Month: November 2018

My new carbon fiber bass trombone by Butler Trombones. This is not a toy.

My new carbon fiber bass trombone by Butler Trombones. This is not a toy.

This is not a toy. I have many plastic trombones, pBones to be precise. I purchased them six years ago when I began teaching at Arizona State University and they made nice props in my office.


pBones come in red, yellow, and black (among other colors) and those colors were close enough to ASU’s maroon and gold. School spirit and all that. They are toys, fun to mess around with, fun to put in the hands of my two and four year old grandchildren. But they don’t have a great sound, are fragile, the slides are not very smooth, and they are mere stepping stones to a “real trombone.”

But yesterday, I received a package from Dave Butler at Butler Trombones in Dallas. This was a package that contained something I’ve been anticipating for nearly one-and-a-half years: my new carbon fiber bass trombone. This is not a toy. This is not a plastic trombone; it’s not a high-tech pBone. This is a major development in the evolution of the trombone and something that is changing how we think about trombone development and manufacturing.


How this remarkable instrument came to be in my hands today requires a bit of backstory. Here goes.

Since 1986, I have worked with YAMAHA – YAMAHA Corporation of Japan (YCJ) and YAMAHA Corporation of America (YCA) – on the development of the bass trombone I have played regularly since 1991, the YAMAHA Xeno YBL-822G (formerly the YBL-622). My relationship with YAMAHA has been one of the greatest professional relationships of my long career in music. This is a company that has been truly interested in making a superb bass trombone, an instrument that would work for me, that would be my “voice” on the trombone. I love this instrument. My YAMAHA bass trombone represents the highest level of research and development in a bass trombone, and I have played it dozens of genres of music over the years, including the last 22 years of my long career as bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I cannot thank YAMAHA enough for their ongoing work as we continue to improve the instrument for the benefit of myriad players around the world who find that it is their “voice,” too.

At the same time, I’m aware that what we musicians do on a daily basis is not a natural act. Watch any musician play his or her instrument and it doesn’t take long to see that despite a player’s best efforts to sit or stand comfortably, or the ergonomic developments that a maker brings to instruments, playing any musical instrument puts us in a difficult place. Hold a violin between your chin and left shoulder. Splay your hands and hold a bassoon. Support the weight of a tuba on your lap. Stand behind a double bass. Lift up and crash together a pair of cymbals. Hold up a trombone.

In all of these instances – and many more – I do not know a single professional musician who does not suffer from some kind of physical consequence of playing his/her instrument. As I often say, musicians bear the stigmata of performing. Most of my colleagues in the Boston Symphony were under the regular care of some kind of medical provider. A physical therapist, massage therapist, chiropractor, physician, surgeon. Tendinitis, tendinosis, torn rotator cuff, hearing loss, neck problems, hand problems, knee problems, back problems. Therapy, medication, surgery. It’s part of the life of a musician. The literature on this is extensive, including a journal devoted to the subject, Medical Problems of Performing Artists.

I’ve had my share of physical issues over the years due to a lifetime of lifting and holding up six pounds of bass trombone for hours a day. I’ve had a torn tendon repaired in both elbows, and nine fingers have had surgery for the condition commonly known as “trigger finger,” a condition where, because of gripping, a finger will lock down when one makes a fist and will only come back up with an uncomfortable “snap.” I’m looking at an eighth finger surgery in the coming months. As a result of these procedures, I no longer have the same strength in my hands that I once had.

Several years ago I began using a left hand brace on my trombone made by Neotech. This has been a great help to me since it transfers the weight of the instrument to the back of my left hand and I no longer have to grip the trombone in order to keep it from falling out of my hand. On the photo of my trombones in the header of this article, you can see a small black appliance attached to the outer hand slide’s lower ferrule to which the Neotech brace conveniently attaches. But the weight of my bass trombone – six pounds – remains considerable. I am grateful for the gifted physicians, surgeons, and physical therapists who have helped me get through these rough patches so I can continue to play the trombone. But I’m not getting any younger, and I would love to play the trombone for many more years. I have long wondered if, someday, I could have a bass trombone that weighed less and therefore put less stress on my body to hold it up. But it would not be enough that it was light. It would also have to sound great.


