Count it all joy, my brothers,
when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith
produces steadfastness. (Jas 1:2–3)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
At the end of my second summer working as an aquatics instructor at Goshen Scout Camps, I pooled my summer’s earnings with savings and bought a new Conn 88h trombone, which classified as a base trombone. The Conn 88h differed visibly from the tenor trombone, a Silver Bach Stradivarius dating from the 1930s, that I had played since the fifth grade because it had a Remington mouthpiece, a trigger for outer register notes, and a distinctive, mellow sound. Shortly after getting my new trombone, I auditioned and won a coveted first chair in the Prince George’s County Youth Orchestra and I began practicing an hour a day.
During my last two years of high school, I also played first chair in both the Parkdale Symphonic Band and the school orchestra. During my senior year, few other instrumentalists enrolled in the music composition class or competed in county and state solo competitions. Meanwhile, at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, I sang in the Youth Choir and took voice lessons from choir director. I also took private lessons from the tubist with the National Symphony Orchestra. My favorite photograph from senior year shows me performing in a jazz ensemble with “shades,” which suggests how much music meant to me.
Music obviously played an important role in my social life and I enjoyed modest success as a player. But what was less obvious was that music taught me personal discipline and served as a metaphor for God’s presence in my life. At one point, I began aware of my lack of Sabbath rest and prayed to God that, because I could not set aside my commitments, he allow me to honor the Sabbath as I slept. God honored that prayer by waking me each morning to the sound of joyous music.
I started to consider music as a career possibility. As I prepared to apply to colleges in the fall of 1971, I announced to my parents, friends, and teachers my plans to audition for the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana.
At that point I did not understand the seriousness of my decision to audition for music school, either in terms of the talent or the commitment required. College seemed a long way off so I assumed naively that picking a course of study in high school allowed plenty of time to prepare. While this assumption might have been true for academic majors, music required a higher level of preparation and I had only a couple months to prepare for the audition.
My music teacher and adviser expressed concern about my preparation for this audition, probably motivated by the fact that I saw music as more of a social activity than a professional aspiration. Professional musicians practice many hours a day to reach a level of perfection seldom attained by amateurs. I had only recently moved from half an hour to an hour a day of practice daily, not a professional level of commitment.
By year end 1971, I started practicing closer to two hours a day and my teacher arranged for me to study with a colleague of his, a trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra. The new instructor adjusted my embouchure to account for my over-bite, which would help me play with a wider range in the upper register. This reconfigured embouchure required the use of new muscles in my mouth and the old muscles to be used differently, which initially reduced my performance range. Of course, the new, more vigorous practice schedule, embouchure change, and new teacher excited and overwhelmed me as I prepared to audition.
Also overwhelmed was my father, who saw music as a great hobby, but doubted that my modest talent could blossom into a viable career. In fact, he had confidence that the music department at Indiana University would reach the same conclusion, but he encouraged me to prove that I too could live with the result. We agreed that, if I passed the audition, I could study music, but if I failed, I would focus my studies elsewhere. My father’s advice about the audition seemed sound enough and I promised to accept it.
When the time came to audition, I traveled alone to Bloomington on a Friday and stayed the night in one of the dormitories. A friend, who studied viola and whom I had met the previous summer at a church retreat, invited me to dinner in the cafeteria and she introduced me to some other students. Tired from the trip, after dinner I took a shower and went to bed early.
On Saturday morning, I walked over to the music building early to warm up. After warming up, I waited with students coming and going—horns blowing, strings playing, flutes piping—as auditions ran late. Jazzed up, overstimulated, and anxious beyond words, when my turn to play arrived, I could not play a Bb scale. Having given the judges no reason to pass me, I failed the audition hands down.
When I returned home, I remained active in the music program in high school and spent the spring and early summer preparing for a concert tour in Europe with the Parkdale Symphonic Band in July. Meanwhile, I accepted admission at Indiana University and prepared to enter as a freshman without a major.
After the band returned home in early August, I needed some time to myself and planned a last-minute bicycle trip out to begin school in Indiana. I needed time because my shame and humiliation over the failed audition ran too deep for conscious reflection in a kind of emotional hijacking. In the months that followed, I lost my longstanding interest in trombone, classical music, and the church, where I so often sang and played.