Originally created 08/31/97

The Human Trombone



Once, a little boy asked Robert P. Johnson II if he had swallowed a trombone.

The answer was "no." He makes that sound all by himself.

Mr. Johnson, 22, calls himself "Human Trombone," and why not. He stands there, puts his lips together, and if you close your eyes, you might think he was playing a big, sliding horn. It's a little like Bobby McFerrin, except he's one instrument instead of the entire band.

These days the Augusta State senior is using his skill as a volunteer.He entertains children at the Medical College of Georgia's day care center and older people at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital and Jennings Health Care nursing home on Deans Bridge Road.

He'd like to make money doing this someday, working birthday parties, clubs and wherever else he can get booked.

Mr. Johnson became the Human Trombone by accident. He first made the noise to clear his throat when he was preparing to sing. His cousin, with whom he sang in a choir, told him he sounded like a trombone. An act was born.

Mr. Johnson is an eager performer who mixes well with children when he visits the MCG day care center - children are, he says, "what heaven will be like."

He doesn't just stand and perform, leaving a silent audience to sit and appreciate him. He gets the children singing "The wheels on the bus go round and round ..." and then chimes in with Human Trombone accompaniment.

When one child asks if he has a hidden tape recorder, Mr. Johnson tells him about the boy who asked if he swallowed a trombone. Then he says people should always eat their vegetables, and segues into the theme from Popeye. His only long piece, one he could do for adults, is a lullaby in which he accompanies a Kenny G recording.

The children accept Mr. Johnson, but at first they laughed at this guy standing there making noises with his mouth.

"They didn't know what to think," said Sarah Capps, a counselor at the center. "But they got used to him. And he's real involved with the children."

Laughter is the biggest challenge, Mr. Johnson said. He performed in front of a large audience at the Augusta Mini Theater's talent scholarship performance, and he could hear children's laughter from the darkened seats of Augusta State's Grover C. Maxwell Performing Arts Center. He has gone into hair salons to attempt to get himself work at birthday parties or other events, and women have laughed.

"I feel kind of hurt when people don't understand what I'm trying to do. ... It's hard," he said.

He recently called Wycliffe Gordon, an Augusta resident who plays trombone with the Wynton Marsalis Septet. He left a verse of Amazing Grace on his answering machine.

When Mr. Gordon first heard the message, he also laughed. He was worried that he would laugh when Mr. Johnson visited him in person.

But what Mr. Johnson does is not without precedent, Mr. Gordon said. The Mills Brothers made sounds of horn instruments with their mouths, and it also follows the spirit of scat artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Mr. Gordon encouraged Mr. Johnson to learn more about music.

"If he develops his musical skills, he'll have a show," Mr. Gordon said.

So far, Mr. Johnson is not discouraged. He talked to the Augusta GreenJackets about performing the national anthem. They were booked, so he's working on the Atlanta Hawks. He also wants to audition for Showtime at the Apollo.

Mr. Johnson wants to improve. He has sought advice from college music professors and is listening to music and practicing. When he can do what he wants, he prefers performing gospel and classical music.

He knows that people will still laugh at first because what he does is unusual, but he believes people will pay more attention if he gets better, and people give him a chance.