The Voice of God

What do you think of when I say the word trombonist?

This, I’ll bet:

No, really, take the time to watch it. I’ll wait.

There. Was I right?

Now listen to this:

So, is that what you were expecting?

Now try this. You don’t have to listen to the whole thing, a few moments will suffice:

Do you think you may want to do some stereotype rethinking?

I do understand that we are talking about musicians who make raspberry noises for a living, whose instruments resemble large kazoos and who seem to always be the ones who provide the musical underscore for any comedic scene in which a pratfall occurs.

Still. Think of a world without William Tell, Beethoven’s Fifth or The Ride of the Valkyrie.

And then consider what a young trombonist has to endure to get to the point where he can play those works.

Picture to yourself a student recital.  Here comes a little violinist. Her teacher takes her miniature violin and tunes it quickly, and the precocious infant scrapes out Song of the Wind.  It’s out of tune, and missing a note or two, but owing to the tininess of the instrument you can barely hear it anyway. And she’s just soooo cute, with that tiny violin and all.

Cheers and whistles and waves and waves and waves of applause.

Here comes a young pianist.

He starts strongly on Spinning Song. He gets hung up on the repeat. He starts it again. He forgets what’s going on in his left hand. He starts it again.

The audience, hushed and sympathetic, concentrates on sending him encouraging vibes.

He eventually bashes his way through to the end.

And is rewarded with cheers and congratulatory cries and loud applause as he half ducks, half bows and throws himself blushing into his seat.

Now a little cellist only eight years old. The audience prepares itself for another nursery song and is completely bowled over by a flashy Popper showpiece, immaculately executed.

The crowd erupts and this time it’s genuine. They leap to their feet as one.

And now comes the brand-new trombone student.

Here I must insert a word of explanation for those of you to whom one instrument is much like another: Before you can start to play a brass instrument you have to have shed and completely regrown all eight of your front teeth. This could put you as late as ten or eleven years old before you can even go to the music store to rent your first trombone. If your parents were wise you’ve at least been given piano lessons in the meantime to keep you interested and help you learn to read music, but no amount of piano study is going to help you with the hideous sounds you are going to be making for the first several months of trombone lessons. Contrast this with the fact that there are violins and cellos made to fit two year olds.

So there you are, a giant, large-footed eleven-year-old in the middle of a growth spurt, too old to be cute, too young to command respectful attention, taking the stage directly following a little kid half your size who just earned a standing ovation…

And the first thing your teacher does is to play a B-flat on the piano and ask you to tune.

So you play a B-flat.  Only it doesn’t come out as a B-flat.  It comes out as a tiny, repressed raspberry. The audience titters. The teacher strikes the note again and waits.  You try again.  This time you produce only a loud whoosh of air, and now the audience is really fascinated. Desperately you blow again and a great honk surges out of your bell and someone in the front row gasps audibly and jumps and then everyone laughs.  Some clown starts clapping and then the whole audience applauds, because that’s funny. You feel like you have to bow but you really don’t want to.

Then your teacher plays the introduction.  It is eight measures long.

You play your very first recital piece, Hot Cross Buns.  It too is eight measures long.

When you stop, the audience just sits there.  Surely this mid-to-large-sized child is going to play something more impressive than that?

Silence continues for a second longer than is comfortable, then all at once an understanding murmur whispers around the room and there is a sudden burst of hearty, warm, genuine, supportive applause – the kind adults do with the corners of their mouths turned down in wry sympathy – peppered with admiring chuckles. Better get used to the chuckles, kid. You’re a trombonist now.

To be unfazed by all this requires a comedian’s temperament.  A child with the temperament of, say, an oboist would never survive as a trombonist.

Someone musically important with the first name of Richard is said to have said, “Never look at the trombones, it only encourages them.” (I get my information from memes and in my short survey of them just now I found that opinion is divided. Some memes say Richard Wagner; some memes say Richard Strauss. I’m too lazy to look into it further but will welcome evidence either way in the comment section.)

The trombone is the only orchestral instrument (as opposed to the banjo and the bagpipes which also take their turns here) to be featured in the old “Hey, I got one!” chestnut, “A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the trombone but refrains from doing so,” a quote upon which the world of memes is again divided – it’s either Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde.

If remarks like these are going to hurt your feelings it’s best to find out right away, while you’re young, while there is still time to switch to the viola.

The word ‘brass’ can be a noun (“The trombone is made of brass”) or it can be an adjective (“The trombone is a brass instrument.”)  More unusually it can be a verb, however, and then it means to endure an embarrassing or difficult situation by behaving with apparent confidence and lack of shame.

Coincidence?  I think not.

I would only argue with the word ‘apparent.’ Trombonists are confident. They have to be. They have no shame. There isn’t room for any. In the natural selection of the musical instrument world, the survival of a young trombonist depends more on his personality than on his physical characteristics.  This is why – in contrast to your typical orchestral section of three medium-sized trumpet players sitting bolt upright in space enough for four (to allow room for the egos), or a mild-mannered, spectacled row of four studious but unpretentious horn players (or eight for Wagner)  – a trombone section will generally be a ragged and unpredictable assortment of regular guys, because trombonists come in all shapes and sizes. They can look like bears or mountain men or plumbers or physicists or surfers or serial killers or writers. The only thing that they have in common is that they have a good sense of fun and can take a ribbing.

