Playing Her Way Through the Pandemic

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Julie Krygsman was 11 years old and a student at Christopher Columbus Middle School when she first picked up a trombone…and she hasn’t looked back since.

Julie was living a happy life as a busy musician but when the pandemic hit in early 2020, nearly everything shut down, especially performance arts. Gigs dried up, private lessons ceased, and like the rest of the world, Julie was left to find ways to cope with life in lockdown. Terrified by the pandemic, when she couldn’t even get an appointment to see her doctor and things looked so grim, Julie decided that “I’m going to put as much creativity and beauty into the world as I can in case this gets me.” She started painting, dancing, making YouTube videos with her husband, and was even taking ballet classes online.

Julie recalls that at one point early in the pandemic, as she was working on a mural in the house she shares with husband Wes, she was thinking about the pandemic. Like many of us, the lack of a vaccine and fears for the health of herself and others left her feeling hopeless. Rather than succumb to despair, Julie went to their eclectically decorated, red-walled practice room and played her trombone. She spent two hours in the near dark, with just the stand light casting a glow over her music, and lost herself in the sound. When she left the room Julie says she was able to breathe easy again. It was the most peaceful and comforting way to hide from the intense stuff of the pandemic. It was the place she could go where everything was ok. As the months passed, Julie noted that if she found herself feeling particularly cranky it was usually after a week of not picking up her horn. Playing just made things better.

Then in January of 2021, when things were still pretty locked down, a strange challenge presented itself. Julie’s good friend and colleague Joe made a New Year’s resolution. He vowed to give up pizza, his favorite food, until his birthday at the end of the month. Julie turned that concept on its head and decided that if he could give up something he loved for a year, she could choose to do something she loved every day until her own birthday in May. Thus began her practice of playing her trombone every single day…no matter what. Once she got to her birthday she saw no reason to quit so she forged ahead, never missing a day.

In April, just one week before Easter and a flurry of gigs, she threw her back out and was in so much pain she could barely walk. Rather than break her streak, Julie spent a week learning how to play her instrument with back spasms and she didn’t miss a single performance.

Julie’s self-imposed daily requirement is that she complete, at a minimum, her twenty minute warm-up. She keeps notes in a small book, tracking her progress and her days-in-a-row count. At the time of our interview, she was on Day 521. “Doing this every day is actually the most sensible thing,” she says. “It’s the most sane thing to do in this chaotic time.”

In addition to providing a haven from the fear of Covid and loss of routine, this daily playing has had practical benefits. Julie’s facial muscles, which must work hard to maintain an appropriate embouchure (the specific position of lips and tongue needed to play her instrument) have never been in better shape. Honing her skill as a trombonist prepared her for reentering the workforce as the world began to open up again and now she and her trombone are busier than ever.

Julie plays in various small ensembles, as part of the pit orchestra for local musicals, and at church services. She also gives private lessons to trombone students and is finishing her 18th season as the assistant director for the Cresskill marching band where she works alongside her band director friend Joe. As the assistant director, Julie teaches twirling, works with the Color Guard, and gives trombone lessons.

Julie has some other surprising talents. After taking a “just for fun” class on the aerial silks - the long strips of fabric that allow artists to perform graceful acrobatics while hanging in the air - she was hooked! A few months later, Julie was performing on the silks in her first student showcase. She trained with Circus Warehouse, one of the few outfits for the circus arts, and went on two tours as a performer.

After a friend photoshopped a trombone into a picture of Julie hanging upside down in her silks, she wondered if she could actually pull off such a neat trick. Although that first attempt left her equilibrium out of whack, she eventually trained her body to withstand the pressure of playing while inverted and has been hired specifically for this skill - moving from orchestra pit to the silks, trombone in hand. Today, Julie’s Clifton backyard features a huge aerial rig so that she can practice at home.

“Playing every day helped me deal with the pandemic in every way possible. I’m not religious but whatever force in the universe made me raise my hand at age 11, it changed the course of my life. I lost my grandfather and my mom as a kid and playing was the best way to deal. There’s beauty there.”

Julie Krygsman shares her colorful home with husband Wes, who is the elementary band director at Clifton schools 11, 13, and 17. He teaches strings at School 8 and is an adjunct at Kean University where he teaches tuba and euphonium. The two of them live with Sammi, their pug, and kitties Cimbasso, Loki, and Baer.

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