Archive for the ‘rants’ Category

The Voice of God

June 9, 2015

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,


* 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.


The Letter Z (A-to-Z Challenge)

May 1, 2015

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Toward the end of the alphabet I manipulated some of the letters pretty excessively so today I thought I’d better pull myself together and end on an honest and upstanding note. To this end I Googled “list of authors beginning with the letter Z.”

And here I found Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.


Here I could kill two birds with one stone.  The Book Thief became popular just as my youngest was aging out of the target audience and so we missed it.  I was always sorry about that so I was delighted that today I had an excuse to buy it and spend the time to read it.  I took out my phone and went right over to Amazon and searched “The Book Thief Kindle edition.”  First offer was a special movie edition with video clips included and that’s a little fancy for me.  Then a Sparknotes type thing, and next several unrelated books with the word “Thief” in the title.  Finally halfway down the page there was a book plainly labelled “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” for $2.99.  I bought it with one-click.

Then I had to charge my kindle because it was dead. While I waited I paced around doing housework in a desultory and slipshod way because I was so excited about reading a wonderful new book.  Eventually the Kindle burst into light and I seized it and settled myself and opened the book to the title page, which read “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Review.”


I think that was a little deceptive, to put in huge letters on the cover “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” and make “a review” in tiny print, but that’s really beside the point.  That was really my own fault for trying to read small print on my phone. That’s not why I’m walking around the house breathing heavily through my nose and slamming the laundry baskets around.

It’s because when I went back to Amazon to return the review for a refund and leave a nasty one-star review, I looked at the “The Book Thief Kindle edition” search results list again saw that it was absolutely clotted with these “summaries,” these trashy little cheat-sheets that you run out and buy the night before the test if you were too lazy to read the book.

I am not talking about study guides, those useful enrichment exercises which are designed to enhance a student’s understanding of a book he has already read through thought questions, vocab review and character studies.  I am talking about summaries, which are designed to enable the ‘reader’ to fake a one page book report or eke out a B minus on a test if they had been too busy playing video games or texting or watching whole seasons of stuff on Netflix or painting their nails or whatever to bother with reading something marvelous which had been written just for them, which would not only have entertained them but made them into a better person.

Isn’t anybody paying attention to what’s going on out there?  Does not anyone see a problem?  Do you not see the irony? Fine.  I’ll spell it out for you.

This is a story** about a girl who copes with the hell of Nazi Germany by painstakingly and with difficulty, with her adopted father’s help, learning to read at a later than usual age, and then over a period of years risks imprisonment or death to one by one acquire by stealth a library of books that you could count on your digits with some toes left over.  A magnificent writer has taken years of his life to craft this plot into an irresistibly readable story for young people and someone has the effrontery to write and sell a pamphlet* the only purpose of which is to enable these young people to get by with not bothering to read it.  It makes me so angry I could spit.

Now, this is not Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  This is not Paradise Lost or even War and Peace.  This book is written at the fourth grade reading level; it is aimed at young people in grades seven through twelve. This is a book that I want to read because I see fifteen-year olds talking about it in hushed, rhapsodic whispers so as not to spoil the ending for their friends who haven’t read it yet. It is not only readable, it is magical.  As I discovered between 4 pm and midnight yesterday, it is a book that cannot be put down, even to make dinner.

This is why I cannot be a classroom teacher.

If I gave my students the privilege of reading a book such as this and found out that they had declined to do so and had instead read a summary, I would not only give them a Zero – Zip, Zilch*** – for that assignment, I would also take away all the credit for all the work they had done on anything else and then throw them out of my classroom.  Then the school board would want to have a word with me, and I’d resign. I can feel myself getting overheated already, so enough of this.****

I know you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

This is beyond that.  This is like try to stuff hundred dollar bills into someone’s pockets and they yank them out and tear them up and throw them on the ground. This is like giving your kid a Porsche for his sixteenth birthday and him rolling his eyes in disgust and asking if he couldn’t just ride his old tricycle instead. This is like the dwarves sitting in a circle convinced that they are eating stable litter, refusing to see the glory of New Narnia all around them.

What on earth is going on here?

