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.