John August is a smart and successful Hollywood screenwriter. On his blog, johnaugust.com, he dispenses invaluable insights and practical knowledge about the craft, business, and art of screenwriting and life in the entertainment business. I read him regularly. I also listen to his podcast.
But his curious post, “No Trombones,” shocked me. It is so wrong in every single way I thought it might be an April Fool’s joke — but December is much too early or late for that. For some reason, August believes that children should not be taught to play such one-note instruments as trombone, rather they should take up the more elegant piano, or perhaps guitar.
As I posted in a comment on the site, perhaps Mr. August’s young daughter came home from school with a trombone and that set him over the edge. I feel his pain. I play the drums, but can’t imagine living in the same house with a kid banging away on a set. But I bless my parents every day for their unselfishness — and endurance.
Please read the entire farrago here. I don’t want to quote the entire piece, though practically every sentence demands response for its utter wrong-headedness.
August begins with this falsehood:
“With the best of intentions, we’ve taught kids to be helpless cogs in a symphonic machine. Worse, we’ve created a system that pretty much guarantees most adults won’t be able to make music by themselves.
We need to stop teaching kids to play the trombone. And the oboe. And the French horn. Particularly the French horn.
Kids should learn piano and/or guitar.”
OK. Cogs in a symphonic machine? Sorry, the system that guarantees that most adults aren’t wonderful musicians is the same system that guarantees that most adults aren’t wonderful plumbers or architects or even screenwriters. That lots of kids spend time not fully learning to play an instrument is no worse a crime than the fact that most little girls in ballet class will never dance at the Met or most boys tossing a football will never win a Super Bowl. So let’s stop buying them tutus and helmets?
August continues: “So we’re clear: I have nothing against the other instruments. They just don’t belong in the hands of children, and they shouldn’t be anyone’s first instrument.”
I think if Mr. August was being clearer, he’d admit that he doesn’t like the sounds made by band instruments in the hands of children. And who does? But a good parent won’t stifle a child’s interests and, as above, most kids won’t stick with it anyway.
Consider how we adults feign delight over a child’s incoherent crayon scribbles, awarding them a place of honor on the refrigerator door. By August’s logic, we should keep all drawing instruments away from young fingers until they are somehow able to produce gallery-worthy work.
Of course the obvious problem with this reasoning is best summed up in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he quotes research that indicates that an artist must spent 10,000 hours practicing to become even good.
So denying future Urbie Green’s a trombone and expecting them to put in the necessary hours of practice as an adult is simply ridiculous. Most of the readers of Mr. August’s site are themselves amateur hopefuls who would surely agree that finding time for any kind of practice is extremely difficult once you’ve moved out of your parents’ house. Those unpleasant hours kids spend torturing some poor instrument, and adult ears, is the important foundation of any future in music — or any skill.
Let me attest to this personally. While I did take rudimentary drum lessons (a pun — I in fact studied drum rudiments. Ha!), I never truly learned to read music. And, unlike August, I never joined the school band. It wasn’t cool. They didn’t play rock.
And for playing rock at the teen center, no charts were required. It wasn’t until I’d been playing for nearly 30 years, put in my 10,000 hours playing professionally and then part-time, that I joined a big jazz band with the express purpose of learning to read music. As an adult, it took me a very long time to get it. I still shudder at the memory of a trombone player (yes, trombone!) cringing when I played right through a rest. But eventually I caught on and am now fairly proficient. I am comfortable sitting in with other bands without fear that I’ll embarrass everyone. But, because I’m still quite a ways from my 10,000 hours of reading practice, I’ll probably never be able to, say, walk into a Nashville or LA studio session and nail a chart on the first take. Or work the pit at the Kennedy Center.
And neither will anyone who doesn’t start studying as a kid. NPR’s Noah Adams decided to take up piano at age 51. He got a book out of it (Piano Lessons: Music, Love, and True Adventures). He has yet to release an album. Which is probably for the best.
August complains that instruments other than piano or guitar fail because “These instruments play a single note at a time, which works great for bands, but is incredibly limiting overall.”
Limiting how? Surely August understand’s that his own industry works the same way. Like an orchestra, each department in filmmaking — art, makeup, costume, crew, etc. — contributes to the success, or failure, of a movie. I guess learning lighting is limiting because you’ll never be able to go to a party and recite Shakespeare. You’re just a “one-note” kinda guy. But try shooting a movie with a cinematographer who didn’t spend his childhood messing around with lights.
August goes on to warn that “if you pick tuba, you’re never going to have a solo. Ever.” Where would film music be if little Tommy Johnson hadn’t picked the tuba? He’s the fellow who made the Jaws soundtrack the Jaws soundtrack. (Everybody sing: “Duh-duh. Duh-duh. Duh-duh…“) Johnson also played on more than 2,000 other soundtracks. Poor guy. Shoulda played piano.
