Monday, December 14, 2020

 Christmas Carols, 

Cold and

Crystallized 1959

The four students who couldn’t get home for Christmas from the Eastman School of Music because of time, distance and money, were nostalgic and lonely; three of us had never been away from home at Christmas before. We were brass players; more specifically we were trombone players. We were bonded by the fact that we were all trombonists and, more so, that we were students of the Eastman School of Music. We literally came from the equidistant corners of the USA but we held in common that playing Christmas music in our home centers was part of our history,

Rochester, in the northern part of New York State right on the coast of Lake Ontario, was famous for its brutally cold winters, which as I recall was -10° every night through the holidays in 1959, this bleakness was acutely exacerbated by the fact that as far as we could tell we were the only four Eastman students remaining in Rochester. Restaurants were closed, most Rochesterians were home with their with families, Christmas trees and cozy crackling fireplaces. The Eastman school was locked up and our Christmas dinner was hamburgers at the White Tower Cafe. I do remember that the White Tower did somehow manage to always have delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice. I remember ordering three classes.

On Christmas Eve, Almost without planning, we found ourselves carrying our instruments to the car ready to embark on a Christmas Eve of caroling; We were George Osborn, later to become 1st trombone in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (presently Passed away), Harold Steiman, later to become 2nd trombone and personnel manager of the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra, Ed Anderson, later to become basstrombone of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra (presently passed away) and me, Roger Bobo later to become tubist in several orchestras. 

We were lucky, the car started, many automobiles simply wouldn’t function at those extraordinarily low temperatures. We were on our way. Our first stop was the home of Sidney Mear, First trumpetist in the Rochester Philharmonic and trumpet teacher at the Eastman School. It was a beautiful house with Christmas lights and a beautifully decorated Christmas tree shining from the front window. The whole street glistened with decorations and the reflections on the thick covering of snow created a beautiful and eerie light.


We were ready to set up; we put our mouthpieces in our pockets to keep them warm so they wouldn’t freeze to our faces when we started to play. We took our two tenortrombones one basstrombone and my comtrabasstrombone and two music-stands to the front of the house. It wasn’t easy taking the horns out of the cases and putting them together with the heavy coats and the very thick gloves were all wearing.


We tuned very softly and very quickly; our first piece was “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem”. When we started to play we were all stunned by the sound we heard; the combination of the temperature, the ice and snow resulted in a sound like none of us had ever heard before and I have never heard since. Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem was in the key of Db, although I’m sure because of the cold in severe flatness probably closer to C. The amazing thing was the tone quality was eerily strange; a combination of crystallized and warm, I’ve never heard anything like it since. It was unforgettable.


When we finished the first four measures to three beat Db chord, which ended the first phrase, we weren’t too surprised that our slides were frozen solid, fused in what ever position that note was, mine was a Db and the 5th position and it was permanent until we could warm our instruments! Our caroling session was over for that Christmas Eve. Fortunately, Sidney Mear was not at home and we were able to leave with our awkwardly long trombones, let them thaw and return them to their cases.


Our Christmas Eve caroling adventure was a failure but we were determined to go out again Christmas night. The weather report for Christmas was even colder than the day before. Certainly, the same freezing temperatures were still going to exist, probably worse. The solution came to us simultaneously, “ANTIFREEZE!”. After a brief discussion whether antifreeze would damage our slides, the decision was made that we must go caroling that night, no matter what, Actually, antifreeze seemed to work just as well as other lubricants we would use in normal temperatures.


We made several stops that night always with that incredible ‘crystallized warm’ sound. We made stops at the houses of friends and colleagues. We were offered delicious Christmas treats like fruit cake, cookies, various Christmas family snack specialties and once some hot mulled wine. Except for the mulled wine it was almost like trick or treating on Halloween as a child. The mulled wine was good and very warming.


Our next and last stop was the home of our beloved teacher and father figure, Emory Remington. After one carol he and his wife opened the front door, he and Mrs. Remington stood in their doorway for a few more carols; clearly they were moved and Mr. Remington asked us to come in and get warm. We sat around the fireplace and as we hoped Mr. Remington (The Chief) told us stories of times passed. The Chief had a way merging the past, present and future into nostalgic logical narrative. 


Shortly Mrs. Remington arrived with cups of hot-buttered-rum and homemade Christmas cookies. It was the best Christmas evening I can remember.


Roger Bobo

Oaxaca, Mexico

December 14, 2020