At the International Trombone Festival in 2017, I came across the booth of Butler Trombones. They had a display of small bore jazz trombones made out of carbon fiber. Always interested in new things, I pulled a small shank mouthpiece out of my bag and gave it a try. I was stunned. It sounded like a trombone. I fully expected it to sound like a glorified pBone, a high tech plastic trombone. I thought to myself, “This is not a toy.” What shocked me was that it sounded like – well – a trombone. And then this: the weight of the instrument was miniscule. I realized right away that the hand slide weighed virtually nothing and that the inertia caused by moving my normal brass slide was nearly eliminated. This was not a usual “lightweight slide” of nickel that often sounds cheap and thin. This trombone sounded great, holding it was virtually effortless, and moving the slide was something completely new. Completely new. My mind was reeling. And then my thoughts began to race and wonder, “If this small bore trombone sounds so great, could a bass trombone be made that sounds great, too?”

I spoke with Dave Butler about this. No, he had not yet made a bass trombone and one was probably some time away in research and development. But my enthusiasm caught his attention and with the blessing of YAMAHA, Dave has been working to retrofit one of my YBL-822G bass trombones with a carbon fiber bell, main tuning slide, and outer hand slide.


Now, I would not have started going down this road if I was not persuaded that the instrument that would eventually fit in my hand would be of the highest quality. I wanted to sound like me, and like most people, I was initially a little suspicious that a carbon fiber trombone could sound anything like a standard brass and nickel trombone. Intuitively it just seemed that brass would sound better. But after working with Dave Butler, I realized that I initially approached the idea of a carbon fiber trombone with a predetermined prejudice: I was hearing with my eyes. The carbon fiber parts are black. They look different than brass. Dave Butler’s website prominently features a quotation by John Maynard Keynes:

The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.

I needed to give this an honest chance.


So I asked Dave Butler to make these carbon fiber parts for me. I took delivery of the outer hand slide last April when I was performing at the Texas Christian University (TCU) Trombone Summit. When Dave handed it to me, I immediately put it on my bass trombone and walked out on stage to perform with it. I figured that would be a good test. It passed with flying colors. I was just knocked out with how great it sounded. And felt.

Yesterday, my new carbon fiber bell and main tuning slide arrived. Think about this: the weight of my double-valve bass trombone has been reduced from six pounds to four. A one-third reduction in weight. The instrument is so light that I no longer need to use my Neotech brace to support the weight of the trombone in my left hand. That’s because there’s so much less weight to support. And the sound? It sounds like me. It sounds great. This is not a toy.


Recently, I’ve learned WHY a carbon fiber trombone sounds so good. That’s because acoustically, a carbon fiber bell has very similar qualities to a brass bell. This has been scientifically determined. I commend two recent resources to those interested in more about the scientific basis for understanding the similarity between carbon fiber and brass. The first is an article by Hannes Vereecke and Wilfried Kausel, “Carbon Reinforced Polymer: An Alternative to Brass?” International Trumpet Guild Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (October 2012), 41-43. This is an excellent description of the acoustical properties of brass and carbon fiber as applied to brass instrument bells. The second may sound a bit surprising: Hannes Vereecke, The Sixteenth-Century Trombone: Dimensions, Materials and Techniques (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2016), 41-44. Vereecke is an acoustician who has studied musical instruments, particularly trumpets and trombones. His book on the sixteenth-century trombone is, to my mind, the best single volume devoted to construction and the playing properties of the Renaissance trombone, the instrument we popularly call the sackbut. In his discussion about the acoustics of brasswind instruments, he devotes several pages to a comparison of brass and carbon fiber. He concludes that:

“Playing tests revealed that the listeners were not able to distinguish between the sounds of the two instruments [brass and carbon fiber]. Therefore, it can be concluded that while the bell material affects primarily the playability of the instrument, in this case the difference in sound may be beneath the threshold of detection. CFRP [carbon fiber reinforced composite] has found a place in contemporary trombone design, and the same improvement in responsiveness is also confirmed there.”

UPDATE: Since I wrote this blog post, I have given performances on my Butler/YAMAHA carbon fiber bass trombone. A video of a performance I gave of James M. David’s “Southern Gothic” from Three Imaginary Landscapes at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas on March 2, 2019, has been posted to YouTube. You can see and hear me play this instrument for yourself. I speak a little at the beginning of the video and the performance begins at around 1:20. Click the video below or, to view the video in YouTube, click HERE.

