Monday, June 21, 2010

Back From Band Camp

I've been telling the epic tale of how the site I'd started,, wound up a part of CBS. Only a few installments remain, but this week I lived the final chapter. So you can consider this a flash-ahead.

As those who've been following along in that series know, I launched Chowhound as a hobby, but it soon took over my life, and I dropped just about everything to sit at my computer screen day and night, accommodating an increasingly vast flow of users.

The toughest sacrifice was that I hardly played a note on my trombone for many, many years. I'd been a top New York professional, and loved music so much that I'd bring my horn everywhere I went, just in case there might be an off chance to play. But I grew so rusty that I could hardly produce a sound. After a decade of Chowhound, and after my year of servitude with CNET, and after the year or two it took me to get myself back together (losing weight, overcoming the post-traumatic stress, etc), I sounded like Lucy Ricardo honking away on her saxophone. And it ate me up. I've always identified as a musician, but a musician who can hardly play a note is a contradiction in terms. I felt truly disabled.

So about six months ago I tried, in earnest, to get back in shape. I could only play a minute or two before tiring, so I started "
microshedding": practicing for just two minutes per day, and increasing it by a minute or so every week. After a half a year, I sounded like a decent (but unusually musical) high school player, but was at least able to play for an hour. Hoping to ratchet ahead to the next level, this week I headed off to band camp.

Yup. I packed up my cut-off shorts and mosquito repellent and headed out to the woods to play for hours per day, coached by illustrious musicians who, back in the day, would have been my colleagues. I ate horrendous food, made beer runs to Safeway with the older, legal, kids, and, generally, made vast strides. Back in 1980, as a teenager, I'd been greatly inspired, and came into my own as a young musician, at a summer brass quintet program at Tanglewood. And though I played no chamber music during my subsequent trombone career, I was attracted, like a salmon, back to my musical spawning grounds. So it was a week of deja vu brass quintet concentration for me.

I had the great honor of playing in an ensemble with some of the less technically adept students who were also by far the most musical ones. We created moments of exquisite magic amid the many cracked notes and blown entrances (a fair portion of them my fault). I kept trying to explain to them how unbelievably rare and precious these errant little moments of magic are - how even professionals rarely manage it. Of course, they'll only appreciate it in retrospect. There was a vast chasm between our perspectives, but that's ok.

Clocks can reset, but only with herculean effort. This week involved a few of them resetting simultaneously....all while feeling like Frodo newly returned to the Shire after his harrowing adventure, unable to aptly convey what he'd been through. But it felt great, and I made tons of progress. There were moments where I was able to fully put myself into the music, not thwarted by technical limitations. My bandmates chalked my perpetually watery eyes up to an allergy issue.

There was much instruction in the art of musical psychology - how to psyche yourself into giving a good performance, rather than allowing negativity to derail you. But I rediscovered a fundamental truth: the way to avoid that quagmire is to play generously; to put all focus into inspiring the musicians you're with. If it's not about you, what's to be negative about?

If you listen to our dress rehearsal with a careful ear, you'll hear me playing creakily - and sporadically out of tune (ack, those G-flats...) - but you'll also hear all five of us kids playing our absolute freaking hearts out.


Chuck said...

Ah, Ewald. It's been a few years since I'd thought of it.

My happiest musical experiences were at the back of the orchestra, but the most fun I had was with the quintet. By far, that piece was my favorite music for quintet.

You guys sound exactly as you describe, and I mean that as a compliment. Thanks for sharing.

Tom said...

That micro-shedding thread was fascinating. Welcome back to music!

ABEL Central said...


I really enjoyed your post, and will start reading your blog, great writing! We were thrilled to have you at the Atlantic Brass Quintet Seminar, and your'e right - you quintet was extremely musically talented, even if technically rough at times. It was an honor working with you, and I am so glad you participated. Hope to see you in Boston!

Anonymous said...

Here is a performance that includes a very interesting Jimmy Dell trombone solo if you've never seen it. Song's called Wow, by The Goofers

If you find it musically boring (I liked the very restrained Wow skat better than I like skat) the hijinks start at about 2 minutes. If those jinks aren't hi enough, the trombone starts at 3.

The clip is taken from the movie Bop Girl (Goes Calypso) which is currently available to stream on Netflix if you're signed up. Not necessarily a great film, but it's got a lot of music that I sense captures some 1950's zeitgeist (in the same sense that The Forbidden Dance captured that whole lambada thing ha ha)

And I wouldn't be at all offended if you decided that this was not "post worthy" for your blog. If on the other hand you like it and you thought you'd try something like this yourself, I'd recommend starting out only a couple minutes a day.

James Leff said...

Ha. Of course, the trombone solo is dubbed is the bass playing.

Anonymous said...

yeah, disappointing the solos were dubbed for the movie, they always dub those movies... but according to the comments up there and if you google "Goofers trapeze" you'll see that they and the trapeze were a real act, appearing e.g. on Ed Sullivan. There's a Life Magazine photo of them too.

The backstory on the female lead for the film was sadly interesting, Judy Tyler did Bop Girl and then Jailhouse Rock with Elvis, then died in a car accident. My mother was briefly a singer from the same era and maybe I just liked the movie because she must have had the same choreographer.

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