April 2, 2014 | APRIL 2014 | Volume 8, Iss

An Instrument Of Embarrassment

Steve had a sharp mind and an ear for music that few people experience. But he lacked something that almost all other musicians quickly master. He could not read music. He had never needed to. His good friend, John, always sat by him, and would show him the positions on the trombone and how to play the notes within them for each piece of music. Steve, with his sharp mind, would learn quickly and never forget.

Every time they would get some new song, he would have it memorized in only a few days simply by watching John. Then, while everyone else would be fumbling along while reading from the scores on their music stands, he would simply be playing it from memory. Of course, he didn’t want the teacher to know he couldn’t read music, so when the others turned the pages of their music, he would follow their lead and continue his charade.

The band teacher never caught on, and was duly impressed that when the others would be dead without their music, Steve could jump in and play as if he was improvising. The teacher marveled at Steve’s abilities, and Steve soon earned first chair in the trombone section.

But with first position came the nomination by his teacher to be part of the state honor band. To not go was simply not an option. Turning it down was unheard of. Steve grew nervous about it, knowing that John had not been nominated. He went to his teacher and asked him if John could go, too. He said that John was the one who encouraged him and helped him become what he was, and he didn’t feel he could go without him. The teacher thought it was just a matter of a close, supportive friendship, and agreed to nominate John as well.

John was a good musician, but he didn’t have Steve’s ear or knack for picking up the music. They were given the music ahead of time, and John showed Steve how to play it. It wasn’t long before Steve had it mastered, though John, for all of his musical ability, struggled with the difficult passages.

The time came for the two friends to join the other nominees and travel to the big event. A famous master teacher had come to conduct the band. He would teach the students during the day, and then direct them in what was to be an outstanding evening concert.

Each group of instrumentalists lined up to play a few bars, after which they were seated according to how well the instructor felt they did. Steve, having all of the music memorized, played flawlessly when it was his turn. The maestro smiled and put Steve into first position for the trombones. His chair was to be the seat nearest the conductor, most visible to the audience. John didn’t do as well, and was seated far back in the middle of the group. Though Steve couldn’t read the music, with John’s help, he had marked the pages so he knew what to play at any point the director would have them come in.

The day went well. Steve played flawlessly all day and drew great praise from the conductor. He began to feel like he was invincible. He might even have been just a bit arrogant.

Once they had finished all of the rehearsals, they took a break before the concert. When they gathered again, and it came time to start, the auditorium was full. Steve smiled confidently. Then, just as they were ready to begin, the conductor turned to the audience and said, “And now, we will ask our lead trombonist to give us an A to tune the band.”

He then turned to Steve and waved his baton. Steve froze. The conductor frowned and spoke to him, “Steve, please give us an A.”

Steve’s heart started to pound. And then he remembered John. Trying not to attract too much attention, he turned and desperately looked for him. Just as the conductor’s patience was expiring, Steve saw John. John grinned and gave Steve the needed signal.

Steve turned back to the director and produced a clear, crisp A, as he also humbly realized an appreciation for the value of a good, loyal friend.

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