A Trombone Got Me Into College

I attended my daughter's Winter Concert the other night and it made me think of all my young years as a band kid. She plays trombone like her Pop.

I loved my trombone. That trombone got me to New York, Seattle, Hawaii. I was twelve years old, in Hawaii, without my mother all because I played trombone in a band.

That trombone even got me into college.

Back in 1994, about two weeks before school was scheduled to start I received two letters in the mail from Clark Atlanta University.

The first letter was from the band director inviting me to audition for the CAU Marching Panthers band. While the idea of a "full or partial scholarship" was alluring, the idea of marching in a band again was not. I had not marched in a band since my departure from Buddhism like five years prior and I had no plans of returning.

Besides, my financial aid was fine. I tossed the letter to the side and moved on to the second letter.

The second letter was from the financial aid office. This letter was sent to me to inform me that based upon my grandmother's income (I was twenty-two when I arrived at CAU. Thought I had been on my own for like five years at the time, I could not apply for financial aid as an independent. I was not twenty-four, I was not in the military and I was not a ward of the state. I was my Grandmother's baby trying to go to college so Grandmother claimed me on her taxes so I could use her info for financial aid.), I did not qualify for one of the grants for which I applied and as a result I was twelve hundred dollars short for the year.

I returned to the band letter.

The letter gave a basic overview of the program, a contact number, audition dates and the date of the first day of band camp. I guess the proper thing to have done was call the number, set up an audition, audition and, if selected, show up on the first day of band camp. A date for which was provided in the letter.

I was not auditioning. I didn't own a trombone. I had not touched a trombone in over five years. I haven't even looked at one. While I could still read music and I was halfway familiar with the slide positions, there was absolutely no way I was going to survive an audition for a college band. I didn't have the chops.

What I did have was band experience.

Mother was a Buddhist and an active member of an organization which I think is called SGI-USA now but was NSA back then. Anyway, the organization had programs for the youth members, and as I was raised as a youth member, I was a part of one of those programs. The Brass Band.

I joined The Brass Band when I was four and spent the first six years of my membership carrying stuff. I never performed. I never marched. I just watched.

When I was ten, I decided that I wanted to be in the drum section and I told the band director. He laughed and sent me over to a group of other teens and preteens that play drums and trumpet that also wanted to be in the band. I spent two years in this group.

My faith in my ability as a drummer was created by my being in the school band. I was a drummer and I was advancing every year, seat wise, and I imagined this was the natural order of all bands including The Brass Band.

What I failed to realize then was that my steady progress in the school band had less to do with my talent and more to do with school band members graduating from middle school. Brass band members don't graduate from Buddhism. This was their way of life. They would be in the band forever.

When I was twelve, I approached the band director again about marching.

"I have enough drummers," said my band director. "too many drums over power the band. I have enough drums, enough trumpets and more than enough saxophones."

Then he said the words that would change my life forever.

"It's too bad you don't play trombone. You can never have enough trombones."

The Great Trombone rule. You can never have enough trombones.

The next semester in school, I quit the drums and took the beginner's low brass class. Next semester I was in the school band as a trombone player and that summer I was marching in The Brass Band.

I marched with The Brass Band until I left home. When I left Mother, I left her Buddhism and it's band with her.

I was done with the trombone. I never even considered playing it again until I got the letter from the financial aid office. But now it was clear that my ability to play trombone was my way into college.

I devised a plan. I was going to show up on the first day of band camp and get in the band on the hopes that the CAU Marching Band director was also a believer in The Great Trombone rule.

The next day, after hours of random calls, I found a pawn shop with a "dried up horn" for "cheap". I took a hundred bucks from my rent money and bought the dried up horn, slide grease, slide oil and trombone Christmas carol sheet music.

I remembered "whole step, whole step, half, whole step, whole step, whole step, half" so I was able to practice my major scales. My road back to the band was a regiment of major scales and Christmas songs. I practiced every day until the first day of band camp.

I arrived at the grassy area next to CAU's gym with no idea where to go or what to do. A random flute player guided me towards a trailer where another band member was checking in new and returning members. When I entered the trailer, I was greeted by a girl sitting at a table with a list of names.

"Name."

"Yusef."

She checks the list. "You are not on the list, Yusef."

"I know."

"Maybe they forgot to add you name. When did you audition?"

"I didn't."

"I don't understand, Yusef."

"Listen," I said, "I didn't audition because if I had auditioned I wouldn't get into the band and I really need to be in the band. So, can you just do me a huge favor and go tell the band director there's a guy trying to get into the band. Just tell him I need to talk to him. Please."

The girl looked at me for a minute and then smiled. I know now that the smile was because she knew how verbally abusive the band director was and she was already reveling in the tongue lashing I was about to receive.

She got up, disappeared into an office then returned with a tall, older man who looked bothered. I caught my self chanting a Buddhist phrase of prayer under my breath.

"May I help you, young man," barked the Band Director. The girl was standing behind him smiling.

"I'm here to join the band."

"You're not already in the band?"

"No, sir."

"So, you auditioned and we did not accept you?"

"No, sir. I never auditioned."

At this point, the girl laughed out loud. The Band Director spun around, shot the girl a look (she got quiet) then spun back to me.

"Young man..."

(I need to note here that my band director stuttered. To try to write it out would be ridiculous but know that all that follows came out in pieces)

"...this is a university and this is a university band. The majority of the band members are music majors and minors who take playing music seriously. They take band seriously. I take band seriously. And I...what makes you think you can skip my auditions and just walk up and join my band?"

"I play trombone. Sir."

The Band Director closed his eyes and shook his head and I knew he was a believer in The Great Trombone rule.

"I only need six hundred dollars a semester."

"That's it?" he asked.

"That's it," I said. "Oh, and a trombone. Mine is a piece of crap."

"Don't make me regret this."

"I won't."

He turned to the girl and told her to sign me up then returned to his office.

"You're lucky," the girl said.

I was. I was lucky and I knew how to play trombone.

I love that trombone.