To say that I am enthusiastic about what Dave Butler has done would be a profound understatement. My new carbon fiber parts as installed on my YAMAHA YBL-822G bass trombone have given me an instrument that is highly responsive and lightweight but has a sound I would expect to be produced by my fully brass and nickel bass trombone. Dave Butler’s work with carbon fiber will allow me to continue playing the trombone for many more years as a result of the instrument’s reduced weight and great responsiveness. And I am just at the beginning of this process; I expect I will learn even more about how this instrument as I continue practicing in the days and weeks ahead. Dave has also told me that he has plans to make an entire bass trombone out of carbon fiber, and that someday it might even have titanium valve rotors. A two pound bass trombone that sounds great? It is not outside the realm of possibility. For all of this I am very grateful, and I urge any reader who finds this to be intriguing to reach out to Butler Trombones ( and find out for yourself. This is not a toy. We are witnessing one of the most significant developments in trombone design and manufacturing since the invention of the F-attachment in 1839. This is not an exaggeration; of this I am quite serious. The future is now.


Trombone iconography: confusion abounds (and it shouldn’t be this difficult)

Trombone iconography: confusion abounds (and it shouldn’t be this difficult)

The trombone as we know it has been with us for around 500 years. That is, the familiarly shaped instrument with a U-shaped slide for the right hand that is connected to a bell that sits on the player’s left shoulder. The “as we know it” bit is my disclaimer to leave aside, for the purposes of this article, any discussion of precursors of the trombone -– real or imagined – such as the Renaissance slide trumpet. For this discussion, I’m talking about the trombone as a trombone, that familiar instrument that is instantly recognizable when seen on stage, in parades, and in artwork.

Well, maybe it’s recognizable.

I’ve been working on several books and in the course of my research, I’ve been very interested to see how artists – painters, sculptors, photographers – render the trombone. Because of the instrument’s distinctive shape, one would not think it would be so difficult to draw a trombone correctly, or more fundamentally, put it together correctly. But it apparently is more complicated than I think it should be. This article is a gallery of some images where artists got the trombone wrong. The point of this exercise: to remind us of the dangers of making assumptions about musical instruments from iconography alone. Imagine if a researcher stumbles upon these images 500 years from now. What kinds of assumptions would they make about the trombone and how it is held and played if they base their conclusions on these (and similar) images that are simply wrong in their depiction of the trombone? Abundans cautela non nocet! (Abundant caution does no harm!)

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First, here is how most people hold the trombone while playing. That’s me soloing with the Boston Pops Orchestra in Symphony Hall, Boston, a 2011 performance of the Bass Trombone Concerto written by my good friend, Chris Brubeck. The photo was taken by Michael J. Lutch. The instrument’s bell section is positioned on top of my left shoulder with the bell extending in front of my head. The hand slide is held by my right hand and is moved in and out. This said, we must note that in history, there have been trombones where the bell has extended backwards over the player’s left shoulder; these instruments are known as “over-the-shoulder” or OTS instruments. They achieved some popularity in the nineteenth century although they are known to have existed as early as the sixteenth century. At least that’s what some iconography tells us. They were never commonplace. And, yes, there are some trombone players who have put the trombone bell over their RIGHT shoulder moved the hand slide with their LEFT hand – jazz trombonist Locksley Wellington “Slide” Hampton comes to mind. But these instances are rare in the big scheme of things.


From the beginning of the trombone’s history, artists have had trouble with the concept of the trombone’s slide. This print, above, by Esaias van Husen dates from 1616 and is an example of the problem. At first glance all looks well with the trombone player who is flanked by cornettists. But while the trombone bell is properly shown as resting on the player’s left shoulder, the instrument is being held by the RIGHT hand and the slide moved by the LEFT hand. Further, the player’s left hand is far down the slide; in this position, the player could only move the slide perhaps one or two positions before his arm would be fully extended. Seventh position would remain illusory. Readers will notice that there are no braces on the bell. This in itself is not “wrong” in that we have a few surviving historical trombones from the Renaissance that do not have any bell braces although the lack of braces certainly contributes to an undesirable flexibility of the whole instrument and would make it more difficult to hold.