Why are adults writing these summaries?  Why is Amazon – of all ironies – selling them? There should be an analogy for that too but I’m just too angry to think of one.

I’m truly sorry to end the A-to-Z Challenge on this note.

I’ve got a busy weekend, but I hope I’ll see some of you on Monday for the reflection post,



*It’s almost beside the point that the person who wrote this review could not manage to make it through a single sentence without changing tenses.  I don’t mean from one sentence to the next; I mean, changing tenses within the sentence. Practically every sentence. Look it up and read a sample if you don’t believe me.

**Yes, I understand that it is fiction.

***There are some honest Zs for you.

***I gave myself twenty-four hours and I hope I’ve been able to tone it down some.  Lately I read an article by someone who was so angry at people who stupidly insist on putting two spaces instead of just one after a period that she was practically choking on her own spit.  It seemed excessive and, I thought, a little tasteless, and I was hoping to avoid the same kind of thing here, but I’m afraid I may have crossed the same line.

The Letter F (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 7, 2015

Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel

  • Days With Frog and Toad
  • Frog and Toad are Friends
  • Frog and Toad Together
  • Frog and Toad All Year

When it comes to children’s ‘literature’ there is so much crap out there.  I’m sorry, I don’t usually say ‘crap,’ but I’m afraid it applies here and I must just say it.

Go to the ‘early reader’ section of any bookstore and take a look at some of the books available which are meant to entice children to make the effort to learn to read. The fact that I find so many of these books to be irritating and stupid* is totally beside the point; the point is that I’ve never known any children to find them appealing either.  I can’t tell you how much money I spent on a certain book collection whose title purports to encourage children by telling them that they can read.**  I guess it was my fault they didn’t like them.  I had been snobbishly cramming good books down their throats – books like Charlotte’s Web, the Narnia books, the Little House books, Heidi, Caddie Woodlawn, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy – and apparently this did the children the disservice of turning them into little critics who thought they were too good for a storyline that included a second grader who by dint of believing in himself was able to transform into a flying superhero with special abilities which enabled him to tame the dinosaur that was stealing everybody’s lunches.  Sorry, but I’m afraid I’m not sorry.

And then we discovered Frog and Toad.

The miracle of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books is that they are actually literature.

Using only understated, simple language, Mr. Lobel created tiny, elegant gems of stories told in words of one or two syllables.***  In these stories the short, fat Toad and the tall, thin Frog play together and work together and make plans which do or do not work out.  Toad is shortsighted and impetuous and a little bit lazy and largely ruled by his emotions, while his best friend, Frog, is sensible and kind and patient and helpful.  In some stories, Toad, who does not always think things through, does something a little thoughtless and then the kindly Frog demonstrates entirely by his own actions a more reasonable way to act.****  No calamity befalls Toad, he simply gets it and Frog tactfully pretends not to notice.  How kind.  But in most of the stories they just have fun together.

I am a fan of the occasional use of biggish words in books for small children as long as the words are used simply and naturally**** and not in a condescending, instructive sort of way.  In Frog and Toad, however, the fact that the words are all tiny and simple is a big part of the attraction.  It creates an appealing rhythm and style that is a work of art.  We didn’t use these books as reading primers.  We read them because we loved them and we read them again and again and again and they never stopped being funny and profound.  That is the miracle of Frog and Toad.

If you can read the ice cream story***** aloud without whooping and shrieking and gasping and without tears and snot running down your temples into your ears (assuming you are lying down reading aloud to a child) then you are a stronger person than I.

If you can read the dream story****** without choking up, you are cold-hearted and unfeeling.

If you have any children in your life, you must immediately go and buy them the Frog and Toad series as a gift, and be sure to claim the read-aloud privileges for yourself.

See you tomorrow for Letter G,


*I am not going to name any titles, but they include books about child superheroes, books whose only raison d’etre is a trendy politically correct theme or character, books based on tv shows, cartoons or movies, books about monsters (I don’t think children actually worry about monsters until they are told they do by adults), books where they use the word ‘wacky’ or stupid made up words like ‘fudgelicious’ and books full of daringly outrageous potty humour because the author thinks that children think that bodily function jokes are really hilarious.  Children may may think so, when they’re the ones making the jokes, but when adults do it children are perceptive enough to realize that it’s both inappropriate and pandering.

