The Truth, Mainly - 01/28/1991

Living the macho dream: Playing trombone
by Leon Satterfield

Since it didn't do any good to brood about George Bush, I've been brooding lately about Milli Vanilli. I don't need to remind you that they're the guys who lost their Grammy award when they admitted that they only moved their lips while somebody else really made all those noises.

What set me brooding was the memory of how my own musical career, like a mirror image of theirs, came to a disgraceful end: Milli Vanilli is disgraced for faking art; I was disgraced for refusing to fake it. It's a funny world.

It happens when I am a high school junior in 1951. I am a malcontent clarinet player in the school band, unhappy because I know the clarinet is not my medium. I can never pucker my chin in that tight little way good clarinetists have, and I don't like soaking my reed in my own saliva. It is esthetically unpleasing to someone as sensitively tuned to art as I am.

Artists need acclaim, or at least acceptance, and I don't get it. I've been a third clarinet for more than two years. Freshmen are recruited into the clarinet section still chewing eighth-grade bubble gum, which they sometimes get stuck between their reeds and mouthpieces, and even they move ahead of me into the second clarinets.

What I really want to play, of course, is the trombone. Every male in school wants to play the trombone, to make those wonderful trombone noises, swinging the bell up and down, sliding the slide in and out. It is the most macho instrument in the band.

Meredith Wilson hasn't written "76 Trombones" yet, but as soon as he does, all the males of my generation will vibrate.

Our school has only four trombones, so the best athletes get them. They make up the front row of our 32-piece marching band, swinging along just behind the drum majorette in her sparkly uniform and high feathered hat, and the twirlers in their short skirts and white cowboy boots with tassles. The clarinets squawk and squeal back in rows five, six, and seven.

Nobody wants to play the clarinet, but the school has twelve of them so unless you have clout or can buy your own instrument, you end up with a clarinet.

"I feel the trombone is really my medium," I tell the band director. "I mean it's the instrument I most resonate to. I saw Jack Teagarden in a movie once. Let me play the trombone. Please."

"Put on 20 pounds, grow four inches, and make the starting five on the basketball team next year," he says. "Then we'll see."

I've been to enough movies to know that lots of show biz careers get launched when someone has to fill in for someone else. So when the second trombonist (and first string quarterback) gets sick out the window of the band bus on the way to Guymon, Oklahoma for the Second Annual Panhandle Roundup Days Parade and Rodeo, I am ready to fill in.

"It'll look funny with just three trombones on the front row," the band director tells me. "You carry a trombone and act like you're playing it. It'll make the clarinets sound better too."

So there I am, marching just behind the drum majorette and the twirlers, carrying a trombone in the front row with our leading groundgainer and the two starting forwards. On "The Washington Post March" and "El Capitan," I lipsynch it the way I am supposed to, watching the other three out the corner of my eye and trying to puff out my cheeks and move my slide in and out when they do. We're still two blocks from the main downtown intersection and here there are only three grade school kids and a dachshund lining the street.

And I am still remembering the band director's last words when he handed me the trombone: "Remember, just act like you're playing it. Whatever you do, don't make any noise with it."

It sounds like censorship, I am thinking, like a violation of my first amendment rights to free expression, an affront to my artistic integrity. I'm a little light-headed.

And when we get to the center of town and there are people on both sides of the street and we strike up "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean," I go giddy in the rapture of it all. I have a chance at greatness. I have a chance to escape the third clarinet section. I have a chance to make trombone noises. It is too much to resist.

So I play the trombone. Right through the main intersection of Guymon, Oklahoma, blatting like a great flabby elephant gone flatulant, moving the slide raucously in and out, pointing the bell first at the pavement in front of me, then rakishly at the heavens above, I play the trombone. It is glorious.

It is also the Gotterdammerung end of my career. The band director says I can either quit the band or go back to soaking my reed in my own saliva with the other third clarinets, he doesn't care which, but I've blown my chance of ever playing trombone in his band. Whether I ever start a basketball game or not.

Ah, Milli! Ah, Vanilli! Ah, Art!


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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