I reached the apex of my trombone playing experiences at Harvard University between June 1987 and June 1991. It’s kind of a long tale…
I started playing the trombone in the 5th grade. I was 10. And small for my age. I had become enthralled by the instrument the previous year, in Valdez. Alaska, before we moved to yet another new place, and had hung on to this passion in spite of the move. In spite of living in a hotel for 90+ days. In spite of the constant rain in Ketchikan after the beautiful snow of Valdez. In spite of moving before the school year was over and losing my coveted lead role in the school play. In spite of not having any friends because “why put them in school only for a few weeks”. Oh, I don’t know – maybe so we can meet people? Or maybe it was because of all of those things. How does this connect to Harvard, you ask? I’m getting there. Be patient.
I played trombone in spite of the fact that I could not reach positions 6 and 7. My arms were just not long enough. I learned to wear sneakers that had rubber around the toes so I could catch the slide with my feet and kick it out to 7th. Or 6th. But definitely 7th. Then I’d catch the slide and kick it back up to my fingers. I got yelled at when I didn’t quite catch it because if you drop a trombone slide and dent it, the slide doesn’t slide so well anymore. And Ketchikan had no brass instrument repair shop.
I had a good ear, liked music and wanted nothing more than to prove my Dad wrong. He insisted that the trombone was not a girl’s instrument and there was no way I was ever going to stick with it. This from the man who taught me to paddle a canoe, row a dinghy, muck out a boat, repair an engine, hunt and fish – which involved all sorts of gutting and cleaning – and how to climb a rope up the tallest tree in the yard – with no knots! He who bought me my first pole at four, first gun at six, first pocket knife at eight, and dragged me, and – to be fair – my Mom, my brother and our family dog out camping, boating and hiking at every opportunity. He knew I was a tomboy. Whatever.
I was loving band. The feel of the music pouring out of my lungs through the brass in my hands and melding with the sounds of the rest of the group was – well horrible at first – but I didn’t know that then – to me it was an incredible experience. No matter how much I hate practicing alone, unless I’m prepping for something specific, playing with others has always transformed me. But I was the only trombonist. My closest cousins in the back row were a couple of baritone players and a guy on French horn.
Then Grandaddy died. And Dad flew to North Carolina for the funeral. He brought Gramma back with him. Which was cool. She was a fun Gramma and, other than her insisting that I wear gloves at night so I wouldn’t bite my nails, my brother and I enjoyed having her with us. (Who needs nails when you’re digging in the mud, or catching crabs on a pole from a skiff, or climbing trees? Sheesh.) But she was cool. She even liked listening to me practice the trombone. Something my parents insisted I finish before they got home from work. But what I didn’t know was that Dad had also put in for a transfer back to North Carolina so we could stay with her for a little while. We MOVED halfway through my 6th grade year. AGAIN!!
The new school didn’t have a band program. They didn’t even have a music program. I was heartbroken. Mom found me a guy who played the tuba and I took lessons. Out of a saxophone book because the music store where he worked didn’t have any trombone books. It wasn’t the same but I was learning to transpose from another key which at least made it sort of interesting. I stuck with it because Mom told me we weren’t going to be there for very long. Less than a year. Weird.
I mean, we moved a LOT – my Dad liked serving on boats, that was isolated duty, so we transferred every 18-24 months – but less than a year? I tried to be patient. I was convinced I was living in hell. The black girls hated me because I was white. The white girls hated me because I was a coward who refused to fight and establish my place in the pecking order. The boys hated me because I was a girl. And I swear the teachers hated me. Probably because I kept complaining about the other problems.
And Dad was nowhere around. He probably would have taught me to fight back. Mom told me to just be patient and I would make some friends. Ugh. Until the day I got the crap beat out of me on the playground, I was hunted by the two contingents of girls. After that everybody pretty much ignored me. Place established finally. Bottom of the pack, not worth bothering, thank you! And Dad was STILL nowhere around. What was up?
