It’s late in the evening, and I am watching along on my computer as a jovial-looking cartoon man named Beezerly lives out many peoples’ worst nightmare, confidently honking for a crowd on a brass instrument he cannot play.
The moment the song picks up its tempo, Beezerly is outmatched. The bass marches in perfect time to relentless drums, inviting our young hero to toot out the intricate melody of “Hava Nagila” at lightning speed. What comes out of Beezerly’s golden instrument is an atonal buffet of flatulence-adjacent moaning. At one point, the cartoon musician triumphantly holds a note too long and nearly passes out. Visibly in pain, he gasps for air, leaving an awkward hole in the classic tune.
I can’t help but feel bad for Beezerly because I am Beezerly (or at least playing as him). His pain is my pain—quite literally, as my attempt to gamely honk out 20,000 musical notes in under three minutes has left a searing pain in my mouse-clicking hand and forearm. But, like Beezerly, I’m undeterred by the momentary pain and the embarrassment of getting a (frankly, overly generous) grade of C on my performance. If true mastery is forged in the fires of near-constant, ego-crushing failure, then Beezerly and I are on the same path toward personal growth. Plus, it’s a phenomenal way to kill 15 minutes while belly laughing at fart noises.
When gameplay videos from Trombone Champ—like Guitar Hero, only replace the guitars with trombones—went viral last Wednesday, I experienced the game as I assume its creators intended: I unknowingly clicked on the video at 8 a.m. with my computer’s speaker volume near its max and nearly ruptured an eardrum to the sound of a fake digital man bleating out Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony while a scowling Beethoven looks on in the background. My dogs, also startled, began to howl wildly at this musical desecration. I started laughing so hard that tears welled up in my eyes. Within 11 seconds, Trombone Champ threw my entire house into disarray. 10/10. No notes. A perfect game.
In just a week, Trombone Champ has followed the usual path of something genuinely delightful that goes viral. You get the news articles with headlines like “The internet's new favorite video game,” and reporters track down the game’s makers, who respond with genuine, if cautious, enthusiasm and befuddlement over their creation finding a massive audience overnight. People start posting their own funny videos and scores on Twitch and YouTube, and you get a whole mess of random people and influencers playing the game and reacting.
But, man, I sure do like watching those clips of first-timers trying to play Trombone Champ. Without fail, nobody is prepared for how hard the game is and how slippery the controls feel. But this is a feature and not a bug, because that initial inability to produce a coherent melody gives way to all the sharp and flat bleets and blurts and toots. Because the player is human, and thus easily delighted by unexpected audio that sounds fart-like, they usually begin to chuckle. The effect becomes part of a rich history of gags where people surprise an audience with some purposely awful music, like Mozart’s composition “A Musical Joke” or this video of a symphony switching instruments and playing “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001: A Space Odyssey).”
There’s also another level to the subtle comedic genius of Trombone Champ, which is that the game works from the premise that the avatar you’re playing as has at least some understanding of their instrument. But, when the curtain comes up, the poor soul immediately finds themselves on the wrong stage. The game’s creator, Dan Vecchitto, acknowledged this much in The Washington Post, arguing that the game feeds off of “the loudness combined with the imprecision” and “steps up to the plate with extreme confidence.” It is a simulator for being in way over your head but just barreling onward and pretending that everything is normal, which is also a pretty accurate way to describe being alive in 2022.
This weekend I was reading through some YouTube comments on a Trombone Champ playthrough video. For YouTube comments, they were uncharacteristically joyful. One, from a person who identified themselves as a middle-school band director, caught my eye. “I've never seen a more accurate depiction of what goes through an 11 year old's head when you give them a trombone than this video,” they wrote. With a minimal amount of effort, I was able to learn that this person’s name is Curtis Wetzel (no relation, lol), and that he’s a band director at East Troy Middle School in East Troy, Wisconsin (his email signature also identifies him as a “Freelance Arranger and On-Call Sousaphonist”). I reached out to ask him what the game accurately captures about being thrust into a musical environment.
“I work with students just beginning to navigate music and how instruments work,” Wetzel told me over email. “This game seems to capture the weird idiosyncrasies with using something outside your body to create what you hear in your head…It's like how your voice sounds so different when you hear it in a recording compared to how you hear it, except adding an instrument adds so many more speed bumps and complications.”
Wetzel also said that the YouTube videos of people starting to play Trombone Champ remind him of how his students confront a new instrument. “It's a lot of, How does this thing even work, why does this work this way, why can't I do this simple thing? With some laughter mixed in as well,” he told me. “In case you don't know, sound is produced by buzzing one's lips into the instrument. Usually, students will think of this as a farting sound, and sound like this their first few months. Needless to say—I was hooked on the big metal fart-maker (I play the tuba.)”