To be fair, these artists probably drew the trombone from memory. They would remember the bell and the slide, but exactly how it all fit together often had them scratching their collective heads.

We should perhaps forgive our artists from the Renaissance; the trombone was still relatively new and it was not ubiquitous in culture. Still, we must be very careful when we try to draw conclusions about what the trombone looked like in its early history solely on the basis of paintings, drawings, and sculptures.


But from the nineteenth century forward, I’m a little less forgiving. I mean, who thought that THIS (above) actually looked like a trombone? Where do we begin with the problems?! This New Year’s card carries the following greeting (a loose translation):

A blaring high note from the trombone,

A greeting like the sound of thunder.

Be cheerful, and in a good mood,

And good luck to you in the new year!

Well, good luck playing that instrument, whatever it is.


Here we go again. A lovely Christmas card, probably early twentieth century, with a woman playing trombone to accompany some Christmas carolers. But look at the impossibly small size of the trombone bell, and once again, with the bell over the left shoulder, it’s the left hand moving the slide. It ain’t necessarily so.


Here is a cover of Collier’s magazine, from December 1906. “The German Band” is shown.  I don’t know any German trombone players who hold the trombone like this. In fact, I don’t know any trombone players of ANY nationality that hold the trombone like this. Once again, we have a left-handed trombone player but, wow, with the bell under his right arm, it sure looks like the trombone is a weapon. I don’t like that look on his face. Better get out of the way!


Here is the famous poster made in 1894 or 1895 by Louis Anquetin; it features Marguerite Dufay, a well-known entertainer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the cafés concerts in Paris. I think we can give Anquetin a mulligan with this portrayal of Dufay. It is a poster that is 100% caricature. Dufay was a woman of ample proportions but did not have arms like this – at all. The trombone is oversized like her personality but the fact that her trombone is held over her RIGHT shoulder by her LEFT hand was noticed by writers in 1898, shortly after the poster appeared. As an aside, this is one of the most famous images of a trombone and I’ve written an article about Marguerite Dufay, “Finding Marguerite Dufay: an iconic trombonist revealed” that will appear in the January issue of the International Trombone Association Journal. Anquetin’s artistic license was part of the success of the poster. But it is still wrong!

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Remember those Valentine’s Day cards you used to give out to classmates in elementary school? OK, maybe you’re not old enough to remember those days where such a thing wouldn’t be met with a lawsuit, but I remember that time well. It was a very 1950s and 1960s thing. We used to give out valentines that had the look of this one, above. But, wow, what in the world is THIS? It’s actually a pretty fancy valentine. The player’s right arm moves; you can see the little hinge pin on his shoulder. Now, I THINK it’s a trombone. At least it has enough pieces to make a trombone. But who thought this instrument could work at all? Is he holding the instrument with his right hand or moving the slide? I thought that perhaps the mechanical aspect of the card might make it right. But. . . noooooo. Here’s what you can do with it:

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Yikes. The only thing this boy can do is launch the trombone like a javelin. A new Olympic sport! Play it? No way! Where’s the mouthpiece (among other problems)? I’m always particularly disappointed when the trombone is misrepresented for children. They ought to see the instrument as it really is, and see it in a way that can help them understand what it can actually do. As they say on Monday Night Countdown before each Monday Night Football game, “C’mon, man!”

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Speaking of valentines, here’s another one. Such a nice young man. But since his trombone is all out of whack – once he toots his horn, I’m not sure he could actually move the slide since the slide tubes are not parallel, among other problems – I’m not sure he’d be such a good valentine after all. Why is it so difficult to get this right?!


When the trombone intersects with fictional creatures, anything can happen. I picked up this mug at McDonald’s many years ago. It shows the character Grimace playing the trombone. At first glance all looks well but as you look closely, there’s a problem: where is the back end of the trombone bell? It appears to go over his left shoulder. But the bell/slide receiver appears to go right into Grimace’s chest. I don’t know, I can’t figure it out. But it is a cool mug (if you like to hold purple creatures who play the trombone while you’re drinking your coffee).


This late nineteenth century advertising card for Smith’s Umbrellas – I have several of these cards, all featuring different merchant names – shows a trombonist solving the proverbial problem of getting condensation out of his slide. But look at the inner slide – it appears to be only a few inches long. I don’t think this player could have gotten past third position before his outer slide came off in his hand. So much for the seven position trombone. . .