Well, it turned out that Dad had applied to Officer’s Candidate School mid-transfer so he was only on the boat he was assigned to about six weeks and then he went off to OCS. After the requisite skull sweat he graduated as a Chief Warrant Officer, ready to assume command of the Engine Room at some Coast Guard base or boat. Go Dad!! So, in August before I started 7th grade, we moved again. To Florida.
Again in reality actually. To be fair I remembered hardly anything from those early years of my life, but we had lived in Florida when I was in kindergarten through 2nd grade – Fernadina Beach and Miami. Life of a military brat. See new places, have new cultural experiences, try new things, learn new accents, make new friends. Be a chameleon – blend, baby, blend!
In Mayport, the Junior High Band (yay a band!) was not only split during the school day, but also set up seasonally. The brass met one period, the woodwinds another, then we combined afterschool. In the fall, we did marching band stuff and, in the spring, concert band music. It was cool. I also got a weekly private tutor from the Jacksonville Symphony and joined an orchestra at a local church. I was enjoying these new experiences. And I was playing my horn close to 15 hours a week.
I had moved from hell to heaven. I could reach 6th position and at the very tippy edge, stretched waaaay out catch 7th position. But I still had to kick it back a lot of the time. (I’m sure I looked ridiculous while marching.) Once again though. I was the only trombonist. At least this time the French horn player was another girl, right? Yeah no. She was two years older and I was not good enough to speak to a NINTH GRADER. Right. Anyway. What about Harvard you say? Keep your pants on. This is important back story!!
Moving on. Literally. End of 8th grade. What?! The Junior High was grades 7 to 9. After two years of being on bottom it was finally my turn to be at the top! There were 6th graders coming in to 7th that played trombone!! I was going to be section leader!!! I had sat 2nd chair at the All-County competitions two years in a row. This was my chance to be 1st chair and I had a phenomenal solo prepared for Solo and Ensemble I had been working on for six months!! DAD HOW COULD YOU RUIN MY LIFE LIKE THIS?!? Yeeaaah. Life is so unfair when you are about to turn 14.
Mayport, Florida to Kodiak, Alaska – driving cross-country through all the central states in the middle of summer. Good times. Kansas lasts for-freaking-ever. At least Montana allows you to drive as fast as you want. One ticket covers the whole day. (Or it did. That was 32 years ago.) The nice highway officer told my Dad that with a grin when we got pulled over the first time. The second time we were simply waved on when the ticket was shown. Best part of this trip – I was now able to say that I had been physically in 46 of the 50 states due to our Florida to Alaska and back again transfers. My parents drove all three of those trips and took a different route each time. But that’s another story entirely. Rabbit trail. Where was I? Ah yes. Kodiak.
Kodiak is a temperate rainforest. It is an island. There is rain, fog, sleet, hail, drizzle, slush, and many other types of precipitation while the temperatures range in between a balmy 30 and 60 degrees. It rarely leaves that range of temperatures. (Although the last few years have been weird and we’ve spiked into the 70’s regularly and even the 80’s enough times to be odd. Maybe all the global warming screaming is correct.) Kodiak was not hell. It was neither warm enough nor dry enough to be hell.
I missed Florida. I missed the cute boy who was teaching me to surf. I missed marching band, and my private lesson instructor, and being able to walk outdoors without getting damp, frizzy hair. I sulked. I refused to practice while waiting for school to start. I sneered at their single period of Band. I hated life. I was a teenager and just rotten. (Interesting fact – I have since learned that Kodiak has some of the best surfing in the world, but as I a. Did not own a drysuit or surfboard and b. Did not have anyone who could teach me to surf and c. Had no way to get myself out to those rad waves even if I had possessed a and b. I never did learn.)
But I signed up for band. Of course I would! I couldn’t let my Dad win. (Remember that he said I’d quit? Never stick with it? Yeah. Sneaky reverse psychology Dad. You suck. Not really. I still love the trombone 36 years later.) Even an hour a day five days a week was better than nothing. Band was fun. I wasn’t going to give it up! It was first period so I didn’t have to start my day with gym – icky – or try to think about science while my brain was still asleep – yay! And best thing ever? Our band director was a trombonist.
