My Life as a Musician

Courtesy of Unclaimed Freight
Courtesy of Unclaimed Freight

Beginnings

I met my instrument at an instrument petting zoo put on by my elementary school. I believe I was eleven years old. I walked into the room and there it was, stretched out all shiny and perfect on a folding table: the trombone. Little did I know the impact it would have on my life. Of course the purpose of the petting zoo was to seduce youngsters into bonding with an instrument, so no one was there to warn me about the powerful vortex that was about to suck me in. Like every art, music is a force. It can change your life. It certainly changed mine.

In the world of the junior high school band, the culture is one of hiding behind the instrument so as not to stand out, not to get noticed. I was the opposite of this. I wanted to sound good. So, unlike my peers, I practiced and practiced. Soon I was the best in my little school.

I felt I had to be good at everything. I felt that if I could not be the best at something, I was nothing. So I tried to be the best trombonist I could be.

In high school, our music teacher formed a jazz ensemble that played big band music and took us to festivals. I won some awards for my playing. I began to enjoy performing in front of people and making music. I began to feel that this is how I would like to spend my life.

Some friends and I formed a band. We covered songs by Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, and created horn arrangements of other popular music. We played bars all over Wisconsin north of U.S. Highway 8 from Merrill to Ashland.

One day a group of professors from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, came to visit our school. They were from the music department. There were three of them - a trumpet player, a drummer, and a guitarist - and they played jazz. They were great! I knew what I wanted to do when I graduated!

Source

Music School

The University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire had ten thousand students when I attended it in the 1970's. The school's population was 10 times that of my home town. Overwhelmed by cultural and social shock, I did not excel as a trombone player, but learned a great deal about music theory and composition.

UW Eau Claire had a vibrant big band jazz program, featuring four jazz ensembles, as well as the more traditional orchestra and concert band. Shortly after I went there, they hired two new music theory teachers from the University of Kentucky, greatly improving their music theory offerings.

I found that there were many better trombone players there than I was, and had to adjust my self image accordingly. It was a difficult time. I advanced from the fourth jazz enemble to the third, but no farther. I made the best of my position, and advanced original compositions of mine to concert performance every year. Once a fellow student wrote a piece featuring a long trombone solo just for me. I still have a cassette recording of that performance somewhere. It was called, "Remember Me and I'll Remember You Too."

I continued to think of myself as having more talent than I actually did, and blamed the faculty for not advancing me to the choicest ensembles. After three years I left school and moved to Boston, where I hoped that my talent would be recognized.

Boston

In the late 1970's the jazz scene in Boston was starting to die down. The legendary Paul's Mall jazz club closed a year after I arrived, starting a trend that continued through the 80's that saw the close of the 1369 Club in Inman Square, Michael's Pub in the fens, and many other jazz clubs close their doors forever, not before, however, I was able to find out that I was really not a very good trombone player at all. Nevertheless I continued to practice and gradually improve, and eventually was able to play without sounding too terribly bad.

I met other musicians to jam with, and tried for years to get into a successful band. I found my audition skills lacking, so I worked on improving my sight reading. I knew how to transpose, but I learned how to do this on sight as well. As my skills improved, I grew more confident.

Finally I got a break when an alto saxophone player friend told me he was playing the trombone part for a Latin band in Roslindale, and asked me if I would like to join them and take the part over. I joined Super Combo La Fuente when it was a basement band in the manager's house. The manager was a DJ on college radio in Boston playing salsa, meringue and cumbia for Latino listeners. Unlike many bands I had been in, this one was determined to get out of the basement and succeeded. Soon we were playing three nights a week in Boston, Cambridge and Providence Latin clubs.

In Latin music, trombone is a very honored instrument, featured many times in the context of the music. I had a wonderful time. Between sets people would come up to me with rapid-fire praise in Spanish, and were surprised when I told them I didn't speak. (I sang some back up but didn't know the meaning of the words.) I found the gigs to be a big athletic workout, but it was so much fun.

Marriage and Business

Initially, when I met the wonderful woman who is now my wife, she enjoyed coming to the Super Combo La Fuente gigs. But after we got married I decided to open my own business, and I had to leave the band. I had supported my music habit with a day job as a locksmith, so I opened a locksmith business offering 24-hour emergency service. To build the business I worked 14-hour days. There was no time for music.

We had children, and as each of them reached the first or second grade, I did a trombone demonstration for their class. I was always a big hit. Once in a while I would take out the trombone to practice with one or another of my kids when they needed help with whatever instrument they were dabbling in, and once in a while I would take out my horn and just play for a while. Twenty years went by, and I began to think of myself as a former musician.

In my school district we have a very active Parent Teacher Organization. Every year they put on a musical full of puns and popular songs that have had their lyrics rewritten to fit into the plot. Talk was that the back up band for the play was really hot. My wife suggested I play, and after a little encouragement I decided to try.

After years of no real practice, I initially stood off a ways and played quietly, trying to find my place, but shortly I began to remember my transposition, sight reading and improvisational skills and started to contribute more confidently. During the three weeks of rehearsal I began to feel like part of the band.

The lead guitarist and musical director is a professor at the Berklee College of Music; the second guitarist and assistant musical director is a stay-at-home dad who builds his own guitars and plays them all day at the local playground; the drummer had just been on tour with a band for two years; and the keyboard and bass players were great, too!

When we set up in the actual auditorium instead of the rehearsal space, I came to realize that I would have to stand where I could see the stage. So, as the only horn player, I ended up fronting this great band!

The play was a hit and I was, too. After the first night, I was packing up and one of the other players' kids was helping to pack up as well. He was a blonde haired boy of maybe ten or twelve. He looks at me and smiles and says, "You're great."

That was the greatest joy I experienced in my musical career, and this gig was the most fun of any gig I ever played. I can't wait until next year when I get to do it again!

Going Forward

Music has been a big part of my life, and continues to be through my children who all have played instruments and/or are involved in music now. My musical experience is also useful to me when I write, when I think - well, all the time.

I hear music differently than non-musicians, probably. Music is a language in which I am fairly fluent. When I hear music I hear the underlying chords, the rhythms, the nuances that the musician is using to make their performance special. I feel vicariously the thrill of performance and the energy coming back from the audience, and I am excited by the skill of the players.

Music will always be an important part of my life.

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Comments 3 comments

hamandaj profile image

hamandaj 7 years ago from California/Idaho

I LOVED your hub! I was three years old when I picked out my instrument. I went to my brother's jr. high recital and I leaned up to whisper to my mom that I wanted to play that. I pointed to the triangle, and I've been a percussionist ever since.


Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 7 years ago from United States Author

It's amazing how the instrument grabs hold of you. Glad you enjoyed, hamandaj.


Dink96 profile image

Dink96 7 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

Tom, I wish I could give this 3 thumbs up! What a wonderful story! I am married to a musician/broadcaster. His first love was his jazz radio show, but when that went by the wayside (around the time that you described in the 80s--could it be the "fusion"?--but that's another blog!) so now he's chief of technical ops for three radio stations here in town. I remember when we first began dating he would play drums with these "garage" jazz/blues bands and I would just suffer through their sessions. Over the years he continued at his craft and played professionally in our city as well as some blues events in the south. Even made it to the Intl. Blues Challenge in Memphis one year. So your message to me is that if you have a passion for your music (or anything else for that matter) stick with it. Your life may take twists and turns, but your muse will always be there. Bloody good blog, my friend!! Two thumbs up with a snap!

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