Recently, I reestablished contact with Pete Jirousek, a good friend from my undergrad days at the University of Illinois. We exchanged emails last week, and last night I spoke with him on the phone. It was wonderful to be catch up with Pete again. Not only is Pete an all around good guy, but he's an excellent horn player based in Chicago. He teaches at VanderCook College of Music and has degrees from two top tier music schools, the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. Pete's played in several orchestras and has performed in numerous Broadway in Chicago productions. Although Pete is doing quite well for himself as a horn player, there was a time when he thought his career might be over. He didn't have all the same problems I did with trombone, but his story was pretty similar to mine.
After speaking with Pete, I suddenly have hope that I could be a trombone player again. I won't go into much detail here about the mechanics of playing a brass instrument. For now, suffice it to say that I can still buzz my lips into a trombone mouthpiece, and if I can buzz my lips, I should be able to play the trombone. The overuse injury I incurred in the Air Force has long since healed, and the problem is more mental than physical. I can buzz a trombone mouthpiece, but when I put the entire instrument up to my face, my lips lock up, and I feel like I'm fighting myself. In the Air Force, I was pressured to play on an overuse injury for nearly three years. Whenever I played a note, it felt like someone was poking the inside of my upper lip with a hot needle. Three years is a long time to experience that kind of pain, and as a consequence, I eventually developed a strong negative reaction whenever I held the instrument to my face.
The challenge will be to unlearn that negative reaction and substitute it with positive experiences. As I mentioned earlier, if I can buzz, I can play. The plan is to simply buzz a trombone mouthpiece for a few weeks to rebuild my embouchure. (An embouchure is what you form with your lips and teeth to buzz or blow into an instrument.) After I've regained some embouchure strength, I'll gradually add the trombone, but I'll still focus more on buzzing than on playing the entire instrument. The success I experience buzzing the mouthpiece should transfer to the full instrument, and I'll eventually be able to replace all those negative responses with positive ones.
Although I haven't played trombone in years, I still think like a trombone player. If I'm sight singing or trying to learn a melody by ear, I'll mentally use trombone positions to find the notes. Sometimes I'll wake up with trombone scales rattling around in my head, and I can still remember the melodies from etudes and solos that I played fifteen years ago. As Pete put it, the knowledge is all there. I'm still a trombone player…I've simply taken a really long break!
I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I can't help imagining what it would be like to be able to play the trombone again and add it to what I'm already doing as a guitarist and singer. I was a classical trombonist back in the day, but I suspect I would have fun exploring jazz trombone. I don't know exactly where I would fit in the Atlanta scene. Not to brag, but I was awfully good back when I had my chops, and if I reach that level again, I'll be able to carve out a place for myself. It would be really cool to be flexible enough to be called for gigs or studio work as a guitarist, singer, or trombonist.
First things first, though. It's time to get a trombone mouthpiece and start buzzing!
- 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.