That was just plain awesome. He got me. We made jokes about being trombonists that other people didn’t understand. They just couldn’t relate. I made it into All-State every single year with his coaching. Even got a McDonald’s band award. During my senior year I was invited to join Anchorage Youth Symphony, so I flew over Mondays after school and flew home Tuesdays on the early jet. (Kodiak is an island.) Before all of that though – my freshman year I finally had a growth spurt!! I could reach 7th position without strain. I was 5’2” tall, 95 pounds soaking wet and I could play my trombone as it was meant to be played!!
For three years of high school though I was still the only trombonist. It was like a curse. The only time I got to play with other trombone players was at All-State, Regional Mass Band (don’t ask – we jokingly referred to it as Great Mess Band), Summer Fine Arts Camp (which was about 6 hours of playing a day in various configurations: Jazz band, Concert band, Orchestra, Small Ensembles, private lessons), the one year of Anchorage Youth Symphony, and, once the auditorium was built, the orchestra pit with any local adult musicians for the spring musicals. I even bought a concert horn with an F attachment so I could take advantage of all those opportunities.
But my senior year, a new student, a freshman boy, showed up the first day of school carrying a trombone. He barely could play. He needed lessons. “Would I consider teaching him?” my band director asked. “You mean like give him private lessons?” I responded, dumbfounded. “Yes.” Have I mentioned how patient our band director was? “I’ve talked with his Mom and she’s willing to pay you $15 per hour.” I nearly choked. That was more than double what I made at McDonald’s. Now, given, it was only an hour a week, but still… 15 bucks was 15 bucks. I had a truck to maintain after all. And shoes to buy for Prom. “Sure. I guess.”
I went home and looked through all the books my directors and private lesson teachers had used with me, then, using the phone number I had been given, I called The Mom. We discussed what Freshman Boy Trombonist knew already and what he needed. I recommended a music booklet and told her to try Ardinger’s, a local store that sold band instruments, then we set a weekly time for us to meet at a practice room for lessons.
It was weird being the teacher rather than the teachee. I had helped my brother a bunch over the years with homework and had tutored a guy in Geometry my Sophomore year of high school. But I knew both of them. FBT was a complete stranger. I knew absolutely nothing about him. And FBT was shy. Getting him to answer my questions was a pulling-teeth maneuver. After a few weeks though, he started to relax, we found a groove and we made progress. It was nice to be a section leader finally – even if was just a section of two – plus I liked being able to share some of the lessons I had learned over the years from my private instructors.
Graduation did eventually come though and as it loomed ever nearer there were choices to be made. Life altering, adult type decisions. I really wanted to do the Air Force band. My mom came UNGLUED. The you-are-too-smart-to-waste-yourself speech happened. I was confused. I had taken the ASVAB and had been getting daily phone calls from every branch of the military for months. Why hadn’t she said anything sooner? But I knew better than to argue with Mom. Especially when That Tone happened. Dictators in small countries would have quailed when subjected to That Tone. I went to my counselor, unloaded my woes and asked him for college applications. He totally skunked me.
I’ve told this story many times. Some people believe me but most think there is no way in the world I could have been this naïve. And yet, I really was. See – Mr. M. gave me four applications. Three were Ivy League schools and the fourth was easily as exclusive – and I had absolutely no idea in the world. There was no internet for me to go look this stuff up. I spent all of my time at work, in the theatre or band room, with my boyfriend, volunteering for one of my many organizations or doing homework. I was insanely busy.
And I was completely clueless about names of colleges and what they meant. It never occurred to me that there might be someplace I could go find out information about the schools I was applying to. (Apparently there was a book or two in the counseling office with ranking and summaries and whatnot. Who knew?) In addition to everything else, my Dad died around that time in a truly horrific accident at work and I was numb to a lot of things. I just couldn’t be bothered to figure out college. So, I just blindly trusted, filled the applications out, mailed them off and forgot about it.
