Pity the poor trombone player. For centuries we were revered members of society, marking the time from atop 16th century German city towers, performing at Beethoven’s own funeral, played by Paul Newman at the movies. We have been used by innumerous composers to represent Death, God, or Darth Vader. It’s all been downhill from there. Now a trombonist is the ultimate band geek, Petey in American Pie 2, the “womp womp” noise one Twitterer uses to humiliate another in a quote tweet.
This brings us to Trombone Champ. This PC-only music rhythm game (think Guitar Hero) uses the trombone and its practitioners as a constant punching bag for jokes that might make my kindergartener chuckle. Nevertheless, thanks to the game’s viral success, you may still find yourself happily logging on for a microtonal rendition of the “Blue Danube Waltz” during your afternoon coffee break.
How much does game play resemble real trombone playing? Does playing Tetris resemble Frank Lloyd Wright at the drafting table? In the game’s notes, the creators suggest that the mouse is oriented upside down to resemble the mechanism of a trombone slide; raise the mouse and the pitch lowers, just as when you move the slide away from your face the pitch lowers. This is true—up to a point. The reality is that a hand on a trombone slide only changes the pitch a little more than a fourth (think the first two notes of “Here Comes the Bride”). The rest of our pitch changes are done with the lips, tongue, oral cavity, and diaphragm.
As in most music games, the player of Trombone Champ chooses from a selection of well-known pieces, watches notes scroll by, and tries to match them by moving the mouse up and down while tapping the keyboard to “play” along. As you frantically move your mousing wrist, your hard work is mirrored by the sound of a whoopie cushion-synth lovechild and a trombone-playing avatar straight out of Mark Zuckerberg’s nightmares. Your playing is then graded on a scale of F to A, with S being reserved for a perfect score. In an introductory screen, the game’s creators lovingly detail the math behind the intricate, punishing scoring system, like a panel of Juilliard jurists gleefully explaining why they just flunked a flautist.
In the background during play are silly graphics from the New York Public Library’s public domain collection: a ballerina during “Sugar Plum Fairy,” a Jewish star during “Hava Nagila.” By collecting points during gameplay, the player can earn “cards”, which can then be used to further advance their progress in an absurdist quest (involving cartoon baboons) to become the titular Trombone Champ.
Gameplay is not so much like using a trombone slide as it is like playing theremin, a washtub bass, or perhaps a single string of the violin. I’m a Broadway-caliber, experienced pro who has been playing the trombone for 35 years, an ace sight-reader, and a practitioner of many arcane styles. Still, I played Trombone Champ for a few hours and maintained a solid C+ average. Reversing the direction of the mouse helped, as did slowing down the gameplay, switching to a track ball, and concentrating on a handful of the easier tunes. Mostly, it made my wrist seize up.
One of the games strangest elements is not the dad-level humor, or the references to hot dogs or baboons, but the decision to include collectable “cards” featuring real trombone players and composers. After a successful rendition of “William Tell” one can trade in points for a card featuring Gustav Mahler, Tommy Dorsey, or Bill Watrous. Even my heroes Roswell Rudd, J.J. Johnson, and Jack Teagarden make an appearance, with little biographies that are half real and half nonsense. Perhaps this trifle will lead, somewhere out there, to a young gamer intrigued by the name Roswell Rudd, wondering if it’s real or made up, and turning to Google. What a strange gateway to the world of avant-garde jazz.
Nevertheless, if you put aside the elementary school-level jokes, the “choose your fighter” fidgeting of the avatar, and the constant fart noises, there are simple pleasures to be found in Trombone Champ. While trying to center the pitch of a note in a flatulent “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” your trained musician lizard brain takes over, the hard-earned connection of ear to muscle. Suddenly you are transported to a Saturday afternoon in 1992, at a rehearsal with the San Francisco Youth Orchestra. You are one of three trombonists, holding one note of a major chord, but you’re ever so slightly sharp, causing the whole chord to shimmer like heat off a tarmac. The first trombonist is yelling at you, just 15 years of age, to “move, move, move!”; your wrist extends the slide outward 1/16th of an inch, and magically the shimmering dissipates, the chord rings true, and all is right with the world. You are the Trombone Champ.