Archive for May, 2013

A Game of Trombones

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

I am prone to snap judgements and unwarranted assumptions, all of it rooted in the recognition in others of my many personal flaws. Like an ex-smoker who lacks even a shard of tolerance for the outcast family he once embraced, I seek out the stupid and petty, my own innate tendencies, and I scoff. And the reality of everything around us, from people to animals to this Macbook, is that we are all beautifully flawed. It is the flaw that makes each of us unique, that sets us aside from a predictable conglomerate of genetic markers and environmental constraints. I push hard against my flaws, my mistakes, my stupidity, but, in that, I’m just pushing against the person who I really am: my pure, inner idiot.

So there’s the root of the rumbling, churning fear that underlies a life of cynicism. And the greatest fear is this: Someone will call me out as the fraud that I am. I mean, we are all frauds of a sort, right? Try to read that with a positive spin. We aspire to greatness and success. When I play Ms.Pac-Man, I want to be the greatest Ms. Pac-Man player ever. I want to destroy that game, crush those patterns into dust. Just as I want this blog entry to be the greatest, so erudite and absorbing and full of that whatever-the-hell magic that it sucks people in and keeps them riveted. But that brain within my brain, the Module of Judgement that gazes upon my actions with Eye-of-Sauron unwavering, unblinking truth, it knows that I’m just bullshitting. Because to aspire to succeed, to level-up in life or art or anything, you have to pretend that you’re better than you actually are. You have to role play as a “genius,” and fool yourself with conviction or abandon until the odds of you being an actual genius are slightly tweaked and, through persistence, work and luck, you might actually do it. But when you break from that zone, pause and notice that you might be riding the rails, but you haven’t actually arrived, well, then the Module of Judgement reminds you that you are a fraud. And you either listen to that voice as if it knows what it’s talking about, giving it far too much power than it deserves, or you ignore it and carry on and just push through it all. Even while “fraud” persists in whispers and snorts.

On any given day, my fraudulence is manifest in just about any activity, from driving the car to writing a report to pretending that I’m a good father. You carry on, though, and even get a little spiteful about all of it, a little mix of creativity and anger that somehow produces actual positivity (or, in the least, results). But there’s one aspect of my lifelong fraud that is just woven right into my dendrites. This is something I sucked at from the start, never improved, never realized any potential beyond an endless joke.

This is the trombone.

I play several instruments. Sort of. Piano, guitar, ukulele and trombone. Wow, yes, I’m a fucking one-man band. Please don’t assume that “talent” is anywhere in that mix, though. For instance, I took piano lessons, but never practiced. Or, well, yes, I practiced, once a week, in front of my instructor. Guitar was more of a personal choice, and I love that instrument, even if I probably know all of three actual songs, and have to be a bit loaded to even consider strumming in front of anyone other than Rachel and Simon. Know this: If you ever see me playing the guitar, live and in front of you, I am, will absolute certainty, drunk off my ass and probably immersed in obliviousness. That goes for the uke, as well. And the harmonica. Big time. Consider the harmonica a warbling breathalyzer.

But it all started with the trombone. Back in fifth grade, the students were told to line up for instrument auditions. I don’t recall having any sort of choice. They tell you to get in line, you get in line. So: At the head of this line is a table. A big guy in a white shirt and black tie is sitting there. He takes a moment to size you up. I’m a boy, so I probably won’t play a flute or a clarinet. Or maybe he already filled all the woodwinds. Anyway, it’s going to be brass.

“Buzz your lips.”

Mzzzz.

“No, like this, buzz them together. Bpbpbpbpbp.”

Fmbpfmbpfmbpfmbp.

“Trombone. Next.”

And that’s it. A legend is born.

My parents rent a trombone, and I’m in Band. In retrospect, I don’t think every fifth grader was in Band. Maybe some of them didn’t pass the buzz test. Or maybe their parents decided that their kids weren’t going to be Band Nerds. I don’t know if we really had nerds back in fifth grade. I think the clustering was starting around then, popularity and coolness and all that. But it wasn’t like there were school jocks in fifth grade. There were just kids who were better at Gym, and maybe had some outside thing going on with little league and all that crap. I never stood in line and buzzed for baseball, never had a shot at it.

To play the trombone you do, indeed, buzz your lips into the sucker. And you blow. A lot. I think just about anyone can do that. My three-year-old son can do it. My seven-year-old neighbor can do it rather well. So yes, right from the start, I could toot out sounds on the trombone. You move the slide around to increase the amount of tubing, the distance through which the buzzing air travels to then vibrate the bell and amplify out to the world at large, thus altering the pitch. If you just leave it at that, you can play only five or six notes. The trick to playing music on the trombone is to tighten your mouth muscles, to tweak the airflow and the tension in your lips, thus moving notes up and down into different registers and octaves. And the better you get at controlling those muscles and that air, the more you can focus on a sweet, sweet tone.

