When I was 17 years old, I was in a band.
We never played a single live show. We barely played for an audience beyond the four of us who were in the band.
We never recorded an album. The recordings of our band that do exist are a handful of covers of other bands tracks, and one overly repetetive prog rock track where every instrument needed its chance to have a solo.
We never really knew how to play our instruments with any consistency, recording single takes of tracks into a single microphone pointed towards us from across the room.
The songs we recorded were never that great, from a technical execution standpoint, but it was also some of the most fun I have ever had making music.
Sometimes, there is a joy to confidently muddling through playing music, even if it’s a little above your actual skill level as a musician.
This past couple of weeks, it has been pretty hard to avoid seeing clips floating around the internet of a new indie game called Trombone Champ. The game’s Mii inspired character designs, mixed with the game’s leaning into out-of-tune public domain songs, has been perfect fodder for quick 15 second social media clips that perfectly encapsulate what the game is, and why it has had me so nostalgic for my time playing drums in a band in my late teens.
In Trombone Champ, players simply play a fictional trombone by sliding their mouse up and down, and either clicking or holding down a keyboard key to blow into their new instrument, mimicking play in a style reminiscent of the Guitar Hero series. The concept’s simplicitly however is deceptive, with TromboneChamp making no attempt to magnetise the player into the correct position if they are slightly out of tune. Every slight wobble and imperfection will be heard, as the player tries their very best to get in tune, and stay there, for the duration of the note.
There is a fair bit more to Trombone Champ once you scratch beneath that surface, with a surrealist narrative hidden throughout other areas of the game, but at its core Trombone Champ is a game about throwing songs at you faster than you’re probably ready to handle, and letting you loose to muddle through playing them as best you can. The songs are going to happen whether you are ready or not, and your job as a player is to simply try and keep up as best you can, not stopping and restarting the song just because you were a little out of key.
The more of Trombone Champ I play, the more I am reminded of my time drumming with my friends in my late teens, and the way we all treated overwhelming tracks as a chance to grow. Many of our favourite songs to play as a band started as absolute disasters, but we threw ourselves in head first, because it was the only way we were going to grow.
As a drummer, I was never that talented. I have a couple of different co-ordination and rhythm impacting disabilities, and was honestly one of the least well suited people possible to playing drums in a band. My playing was often reactive, inconsistent, and lacking in the discipline that a drummer needs as the underpinning of a band’s sound.
But the times I felt most trimphant in that band were the times I knew I had fallen behind or messed up, styled it out as best I could, and just kept going, pushing through, and catching back up to where I was meant to be. Those were the times I felt a song defeat me, and kept going anyway, because it didn’t matter if I was doing perfectly, just that I did the best I could in that moment.
We were all making music that was kind of muddled through, but we were muddling through together, and giving each other space to confidently play our instruments imperfectly.
These past few weeks, watching countless people share with joy their clips of playing Trombone Champ, sharing their performances even when they’re out of tune and inconsistent, without fear of judgement, has been beautiful. As with any instrument, the early stages of learning to perform music will always be awkward, and if we could find joy in that more often, maybe more people would feel more welcome trying to make music of their own too.