Legato, Instruments, and Recordings

Legato being such a big subject, I have a few more thoughts to add this month. Where did the hard legato syndrome that I have experienced all over the world come from? I have a theory. Everybody always talks about air, and thats a good thing because everything we do on trombone depends on air. Where the problem lies is the natural tendency to tie the use of air, hopefully strong air, to the slide arm. I think what has happened is every time a teacher tells a student to use more air the slide arm jerks harder and faster because the student uses the slide to activate the air and soon the air is totally dependent on the movement of the slide, as if the slide was responsible for making the sound. Since the result was stronger air the objective was achieved but at the cost of a smooth slur, or possibly any slur at all. Once the arm is in charge of moving the air, the air becomes an unwilling passenger and is put in a position of being a servant to the slide which is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. I can prove this because when I have someone stop jerking the slide, which is a major chore, the air exposed by itself is always weak and emaciated. What we have to realize and put into practice is that the air and slide are not mutually dependent on each other. Strong air does not have to mean strong slide movement. When I work with someone on this many times a curious thing will happen. I will get them to smooth out their slide movement and the air will start to slow down with it and I have to remind them that you can have strong (fast) air and smooth slide movement at the same time, which is the secret to great sound and legato. The slide should be the servant of the air and follow the air around like a little brother and not vice-versa. I never let my slide movement interfere with the flow of the air. The flow of the air should be sacred and nothing, including the tongue, or the arm should affect the steadiness of the air stream. Speaking of arms, I find that players who use their whole arm to move the slide have more problems with tension which is the enemy of good sound. Good players use a flexible wrist to move the slide, which keeps the arm relaxed and most importantly in a subservient position. I try to get people to move the slide as if they don’t care, so they can concentrate on the steadiness of the air. I like to see 2 fingers on top and 2 fingers on the bottom with the wrist slightly turned downward as if it was resting on the slide. I see many people holding the slide between thumb and index finger and this almost always means too much tension and too much involvement of the entire arm.

I want to talk about what I look for in a trombone when I am trying instruments. Since I have picked out many horns for friends and colleagues over the years I have definite features I look for in choosing an instrument. First and foremost is response. I want the sound to speak immediately and have a lively quality to it. I always play something simple like a Bb middle register arpeggio because that first impression of immediacy of sound gives me the clearest picture of the characteristics of that horn. I’m not impressed with a “dark” sound because I’ve already chosen that model horn according to the size of the sound I want, therefore I am only concerned with how quickly that sound of the model I’ve chosen emerges from the instrument. I want an instrument with the clearest example of the sound of that model. That means above all, freeblowing which results in the sound “jumping” out of the horn. I have played Bach trombones for many years because they have the type of sound which suits the type of work I do in a large symphony orchestra. In the last few years I have felt that the sound of the model of horn that I play has gotten heavier and less responsive. I usually play a Mt. Vernon Bach 42GT from 1959. This bell has the best sound and response of any bell I’ve (and many other people) have played. Sensing that my bell seemed lighter and more responsive than recently manufactured bells I measured the thickness of my bell and then measured the thickness of a new bell. My bell measured approx. 14 thousandths of an inch and the new bell measured approx. 22 thousandths. Since the thickness varies according to where the bell is measured these are only average numbers, but this shows the tendency toward heavier feeling and sounding instruments. Recently I had Bach make up bells that were the same thickness as my old bell and I am happy to report the results are that the new bells are the closest thing to my bell that I have ever tried. I know that there are many players who would like to play Bach trombones but have had trouble finding an exceptional instrument, due to the wide variance in characteristics of these horns. Personally I have always viewed this as a positive thing because of the possibility of finding a horn that produced exactly the type of sound a player was looking for, but only if that player had access to a large number of instruments, this being rarely the case. This new lighter more responsive bell will be available as an option soon and I will be very interested in the results of players experiences with these bells.

I also want to recommend a new recording I recently heard of the Symphony No. 3, Ilya Mouremetz by Gliere, played by the London Symphony conducted by Leon Botstein. This piece has some of the greatest and most taxing brass writing in the literature. If your not familiar with this piece as a brass player you need to be. This is an exceptional recording of a very demanding piece. The orchestra and especially the brass section turn in an exciting and well played performance. This piece should be the Russian national symphony because of it’s colorful depiction of heroic exploits in medieval Russia.