Girls played flute and clarinet, and boys played trombone and trumpet in those ancient days, long before sliced bread or ball point pens were invented and back when Chicken Pot Pies were New! As Seen on TV! Freeing Moms Everywhere from the Drudgery of Cookery!
Mr. Smith, our band director, would likely have passed a gallstone at the very idea of a GIRL in the low brass section. No, no, it just wouldn’t do. And so we stuck to our reed instruments, longing for the day in eighth grade when we could break loose and switch to bass clarinet or the fantastically nasal oboe or the beautiful red bassoon.
Fast forward several hundred years to Emma’s entry into the sixth grade band four years ago. "Flute is nice," I said. "And very compact! Easy to transport! You could carry it home in your purple camouflage backpack!" My whole strategy to convince a 12-year-old was evidently based on exclamation points.
"Nah," she said. "I think I’d like to play the trombone."
And then I said it, like that little boy in "A Christmas Story" when the lug nuts from the car tire go flying through the air as his dad is trying to change a flat, and the boy says, in very slow motion, somethin akin to "fudge": "But trombones are so heavy! Girls don’t play trombone!" I heard myself say.
She turned to look at me, astonished at what she was hearing after all those evenings of captivity when I pulled out the flip chart and Mr Sketch markers to explain what cultural norms and stereotypes were.
"What?" she asked. "Girls don’t do what, exactly?"
"Just kidding," I said, realizing that my gender norms were showing, unable to believe what I had just said. Where did that come from? How unconscious and deep-seated some of our beliefs about normalcy are. "But flutes are so much lighter! Don’t you think trombones are awfully heavy? And loud?" This from a woman who decades before had played Pee-Wee football, the carrot-top who beat the boys in the sixth grade softball toss.
I’ll admit it–at this point I was in survival mode. Mid-40s, pregnant, new town. Emma was starting band just before I was due to give birth. Screaming infant and trombone. Screaming infant and trombone. Screaming infant and trombone. Call me crazy, but it did not appear to be a match made in heaven.
The sixth grade band tryouts were an interesting ritual. Kids were called up one by one to blow in different mouth pieces, the band director makes a pronouncement, and their fates are sealed. If Emma had squeaked a pitiful little squeak in the trombone mouthpiece, her whole band history would be different.
But she didn’t. Shy Emma took to the stage and ripped open a sound that stopped all noise in the band room. Fathers and mothers turned to look, the band director clapped her hands together in surprise and joy, and I dropped my Luna Bar but was too pregnant to bend over and pick it up. "Wow!" the band director exclaimed. "That’s impressive! LOW BRASS for you, young lady!"
Emma bowed her head, beaming.
Trombone it was. Turns out that everyone who heard her play talked about what a beautiful, unusual tone she had. The girl was born to play trombone. Until a year later when she was born to play tuba.
Are you the only girl trombone player?" I asked after the first day of band. She rolled her eyes. "Of course not, Mommm."
Of course not.
She joined the marching band in high school, sticking with it after a lot of her friends dropped out, a loyalty I first admired in middle school when she stuck with softball on a team that in two seasons got on base twice, and one of those was when Emma was hit by a ball thrown by a 13-year-old pitcher with obvious anger control issues and a strong fast ball.
Tuba players switch to sousaphones for marching season, those big silver bells sitting atop their heads, seen from great distances on the field. She is a Very Serious Marcher. No joking around for her, eyes forward, back straight, dedication, deep bass sound. She is a force to be reckoned with on field at half time, moving swiftly and surely into formation, an anchor of sound for the band to center itself around.
Turns out that girls do play trombone. And tuba. And sousaphone. And they become astronauts and astronomers and run for president and hopefully, one day, they will learn to become great, not just good–but great in their own, private, personal definition of great, not society’s definition of it. Hopefully, one day, the generation that has been told they can do anything, will–not because they feel they need to measure up, or be a role model for their gender, or because that’s the only way they can gain respect, but because they want to, because they simply love the sound of low brass. Hopefully, one day, those who don’t remember the days of Old Math (trombones=boys and flutes=girls) will realize that sometimes change starts with a tuba.