Rodeheaver photo with truncated trombone, 1926 -

Speaking of trombones with truncated slides, here is an advertisement for an appearance by Homer Rodeheaver in Buffalo, New York, in 1926. Rodeheaver was the trombone-playing song leader for evangelist “Billy” Sunday in the first third of the twentieth century. He is the subject of a biography that I’ve recently co-authored with my friend, Kevin Mungons, that will be published by University of Illinois Press. Rodeheaver’s trombone was part of his personal brand and I’ve come across hundreds of photos of him with his instrument. I assure you, he played a standard seven-position slide trombone. But look at this advertisement; it looks like he’s playing a very short slide. The bell is the right size but the slide – what happened?


It’s not difficult to figure out. Here is the original photo that was used in the ad. As you can see, the end of Rodeheaver’s trombone slide is cut off in the photo. For the advertisement, the copy editor obviously knew the photo was not complete and to use it in the ad, the trombone slide needed to have its bottom crook. So he just added one where the slide ended in the photo, ignoring the fact that the slide was actually much longer. Whoops!


More recently, we find advertisements like this one for Macy’s. Cool looking guy. But I don’t know any trombone player who would buy a leather jacket from Macy’s based on this photo. We’ve got an impossibility here. Just try to think through how far the player’s LEFT hand can go before it slams into the bell. That could get very expensive. And painful. And speaking of money,  lot of it went into this photo shoot. You would have thought they could have gotten the actor to hold the trombone correctly, you think? EPIC FAIL!

trombone macy's

And there’s even more to the Macy’s story. Here’s another, fuller version of the advertisement. This woman may be smiling on the outside, but I have a feeling that when her trombone playing dude goes fast for sixth position, she’ll be calling 911 for an ambulance to come and take care of his broken wrist. Nothing funny about that. What in the world was Macy’s thinking? [ANSWER: Macy’s probably was NOT thinking.]


Here’s another one, a snapshot of a television advertisement for the GAP that I saw last night while watching a football game. Now, maybe this young woman really IS a left handed trombone player. But I don’t think so. It’s a rare thing when an advertising agency uses an actual musician in an advertisement. Besides, I didn’t hear any trombone playing in the ad’s soundtrack. She sure looks like she’s having a great time. But the trombone put together backwards? Uh-uh.

These kinds of examples are legion, on and on we could go. We can chuckle when we see the trombone portrayed in a goofy, or even impossible configuration. But it really shouldn’t be so difficult to get it right. And it is important. Just beware when you look at iconography for ANYTHING. Artists take their liberties, and we should always check twice before trusting any image!


Bach, choices, and change

Bach, choices, and change

I’ve been listening to a lot of music by Johann Sebastian Bach recently. It started two  weeks ago when I was driving to Bloomington, Indiana, to take part in a celebration of the life of my trombone teacher during my freshman year at Indiana University, Keith Brown. It was about a five hour drive to Bloomington from our home near Chicago, so I put my copies of the three recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites performed by Yo-Yo Ma in the car.


I have tremendous respect for Yo-Yo. I feel very fortunate to have played many concerts with him when I was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In fact, the first recording I made with the BSO was with Yo-Yo – Strauss’ Don Quixote conducted by Seiji Ozawa. I heard Yo-Yo play the Bach Suites in a recital at the Boston Symphony’s summer home, Tanglewood many years ago, and we enjoyed many conversations about them as well as other subjects both musical and not-musical. I am a better person, artist, musician, and trombonist because Yo-Yo Ma’s life intersected with mine.

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I listened to all of Yo-Yo’s Bach Cello Suites recordings on the way down to Bloomington and then again on the way up. Ma’s recordings were recorded in 1983 (in his twenties), 1997 (in his forties), and 2017 (in his sixties). They are all very different from each other, and show dramatic changes in interpretation and technique from this exceptionally gifted artist. I enjoy them all.


My foray into listening to Bach continued this week with an assignment to write a script for the weekly radio show I host for Central Sound at Arizona PBS that is broadcast on Tuesday evenings on KBAQ-FM, Phoenix. I’ve been the scriptwriter and on-air-host of the radio show Arizona Encore for a few years and I am continuing to do this even though I now live in Illinois, recording the show in my home office. I always enjoy writing these scripts because in the process I always learn something.