I have never had a sweet, sweet tone. I can play plenty of notes, and shimmy that slide all over the place, but my tone, hmm, well, I’m not sure how to describe it.

Take a cow. A very lonely and depressed cow. Most cows just stand in pastures and chew stuff, contemplating their own cow-ness (and don’t assume that this cow-ness might not contain the secrets to all life, to the fabric of the entire damned universe – just because cows are laid back and hanging out in the grass and chewing and tail-slapping, don’t assume that those creatures aren’t righteous or even silent geniuses). This cow is different, this sad, disconnected beast. This cow wanders over a barren, salted plane. Mud dried to rough earth, grass and shrubbery exhumed, sun-heat boring through an opaque canopy of grey clouds. The cow walks on, searching and glancing and wanting until it forgets quite what it’s supposed to do. Is it supposed to eat? If there were flies, would it shoo them with a swishing tail? It’s tail hangs, twitching slightly with each lumbering stride. The cow is loneliness. The cow is absurdity. The cow is juxtaposed against oblivion, which casts no measure of worth or purpose. And the day never ends.

“M-m-m-mooooo…”

“M-m-m-mooooo…”

And that, my friends, is me. On the damned trombone. Just a sad and existentially disenfranchised cow.

Now you would think that a few years of structured practice would help that cow, give it a little verve. I learned the scales and tooted along to whatever our band master handed out. Drove my parents mad, as all youth persecute their environs with the wails, flubs and squeaks of a novice. My first concert became a family legend.

March Winds.

That was the song that I practiced every other day, learning the notes, mastering the syncopation. March Winds was not a particularly complex song. As I recall, it was all quarter-notes, a low, drunken adagio (sort of a plodding death-march of a tempo). It could have been worse, I think. It could have, um, hmm. Well, okay. It could not have been worse. The trombone part was one note. Over and over and over, stumbling forward. And we must not forget the cow. Moo. Moo. Moooooooooo.

I tortured the fuck out of my parents with that relentless March Winds, teaching myself how to play the same mid-range quarter note until my lips numbed over and my lungs imploded. The song was just a single page, maybe with a coda or something (still all the same quarter note, moo moo moo). I think my parents hoped for the best. This was just a fractal component of a greater musical whole; it would all make sense in concert with my bandmates. The trombone was probably laying down the solid foundation. Some musical cornerstone that could support a lyrical blossoming.

Nope.

Everyone in the band played their quarter notes. Over and over and over. This was before the advent of the ubiquitous camcorder, so we have no hard record of the event. The only information I have is anecdotal. However, this became one of those anecdotes that my parents recalled, with miserable glee, for most of my life. Their suffering. The erosion of tolerance as they writhed under the dull heel of March Winds. Even the kids with talent, the ones who could somehow blow out pure notes with harmonics and beauty and depth, even those kids were diminished by March Winds. It was like a Solera vat of human fluids, each quarter-note stirring the swirl, blending those unmentionables together into a horrific preternatural stew.

Here’s another thing: Now, in my middle age, I have lived through many a March. I have experienced the winds of March. I have to say, those March winds are not plodding quarter notes. They are vibrant and disrupting gusts, overlapping packets of tumult pushed about by competing thermals and battling seasons. The winds of March signify fearful transition and change, and the imminent glory of Spring that unfolds from their vacant wake.

March Winds, that first piece of music, was a fraud, a joke. It taught me that I sucked at the trombone. I wasn’t even embarrassed. I just didn’t care, and no one expected anything more from me. My cow was the cow of apathy. And every performance, every toot I’ve blown throughout the last thirty-plus years, has just been a variation on March Winds. Even now, right now, March fucking Winds permeates my creativity.

One can only skirt accountability for so long, though, and my reckoning came in the form of my high school band conductor, Mister Cross.

Mr. Cross was a man of passion. He aimed high and hoped for the best. I suspect that he, too, was dodging fraudulence for a good part of his life. For example, he wrote our high school marching band fight song. Wrote it out by hand and distributed the copies. The man saw himself as a composer, a musician to the core. A few years out of high school, I heard the Notre Dame fight song and noticed some similarities. That is, I estimate about a 90% overlap between the fight songs of Rich East High School and the University of Notre Dame. All recreated meticulously on mimeographed half-sheets.

