By Michael Becker
Principal Trombone, Tucson Symphony Orchestra
Second Trombone, Arizona Opera Orchestra
Bass Trombone, Britt Festival Orchestra
Founder and Creator, Becker Low Brass Boot Camp
As musicians, we all know the importance of regular practice. Even more important is having successful and productive practice sessions so that we maximize our time and make consistent improvements on our instrument. Strong fundamentals are essential for everything brass players perform. In fact, the ability to continuously improve rests on a strong foundation. So, what are the many ways we maintain fundamentals? We work on our legato and flexibility as well as tackle technical exercises that include double and triple tonguing. We work on expanding our dynamic range and we include the most standard calisthenic, long tones, for endurance, tone, breath control and maintaining the consistency of sound. How one addresses these exercises is totally up to the imagination of each individual player.
But there is one area that may get neglected by low brass players: consistent practice of articulation and stylistic markings. Trombonists especially are notorious for the dreaded “twa” attack or no distinguishable attack at all. For us, its easier to just gloss over the beginnings of notes in the middle of a phrase rather than being mindful of the exact phrase marking or specific style marking that was thoughtfully placed in the music by the composer. The ability to clearly communicate every detail of the music is not only critical for you as an individual player, but it is essential for being a successful section player. Having grown up in Chicago, my first orchestral experiences as a young player were listening to youth concerts at the CSO. Shortly after I started playing trombone, I attended a Young Persons Concert and I focused on the brass, especially the trombones. I remember being hit with a wall of sound and thinking how amazing it was that brass could sound like this! Later, studying with CSO legends Arnold Jacobs, Edward Kleinhammer and Jay Friedman, I learned how the CSO brass plays with such an immediate and impactful sound and style. The approach that has been handed down from the days of Herseth and Jacobs, the 2 bookends of the brass section, was that of a clear and present commitment to the beginnings of notes. Those articulations jumped out of the horn like horses out of the gates. An additional benefit to this approach is that when sound is started with consistent style and commitment by an ensemble, it not only provides a tremendous musical impact, but it allows players to minimize tension and forcing. And, not only can you play with maximum efficiency, this approach will carry your sound to the back of the hall in any dynamic. To hear clarity and style in the quietest passages of the orchestral repertoire is magical.
In my book, Long Tone Duets: Style and Articulation, I have provided a tool to help isolate and practice many of the most common style markings in the orchestral rep that present challenges to low brass playing. The book starts with the basic “Remington” long tones but adds style markings to the notes. To challenge you, the other etudes progress through a mix of various articulations in a variety of ranges and dynamics. The Trombone book is divided into three sections; one for tenor, tenor or bass and bass trombone. However, I encourage bass and tenor players to use all of them! The book comes with a play-a-long CD, which I hope will make the work fun. I have recorded the bottom part of each duet on both tenor and bass. Play with me on the top part and match the style, sound and articulation!
Body builders talk about getting “ripped”, which means achieving definition. Brass players should strive for the same thing. Playing with clarity of style should be our goal and I think this book will help you toward that endeavor. Get your playing RIPPED !
Below are guidelines to explain the goal of each duet.
- Tenuto Remington: Tenuto means sustained note lengths, but you should still strive for clarity at the beginning of the note.
- forte-piano Remington: Forte-piano is an immediate drop-off in volume; think of starting the note like a hammer striking a bell.
- forte-diminuendo Remington: This articulation is the same as #2 above, but the sound decays less quickly.
- sfz Remington: The sfz articulation is made with immediate air, but there is heaviness to the air and sound that shapes the note—imagine what a half inflated rubber ball hitting the ground would look like.
- Simon Says: An accented note is not necessarily louder; it just has clarity like a bell tone and some decay, just like the symbol indicates. As you transition to tenuto, maintain the clarity of articulation you established with the accented notes.
- Quasi-Brahms: This study imitates the chorale from the fourth movement of Brahms’ Symphony #4. The notes are connected but there is some decay and stickiness between them. The slurs with dots suggest a half tongued, half slurred style.
- Waltz: This duet has many changes to the articulation throughout. Carefully execute the style as marked so it syncs well with the accompaniment. The hat-shaped accents (^) indicate heaviness to the beginnings of the notes.
- The Wave: Strive to keep the sound quality consistent and never strident at the loudest point in the hairpins.
- Ping!: In each phrase, the first two measures are tenuto and the third bar has an accented note. Strive to make that difference audible every time, and each time you reach the accented note, you should create a “PING!” attack.