Indeed, August seems fixated on the “problem” of instruments that “only” play one note at a time. If he knew any trombone, tuba, or sax players he might understand that they find joy and beauty in finding that one note to follow the previous, and then the next. Kinda like finding that right word to follow the next in your screenplays, eh, John?
“As a clarinet, you’ll form the backbone of most school bands,” writes August, “but no one will actually be sure what a clarinet sounds like.” Seriously? Is there anyone who doesn’t know what a clarinet sounds like? I suspect August’s problem is, as with tuba, the player supposedly won’t get to stand out. No solos. And here perhaps we get at what bugs August about trombones and one-note instruments and instruments that don’t sound pretty right away. The nature of August’s job is that he usually works alone and gets a single credit — his solo, if you will. He’s the star in the John August show. So from his perspective shouldn’t everyone want to shine in the spotlight, every time, all the time? That’s certainly the current zeitgeist, the look-at-me, I’m-so-special culture we’re enduring. But any solo is only good in the context of the work it’s part of.
Again August’s complaint reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of bands, orchestras, and music. I rarely play a drum solo, but the times that are the most fun and satisfying are when the entire band locks together. Nobody stands out because everyone is blending in. All those one-note instruments. Even the piano player.
Another ill-informed comment about high school band: “If you’re good but not great, you may be asked to ‘take one for the team’ and switch to an unpopular instrument like tenor sax,” August writes. Before the electric guitar, the saxophone was the lead instrument in rock and roll. It remains fundamental to jazz and is popular generally. Perhaps he meant soprano sax. Everyone hates Kenny G.
“The French horn is difficult, expensive and sounds terrible at a student’s level of proficiency. Ditto oboe. We might as well slaughter geese on stage.” Again, August’s discomfort with children’s lack of proficiency is irrelevant. Let parents decide if they can afford to buy an oboe and endure the learning curve.
August explains that he first learned piano as a child, then switched to clarinet, where “compared to other fifth graders, I was amazing at clarinet.” We’re so proud of you, John. But he goes on to contend, “[t]he problem is, success at clarinet doesn’t translate to music as a whole. I never learned chord progression, because clarinet plays one note at a time. I forgot how to read bass clef, because clarinet is written in treble. I only knew how to make fairly pretty sounds within a narrow range of musical genres: classical, Woody Allen jazz, and When the Saints Come Marching In.”
Haha. But stupefying wrong. Success with one instrument does indeed translate to an understanding of music as a whole. Because it’s all of a piece. That August forgot how to read bass clef is only a comment on his lack of commitment and interest in being a musician. He’s not a musician. He gave it up to became a writer. Fine for him. But if a kid has a true interest and desire to play music, they’ll pay more attention than did young Johnny. And that’s good for the future of music.
And that little joke about the “narrow range of musical genres” only demonstrates the narrow range of August’s musical knowledge. There is much more to clarinet music than “Woody Allen jazz.” Indeed, much more to jazz than Allen’s fixation with Sidney Bechet.
After bashing the idea of school bands, August then contradicts himself with the sentence, “If we’re going to save high school marching bands, we’ll eventually have to teach the band instruments. And we can, quickly. Because here’s the secret about marching bands: not only is the music fairly easy, so are the instruments. In fact, it’s common to switch players between instruments to make up for gaps in a marching band. We break out the mellophones and the marching bells and somehow it all gets done.”
Sorry, playing glockenspiel is not the same as trumpet, sax or, yes, trombone. Those players who switch instruments so easily are the ones who generally go on to become serious musicians, the outliers if you will. The same ones who were studying those horrible sounding one-note instruments as children. And nobody “quickly” learns an instrument. Especially if they’re denied the opportunity to start in grade school.
August then insults a “publishing industry that creates sheet music so that twenty-five kids can lurch through a patriotic medley.” Note to John: the sheet music industry has been as hard hit by piracy as your precious movie biz. Here’s an NPR story on the subject. The Hal Leonard company is not a cabal forcing John Philip Sousa on the public.
August sums up his jeremiad with this howler: “[I]f we got rid of grade school and junior high bands and replaced them [with] pianos and guitars, I think the actual learning outcome — the ability to make music — would be much better.” Make what kind of music? All George Winston and William Ackerman? A crazy assertion based on nothing at all.
August is currently producing a Broadway version of his movie Big Fish and notes that, as is the common practice, the creators are working out the show around a piano. He does acknowledge that the show will “ultimately have a full orchestra” to perform the song. Surely he must understand that the top-notch musicians who will play his score began as clueless kids making caterwauling rackets on one-note instruments in their parent’s basement.
That horrible sound is the price we all pay so that the show can go on.
UPDATE August has turned off comments on his entire site. Coincidence after they ran about 90% against him on the trombone piece? I’m not buying his explanation. Also, he says I’ve learned nothing. That’s true in many cases, not here. But welcome to all the John August fans. Hey, let’s start a band!