Confessions Of A Former Tromboner

As I prepared for middle school, my parents pressured me to play a musical instrument. They proposed piano or guitar. I opted to learn the trombone. It was a decision born half out of curiosity and half out of spite. I was intrigued by the goofy unwieldiness of the instrument as well as its mysterious system of tuning. Simultaneously, though, I wasn’t that keen on devoting time to lessons and practice, so if my parents insisted on forcing me into it, I sure as heck wasn’t going to choose an instrument that was cool or impressive. Well played, thirteen year old me, well played.

There is nothing cool about playing the trombone. It sounds awful when you are learning, much like a violin, but without the class. At worst, it resembles rhinoceros burps. At best it comes off as elephant scat-singing. A trombone provides important texture for big band tunes, but on its own, it’s like having Chewbacca around without Han Solo. Loud, brash, and indecipherable.

You can’t do anything impressive with it. At a party, if a guy whips out a guitar and breaks into some Bob Dylan or John Mayer (depending on how smart the girls are), everyone gets excited. People sing along. Pulling out a trombone at a social gathering generates zero enthusiasm. You can’t even play regular songs. The closest you can get is playing: “Da da da duh da DA DA DA DA DA,” and then yelling “HEY!” Otherwise, you’re stuck to playing marching band music. “Okay, guys! Anyone want to hear the new one by John Philip Sousa? It’s called ‘The Stars and Stripes and I’ll be a Virgin Forever!’”

In a nutshell, here’s how uncool the trombone is. Myself and the other trombone players referred to ourselves as “tromboners.” That’s the nickname we self applied. It has the word “boners” in it. And that’s what we chose to call ourselves. You can imagine the colorful epithets that others may have used.

Even other wind instruments have it all over the ‘bone. Flutes have a delicate beauty to them. Clarinets sound playful and light. Even the sousaphone has a big, goofy Chris Farley charm about it. Trumpets, the coolest of all wind instruments, have a jazzy mystique about them. Miles Davis played trumpet, and he gave birth to cool. There is not a single hip trombone player you can think of. Can you think of one? No, I will not accept “that guy from Reel Big Fish” as an answer.

I was a lazy student and never became an exceptional trombone player. I quit the instrument after tenth grade to more actively pursue my interest in musical theater… ladies. Sometimes I imagine what would have happened if I had stuck with it, though. Would I have developed a passion for jazz or classical music? Would I have joined a band or started writing songs on my own? When I visit my parents, I see the old ‘bone in the corner of my bedroom. A sense memory of the cold metallic mouthpiece on my lips hits me. I think about whether I could even push a clear note through the brassy tubing after all this time.

More often, though, I am grateful for how my stint as an amateur musician played out. I’ve never had a great ear; my pitch is far from perfect. My ceiling as an instrumentalist was, to be honest, never that high. But I’m glad I obstinately decided to give the trombone a shot instead of pursuing a more practical instrument. In a weird way, it affirmed my entire dorky, contrarian personality as a kid. I chose eccentricity over mainstream popularity in a conscious effort to make myself more interesting, and it worked. Kind of. My lack of success and enjoyment led me to bail on my short-lived music career and focus on writing. Who knows what would have happened if I’d picked up a guitar in sixth grade. I might have ended up spending my entire college career trying to acoustically convince every girl I met that her body was a wonderland.

When I recall my time as a trombone player, I remember cold Friday nights playing in the stands of my high school’s football field, urging on our dismal team with our understaffed pep band. I think of how I clumsily blurted my way through my one-on-one lessons, having spent very little time practicing on my own. I think of the guilt/ relief cocktail I swallowed when I told my parents I wanted to quit. Primarily, though, I associate the clumsy instrument with my most awkward teenage years, and while I don’t regret my time in the high school band, I’m glad that it’s in the past. TC mark

image – Evonne

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  • Keltydennis

    Right. The guilty relief of quitting. Totally get that. Telling my parents I didn’t want to play cello anymore was exactly like that.

  • longrifle

    As an ex-tromboner who denies he ever played the thing in high school, I gotta say that you stole the words outta my mouth.

