When I was in grade school, I learned to play the trombone. It’s not that I had any great longing to learn how to play the trombone. It was just that nobody else wanted to play it. And that made all the difference.
You see, the band wouldn’t have been complete if there wasn’t someone to play the trombone. It wasn’t a conventional band. There was just about every imaginable instrument included so that every student would have a chance to learn music by playing music. I remember the teacher had lined up all the instruments at the front of the room. When the time came to select who would play what, she would stand next to each and ask for volunteers. Everyone fought over the “cool” instruments—the trumpet, the keyboard, the bass guitar—and, of course, there were several of each available to meet the inevitable demand, though not enough of each for everyone. If you couldn’t get a trumpet, you scrambled to get a sax. If you couldn’t get a guitar, you elbowed your way to claim a keyboard.
In the midst of all this activity, I sat to the side and watched. Eventually, I found my eye drawn to a quiet corner of the room. There, neglected, sat the unwieldy, exotic trombone, alone, rejected, silent, unheard. I knew what it was to be overlooked, to not be part of the popular crowd, to be last picked for teams, to be unheard. I felt an instant kinship.
One-by-one, the teacher stood next to a “normal” instrument, asked who wanted to play it, and the brawl would begin. As I watched the other kids getting swept up in the competition, it dawned on me that they were missing the point of being in a band. They were oblivious to the gap that there would be in the harmony, to the empty silence in the music that only the trombone could fill. Not one of us had ever actually heard a trombone, I don’t think, and the others didn’t think about missing what they’ve never heard, but I wanted to hear it. I knew our concerts would be more full and meaningful in expression with the trombone. Would you take away a color from the rainbow?
When it came time to ask who wanted to play the trombone, my hand went up, the only hand. Afterwards, some kids were crying, because they didn’t get the instrument they wanted. Me? I felt great. I was going to learn music, to play it, to revel in how each separate sound mixed with the others to create harmony, touch emotions, inspire joy. We were going to tell stories through music, and I would have my own part to play in creating something greater than that which any one of us could create alone. Ironically enough, by avoiding the spotlight, I ended up getting quite a bit of attention simply because my instrument was so different, so unexpected.
And so began for me a lifetime of volunteering to fill the silence where tasks, issues, and people are being overlooked, and enjoying a symphonic richness in my life and career made all the more rewarding for it.
So, I ask you – Are you making music with your life? Some rare few of us are born to be a star performer, out in front, center stage, but, if you’re like most of us, you’re not center stage. But you are on the stage, I hope, not sitting on the sidelines, bitter that you didn’t get the part you wanted to play in life. Have you ever taken a moment to consider, what instrument of life are you? Have you learned to make music with what and who you are? Or are you so focused on not having your choice that you don’t play at all?
In the end, it’s not about which instrument. It’s about playing in the band. If you want to be part of the harmony, you have to fill the silence in the way that only you can.