A would-be musician finds the right fit
Nobody's dreams are immune to change. When I entered high school in 1952, my father wanted me to play football. My mother wanted me to become valedictorian. I wanted to play trombone in the marching band. I saw myself parading on the sunny field in blue and gold, knees pumping, trombone flashing, and girls - particularly Ellen from English class - watching me with adoration.
I didn't own a trombone and didn't know how to play one, but our music department taught students any of the school's instruments. When I applied, Mr. Franks, the music teacher and bandmaster, said, "Great, we can always use another trombone. How long have you played?"
"Can you read music?"
"We've got work to do."
"First," he said, "you'll have to go to a music store and buy your own mouthpiece." This took some persuading of my parents, who didn't see a trombone fitting their dreams of football and scholarship. That done, Mr. Franks admitted me to the band room. It was filled with drums, trumpets, clarinets, trombones, and a few instruments I couldn't identify.
"Pick a trombone, " he said.
There were eight, all in cases. I opened one, lifted the instrument to approximately playing position, waggled the slide a few times, then returned it to its case. I did the same with the other seven.
"What's the problem?" he asked.
"They smell funny."
"What do you mean, 'funny'?"
"They smell ... brassy ... metallic. It's pretty awful. I don't think I want to play them."
Mr. Franks had obviously spent his musical career concerned with how instruments sounded, not how they smelled, but he picked up a trombone and tentatively sniffed around the outside of the bell. Then he tried two more.
"You're right. Metallic. Maybe it's the polish we use. Or don't."
He pondered a moment, then brightened. "Well, you've already bought the mouthpiece and you can't return it - but it also fits the euphonium, and we need one in the band."
"What's a euphonium?"
"It's like a small tuba. It has almost the same range as a trombone, but it's all coiled up and has valves you press instead of a slide." He pointed to a three-foot-tall brass instrument. "How would you like to play that?"
"I don't know. Can I smell it?"
He still seemed troubled about selecting a musical instrument by smell, but said, "Go ahead. Check it out."
I picked it up. It didn't smell funny. It was shinier than the trombones, and not too heavy.
"You do use these in the marching band?"
"Well, yes, but I need a euphonium in the symphonic band - not the marching band. Think about it. In the marching band, you'd be lost in the crowd. In the symphonic, there's only one euphonium. And we're giving a concert in three months in the auditorium, including the final movement of Dvorak's "New World Symphony." There's a solo for euphonium ... a small one, but a solo. You wouldn't get that in the marching band."
"A solo? I've never even played before!"
"I'll coach you. The solo is easy. Just, 'di-di-di-dah-dah.' "
I thought about this. If I accepted, my dream of marching in a blue and gold uniform, blaring out Sousa on my trombone, would be replaced by a folding chair on the auditorium stage, a fat mini-tuba, and ... di-di-di-dah-dah. But the idea of a solo sounded good. My parents would be happy. It would surely impress Ellen from English.
LESSONS began with the basics: How to blow into the mouthpiece to make a buzzing sound that would be amplified by the brass tubing. Then 12 weeks of concentrated music and instrument study in my spare periods. Eventually, I got creditable sounds out of the big brass and became the symphonic band's principal - and only - euphonium player.
The band rehearsed after school every day, and on the night of the performance, we were ready. Shirts and ties, neatly pressed pants. Parents and students seated. Mr. Franks brought down the baton, and we got through the piece without too many mistakes. I wasn't allowed to play much because I hadn't mastered the sharps and flats, but I got all the notes of my solo right.
Mom and Dad were proud. It didn't matter that Ellen from English had opted for a trumpet player - I was in the band.