I started to get a glimmer of how much trouble I was in around late February. I had asked Mr. M. for small schools. I didn’t want to end up somewhere with 30,000 students after being in a high school of 500. I asked for East Coast. I wanted to get as far from home as I could. Lots of reasons. Dad’s death was a big one. Music was important. I had to be able to play my trombone and wanted to take music classes. And I was kind of interested in computer science. And that was about it. That was what I asked for.
So… when classmates started getting rejection letters and the occasional acceptance letters, everyone was talking about where they applied. I couldn’t remember, had to go ask my mom and Mr. M. Amherst. Brown. Cornell. Harvard. “K. Got it.” Jaws dropped. You applied where?!? “Uhh. Amherst, Brown, Cornell and Harvard?” “Seriously?” “Why? Is that bad?”
People laughed at me and walked away. Eventually someone took pity on me and explained arcane things like national rankings and the meaning of the phrase Ivy League. I was disgruntled. There was no way Mom was going to let me join the Air Force band if I got into one of those schools.
The first letter came back. Brown said all the flowery words that meant no. Politely, but still no. I breathed a little more freely. Amherst also turned me down. K. Looking good. Cornell wait-listed me. What the heck does that mean? Back to Mr. M. Oh. They want me as their back-up person in case the person they really want doesn’t show. Got it. Things were looking up. I could do the Air Force then use the GI bill to pay for college later. I desperately wanted a break from school. I got the acceptance letter from Harvard. Crap. I am so screwed.
To help me ‘make my decision’ Mom sent me to visit both Cornell and Harvard over spring break. My New England grandparents met me and we had a great time driving from Ithaca to Boston in their converted bus. Cornell was gorgeous. The campus was out in the middle of nowhere. There were cows. And a waterfall. The nearby town was nice and small. I really liked it. The marching band was huge and amazing. Plus, my host explained it would cover the GER for PE. I could do really well in this place.
Harvard was terrifying. Smack in the middle of Boston, horns constantly honking, people yelling. The rooms on campus were a lot bigger and they had a marching band too. But it was my worst nightmare! A city!! I came home determined to choose Cornell if they even hinted they’d consider taking me.
A week later Harvard offered me free room, board, tuition and fees – contingent on my acceptance of their acceptance – for two classes during the 1987 summer session – so I gave in to the inevitable and accepted it all. The summer thing was a program they had that helped incoming freshmen from social, geographic, financial or other ‘deprived’ backgrounds adjust. There were between 20 and 25 of us. I don’t recall the exact number.
We all had interesting stories to tell. Some people were dirt-poor, others were from places as isolated as Kodiak, or more so. One girl was the only high school student in her entire town. Two guys came from somewhere in Africa. A few had been to prep school – one was the only black, only other race of any kind, in his entire Latin based purely Caucasian Catholic school. I thought I had it tough! Cornell never did invite me in. And I’m glad. That summer at Harvard was one of the best of my life.
The summer term is more laid back. Cambridge actually feels calmer. There are less students around. Musicians are on every corner playing for change. There aren’t as many student activities happening because everyone is gone. Most of the regular faculty disappears and visiting faculty come in from amazing places all over the world. I think half the local population flees to other climates as well because it really gets muggy and hot. But the Yard is shaded and when you step through the fence the traffic noises almost disappear. It was a magical time.
I took a music theory class and looked up what options were available over the summer for me to play my horn. Upon discovering that there was a Cambridge Community Band that only exists in the Summer term, I joined up. The ages ranged from 11 or 12 up to about 90. And that guy was a hoot. Deaf as a post, but a danged good percussionist. In fact, that was some of the most enjoyable rehearsal time I have ever spent. Everyone present was at a minimum a decent musician. Most were excellent to phenomenal. The sheer quality was nearly orgasmic as I sat and fused myself into that sound. Someone there told me that there was also a tradition for the fourth of July – all musicians in the Boston area were invited to Lowell House to play the 1812 Overture at noon. Bring your own stand if you have one. And clothespins.
