it. I really can't imagine what attracted me to it. It's the most ungainly, beastly hard instrument to play, and particularly to play jazz on. Many times I've wondered, how and why did I ever pick up this horrid instrument?" Phil Wilson calls it "the great humility machine."
The trombone is tuned to B flat so the first thing you learn is a B flat scale. The next thing you learn, if you're a kid, is that you can't reach the slide position (6th) for the second note of this scale so five minutes into the first lesson you're already screwed. And that's just the beginning.
Despite all this, I can't imagine playing anything else. Trombone players tend to be pretty easy going and well adjusted (Cynthia has taken issue with this) probably because they learn to deal with second-class status and rejection early on. They're rarely the stars and, especially in elementary school, almost never get the part with the melody. So you just suck it up and, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, "shut up and play yer trombone.'
This video contains one of my favorite commentaries on trombone playing. Listen for the quote on "Gentlemen" and trombones.