Week 8, Semester 2
By Alice Kennedy
Some things stay with us forever.
Last week, I unpacked my trombone case. It wasn’t the first time I had picked up my trombone in an attempt to recapture some of my old musical ability, but each time I had returned it to its place without producing a decent tune. I loved trombone in high school, and will never forget the first time I brought it home.
‘What is that?!’
We were given a choice of band instruments that week in school. My mother secretly hoped that I would bring home a flute or a clarinet. Trombones are especially loud and are also unwieldy, as I learned on tram rides to and from school. It is nearly impossible not to hit someone with the hard case as you swivel the trombone into a space-conscious, upright position.
To her credit, Mum put up with my tootling and gradually I progressed. I had plenty of opportunity to practice at a girls’ school, as few women played lower brass. I never managed to look good while playing the trombone, but I enjoyed it. Its sound is powerful, mellow, and beautiful in its own way. There is something meditative about slipping between the higher and lower registers as you shift your lips, adjust your arms, and let the air flow through you.
These holidays I kept thinking that I shouldn’t have given up playing trombone. Seeing the Law School piano swayed me, and I knew that I missed making music for the joy of it. I had every reason to start again.
When I unpacked my trombone, I carefully checked and oiled my slide. Every instrument needs to be treated with care. My trombone was in surprisingly good condition for an instrument that had been neglected for years. A little oil and a spritz of water were all it needed. I warmed up and broke out the Arban – the bible for brass instruments. Pleased I had made it this far, I tried a few hymns. The trombone’s natural legato lends itself to their slow, sustained melodies.
But halfway through Panis Angelicus, my embouchure wavered and collapsed. To my surprise I stood there weeping silently. And I thought of Mr Dyason, from whom I learnt trombone. He was the most memorable teacher I ever knew.
The first thing Mr Dyason taught me was not exactly related to trombone playing: he showed me how to persuade a stubborn book to rest neatly on a music stand. Firstly, you lay the book’s covers down. Taking a few pages at a time, you smooth the pages down on either side of the covers, slowly stretching out the glue in the spine. It was a softly-spoken lesson in patience that was first passed on to Mr Dyason by his mother, who had been a bookbinder. I always respected Mr Dyason’s ability to combine trombone lessons with thoughtful wisdom.
The second thing I learnt was how to produce bell tones. Bell tones are crystal-clear bursts of noise that every brass player strives to create. The perfect bell tone comes from precise tonguing, even air pressure and the absence of hesitation. Mr Dyason mentioned bell tones every lesson and taught me that persistence gets you closer to perfection. Some years later, a band teacher at another school mentioned ‘bell tones’, and I asked whether he learnt them from Mr Dyason. He nodded. Mr Dyason taught many people over his lifetime.
But the most enduring thing Mr Dyason taught me was about the value of human kindness and its existence in unexpected places. Junior secondary school was not a pleasant time for me, which Mr Dyason knew. That week I was asked to play Panis Angelicus for the chapel interlude. Stage nerves were compounded by the knowledge that the people making my life difficult were in the audience. The introductory music started, and I almost panicked before I looked towards the chapel entrance.
Standing there, in the open doorway, was Mr Dyason. In that moment I had somebody to play to. And so I played to my teacher, who was beaming from the back of the hall. I think it was my best performance. As the last note rang out, Mr Dyason applauded before quietly disappearing. I have never forgotten the kindness his gesture embodied at a time when I needed it most. Panis Angelicus remains my favourite hymn.
Mr Dyason passed away in 2009. By then, I had changed schools and fallen out of touch with my old brass teacher. It was not until a year after he died that I found out I was one of his final students. Nearly ten years later, I stood at home holding my trombone as tears streamed down my face. They flowed in regret and in remembrance of the profound impact that music and my teacher had on my life.
When I think about it, I haven’t picked up my trombone and gotten back in touch with music purely for myself. I’ve done it for Mr Dyason too. In place of my regret is a renewed conviction that I won’t let his lessons go to waste. If you are letting an old instrument or a skill gather dust, I hope you’ll pick it up again, and see what you remember.