It’s All Coming Back to Me Now

Same as it ever was...

The taste of metal, the tingly sensation after the first vibrations on the mouthpiece. The slight soreness above the upper lip, and the tightening of muscles in the corners of my mouth. Deep breaths through the nose, pushed right back out through the embouchure with a buzz that would be considered unacceptably rude were it not for the 9 feet of twisted brass through which it is directed. The mind starts to recall what the muscles still seem to know. C# sounds in tune, not because I remember where to put my hand, but because my hand already knows where it needs to be.

I can still fake my way through the first sight-reading, marking spots in my head that I’ll need to woodshed later. Second rehearsal much smoother, even starting to drop in little bits of personality that make the flute player giggle. Playing them with confidence helps me get away with the parts I’m still faking. Things have gotten better and better with each rehearsal until now, five days from showtime, the reality seems to be sinking in – I’m a trombonist again.

The whole experience of preparing for the Magenta Theater concert this Saturday has me remembering what it is like to juggle so many performing ensembles. In college, it was band, jazz band, choir, then later orchestra, but at least it was only trombone and voice, maybe occasionally drums in my fraternity band. Now, not only am I in four bands, but I’ve also got to be ready to play drums, percussion, voice, trombone, melodica, harmonica, pennywhistle and calimba. Sometimes I feel like I did when I was 12, in an arcade with a roll of quarters. I just can’t decide what to play next!

Most importantly, the theory is coming back. Remembering how it all fits together. Having people ask me questions I don’t expect to be able to answer, but somehow helping them understand what I’m feeling when I play and sing. Reminding the guitarists when they have forgotten their capos. Maybe I’m reminded so much of college because I’m on a college student schedule lately, but 2010 is feeling like a year of inspiration and education and I hope to soak in as much as I can.

Come see my first trombone concert performance in 18 years this Saturday

My Percussive Perspective (or Where do I get off?)

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about who I am as a musician, and what can I offer the world that no one else can. This blog will be an outlet for ideas, advice, reminiscences and eventually, you know, actual music recordings and maybe even videos. But before I go shooting off at the mouth, I’d like to tell you what I think gives me the right. My musical path has been unusual but deeply satisfying. I think most high school band geeks eventually settle on one of three fates: Pursue their training further in college, give up entirely when the real world beckons, or find a happy medium and join a rock band. Somehow I managed to fulfill all three of these destinies.

I got my Bachelor of Music from DePauw University in 1992. Music Business was my major and trombone was my axe. My college years revolved around performing in any ensemble I could: Concert and Marching Band, Choir, Jazz Band, Brass Quintet and eventually, as my playing improved, the DePauw Symphony. These were top-notch groups with great players, many of whom went on to sing or play professionally. It was there in Greencastle, Indiana where I honed my ability to listen to my fellow musicians, to read and react. These ensemble skills are the bedrock of my musicianship, much moreso than actual talent. In fact, by the time I graduated, I had accepted the fact I lacked the chops to ever be a professional trombone player.

In my final semester, just for the hell of it, I took drum lessons and discovered that my true calling was rhythm. I’ll never forget the look of astonishment on the face of Pat Reynolds, my band director, when he heard my first drum jury. After years of hearing me struggle through uninspiring trombone juries, his expectations must have been pretty low. Making such a positive impression on him from behind the drum kit was a thrilling affirmation.

My development as a musician was put on hold for several years after college as I tried to focus on the Business part of my degree. I tried to stay close to the music world with jobs in music retail and entertainment marketing, but was very disheartened by the commodification of art. I began to harbor a deep resentment of radio and MTV, trying to feed me what their demographic analysis told them I should want, and an even deeper appreciation for art created outside of that bubble. Phish became a religious experience for me, having grown from a college curiosity to a national phenomenon with little influence from the machine.

Before long I was once again surrounding myself with musical people. Only now they were not music students but working folks who were finding the time to create something special. While they may not have had the same discipline as me, they more than made up for it with passion, talent and creativity. For a few years I lived and breathed music that relatively few people had ever heard, soaking up inspiration from bootlegs of Phish and God Street Wine concerts, and seeing bands I had befriended like thE otheR waY, Three Hour Detour, Kid With Man Head and Burning Bus. All without playing a single note or beat.

I bought my first congas, which I still play today, from Ray Ashley in 1996. Before leaving New Jersey four years later, I collaborated with friends on a few short-lived rock bands, the 9-Volt Smoke Detectors and Go Banana! Soon after arriving in Oregon I was introduced to Scott Hewitt (by a mutual Jersey friend, naturally.) I accepted his invitation to play with some friends in his backyard, and the musician in me was reborn.

Seven years later, Mystic Canyon still brings me much joy and satisfaction, combining the discipline of my formal education with my passion for the creativity of my friends and my love of music that has thrived outside of the commercial influence of the music industry. The lessons I’ve learned in this band are as profound as any I learned in college, and will be the subject of future posts. I just figured, when you read them, you’d like to know where I’m coming from.