A River Runs Through It

by Mike Becker

Playing with a smooth legato is a challenging style for trombonists, but it’s not as hard to achieve with a little help from some creative metaphors. When Jay Friedman asked me to write this article, I thought of all the great images he has given me over the years that have really helped to improve my technique. The great thing about studying with creative musicians and teachers like Jay, is that they can help you find which concepts work and inspire you to develop ideas of your own. After all, we have to be our own best teachers, as we spend most of our practice time by ourselves. When you solve problems on your own, the level of retention is high. I’d like to share a few of my own ideas.

A smooth legato has often been taught with conflicting approaches by many teachers and players. Some say move the slide fast, some say move it slowly. Some say move the air slowly, and some say keep it fast. I have even heard “keep the air warm”. One fact that is indisputable however, is the timing between the slide, the tongue and the air has to be synchronized to realize a smooth and seamless sound. How we achieve this is where we tend to disagree. I always try to achieve technique first with a direct musical thought. For example, if I am playing a legato passage, I might try to imagine how a great singer would sound singing this passage. For maximum effect, have a very specific artist in mind when doing this. If that doesn’t work, you can try to visualize something in the natural world that might translate into sound. For example, in legato, imagine a river with stones. The water flows over the stones, some being large, and some being small. Regardless of the size of the stones, the water flows over them in the same manner, over the top and in a continuous direction that does not suddenly drop off like a water fall. If our air is like the water, and the notes like the stones, then the character and integrity of the air should reflect the flow of the river. That means no dips between notes, and no sudden drop off of air between the notes. Your air has to flow like a river. Another thing to keep in mind is that the river flows over the stones the same way regardless of the volume of water, or the speed of the flow, which means if you play softer, the air still has to move the same way! (no water falls or sudden drop offs.)If you listen critically, you’ll know when there is an uneven air flow or interruption when you hear the dreaded “twa” sound or choppiness in the line.

Another metaphor that I find helpful is to think of a conveyer belt moving along while little drops of chocolate are placed on the belt as its moving. (of course you can think of any other item of your liking) The belt being the air and the item dropped being the tongue or the notes. The speed of the mechanism dropping the item must be relevant to the speed of the belt, which gets us back to the timing of the tongue, air and slide. If the timing on our imaginary belt was not adjusted properly, then what would the chocolate on the belt look like? It would have slop all over it, with drippings strewn about, hence the “sloppy slide”.

Concerning the slide vs. air vs. tongue approach, I like to move the slide very slowly as a tool to get me to understand how smooth my air can move. For example if you practice Saint Seans 3rd excerpt with a very slow slide, any uneven bumps in the air will be exposed very clearly. I think both moving the slide slowly or rapidly is correct because it doesn’t matter what the speed is as long as the air is smooth, the timing is good and there are no bumps and jerks in the air. In other words the slide speed should be coordinated with the tongue and air, but only as fast as necessary to sound smooth and even.

Another valuable exercise I use to achieve a smooth legato is to buzz an etude with the mouthpiece in the left hand while motioning the slide positions with my slide arm. This is a departure from the BERP but I think more effective because it forces you to visualize the smooth, light slide. This exercise is helpful for more than just legato. I use it to improve the timing of the slide, tongue and air on fast moving passages like William Tell or La Gazza Ladra.

In my own study and teaching, I have always found that air is the common denominator in most deficiencies. The ideas discussed here can help to eliminate the problems associated with air that is blocked, interrupted, strained or inhibited. I hope it helps you maintain the flow and keep your legato smooth as river.

Michael Becker is Principal Trombone of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, Second Trombone of the Arizona Opera and Acting Bass Trombone of the Phoenix Symphony. He is also a frequent substitute on tenor and bass trombone with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras around the world. In the summer, he runs the “Becker Low Brass Boot Camp in Tucson, AZ. This seminar is focused on audition and performance preparation. His solo CD “Songs and Dances” is available at CD Baby and iTunes. For information, please visit www.beckerlowbrassbootcamp.com.

A note from Jay

Now for some fun. The other night we were horsing around and I was showing Mike a style thing on Tannhauser. He said, “wait, I’ll record it on my phone.” Then I said “let’s play it together.” Then, we did Lohengrin Act III in octaves.

The sound quality is horrible because the videos were recorded on a cell phone, but they are still valuable as a style demo. We have posted them on YouTube for the the benefit of you, the readers of this website.

Jay Friedman plays Tannhauser
Jay Friedman and Mike Becker play Tannhauser
Jay Friedman and Mike Becker play Lohengrin