Hundreds of people showed up. I don’t mean like a hundred or a hundred and fifty; I mean like 3 or 4 HUNDRED people. The entire courtyard for the upperclassman house was packed. It was not a madhouse. Everyone quietly and calmly found their sections, paired up to share stands, clothes-pinned (aha!) their music in place and waited for new arrivals to settle. I followed their example, introduced myself, looked at the music and thanked all the gods and little fishies that my private lesson teacher WAY back in 7th grade had forced me to learn C clefs. Because otherwise I would not have had a clue how to read the music in front of me – like the guy sitting to my left.
He turned a puzzled face to me and said “What the hell is that?” Laughing, I told him how it’s something that is common in orchestral music for trombonists and cellos. “This bit here indicates that the line is a C. The clef floats. Sometimes it’s here and sometimes there. Fun huh?” I dug my pencil out of my case and quickly started lettering notes for him (and me! It had been awhile since 8th grade.). He asked if I had another pencil, so I handed him one and he, checking my sheet regularly, worked on the next sheet. We got enough done that he said “I think I’ve got it from here” when the conductor took the stand. By that point I had done enough that I had it too. Well enough to sight read this familiar music anyway.
So… this was not a concert. This was an experience. Besides the fact that there was no room at all anywhere in that courtyard FOR an audience, the whole point was that somebody at some point had decided that it would be a cool tradition to play the 1812 at Lowell House on the Fourth of July at noon. And the next year everybody showed up again – which made it a tradition. There is nothing more sacred at Harvard than a tradition. Believe me. It is almost crazy some of the traditions that are still being followed, but I digress… Why Lowell House you might ask?
Lowell House has this tremendous set of bells. They are beautiful. They are sonorous. They are majestic. They can, if played individually, make songs. There are 17 of them. They are Russian. Anyone can play them who feels like climbing the bell tower during the hours it is unlocked. (Seriously. Check the website: http://lowell.harvard.edu/Bells) And if you ring them all at the same time, as hard and fast as you can, your entire body vibrates. As does everyone in the entire House. They will wake you from a dead sleep. (I argued my roommate into choosing Dunster over Lowell because of that. Sleep is important.) If you have never experienced this sensation – first get a set of earplugs (had I but known I would have) – it is absolutely incredible and you should find a bell tower somewhere and try it out.
The conductor said things about tradition. Mumble, mumble, mumble. Oh what a wonderful turn out this year. More mumbling. In case you are not aware, trombonists sit in the back just in front of the percussion. Percussionists are trouble makers. They get into things. They make noise. It was hard to hear him. And he had to be in his late 80’s at least. And when we can’t hear, trombonists start talking and cracking jokes. We tend to be wise guys. (Instruments attract specific personality types. A friend of mine did a Master’s thesis on this phenomena. And yes, there is a difference between trouble makers and wise guys.)
Eventually though he raised his arms. Oh good he has a nice long, thick conductor’s wand so those of us in the back can see him swing it around. And I choked with laughter at my unintentional mental pun on the conductor’s manhood. Guy next to me looks over, I wave him off just as… down goes the baton.
Sight reading is pure joy for me. I am in an altered state of consciousness when I sight read music. Of course, I knew this music – I had heard it for years. I had played it a few times, the trombone part is wonderful. But it was a new arrangement to me, in a clef I hadn’t messed with in a good, long while. I really had to focus to keep up. And oh the sound of 40ish trombones coming in together on our opening notes was profound. A chill actually went down my spine. I grinned inside and settled in for the experience. The 1812 overture, when played all the way through is fairly long. I lost myself in it.
I completely and utterly was not prepared for the bells to go off.
Recall I was new to Cambridge. I was living in the Yard in one of the Freshman dorms. I didn’t know that Lowell House had bells. I had never heard them. In the past, the bells in every orchestra I had played this Overture with had been handled by the percussion on an upright set of chimes and a small hammer.
If I had had a heart condition I would have had a seizure. Seriously. I flinched and stopped breathing for at least a full minute. To be fair – so did the guy next to me. The guy on the other side of him nearly lost a lung laughing at us. He had done this before. The jerk. When I got my breath back I joined in, laughing at myself too, then calmed myself and started playing again, reveling at the beautiful noise the Lowell Russian bells added to Tschaikovky’s also Russian masterpiece.
The freaking cannon shots damn near collapsed our seats.
Apparently there are chemistry TA’s and professors who wait all year to fill garbage bags with whatever it is they use to make those as deafening as possible. It was… impressive is a mild term. We experienced the full effects of a battlefield that day. And the guy two seats over had tears rolling down his face from laughing at us. It’s ok. I would have too in his position. Trombonists, don’t cha know. And the violinists played blithely on.
All of my musical experiences at Harvard were like that moment. Things happened that I did not expect, could not predict, wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined before they happened. But when they did, I enjoyed the hell out of most of them and just kept right on going, playing through it while inside I was laughing my ass off. I played in pit orchestras for Gilbert and Sullivan, spent one remarkable year (my senior year) in the Harvard Concert Band, and best of all joined the Harvard University Marching Band [HUB] and spent four amazing years of mayhem and camaraderie in that organization. I’ve even flown all the way back for two of the reunions and can’t wait for the 100th!
In HUB I found my people. I was the only female trombonist in a herd of 12 to 16 wisecracking guys. I like to think I held my own while dishing it right back at them. I got my mouthpiece spiked with tabasco and learned to keep it in my pocket so it would stay warm. I darn near dropped my slide running all over the place playing the Trombone section’s version of the Underdog theme song. Some of those guys could outplay me, some of them had blat issues. Seriously guys – you know who you are! I also discovered the joys of being one of the more organized members of the trombone section and, while we didn’t have section leaders back then, (I guess they do now), I was bossy and pushy enough to get everyone moving often enough that I bragged I had the de facto title while they yelled me down and swore it wasn’t so.
I got up at ungodly hours of the morning on Saturdays after staying up partying til equally ungodly hours of the Friday night before with those people to walk around on football fields and make jokes, play songs and practice formations. And play Red Rover, did someone lose an I?, O-O-Ohhhh and other silly things that intelligent, hungover people do to entertain themselves while waiting for senior staff to make up their danged minds. Or I went to hockey rinks, basketball courts, library entryways, a parade in Washington, D.C., and in one memorable instance Grand Central Station… among other places to play swat gigs and actual requested gigs.
I learned ‘useful’ things too. My Mailing Co-Officer and I discovered the intricacies of bulk mailing, how to coerce everyone you know into putting together and sealing thousands of envelopes every month. At the last minute. At 3am on a Wednesday night. Food bribes help. That lesson has come in handy many times as an adult. As Trips Manager, I discovered the joys of moving 200 people around New England – or to D.C. – by bus, how to deal with visiting bands and why certain Dr. Seuss books should not be read to tipsy band members. (Shame on us! Seriously – I could never read “Green Eggs and Ham” to my children with a straight face. Ever. Thanks for that laughter!!) And I made lifelong friends.
Seven – the number of positions on a trombone slide – tried to defeat me because I was too small. I kicked it back and won. I won over 30 years of wonderful music, friends who are all over the world, experiences I can never forget and many opportunities to pass these skills on. Playing the trombone has carried me through disappointments, helped me survive three childhood and who knows how many adult moves, and opened amazing doors for me. I never would have gotten into Harvard without all the accomplishments my trombones and I made together.
Since graduating college the local band director here in Kodiak – new guy, a trumpet player, but he’s okay in spite of that – has referred a few students to me. Once or twice I’ve even taught some of them how to kick it back from 7th so they can make that note they can’t quite reach. “Keep reaching,” I tell them, “one of these days you’ll be able to do it without that boost. Until then just push it out and kick it back. And whatever you do, don’t drop it! Take care of your horn. You never know where it will take you.”