This article was originally written for the ITA Journal.
This column will be partially devoted to cleaning up the odds and ends generated by previous columns and responses. First and foremost! I keep getting comments like this. “Since it is hard to play on large equipment, you must be using it so you can play really loud.” I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it again – I use the stuff I use because it gives me the best sound. Where did this idiotic idea come from, that large equipment is only for playing loud? Loud playing is probably the least important facet in equipment choice. Besides, if I wanted to be heard more, I’d play a small-bore?| trombone! Read my lips; beauty of sound is the only criteria in equipment choice.
Let’s talk about absolute truth for a moment. Many scientists argue that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Maybe, but when I hit a golf ball way off into a remote part of the woods, my body had to go through a precise set of movements to make that ball end up where it did. The body moved in such a precise way that I could not repeat it. It’s not something I wanted, but the ball showed me exactly what my body did for it to end up in that location. Natural laws and physics don’t concern themselves with good and bad. Good and bad is a man-made concept. When you are playing a passage and you go down for that low note and you get a funky sound that you hate (at least I hope you hate it), you went through a set of precise actions to achieve that sound. The body doesn’t distinguish between good and bad. Only the mind can do that. Why are we so good at getting that funky sound every time we hit that note? The answer is that too many people judge their playing by feel instead of sound. The brain is a wondrous thing that doesn’t even require us to know what physical process to use to achieve a great sound. The brain says, “Give me an idea of what you want and I’ll take care of the rest.” Now that is what I call a deal!
How do you make a great sound? It’s as much what you don’t do as what you do. This is something that is rarely discussed and much misunderstood. When you play a note, what happens? You take a breath, position the embouchure and pull the tongue away from the aperture to release the air and start the note. If the air allotted for that note is moving fast enough at the moment of release, nothing else is required. If the air is not moving fast enough, then some muscle activity is required to sustain or increase the air flow. This is what ruins the sound! This muscle activity can include anything from mouth cavity constriction to just about any muscle in the body – even a wink of an eye.
When you flex a muscle anywhere near a column of air, that action plays havoc with the air stream, inhibiting resonance and causing a funky sound.
To simplify this process, think of starting each note with a “ping” and then (and most importantly), do nothing but let the air stream flow unhindered, like a dart from a blow-gun. Just like a blow-gun, once you send the dart on it’s way, don’t mess with it. Of course, there are times when you must sustain, but this concept can result in a better sound no matter what facet of playing is required. Try this on the opening of the Mozart Requiem solo, and then listen to your sound improve. Remember, don’t start a note with the tongue. Instead, blow the tongue out of the way.
w let’s talk about auditions. Auditions are strange animals, and maybe they are more aberration than anything else. No two are alike, and you really can’t learn much about the next one from the previous experience. So what is a talented player to do? I believe that the key to winning auditions is style, musicianship and personality. There are many players that are capable of note-perfect auditions. Your task is to capture the jury’s ear. Assume they have listened to many players already. You must find a way to stand out. Style can go a long way toward that goal.
All of this is easy to say, but what specifically can you do? One solution is; Don’t play everything with long, even notes and dull attacks. The “ping” concept in the preceding paragraph will give you a good start in establishing good style. Play with a variety of articulation, a wide dynamic range; and remember, to play soft you have to practice soft as well as loud.
The secret to overcoming nerves in auditions is concentration. Since you can’t control the situation, concentrate on what you can control – your performance. Never wonder if they like you. Tune everything out and get into your own world with the music. Never listen to rumors about what they are looking for. This is like a “hot tip” from a jockey; they are always wrong.
I am frequently asked whether you should play as loud in an audition as you would in an orchestra. Play as loud as you would playing a solo, because that is what an audition is. Quality of sound is always the first consideration. Always think of yourself as a soloist, even if you are in an orchestra, or want to be in an orchestra. Practice like a soloist because it will make you more flexible.
I want to close by giving you some ideas about the interpretation of the most commonly asked excerpt in auditions – Ravel’s Bolero. Please remember – this is just one person’s opinion. There are many, many ways to play this solo. After over 35 years of playing it, this is what I’ve come up with. However, I am not done thinking about it.
Unfortunately, the annotated score example for Bolero is unavailable at this time. It will be uploaded soon; please check your back issues of the ITA Journal!
Incidentally, when I perform this solo I use a trombone with a 525 bore. I like the sound of the smaller-bore trombones on appropriate repertoire. It would be great fun to play Elgar on tiny bore tenor trombones with a G bass trombone on the bottom. What a sound it would be! Hey, you British trombone players, how about putting away those American-style horns and working up a classic English section sound for an ITF. In fact, how about a similar concept from every other major center of trombone pedagogy. What a fascinating festival that would be. The theme could be “Vive la difference.”
I’d like to talk about “crossing the line” for a moment. I don’t hear many people crossing the line or even going near it. What is “crossing the line?” It is taking a facet of your playing so far in one direction that you have to back up a step to where that line of optimum result is. This applies to soft playing; playing so soft the sound doesn’t speak, so loud that it’s gross, so smooth that it’s smeary, so staccato that it’s pecky, and then backing off, but staying right up to that line. This especially applies to vibrato. Just about everyone’s vibrato is too narrow and too fast. This gives the impression of a small sound. Cross the line by making it too slow and wide. This gives the impression of a big sound. Then back up and stay up to that line, but don’t cross it. That’s greatness.