[Photo: My dad and me, circa 1991.]
I played trombone for eight years, from fifth through twelfth grades. I was okay, I guess. I would have been better if I ever practiced, but thankfully the genes I inherited from my father, a professional musician, carried me through. This is the odd part: I didn’t especially like playing the trombone, but I loved playing the trombone. When I say I didn’t especially like playing, I mean the actual playing. But when I say I loved playing the trombone, I mean the people.
Playing the trombone meant that I got to make my first friend-who-was-a-boy, Travis, in the fifth grade. During our final concert in the sixth grade, I realized that the buttons on my peach button-up skirt had come unbuttoned, thanks largely to the way I had to hold my trombone in between my legs during breaks in the performance. I’ll never forget frantically asking Travis to hold my trombone for me so I could button myself back up again. He didn’t even tease me about it. That moment solidified our friendship, which persisted through many a heated argument about politics.
And then there was Matt, my first real boyfriend who gave me my first real kiss while we were on a jazz band trip. It amuses me to think of all the flirting we did during band class, the whole time sporting those trademark bright red circles you get on your lips while you play the trombone.
I was the only girl trombone player in my grade, but two girls in the grade ahead of me played trombone, too. I cannot tell you how wildly cool they were (and still are). As fun as it was to be the only girl in the section, it was so much better with Helen and Joy. I had such a great time during my first week of band camp I didn’t want to go home. And this, even though we spent nine hours a day practicing.
People laugh when I say that I was only in band for the social scene, but it’s true. I quit cold turkey after I graduated from high school, and I can honestly say one of my few regrets is not playing in the college marching band. I would have had a blast.
After not playing the trombone for nearly a decade, after thinking of myself as a former trombone player who would never, ever take it up again, I started playing again. I even started playing again on a beautiful, brand new silver trombone. I didn’t start up again out of latent love for the actual instrument, but because of a person. Gary. He’d been homeless when he started turning up at my church in California. One of his few possessions was a beat-up trumpet he carried with him everywhere he went; he kept it slung on his shoulder by a strap woven of empty latex balloons. After he was ticketed for playing on the pier without a permit, our music director invited him to play in worship. There wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary the first time he played Amazing Grace.
About a year after church members helped him connect with a program and get off the street, Gary presented me with a large wrapped box during worship on my birthday. It was a silver Olds; his roommate’s family had owned a music shop back in the day, and he’d shopped their inventory closet. The gift was given on the condition that we play duets together in worship. After eleven years, my chops were rather rusty, but it was such an unexpected joy to play again, and with Gary, I didn’t even care. Nor did our congregation. No matter what we played together, it sounded like amazing grace.
Yesterday morning – Thanksgiving Day – I played a duet with my father. I’d told my new church the story of Gary and my nearly new silver trombone, and people had started to wonder when I was going to actually play the thing. Our Thanksgiving worship service is “come as you are,” and that seemed like just the right context for me to play as I do, which is to say not very well. Once again, I’d let my embouchure entropy, so that I sounded like a beginner all over again when I pulled it out of the case a couple of weeks ago. But my father has chops. I figured his trumpet could cover up some of the mistakes in the trombone part. We reprised the first duet I played with Gary: We gather together, to ask the Lord’s blessing; he hastens and chastens his will to make known…
After all this time, after all these years, the best thing about playing the trombone is the person playing alongside me.