  • http://profiles.google.com/courtneypickard Courtney Pickard

     “I might have ended up spending my entire college career trying to acoustically convince every girl I met that her body was a wonderland.”
    Collapses in giggles. You sir, are the soothsayer of undergraduate men in guitar 102 class. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/t.jason.ham Jason Ham

    Hahah I played the bassoon in high school. I thought it looked like an artifact from a faraway land, and had the most exquisite, textured timbre no other instrument could match… I still do, actually.

    But that didn’t stop everyone else from saying I played the fog horn. Ugh. Imbeciles.

  • IzzyT

    I’m a girl who picked the French Horn in 3rd grade.  I couldn’t play the flute like every other 8 year old girl. Nooooooooo.  My braces and palate expander and I had to lug the instrument that was half my size back and forth to school for the next 10 years. Oof.  And the French Horn does not sound like a dying zebra, okay bass drum player!

  • Julian Assange

    lol “boners”

  • KindNewYorker

    I am a lady trombonist (I guess “boner” doesn’t apply here) and I have to say, playing that instrument is one of my fondest memories from 4th-12th grade (oh yeah, I stuck with it to discover the jazzy side…totally worth it). However, you forgot one thing: lugging it on the school bus and taking out everyone in your path. And knocking your knees on it for weeks until you realized that the bell part of the case goes behiiiind you. Loved this.

  • Jcarne21

    This is lame. Sorry you don’t think jazz is cool enough. Go play Dave Matthews somewhere.

    • Josh Gondelman

      Thanks for reading! I said that jazz -is- cool though. 

  • Musician167

    As an aspiring jazz trombonist and musician i can think of tons of cool trombone players that if you heard them play you would be blown away. Stop generalizing the instrument, not only is it a beautiful one but it is the most practical and natural of all the instruments. It’s literally just a tube, and the slide relates it most closely to the human voice. So before you relate your own personal experiences to how the trombone “sucks” go listen to J.J. Johnson and Conrad Herwig. Steve Turre, Slide Hampton, Bill Watrous… The list is neverending

    • Josh Gondelman

      Thank you for the list! I will check those trombone players out! I appreciate your pointing me in the right direction!

  • Sophia

    Ohhh this is the exact story of my sister. She tried to be a nonconformist/eccentric and picked up an instrument that we all hated just to be contrary to my parents. It was painful to listen to her practice. But she finally quit, and she looks back on the experience and laughs/smiles.

  • AparajitaBanerjee

    I guess this could apply to any instrument if you don’t practice regularly, but I like this article–it takes the words right out of the mouth of my Year 11 self. Luckily, the fact that my music lessons affected my high school grade point average made me stick to practicing the trombone every night and wow, does it sound fantastic! The funny thing is, the trombonists ( <–a nice way to avoid the "boners" thing there) were the uber cool kids at my school AND I discovered that if you are a 5ft tall female exchange student (with a cool accent to boot) wielding the instrument equivalent of a lance, no one messes with you.

    …Ha. I picked the trombone because it had the word "bone" in it.

  • http://twitter.com/mung_beans Mung Beans

    I followed you and Gaby Dunn over to youtube and watched some clips and now I totally ship you hardcore

    • Josh Gondelman

      Awww, thanks. I had to ask Gaby what that meant, but I trusted that it was a nice thing!

    • Fountainhead9717

      Youtube? Where?

  • http://twitter.com/ShonNotSean Shon Mogharabi

    haha the jurrasic park theme song was my single shinning moment as a trombone player from 6th grade to 8th grade, nice article

  • Anonymous

    bass clarinet whaddupppppp

  • Salina

    Totally played the trombone in high school. Loved every minute of it.

  • kyle

    oh man. i too played trombone in the middle school band. not by choice, it was assigned to me the first day of practice due to a lack of volunteers. what my band director was thinking i’ve yet to figure out. In the the 7th grade i was a 4’10”, 95lb 12 year old. i could barely lift the f-ing thing! and spit valves, ohh disgusting spit valves. thanks to the trombone i will never play another instrument that requires the regular emptying of spit. eww.

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