Thursday, September 06, 2007

Giving up Fingers

I was going to play the French horn. With its foreign name and labyrinth of shining, curling pipes, it seemed deliciously exotic to a ten-year-old. I'd heard it was very difficult; I didn't care. It was the only instrument special enough.

But on the first day of band, Mrs. Clements gave her fifth-graders some advice. "I'm going to play recordings of several band instruments. Pick the one you like the sound of; that's the one you should learn to play."

I was already certain. I waited impatiently through the airy flute, the squealing, squeaking clarinet, the sinister, frothy sounds of the various saxophones. Woodwinds are too hollow for me, too vague and insubstantial. I giggled at the oboe and ignored the bassoon, which is a shame, because of all the woodwinds, the deep and sure bassoon and the sturdy, throaty baritone saxophone are dearest to my heart.

Next came the sharp, harsh trumpet, too brassy, too obvious. I knew we were getting close.

Then... had Mrs. Clements made a mistake? That couldn't be it. The horn gurgled and choked like someone was playing a water balloon. It was muddy and rude, spitting with a swollen tongue, sloppy and dubious. I can't play that. It sounds like a faraway cow. A sick one. A high, sustained note did me in with a rattling, unsteady edge to the watery tone.

I was still in turmoil when a new sound began to pour into my head, something strong but smooth as caramel, as sweet and buttery and thick. It descended into a pack-a-day snarl, still tuneful, still strong, swerving between notes just the way... why, just the way a human voice does. You don't even hear the buttons, the musician causing each note, the air stopping and starting. It has no buttons, no valves, no reed or keys. You just put it to your mouth and blow. The melody was bending, being strung, hopping from low octave to high octave with the mythical richness the French horn should have had. What is this? A three-octave scale, an easy, fluid jazz lick, a ferocious, speeding, pounding fanfare. The trombone. The tone was distinct and directional, round and rumbling, controlled and solid, purposeful. The last note was a long mellow purr. I was sold.

"You could still play the flute," said practical Gram, drying her hands on her homespun cotton apron. "It's small. It's easy to carry." She looked doubtful, and in my heart I, too, was harboring a secret horror. It's so ridiculous. The thing has a slide. It plays cartoon themes and circus music. How can I play something so... silly? But I couldn't help it. I had to have one, jokes and all. Mom rented me a used student model King, a surprisingly delicate, simple tenor with a smooth, shallow dent in the nicely arched tuning slide at the top and scratches all around the small yellow bell. I still have it. I still love it.

Eighteen years later I also have a bass trombone, a beautiful confection of swirling, overlapping tubes, twisting like a racetrack in white Blessing brass. It boasts two tuning slides and two rotors that change the tone without moving the slide and a wide, gleaming bell with a worn place where the tips of my fingernails have marked third position on the fly for fourteen years. It has its share of dents and scratches now.

Grandma and Mom bought it for me brand new from the Elkhart, Indiana factory when I turned fourteen because I had to turn in the identical-if-prematurely aged school model when I left middle school and no other school horn would do, not even the lovely, single-rotor Holton with the copper bell or the capable bass Yamaha with the giant conical mouthpiece like a motor oil funnel. All through high school and out into community bands I played, jazz bands and concert bands, symphony orchestras, marched street and field with that wonderful weight pivoting on my right ring finger, resting lightly on my left shoulder. That finger has a permanent bow, my shoulders are permanently curved to reach, to wrap around, to stretch forward, my lower lip has a groove in the center and the bow of my upper lip is arched in what may not have been its intended form. The inside of my lips are scarred where the brackets of my braces were pressed into the tender skin. I am marked, shaped trombone.

And after a five-year hiatus, I'm playing again. Tom and Vern's no-nonsense big band meets once a week in the high school choir room and plays classic arrangements from the sweetest era in music history. Tuning note at 7 sharp, get down to business and read straight through as many charts as will fit in an hour and a half, shout a request if you've got one. "Take the A Train." "Satin Doll." "A String of Pearls." "Mack the Knife." Heavy on the Basie, don't spare the Sammy Nestico, a little more Gershwin please.

And I'm on the end of the trombone line, doing my favorite thing to do: playing the low notes, the ones that growl, that hum, the slow molasses whole notes or the quick, bunched quarters that get pushed to a borderline blat in that satisfying low brass way. Now and then there's a good jazz chart in which we trombones get to slide, to fall off the end with a dignified "wow" that can only be duplicated by human vocal chords.

I think I'm going to like this small, friendly group. They do their thing with modesty, class, and just enough humor to keep it light but not throw it off track. Most of the members are local music teachers, but for the first time with any adult group, I don't feel like a student. They haven't known me since I was 13. They don't coddle me. They don't ask if I'm comfortable with a part or if I think I can handle that 16-bar solo. They expect me to carry the bass line and for the first time I don't wonder whether or not I can- I just do. I'm a little rusty; I'm stiff and it's hard to swing, so I trip over triplets and stumble through syncopation. But I'm sight reading like it's all I've ever done and recognizing many charts like old friends.

For an hour and a half once a week, every thought in my head is gone. It's just me and the tangle of brass in my bare hands with the cold nickel mouthpiece that warms as I play, the weight of the instrument as familiar as my own bones, and the sounds that it makes as familiar as my mother's voice. I'm counting in my head as Vern counts out loud, "One and-a-two and-a we know what to do." Nobody directs. Nobody's in charge. That's the beauty of an ensemble like this. We don't care if anybody else hears us, although we may have a few performances a year. We're just there to play, and we've all missed it.

Ever since that fateful day at Canyon Elementary School, the day someone put that thing in my hands and I first felt metal glide down metal, buffered by grease and water, I've been hooked. It's elemental to me.

And I sure am glad I didn't play the French horn.


Blogger mister anchovy said...

That sounds like so much fun! I'd love to play in a band.

September 7, 2007 at 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

I made some "sinister, frothy sounds" in June, playing in the pit band for a production of "Annie"! (Stressfully enough, the week before Tech Week of "Pippin"...) I wish I played more - I need to find a big band that doesn't mind if I disappear every couple of months to act or direct or something less musical like that...

September 9, 2007 at 11:04 AM  
Blogger A said...

I thought you were trying to slow down this year. How's the yoga going?

September 9, 2007 at 12:55 PM  

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