Saturday, August 16, 2008

Trombone on my shoulder makes me happy

One of the aspects of music that almost everyone thinks about but nobody mentions is the connection between our choice of instrument and our personality. I don't know that anyone has done any research on this at all, so it's probably completely unsupported academically. Like horoscopes, though, it gives us something to think about and brings out the armchair psychoanalysts.

As a general rule, all trombonists get along. I don't know when this first occurred to me, but in all my years of schooling, it's worked out that way. Generally, we (trombonists) are more likely to gravitate towards other trombonists at mixed instrument functions, even when we don't actually know any of the other people. I acknowledge that we all (as people) do that anyway; we gravitate towards the people we'll have the most in common with, to embrace that commonality in the uncomfortable situation. In general, though, I find other trombonists very compatible and fall into easy friendships with them.

It's up for debate whether the personality chooses the instrument, or the instrument molds the personality. I'll readily admit I have certain stereotypes in my mind. I generally don't think about them until the first time someone does something that falls directly in the path of my expectations. For example: if I am going to meet Amy the oboe player, I don't start thinking about all the things oboe players personify. But if Amy repositions her knife at dinner to be at exact right-angles with the dessert fork, the word "fastidious" creeps into my brain.

Many of my oboe-playing acquaintances are very careful and detail oriented. Oboists are required to continually produce their own reeds, shaving the wood and binding them in shapes that are just right. The sides must be complimentary, the wood grain must be understood, and a particular reed may just be unusable on any given day, necessitating a multitude of possible candidates. As I mentioned before, I don't know if the detailing personality picks the instrument, or if the years of careful work develop the personality.

There's a perception (or two or three!) for every instrument. Flutes often have slightly "louder" personalities, as though turned up two or three notches above others. Clarinets are often introverted. Trumpets have a certain élan and so on.

This certainly isn't the Audobon Guide to recognizing orchestral birds. People are rarely simple, and exceptions may be just as numerous as rule-abiders. I would suppose that me saying "tuba players tend towards X" can be just as discriminating as "Mexicans tend towards X". We humans love to classify, though. We delight in being able to put facts into mental boxes. When we find something that matches something else, our most common expression is "Yay! I know where that piece fits."

I was thinking about all of this because of the wedding I was at last week, as well as the opportunity to meet lots of new people from job interviews and being dragged to a single's night. In every situation, I had someone ask me why I ended up choosing the trombone, specifically the bass trombone. For some reason, I drifted off into a tangent of what playing the bass trombone was about, probably in the same way a baseball player unintentionally lectures on what shortstop does and how to play it effectively.

Depending on who I was talking to, this was either actively interesting or politely blinked at. I realized that I was working on a way to describe myself. How much does what I do define me? Or: how much is what I am sketched out by what I do?

Playing trombone is my passion. It is one of the things that drives my existence. Playing music is wonderfully and completely rewarding. Should I ever be lucky enough to be able to make a living playing music, I will have won the game of "careers" as I understand it. One thing I always tell my friends is that being paid to play feels like a crime. It is so easy, so effortless, so rewarding that it almost needs be against the law, like all the other things that feel REALLY GOOD in public.

I'm already lucky, because I know how that feels. I know what it's like to enjoy and work hard at something because you love it and want to make it as close to perfect as can be. Music majors get a little disconnected from the world because we are usually around other musicians who feel similar. I know my friend the conductor wants nothing more than to stand in front of an orchestra and make music with 60 people, even if it didn't pay him a dime. And I understand that goal.

Not to say that everybody needs work to be like that. Some people are content to work jobs they aren't 100% in love with because they receive their motivation from something else. Lovely spouses, kids who need baseball gloves and art supplies, evening softball games with the guys...

My father worked for years as a kind of financial wizard. I think his title was "Director of Banking" and it allowed him to work long hours, sign papers worth ridiculous amounts of money between companies, and take day trips to Brussels to shake hands with someone. But his job was hard. Like "come home and go immediately to work" hard. I remember wondering if he was the only father who needed to fill a room with papers. My friend's dad, the minister, just wrote quietly at a desk, as though he were continually writing letters to someone's grandmother. My friend's dad, the doctor, never brought his business home, even though he was home a lot less on average than my dad.

My dad worked really hard. Then he found himself, sooner than expected, on the redundant side of a merger. And he didn't have work anymore. Now he gets to do things he WANTS to do whenever he feels like it. Furniture restoration, gardening, building houses for Habitat for Humanity, helping people at the family church, helping my mom organize the garage for the annual garage sale, cutting the weeds in the islands of their street, playing golf... Now he gets to do all these things, and he loves it. He's so much happier now. So much less stress. It can only be better for his overall health.

I don't want this to turn into a belated Father's Day entry on "how much I love my dad". Though, I do love my dad, just for clarity's sake. It's more about happiness. Many people my age don't really know what makes them happy. Worse, they don't even know how to find out what things make them happy. That makes me very lucky that I have several things that make me happy.

The nice thing is that making happiness is like making fire; it's totally counter-intuitive at first (two sticks together? WHA?) but eventually you can do it practically on a whim.

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