**I can read, yes, but if this is all that’s available why would I bother to?

***In all of the four books I don’t believe there is even one word that a child would need to sound out more than once or have to ask the meaning of.  In one story of fewer than four hundred words I looked at this morning, there is only one word (“remember”) which is longer than two syllables.  I would give you a more accurate word count but I kept getting caught up in the story as I was counting.

****But gently!  And Frog never lets on that he notices.  And there’s no adult figure hovering and waiting to break in and stop all the fun and preachily reiterate the lesson.

*****Beatrix Potter’s use of the words ‘soporific’ and ‘alighted’ comes to mind.

*****”Ice Cream,” from Frog and Toad All Year.

******”The Dream,” from Frog and Toad Together.

The Rest of the Parable

March 21, 2015

A few days ago I winkled my Facebook password out of its keeper so that I could advertise a particular blog post in a place where it would be seen by a set of people who might find it amusing.  While I was logged in I thought I might have a look around to see what I’ve been missing.

It’s really too bad that the third item in my news feed was a little poster (or a meme, I think it’s called) that read, “Not going to church because there are hypocrites there is like not going to the gym because there are fat people there.”

Oh.  How self-righteous, how mean, how cold-hearted.   Simplistic, too, and flawed, and proof positive that amateurs should never try to make up metaphors all by themselves.  Further, a tiny bit disingenuous, don’t you think? When I was in the classroom I heard this sort of thing from kindergartners all the time. “It’s not my fault, Teacher!  All I did was stretch out my foot; I didn’t know he would trip over it.”

If you like the fat-people-in-the-gym = hypocrites-in-church metaphor, though, let’s take it a little further.  Let’s explore only one of many possible entirely hypothetical situations that could fit here.

A family had a lifetime membership to a gym.  The father and mother met and courted there and when they married and had children they brought them to the gym also, enrolling them as junior members, placing them first in the child care facility and then, as they grew older, into the daily junior fitness class.  It seemed odd to the parents that the Director of Children’s Fitness was on the heavy side, actually downright obese, but they knew that everyone in the gym was working to become fit and so they resolved to be patient and tolerant.  Even when the overweight Director of Children’s Fitness took a personal dislike to one of the children, although this worried the parents to the point that they seriously discussed exercising elsewhere, they concluded that they believed this to be the gym with the best fitness philosophy and so they resolved to focus on the overall fitness philosophy rather than on the individual gym personnel.

One day as the parents worked out in the weight room they happened to look over at the glassed in children’s room and see the overweight Director repeatedly throwing one of their children to the floor and body-slamming him with his big, fat body.  The parents rushed over and banged on the window and yelled but the Director ignored them.  They ran to the office and asked the Manager for help, and he sat tightly wedged into his chair at his desk and agreed that the Director shouldn’t be doing that. In desperation they picked up the red emergency phone, the direct line to the Regional Manager (another heavy man) and he said that he was really sorry but that he didn’t actually have jurisdiction in the children’s class and it was too far for him to walk over there anyway.

Finally the frantic parents gathered up all of their children and fled.  As they raced out the door they heard the staff and the other members talking amongst themselves. “That’s okay, let them go, they were clearly just waiting for an excuse to quit. The gym will be better off without them. We don’t want members who are not fully committed to fitness and health.”


Not a very likely scenario at all, is it?  But possible I suppose.  I have kids, so it was the first thing that sprang to mind. This story is ridiculous in the extreme, but if it did ever happen, would the parents be to blame, or the fat people?  Or possibly the institution that hired the fat people? Or the gym personnel who did not care enough to look into it? What about the gym members who snickered as the injured family fled?  Let’s leave the gym scenario so I don’t have to keep saying the word ‘fat.’  Is it nice for church members to make up and distribute funny posters mocking people who may have been hurt and driven away?  You never really know why they left, do you?  Is making a poster like that inviting them to return, or telling them that they were weak and stupid for leaving? Is it meant to be a clever way of saying ‘Good Riddance?’

Sorry!  But I believe that in my very first post I promised you the occasional rant.

So there it was.

See you soon,