We all have our moments when we wish we could crawl into a hole and hide from the world. As musicians, our lives can be intensely public, so we often get to share our most embarrassing moments in front of an enrapt, often bewildered audience.
One experience in particular has been permanently seared into my brain. I was a student trombonist at the University of Illinois, playing with the U of I Symphonic Band, which was the top group of five concert bands. Our conductor, James Keene, was your stereotypical hard nosed conductor. You simply didn't want to make a mistake when Professor Keene was waving the stick. It was an honor to be in that band, but it was also a high pressure situation.
We had been rehearsing Arnold Schoenberg's Symphony in B-flat. This is an incredible piece of music, and it's incredibly difficult to perform. It was nearing concert time, and we had never managed to play all the way through it without falling apart. This rehearsal was about a week before the concert, and Mr. Keene wanted to get through the piece, come hell or high water. He told us that we simply weren't going to stop. We were going to pretend it was concert time and play all the way through it.
Surprisingly, it all came together. Not only did we make it all the way through, but the band sounded marvelous. It was magic. We worked our way to the final, glorious chord. The only thing that could have possibly ruined this moment was…me.
I was holding my last note (an F above the bass clef staff), playing as loudly as I could. While Mr. Keene was holding the chord, a little voice of doubt made me look down at my music to be doubly sure I was playing the right note. The split second I looked away, Mr. Keene gave the final cut-off. The next sequence of events took no more than a few seconds, but it seemed like minutes to me. Time slowed down. I looked back up, not yet aware that the entire band had stopped playing. Mr. Keene was looking at me funny. I knew something was wrong, but my addled brain couldn't figure out what that strange sound was. I realized that the strange sound was me, playing an excruciatingly loud F all by myself. Making a sound like ripping sheet metal, I tore the trombone away from my mouth and stared bullets into my music stand. Nobody said a word. That was the last note of the rehearsal. I quietly packed up my horn and slunk away.
The moral of the store? Always watch the conductor!
Another fine moment in music history involves a trombone trio at a friend's recital, but that's a story for another day.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.