by Kirk Lundbeck
The finger to the mouth, that shhh sound, the hand pushing down, saying softer, softer and the violas and woodwinds cringing – now that’s the making of a great trombonist. Louder, faster, higher – it’s the rule if you play low brass. Not! So many players think that those string things in front of us are just a bunch of wooden mutes in the way of our “great” sound. It’s time to put the egos in our pockets, better yet throw them in the garbage, and let’s start making music instead of noise.
Our instruments have become so specialized. Recent trends have been for larger equipment and bigger mouthpieces. Well isn’t bigger better? You have to be a wimp if you play anything smaller than a .547 bore trombone. Right? Without a doubt trombonists have become too muscular in their sound quality. We all practice the “Ride” and try to make the paint crack on the walls. Bruckner and Mahler would roll over in the graves if they heard the way their triple fortes were played and the soft stuff? When do we bother practicing the soft stuff? Now there’s the problem, we’ve turned our instruments into subwoofers and air raid sirens.
Playing in an orchestral trombone section is a balancing act. Learning to play together with each other and fit into the environment of the orchestra. That’s right, the orchestral environment. As trombonists we need to be a part of the whole and not the whole part. If that were the case we would be in the front of the orchestra don’t you think? Hey, at least we’d have more room for our slides! The time has come for all of us to step back and take a good look at who we are and what our role is and start playing that role at the very best level we can.
Some of the greatest orchestral trombone playing I’ve ever heard was soft! The Brahms Chorale, for example. The greatest trombone sections can ruin this section if it’s played over the orchestra not within the texture of the orchestra or within the context of the piece itself. Dynamics must be kept within the context of the piece you are performing. Dynamics and tempo markings are therefore relative. Forte isn’t loud for loud’s sake and allegro isn’t fast for fast’s sake. It’s all relative and you as a player must understand the environment, the texture, style the composer wanted and play within the role the conductor wants your role to be. Period.
It’s time to start practicing soft; still with the same support, articulation and sound quality as you would a loud, boisterous section. Try playing the “Ride” at piano or softer and listen to your articulation and sound quality. 10 to 1 odds tell me it will be awful. Your articulation and clarity of sound will be diminished considerably. Play any Rochut at a very soft volume and see if you can connect all the slurs. Again, the odds are you won’t be able to control those smooth slurs. Practice like this until you can create the same articulations, quality of sound and control as you can when you play at an increased volume. It’s at that point you’ll become a member of the environment of the orchestra. Sure there are times the trombone section is showcased for its volume, but it can also be showcased for the soft and beautiful textures it can produce.