This current script is for a show that features performances from the Arizona Bach Festival, and it is all Bach, all the time. It brought me into contact with some superb music and excellent performances – a couple of Bach’s organ works, Cantata 51, his concerto for oboe d’amore, Contrapunctus 13 from The Art of the Fugue, and a lute suite. I love writing scripts about the music of Bach because there is so much to learn and then so much to share with listeners.

As an aside, if you want to listen to Arizona Encore, you can hear it live streamed Tuesday evenings at 7:00 pm Phoenix time on the KBAQ website, Or you can download the Classical Arizona PBS mobile app (available for free at the iTunes store or GooglePlay) and with that, you can listen to shows on demand for free.

As I was working on this show, I decided to pull out my recordings Bach’s Goldberg Variations by pianist Glenn Gould. I’ve always found Gould’s playing to be fascinating. He is a controversial artist; many people either love or intensely dislike his playing. There often isn’t a middle ground when it comes to Glenn Gould. Count me among those who find his playing and interpretations to be of great interest. He makes me think about music making in some different ways and I turn to his interpretations often for inspiration.


Gould’s was a life cut short by a stroke, at age 50 in 1982. He left behind a very interesting recorded legacy including two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. They were bookends to his career, being his first recording (1955) and his last recording (1981). If you have not heard them, I commend them to you, especially as packaged in a three-compact disc set, “Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder. The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981.” Not only do you get discs with his Goldberg Variations recordings, but there is a third disc that contains his final radio interview (with Tim Page) in which he discusses these two recordings. This is great stuff.

Recently, Gould’s copy of his music for the Goldberg Variations has surfaced and is coming up for auction. Want an insight into his mind? Have a look at a sample:


In the last few days, I’ve listened to Gould’s Goldberg Variations recordings no fewer than 10 times. Each. I have enjoyed this music for many years, but for two days, the only music I listened to is the Goldberg Variations. Over and over and over. And what have I learned, in listening to the 23 and 49 year old Glenn Gould’s recordings?

We change our minds.

Like Yo-Yo Ma’s three recordings of the Bach Cello Suites, Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations show an artist who changed how he felt about playing a piece of music. Over time, each of these artists came to grips with their present season of life and they performed the same music differently than they had when they were younger. Sometimes a movement was faster; sometimes it was slower. Sometimes it had cleaner articulation; sometimes it was more legato. Sometimes there was a different musical “feeling” to the performance. But in every instance, it was not simply a matter of “this performance is better than that one.” No, it is more that “this performance is DIFFERENT than that one.” Different does not always mean better or worse. Hearing artists change over time is fascinating to me because it is reflective of something that we all do -– we change. It is possible to love two things that are very different exactly the same.

This may seem self-evident but when you drill down this thought – we change – you realize that we don’t actually always believe that we WILL change. And this sometimes gets us into trouble.

When I was Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University, we had a weekly trombone studio class. My career as a teacher has been to do much more than simply teach trombone lessons. I have always been interested in helping my students actualize their potential not only in music, but in all of life, and help them navigate the choices they are faced with. Each year, I spent part of our first studio class in the fall semester talking about personal choices.

In that discussion, I wanted my students to understand that I knew that each of them were distinct individuals, and that each person makes choices for him or herself. Many of these choices are interesting but rather innocuous – one person likes sushi, another is a vegan, yet another enjoys Big Macs. These are not moral choices; they are personal choices. We can argue the health benefits of various diets but eating is often done in private and generally has little consequence on how people view you.

Other choices are presented to the public. How you dress. The length of your hair. Whether you have a tattoo, or body piercing. The length of your fingernails. These are also personal choices, but they are visible to others. And some other people, whether you like it or not, whether you desire it or not, will make judgments about you in light of these choices you make. While I may have an opinion about your choices, that opinion does not wholly form my impression of you. I told my students that I looked at them more deeply than their physical appearance. I was young once, too, and in my youth I made choices and decisions for which others certainly judged me. I remember.

But in this discussion with my students, I would always make two points:

While I do not judge you, your character, or your personhood on the basis of many of the personal choices you make, others will.


