Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Brass Icons and the Foo Bird

After an extended bout with bronchitis in the fall, I was left with "fluid" (that's the nice word) stuck in my middle ears, and it stuck around, literally, for months. It definitely affected my hearing; I said "Eh?" so often, I began getting threatening letters from the Canadian Anti-Defamation League. It also kept me from doing any trombone playing, as the stuff would vibrate when I played and cause pain. Not to mention, it was a scary sensation. My family doctor had me try this, then that, and then the other thing, but nothing seemed to work.

Finally, she referred me to an ENT specialist about four weeks ago. The problem was the earlier bout with bronchitis, and the ears were innocent bystanders. The bronchitis created a lot of "fluid", and it sort of migrated into the ears via the Eustachian tubes. (Discovered by some dude named Eustace, asks the wandering mind?) Once in there, however, the tubes swelled shut; anyone who has ever had a toilet overflow knows what that's all about. The ENT doc prescribed Prednisone, a steroid used for its anti-inflammatory properties. (Prednisone also robs your sleep and makes you hungry all the time, two conditions I definitely don't need.) It worked, knock on wood, and the ears are clear, for now. But we don't know whether they will fill back up again. I have a sore throat right now, so we're probably about to test the limits of this fix.

After any extended lay-off on the trombone, one always tends to approach the instrument a bit gingerly, as it can be dismaying, even heartbreaking, to play through the lip flabbiness and diaphragm wheeziness until top form has been achieved once again. It's like re-living one's entire career, starting from scratch at the seventh-grade level. You set your embouchure, close your eyes, and blow, and what comes out of the other end is to your former best what Alpo is to a filet mignon at Ruth's Chris's Steak House. Everything sounds like "foo." Pick out your favorite etude, pour your heart and soul into it, and you are rewarded for your efforts with, "Foo foo foo foo foo. FOO! FOO! f-f-f-f-f-foo-f-foo!"

Reminds me of an old joke, which I'll clean up just a little bit: A man was on a safari in the African jungle, and all at once heard a deafening bird call, "Foo! Foo!" And then, a big ugly wad of something foul hit him right on the head. The native guide said, "Uh oh! That was the evil foo bird. You must never wash off what the foo bird has dumped on you, or you will die." "Nonsense," replied our intrepid traveler, "Superstitions do not impress me." So he sat down on a log, took some water and a kerchief, and proceeded to wipe the gunk from his head... and then promptly died. The moral of the story? When the foo s---s, wear it.

Well, the foo bird is definitely taking it out on my trombone playing, and I guess I'm just going to have to wear it until he gives up and starts dive-bombing the economy again.

My pastor, Wally, says that my entire identity is a little too wrapped up in my trombone playing. I don't do it for a living, at least not anymore, so sometimes I wonder why it's so important to me. I'm in my mid-fifties, so there really isn't any hope any longer of getting into a professional orchestra. And to be honest, it's a dying art form. Symphonies all over the country are flirting with bankruptcy. Audiences are dwindling. The symphony orchestra has become, except for movie music (which I do enjoy), a museum. Likewise, the opera. Everyone knows that wind and brass instruments are no longer as popular as they used to be; school band programs are slowly dying. But not many people have commented on why that happens to be.

I could venture a theory: not very many people have the patience anymore to mess around with instruments on which it can take years of study and practice simply to acquire a decent sound. Kids don't want to start on trumpet when they're in seventh grade just so, by the time they're seniors, they can play a serviceable melody. They want to go from zero to recording studio in six months. You can't do that on oboe, or clarinet, or trombone; but if you have any musical ability at all, you can learn to bang out a few chords on the guitar and join a garage band in short order. I'm not saying the guitar is an easy instrument to master, and I'm not denigrating the accomplishments of some of our greatest guitar players -- Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, Earl Klugh, Les Paul, Glen Campbell, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and the list goes on. Great players, all. Great musicians, even. All I'm saying is if you want to get up and running as quickly as possible in music, you should probably learn to play guitar.

And today kids are so impatient, they don't even want to learn guitar. They just want to play "Guitar Hero."

The truly odd thing about this profession is that, as the opportunities grow fewer and further between, the players seem to be getting greater and greater. It's an old trend, but still a live one. If you want to hear some amazing playing, pick up some of the albums from the Fifties and Sixties -- when the writing was already on the wall for big band music -- featuring some old crooner with a backup band led by Nelson Riddle or Billy May. For example, Nat King Cole singing Vaughn Monroe's old chestnut, "Ballerina", or the under-appreciated Keely Smith belting out "When Your Lover Has Gone." Pay attention to the accompanying musicians, particularly the brass. These guys were great, and played every song as if they were desperate for a gig. I'm thinking they probably were.

And you should hear the kids coming out of the conservatories these days. Each generation picks up where the previous generation left off.

I never had that ability to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time which separates the great musician from the rabble of okay players. Whatever I have on the trombone, as a player, came to me pretty naturally and intuitively. It wasn't enough. I could probably have earned a living doing this back in the Twenties, or Thirties, or Forties, maybe even the Fifties. But as the big bands folded, I probably would have been forced to sell insurance or tend bar -- those were the days before computer nerds. I admit, it's a source of sadness for me that I was not good enough to make it.

I love it. I really do. I can stare at pictures of trombones for hours -- "horn porn", as one of my friends describes it. It scares me how close to idolatry our obsessions can take us, which is foolish: I love my trombones, but they certainly don't love me back -- and take every opportunity to point this out. And regarding the talent to succeed at music: if the Lord didn't put it in there, it isn't in there. Since He's the one in charge, it makes sense to be happy with whereever He puts us, and with whatever opportunities that come our way. And the moral of that story is, never fear the foo bird.

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