I still sounded like a bubonic cow as I tooted through the fight song. At one point, there were three of us trombonists, so, normally, my cow-tone would be absorbed by the general cacophony. However, Mr. Cross was, himself, a trombonist, and all of his passion and angst was channeled through that wah-ing instrument. Sometimes he would stand on his podium, trombone in hand, and play along, conducting the band with his slide. His demonstrable tone and beauty just might motivate us to escape that March Winds foundation. And Martin did it. Martin was the first-chair trombonist. He sounded great, and played a gleaming, quality instrument. Martin was in Jazz Band. Martin had chops. In fact, many times I could just sit there and pretend to play while Martin did all the work. Those were good times.

When I bothered to make the effort, I rarely looked up Mr. Cross as he conducted. I just needed to know the tempo, as defined by Martin and the rest of the band, and I could stare into the sheet music and play through it. Then I would glance up, maybe while playing a whole-note, and Mr. Cross would be staring at me, mouth a gaping “O” punched through his red face, a trembling fist thrust out as he worked so hard to squeeze the cow. But there was no hope. I was, truly, the worst trombonist ever.

And Mister Cross would flush and huff and whine and cry and go absolutely crazy. It didn’t seem fair, his targeting of the trombone. But I think he was just reacting to his own inner whispers of “fraud.” He saw, in me, all of his worst qualities. Crappy playing as channeled through apathetic lips, devoid of ambition or talent. Mr. Cross never seemed satisfied with his position, a musician trapped in high school, and struggled for personal expression. He stood up there and looked down upon an aspect of his former self, a toxic node that derailed him from the true path. Like a cyst upon the soul, I was the embodiment of his fraudulence.

I stuck it out for a few more years, culminating in the infamous Wizard of Oz half-time marching band medley. In spats and hats, we inched through our formations, spinning, swinging the gate, forming letters or rotating shapes or some shit (out on the field, I never benefited from the crowd view of our performance). Woodwinds sang out Over the Rainbow, trumpets and clarinets chirped If I Only Had a Brain, and then, as our marching resolved into some fixed holding pattern, low, soft notes hummed in expectation of the next glorious unfolding. Ding Dong the Witch is Dead. Just me and Joe, the two trombonists (Martin had abandoned the amateur antics of marching band). Joe was slightly better than me, but, really, he was just another sick cow. Normally, I was so apathetic that I had little idea of how bad I sounded. This time, though, it was clear. This was Roseanne Baar curdling the National Anthem. Joe and I looked at each other as we blew out, each note slightly detuned, murky, and lacking in any timbral qualities that signified human development beyond Neanderthaloid incoherence. I heard Joe, and he heard me, and, perhaps for the first time, with the rest of the band playing their single, sustained background note, we heard ourselves as a unit, as the “trombone section.” And we were so terrible, so horrific and sad and pathetic, even ghoulish, that we couldn’t hold back. We both started laughing, laughing right through our mouthpieces, choking out notes and stuttered melody. We laughed with madness and absurdity, with the satisfaction of finally scraping across the bottom of the bucket, with waves of taunt and torment broadcast to Mr. Cross, out there somewhere, probably chewing bone from knuckles and thrusting erect thumbs into his weeping eyes. The trumpet section dissolved into crunchy cackles and snorts, missed their cues and drifted out of formation. The flutes and clarinets scoffed, then laughed, and soon enough the entire band was thrown into mayhem, swept away like a house in a tornado.

I quit band some time after that. Quit it forever. This might have been the first thing I ever quit in any official capacity, casting the mold for a lifetime of abandoned endeavors.

However, I still have that trombone. I have played it drunk in the Chicago streets after basketball championships, staggering drunk in the waning hours of parties, half-drunk during low-key dinners and, a few times, stone cold sober while seeking placation for a wailing infant.

And here’s the weird thing: When it comes to the trombone, there is no inner voice that whispers “fraud.” From March Winds to Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, I stank so unequivocally that now, in my mid-life, I have nothing to prove. By embracing my incompetence, I am anything but a fraud. I am true to my self.

The trick, then, is to spread that over my soul, to rig the game. The fear of fraudulence is internal. It has to be. No one can actually accuse you of being a fraud, because we are all frauds, even while we are all true to our selves. It’s built into the physics of aspiration, the risks inherent to growth. And that’s a rich humus for fear, and that it’s that fear, that dread of failures both past and imminent, that drives me to cast judgement whenever I see those same elements in other people. The voice inside, the “fraud” voice, is such a coward that it insists on projecting fraudulence onto other people in order to justify its own inner accusations and false authority. I don’t know if there’s a way to kill that voice, but we don’t need to give it so much power by taking it seriously. The “fraud” voice is only pretending to be a bullshit detector, and the easiest way to disarm it is to stop fighting it. Yes, we are frauds and pretenders. Triers and hopers. And here, let me give you a little taste, fraud-voice. Let me blast you with a cow-sick, pestilent trombone, blast you right back to hell.

*Bonus Video Supplement: