Sliding through life with a trombone

When I was in fifth grade, my parents received a letter from my school announcing the school-band program. My mother asked me if I would like to play in the band and, if so, which instrument. I said that I'd very much like to play in the band and immediately told her which instrument. At the time, however, I did not know the name of it. I simply described it as "The instrument Eric played the time he sat me on top of his shoulders and marched down the street."

I was referring to a memory from when I was 3. One of the neighborhood boys played in the high school marching band. On one occasion, he put me up on his shoulders and marched down the street while playing his trombone. This had obviously made quite an impression on me. "The trombone?" my mother asked. "Yes, that's it!" I replied, "I want to play the trombone."

My mother, being practical, knew the trombone was almost as big as I was. So she took me to a music store and showed me a flute. Yes, the flute was silvery, very shiny, and best of all, carried in a small case. "I don't want to play the flute, I still want to play the trombone!" I said emphatically. My parents discussed the matter. My father was easily convinced: He just didn't want me to play a string instrument. He had always dreaded the idea of having to listen to his daughter practice a screeching violin. My parents rented a trombone for me.

True, the instrument was a bit large for me. In fifth grade, my arms barely reached the sixth position with the slide. Not only that, but with its case, it was very heavy. My mom often had to pick me up from school in the car even though home was barely three blocks away. It was good she got used to this - in high school I opted for a larger trombone.

The elementary school band consisted of about 30 students in the fifth and sixth grades. From the beginning, I loved it. I was the only girl in the trombone section. In fact, I was the only girl in the brass section. This did not bother me.

By the time I arrived in high school, my playing had improved. The band director seemed to think there was nothing wrong with girl trombone players, because in my freshman year he placed me in the first chair. Sitting in the second chair was another girl, named Dawn. There were also four boys in the section. Dawn and I became great friends. For the next two years of high school, Dawn and I flirted with the boys in our section. I attended my first formal dance with the boy who sat third chair, and I found out later that the bass trombone player had a crush on me. The advantages to being a girl in the brass section were becoming apparent.

Before my junior year, my family moved to another state. Once again I was the only girl in the trombone section. When I first met my section mates, they told me that they felt "put out" by having a girl around. They jokingly explained that they would no longer be able to "spit and cuss." I told them that it was a good thing I had arrived! Over the next two years, we became close friends. They'd tell people that I was "just one of the guys." And they came in handy when it was time for me to try to carry my new, very large, trombone case to the car.

On my first day of college, I walked into the band office at San Diego State University. The band director was busy preparing for the first day of band class later that afternoon. I introduced myself and told him that I wanted to join. The first question he asked was: "Do you play flute or clarinet?"

When I told him that I played the trombone, he jumped up from his chair and shook my hand. He explained to me that he was always looking for more low-brass players to create the big sound needed by a marching band. I was quite surprised later that day when I found that there were close to 40 trombonists in a band of about 300 - and that I was girl trombone player No. 6.

One of my most memorable experiences in my college band was when we played for President Reagan during a trip he made to San Diego. He was walking only five feet away from our section. Although we were in the middle of "Hail to the Chief," we couldn't resist stopping our playing in order to return his wave.

Soon after college, I started playing with an alumni band. Later, in graduate school, I even wrote a short one-woman play about my trombone- playing experiences, which I performed as my final project in a drama class. And just last year, I shocked my eighth-grade language-arts students when I showed up at one of their band concerts and played along at the invitation of the band director.

Here's my advice to any girls out there who are considering joining band and haven't yet decided on an instrument: Why be another flute or clarinet player? If you want to play an instrument that is, even today, a bit different for a girl, I highly recommend the trombone.

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