Mahler – Symphony No. 3

This article was originally written for the ITA Journal.

The crucial thing in playing this excerpt is to sound comfortable at what appears to be fortissimo volume. Lately I’ve been telling my students when preparing a fortissimo excerpt to practice it much too soft and much too loud. The soft version gives you the model sound on which to base the full-blown version, and the too-loud version gives you a cushion of safety when you reduce the volume to a nice round forte in an audition or a performance.

When I start preparing this excerpt I slur the loud portions to get maximum length and resonance on every note. When I practice performing it I use a legato tongue to avoid spaces between notes which cause this excerpt to sound choppy. The secret is no matter what syllable you use to articulate, the air stream should be in the continuous slur mode. Try this: take 10 mf middle B-flats and with a constant air stream make 10 quarter-note attacks (mm = 60) with only the start of each note interrupting the sound. You’d be surprised how many people can’t do this without either a space before the attack or a “thuddy” attack. Although I wouldn’t use this articulation for the loud part of the Mahler Third, I would use it on just about everything else, orchestral or otherwise. The attack should be focused and clean with pinpoint accuracy, so that the sound speaks at 100 percent resonance instantly. This requires a small focused air stream that moves very fast creating a “pinging” characteristic like a glockenspiel. This articulation is essential in the soft portions of the Mahler.

The ff portion is almost unique in the orchestral literature because of its necessity for full sound and legato tongue while avoiding the dreaded “Dwa.” This means the air is just as strong as in a normal attack, but the tongue withdraws as if to make an attack in slow motion, thus creating the desired articulation. Important: the tongue should never hang around the embouchure area after the articulation. This only results in “grit” in forte and fuzz in piano. The tongue should retreat to the bottom of the mouth instantly. Combining the syllables “ahh” and “oooh” (never “teee”) will open up the oral cavity, resulting in a full resonant sound. I like to think of the concept of a small “T,” big “aaooh.” As much as I dislike “Dwa” attacks I believe there is a place for everything (and everything in its place!). When Mahler indicates “portamento” I believe he means “Dwa” attacks. It takes a skillful and courageous player to tastefully bring this off (trumpet and horn players take note). In Vienna they call this “schwaffen.” I use vibrato in the lyric passages to project the hairpins [dynamics] which are essential in Mahler’s music. I prefer the concept of increasing expression to project a crescendo rather than just getting louder. I like a crescendo in which the sound grows fuller (sideways) instead of a V-shaped crescendo toward the listener. Vibrato helps that immeasureably.

Practicing on the mouthpiece [italic ff] with no tongue from start to finish really frees up your air and sound. The only way you can get a great sound, [italic ff] or at any other dynamic, is to be completely relaxed in your body, especially your slide arm. You set the tension in your embouchure for a certain pitch and your torso supplies the air and nothing else. The higher the pitch the more your lips are stretched across the mouthpiece and the more air is required to make those lips vibrate, a simple rule that is frequently overlooked. High register is 30 percent embouchure and 70 percent air.

The directions and notes I have added to the part (see example) I believe to be a realization and amplification of Mahler’s intentions. He gave us a lot to work with and yet left much to our imagination to expand upon. It would be helpful to study his vocal writing and the way the great Mahler interpreters treat his music because in the solo sections of the Third Symphony he treated the trombone as a vocal-like soloist.

Jay Friedman can be heard playing the solo from Mahler’s third symphony on his CD, The Singing Trombone.