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In Search of the Soul of the Trombonist


LAS VEGAS — It seems too much to take in all at once--dozens of trombone players lined up. Only trombone players. The sight of all that heavy metal stops you.

What strikes you right off is the vibrating air--the whole room resonates. It's not loud, not brassy, but something that surrounds, what it must feel like to be dipped into warmed chocolate.

OK, writers occasionally take you to some odd places in pursuit of What Makes People Tick. But the idea of 500 trombonists converging here for the International Trombone Workshop last week was too tempting to pass.

Of course, I have a bias. My non-Times life is as a trombone player. So this was an assignment from heaven, a chance to mingle with people who share the eccentric view that most of the population was placed here to hear from the few of us who play slide trombone.

Now, 500 of anything in one place could be interesting. But 500 trombones . . . now that's really interesting.

"They're not viola players," explained one trombonist. "You wouldn't get them confused. They're not finicky."

There are more of us out there than you may think. A call to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, host of the workshop, turned up the news that organizer Ken Hanlon in the provost's office is a trombonist; a secretary said she had known that fact.

"Even if he didn't talk about it all the time, you'd know. He has passion about it. He has the soul of a trombonist."

I knew we were onto something important here--unearthing Southern California's trombone subculture.

Question: What is the definition of an optimist? Answer: A trombone player with a beeper. You imagine a gathering of 500 trombone players in Vegas will be, well, something like 500 Elvis impersonators getting together.

It was oddball enough for the local television weather reporter to do the evening stand-up before an impromptu gathering of about 100 trombones. And the university dining hall was turned into a lunch-hour concert facility.

Actually, the workshop was an extended oasis with some of the best players in the world, a celebration for the trombone-starved--recitals, concerts, teaching clinics and lots of music. Said Marty Williams of Santa Ana: "It's Disneyland for trombone players."

Indeed, it was a most eclectic mix of people and music styles, from jazz to avant-garde, symphonic presentations to the cacophony of instant hallway duets. The pros mixed with the academics, the hot students met up with retirees who finally have enough time for trombone in their lives. And Greg Ingalls from Michigan, finishing trombone studies at Oberlin, was here for what became a successful audition for a job--with a small orchestra in Germany.

Among the non-professionals, this was like going to that baseball fantasy camp, mixing with the stars. "It does leave you with a bittersweet feeling, though," said Dr. Norm Buckley, an anesthesiologist from Hamilton, Canada. "These players are so good, you don't know whether you want to just put the horn away."

Not all was sweetness and light: People worried about jobs, about getting paid for playing, about evening the opportunities for women, about the declining support for the arts.

And they worried that among the musical instruments, the trombone gets no respect.

Jan Kagarice of Denton, Tex., whose all-woman quartet PRISMA drew plaudits, explained, "We are artists just as violinists are artists. People would probably laugh to think of having a trombone quartet for the tea instead of a string quartet. . . . But we have so many more colors in our sound."

Organizer Hanlon, who teaches music theory, said UNLV has been host to a 76 Trombones group each fall. "People seem amazed to see that many trombones at one time. Then they seem amazed at the kind of sound it produces."

While players of other instruments have similar gatherings, "this one is different," said Steve Wolfinbarger, teacher of trombone at Western Michigan University and president of the sponsoring International Trombone Assn. "People aren't showing off. They like being with each other."

There is a similar gathering for viola players, he said, "but I wouldn't want to be there."

The main problem is image.

"Most people probably can't name a living trombonist," Wolfinbarger said. In all, there are a few hundred professional jobs in the country among symphonies and military bands. Even professionals must supplement their wages by teaching, clinics and campus visits.

"Orchestra management seems to think that soloists are only pianists or violinists, or an occasional baroque flute," said a teacher. "There are probably only about two people making a living as soloists, and probably just barely."

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