You will not always feel the same about the choices you make today.

These are very important things to consider. It is easy to say, “I will do what I want and I don’t care what other people think,” the fact is that what other people think of you can have significant implications on your life. I would remind students that when they go to interview for a job, the person hiring them might be their father’s age. The hiring party might not have the same view you have of the choices you have made. You would probably never know if the reason you didn’t get a job is because of the way you dressed, or whether you had a tattoo or industrial ear piercing. But the view of others might very well have implications on whether or not you are hired.

This in itself is not the sole reason a person should or should not make particular personal choices. But it is important for one to have a self-discussion and weigh the potential consequences of a decision. One should not be surprised that the choices we make often have unintended consequences. I have found that when I ask a person in their twenties how they think they might feel about a choice they make now when they are in their forties, they confess they never considered the thought. Think about this. It’s important.

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The other thing is this: we change our minds as we get older.

Just like, over time, Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma changed their minds about how they felt about performing music of Bach, we also change our minds about how we feel about many things.

This may seem self evident. I’m sure that anyone reading this article can look back on his or her life and see things that they have changed over the years. It is relatively easy to look at the past and see the changes we have made in our lives.

But what we DON’T so easily see is that we WILL change in the future.

I commend to you this thought-provoking article by John Tierney, Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be. The article appeared in The New York Times on January 3, 2013, and is very thought-provoking. I have shared it with many of my students since it first appeared.

Tierney’s article is about a study by a team of psychologists that found that “people underestimate how much they will change in the future,” what they call the “end of history illusion.” The premise is neatly summarized by Tierney:

The typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.

When I was 18, I went to college. Without my father around to “remind me” that I should get a haircut, I let my hair grow long. I liked it. My girlfriend (now my wife of 43 years) liked it. Doing so was pretty common in the early 70s. I kept my long hair for several years. The photo below is from the summer of 1974, in my dorm room at Wheaton College in Illinois. Very seventies for sure.


But then I changed. One morning, I work up, looked in the mirror, and said, “Douglas: you look stupid. Get a haircut.” So I did. I changed my mind.

As I look back on it, I’m glad that my act of youthful rebellion was reversible. Hair grows, can be cut, and grows back. I changed my mind so I changed my look. And there were no unintended consequences that lasted beyond my decision to change.

The same cannot be said for all personal choices. Norman Rockwell portrayed this very neatly in his famous Saturday Evening Post cover of the tattoo artist. The sailor sits in the chair, getting his girlfriend’s name inked on his arm. Below the now crossed out names of past girlfriends.


Choices and change. They go hand in hand. We make decisions. But we would do well to think through the potential unintended consequences of decisions and how later in life, we might not feel the same way about those choices as we did when we made them. Personally, I’m grateful that when I changed my mind about one of my personal choices, I could simply get my hair cut rather than get a tattoo painfully removed. I have many friends who look back on youthful choices – recreational drug use, excessive alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, multiple sexual partners, body mutilation, etc. – who today, having changed their mind about those choices, are living with the consequences of decisions that were not well thought through at the time.

Yo-Yo Ma and Glenn Gould reminded me recently how we as artists change. Change can be a very good thing sometimes, and some kinds of change are indications of positive personal growth. But John Tierney’s article reminds us that we actually WILL change, even if we can’t imagine it is possible. Tierney closes his article with this story about psychologist Dan P. McAdams:

“The end-of-history effect may represent a failure in personal imagination,” said Dan P. McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern who has done separate research  into the stories people construct about their past and future lives. He has often heard people tell complex, dynamic stories about the past but then make vague, prosaic projections of a future in which things stay pretty much the same.

Dr. McAdams was reminded of a conversation with his 4-year-old daughter during the craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s. When he told her they might not be her favorite thing one day, she refused to acknowledge the possibility. But later, in her 20s, she confessed to him that some part of her 4-year-old mind had realized he might be right.

“She resisted the idea of change, as it dawned on her at age 4, because she could not imagine what else she would ever substitute for the Turtles,” Dr. McAdams said. “She had a sneaking suspicion that she would change, but she couldn’t quite imagine how, so she stood with her assertion of continuity. Maybe something like this goes on with all of us.”

You never know where your mind will go when you listen to the music of J. S. Bach.