I spent the summer of 1979 practicing. At this time of year my thoughts often go back to those months. Other summers run together in my memory, but I always know what I was doing that summer.
I had just finished my freshman year as a music major at the University of Southern California. It hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped it would. I aimed to do something about it.
As a trombone player in high school I had been pretty hot stuff. I had moved up in the ranks to become section leader of our large, award-winning school band, as well as in our orchestra and jazz ensemble. I was first trombone in the All Southern California High School Honor Band, then first trombone in the All Southern California High School Honor Orchestra. I was taking lessons from a teacher at Long Beach State. I auditioned for and made a small, elite high school jazz group headed by Art Bartner, the longtime leader of USC’s marching band, and, one thing leading to another, ended up with a full scholarship to study music at USC.
You know where this is going. Arriving at USC in the late summer of 1978, I immediately found myself at the bottom of the heap of some 12 to 14 other trombone majors, most of them older than me. It didn’t help that during the rigorous marching band boot camp run by Bartner — outdoors, in heat, dust and smog, prior to the official start of the school year — I suffered a severe asthma attack. I had had asthma since I was child, and you don’t get over such attacks right away. This one stayed with me with me through the first auditions of the semester, during which we were placed in various performing groups. Not wanting to make excuses, I arrived and played for the first time for my new teacher, Terry Cravens, without telling him of my affliction. I remember he had me play “The Ride of the Valkyries,” a piece I had shockingly never so much as seen before and in five sharps to boot. I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t breathe.
Cravens subsequently found out what was going on and things sorted themselves out, but I ended up near the bottom of the trombone class, with the consequent performing assignments in the bottom-rung ensembles, playing second or third trombone parts. It wasn’t what I had envisioned.
Jump ahead to the end of my freshman year. I believe it was Cravens who gave me the idea of practicing eight hours a day. I don’t think he prescribed it; he told me about someone who had done it. At any rate, I decided to do it. I didn’t have a job during the summer of ’79. And as chance would have it, someone asked me to house sit that summer. So I lived by myself and practiced eight hours a day — I think six days a week, and I think for three months. I even blew off the “Tusk” recording session the USC Marching Band had with Fleetwood Mac that summer in Dodger Stadium. I felt it was beneath me, I’m sorry to say.
I would begin each day with an hour or more of warm-ups and flexibility exercises, long tones and arpeggios quickly flipping between registers. Sometimes I went in for extended periods of long tones alone, which became like meditation. Cravens had told me that if you just played long tones long enough, focusing your embouchure just right, you would actually be able to hear sympathetic overtones ringing high above your note. So, if you played an E flat, say, in the middle of the bass clef, for 10 minutes, you could hear a high G glowing like a halo above. Then you might move onto the E natural. Anyway, I did it.
I practiced etudes, orchestral excerpts (including “Ride of the Valkyries,” “Bolero,” “William Tell,” Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, etc.), Bach cello suites and bel canto singing exercises (Rochut’s famous, or infamous, “Melodious Etudes for Trombone”). I watched the clock. Took breaks. Ate lunch and got back to it. Occasionally, during periods of pure rote practicing, I might flip on a baseball game with the sound off, and watch as I played (I had heard Itzhak Perlman did this.) But I put in my eight hours faithfully. Afterwards, friends came over for cards. We played Hearts and drank beer.
The upshot of my summer of practicing is that when I got back to school in the fall of ’79 I was vastly ahead of where I had been. I was no longer at the bottom of the trombone heap. I was someone who could compete, someone to pay attention to. Most importantly to me, my performing assignments improved. Chalk it all up to lots of practice. And you know what? It was kind of fun.
Photo: The author with beer in 1979. Photo by Mark Osborn.