“I Fell in Love with the Trombone”

Jim FryerGeorge Robinson: My Teacher

As a young boy, living in Tennessee (I was six when we moved to Massachusetts), I loved tooting on a toy saxophone, figuring out simple tunes. A couple years later, my big brother and I became fans of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. We bought each album and played them, relentlessly. The albums also merited intense visual inspection, especially the one with the lady covered in whipped cream.

My ambition was to play the trumpet, like my hero. At eight I was too young; band began in fourth grade, and I was still in second. Perhaps I should have had piano lessons before starting on a horn. My Mom is a good classical pianist, and I grew up listening to her play Beethoven and Brahms on her treasured five-foot grand. She taught me the notes on the piano, but I wanted to play a horn!

Mom found a teacher who would see if I was strong enough to play a real horn. We met Mr. Robinson at his front door; he seemed a nice man. His studio was in the half-finished basement. Anything new to an eight-year-old seems strange, and I’m sure I was shy and uncertain of myself, but Mr. Robinson was friendly and my Mom was there. I was excited by the trumpet, but when given the chance to blow into it, trying to buzz my lips as instructed, I could produce no notes. This was crushing. Mr. Robinson consoled me: “Try the trombone, the mouthpiece is bigger, it’s easier to get your first notes.” I fell in love with the trombone and my weekly lessons.

Later on the lessons took place in an upstairs space he began renting in the center of our small town, where he also stored musical supplies for sale; a few years after, in the studio underneath the new music store, which he and his wife opened when he daringly quit his day job (selling office supplies, I recall). The passing of years and my own attempt to make a living and raise a family have made me appreciate what Mr. and Mrs. Robinson accomplished.

Mr. Robinson was a master teacher: jovial, insistent on doing things correctly, teaching mechanics well, and having fun. He was excited to be there, teaching his music. The process of turning dots on a page into a song fascinated me. He spawned several generations of fine trombonists in that little music store studio.

It was hard for him to keep the lesson to the 30 minutes allotted, and so over the course of the afternoon and evening he would run further and further behind schedule. We forgave him this weakness, coming as it did from his generous heart. It could be a long wait: the student scheduled before me, who ought to have been in the studio, sometimes still sat outside the door. I suppose I had my homework or a book with me, and anyway, time seemed more flexible and in greater abundance in those days. When I began teaching I had the same trouble, and it was in remembering Mr. Robinson that I realized I had to be more strict with time.

My mother still claims that I never needed to be reminded to practice; maybe that was generally true. But I was a boy like any other. I remember one particular summer lesson. Mom dropped my horn at the store while running morning errands, and I biked the couple of miles into town later. (I pretty well lived on my bicycle that summer.) After the lesson I set the trombone in the corner of the studio to pick up later. Summer vacation was a miracle: baseball, friends, cookouts, fireflies, and always the bike. The week passed and lesson day came round. I looked for my trombone in its usual places, but it was nowhere to be found. Suddenly I remembered: it was still at Mr. Robinson’s store. All he said when he saw me was, “I kept looking at your horn, wondering when you were coming to get it.” No chastising: he understood.

As a high school senior, I interned at the store, which then became a paid job. I worked in the store for about a year, before going away, first briefly to one school, then another. I know now that the Robinsons might have thought I would keep an interest in the store and my hometown. It was expected that I would attend a fine conservatory for my full training. That didn’t happen. I went in other directions, and drifted away, into a different life.

I last saw Mr. Robinson years later when he was terminally ill. He was quite upset that he wasn’t going to be able to play the horn he had just sent off to be newly lacquered.

In my own teaching I use his techniques, and tell stories about him. The Daily Practice Routine, sound and logical. Important instructions scribbled in large letters on a small lesson notepad: DON’T PUFF CHEEKS! Strength and flexibility exercises, always. For students becoming advanced in the high register, I produce Mr. Robinson’s original handwritten version of “Getting Sentimental Over You,” in Tommy Dorsey’s key, with startling high notes and my own penciled position numbers from when I first figured it out, so long ago. Mr. Robinson said to me, “If you are gonna be a real trombonist, you HAVE to play this.”

I love that the trombone links us to the long trail of history, from mine to Mr. Robinson’s, to Johannes Rochut and his wonderful Melodious Etudes (19th-century Italian arias — Mr. Robinson taught these superbly), Bach Two-Part Inventions and Cello Suites, and all the way back to Orlando di Lasso, more than half a millennium ago. I say to my students as they are going out the door: “You’ve traveled 500 years in the last 45 minutes, bet none of your friends can say that!” Mr. Robinson was my portal to those stories.

George Robinson was born and educated in Worcester, Massachusetts. He graduated from Holy Cross College and went on the road after World War II, the Big Bands still holding sway. He was a consummate lead trombonist with a silky tone and absolute command of his high register: a child of Dorsey, as so many of us are. For several years he was a full-time musician, before settling in the small town of Westboro, where he raised his family and started his music business.

He can be heard on Vaughn Monroe’s 1945 hit, “There, I’ve Said It Again.” After Monroe sings the song so beautifully, the band returns to the bridge, and George’s lovely playing leads the trombone section for four bars. Here’s a link to the recording.

Visit the Robinson Music Store, still spreading George’s joy.

Thanks, George!

Jim Fryer (February 2014)