They will need these assets throughout their orchestral careers for the jokes from non-musicians are only the beginning. Trombonists are not safe even from their own conductors.

Here is an example of this treachery which you may have seen.

At an Educational Children’s Symphony Concert (which you shouldn’t go to anyway; see previous post “How to Make Your Children Love Classical Music”) the conductor will often attempt to woo the young audience by baby talking down at them about the instruments. One by one he will invite each section principal to stand up and play something. (By the way, if you go, you should know that these are not the actual section principals, even though they are sitting in the first seats. The real principals’ contracts allow them to opt out of the children’s concerts. These poor substitute suckers are just here for the danger money.)

The (substitute) concertmaster will play something fast and flashy like a bit of the Tchaikovsky concerto or The Devil’s Trill or the first few bars of the Prelude of the Bach E Major Partita.

The principal cellist will also play from unaccompanied Bach and the bass principal will play The Elephant from Carnival of the Animals.

The children will stare impassively but at least they won’t boo and that’s the main thing.

Then will come the winds.

The flute will play something that sounds like birds twittering and the clarinet will do something entirely forgettable and then the oboe will be called forth.

Here is where things should become amusing, but no.

The conductor will say, “Now children, everyone thinks that the oboe sounds like a duck.”*

There will be a small ripple of sycophantic laughter from the eight parents and two kids who are still paying attention and the conductor will continue, “But the oboe is actually a very beautiful instrument.”

And then the oboist will be invited to play “Gabriel’s Oboe.”

Young moms will sigh and swoon and older moms will wipe away tears.

After that, to cheer everyone up, the trumpet will play a fanfare, probably something by John Williams (interesting) or Aaron Copland (boring), and the horn will play the opening theme from a Mozart Concerto, the tuba will surprise anyone who’s still listening with the melodious Tubby the Tuba tune, and then the conductor will offer a great treat.

Now, children, let’s meet the clowns of the orchestra!”

And the trombonists, the whole section, will be made to stand up and play Lassus Trombone while all the school children take a break from picking their noses and harassing their teachers to point and hoot at three grown men pandering to them with honking glissandos.  There ought to be a law.

So to drive the point home, the guy who plays the actual comic instrument (the oboe, for those of you who lost track) gets to pretend that he plays the Official Instrument of Heaven, while the guy who plays the instrument which has in fact been described as the Voice of God plays for chuckles.**

What, you think I’m kidding about that Voice of God thing?

“In Luther’s translation of the Old Testament, the trombone is an instrument with which the people of God are called together, important news is announced, and the call to battle is made; the sound of trombones accompanies the righteous fight for God. The trombone is the instrument of the priests when they announce a new king and when they march ahead of the Ark of the Covenant. It is the sound that accompanies the sound of the voice of God and symbolizes the power of God and his judgment. Furthermore, the trombone is played to please and praise God, together with a wide variety of other instruments. In Luther’s translation of the New Testament, the trombone is the instrument that God’s companions, the angels, use to gather his elect to announce the Resurrection, the end of times, Judgment Day, and the Second Coming of Christ. When God speaks, his voice sounds like a trombone.”*** ****

There you go.

For my Adventist friends who are careful about your Sabbath listening, I’ve just opened up a whole new world of possibilities for you.

You’re welcome!

See you in a week or so,

KK

* It does sound like a duck; however, the oboe, despite its sounding exactly like a duck, is always played by someone too sensitive to be the butt of even the mildest of jokes. In the one oboe/duck piece of music I can think of, the one from Peter and the Wolf, the duck is portrayed as suspiciously melodious, indeed not duck-like at all.  Have you ever heard a duck sing like that?  I haven’t.  It’s very beautiful, very dignified, a warm and gentle tune with only a couple of grace notes gently hinting at a quack sound.  Then there’s a faster section to show the duck running, you can hear a sort of waddling quality to it but still it’s fluid and chromatic and probably rewarding to play.  I never heard a duck sound like that, and I don’t think Prokofiev ever did either. In fact, I suspect that what we hear today was his second version.  I’ll bet that the first version sounded all kinds of quacky, but that after the first rehearsal there were tears and cries (“I’m not going to play that!  I won’t! You can’t make me! I’ll quit!  I really will!”) and Prokofiev had to go home quickly and whip up something completely unfunny and not at all duck-like to replace it with.

To be fair, there aren’t many comic songs for violin either, as we violinists tend to be mean and humourless and to take ourselves way too seriously.  Not long ago I attended a comedy violin concert by a violinist who was simply hilarious on stage. I met her afterwards and found that she was as mean and cold hearted as the rest of us. When she deliberately hurt my feelings I actually felt better, because the idea of a happy, jolly violinist with a great sense of humour had been making me feel a little bit uneasy and the calculated snubbing put my universe back on track.  I’ve never met a mean trombonist, though.

** Again, this is because if the oboist was made to suffer the laughter of children for making duck noises he would simply dissolve, but not only can the trombone players take it, it actually doesn’t bother them.

*** Knouse, Nola Reed. The Music of the Moravian Church in America. Rochester: U of Rochester, 2008. 172. Print.

**** Full disclosure:  I should probably have mentioned in the beginning that I’m married to a trombonist. That is, a trombonist trapped in the body of a lawyer.  No possibility of a God complex there.

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