- No Bumps or Bulges: This duet highlights the quintessential art of orchestral section playing. Often, you are confronted with soft chord passages that stretch across challenging partials in the middle register. Adding a diminuendo to the line makes it even more of a challenge. Mastering this technique is highly rewarding and affords you a beautiful section sound that is sensitive to the expression of the music. Leading the direction of the phrase with airflow will allow your slide movement to remain smooth and eliminate unwanted bumps or bulges in the sound.
- Mantra: You are in for the long haul on this one! A mantra is a repeated phrase or chant used in Buddhism/Hinduism to put you into a meditative state or quiet the mind. The repetitive nature of this exercise aims to focus the mind on the musical line starting in the comfort zone and maintaining a relaxed state as the register builds higher and higher. Let the ease of each phrase be the teacher for the next phrase as you move up the register. Remember: always make music out of each phrase with the style markings. Minimizing tension into the high register and sustained passages of this nature will allow you to build strength and endurance. If you become fatigued during this duet, pause the recording and rest. It does more harm than good to continue if you are too tired to maintain correct form!
- A Little Russian: This duet was inspired by the second trombone solo in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Play it like you’re singing a great aria on stage.
- Circle of Fourths: Always maintain your best quality of sound through the hairpins and let the sustained airflow in the tenuto notes a be guide to the legato phrase.
- Articulation Transitions: The forte-piano articulation forces you to start with immediate and present airflow. Let the clarity of that articulation be your model as you transition through different styles.
- Fifths to Thirds: Make sure to achieve the heaviness of the sfz articulation at the top of the hairpin and keep the sound connected throughout. The triplets with slurs and accents also have a weighted quality.
- Echo: Keep this duet smooth and connected, and strive to eliminate bumps in the air as you hand off the end of your phrase to the beginning of the next phrase in the bottom part.
- Quasi Saint-Saëns: This one is simple: keep it smooth. Let the flow of air guide you through the direction of each phrase. Conceptually, the airflow goes before the slide, as if you are blowing the slide to each note. This duet is good practice for the solo Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony.
- Octaves: Make each note your best sound. Switch octaves as you please but maintain clarity of the attack.
- Pedal to the Metal: In this register, clarity of articulation and a centered sound are the goals. Maintain your best sound at this dynamic. Play softer if it sounds wild and out of control, then build back up. Always start where you have your best sound and minimal tension, then build from there. Sometimes, a “NA” or “NO” articulation helps in this register.
- Expanding Intervals: Maintain the accented notes throughout all registers.
- Quasi Brahms (bass version): See #6 above.
- Quasi Pines: This duet was inspired by Respighi’s Pines of Rome. maintain a thick airstream in these legato phrases and allow the airstream to dictate the shape and direction of the phrase. It may help to think of an open vowel sound like “NAW”. Be sure to put a mini bell-tone on the accented note within the context of the dynamic.
- Cherry Picking: Make each style marking audible and match what you hear. It is better to exaggerate the markings then not hear them (think of it like stage make-up!) Any notes can be played in alternate octaves; however, don’t shy away from the high register notes. These are also in the bass trombone register.
- I-V7-I: This duet requires an articulation transition from forte-piano to tenuto. Let the immediacy and freedom of air from the forte-piano be your model of clarity throughout the exercise.
- Chorale: Emulate a hymn, like a Bach chorale. Listen for tuning and bring out the accented moving notes in each passage within the context of the dynamic.
- Dies Irae: Play this duet in the style of the “dies irae” from Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. The hat-shaped accents on each note indicate a heavy front, and the quarter notes in the bottom part will accentuate this style. It should never sound punchy.
- The Dragon: Keep the intensity and direction of the phrase moving forward. The heavy style of the sfz will guide the direction of each phrase. Keep the notes as sustained as possible.
- Roller Coaster: Keep the quality of sound consistent through the octave leaps and strive to play the phrase smooth and rounded. Jumping two octaves in some registers is a challenge. The slur markings are your end goal. Try to achieve as much connectedness as possible and enjoy the ride!
- Quasi Rheingold: This duet is inspired by Wagner’s Das Rheingold and has two main objectives: consistency of sound quality through register shifts; and being mindful of the space or lift after the staccato quarter note. The note with the hat-shaped accent should have heaviness to it within the context of the dynamic.
- Scales in Changing Styles: Make the style differences in this duet obvious and match the bottom player. Always keep sound quality consistent throughout registers and stylistic changes.