by Kirk Lundbeck
I’ve spent 47 years of my 61 playing and teaching trombone. Pretty much daily. It is sure joy to make a beautiful sound and send a message through a uniquely shaped piece of brass tubing and share that knowledge and talent with others. The art and science of playing trombone is truly a part of who I am and always will be in my soul. Through the failures I learn and in the triumphs I relish. Those failures and triumphs are what drive me to continue to practice diligently and with great determination. I do my very best to share that desire with all my students with every lesson I give. In 1988 the ability was taken from me. Without going through the gory details, I lost 9 teeth, 7 from my bottom jaw and 2 from my upper jaw. I was fitted with a partial plate and told I’d probably not be able to play my horn anymore.
Those words were devastating to me, as you might expect. So, I stopped doing what fulfilled me but needed a musical outlet. I took up guitar and took lessons. Tried piano, more than the hunt and peck version I taught myself to pass my music education piano class in college. Neither filled my heart like trombone playing always had. I started playing trombone again, with a partial plate in my lower jaw. The desire was back but the ability wasn’t. Quite honestly, I sounded like a first year 5th grade band member on my good days. The partial in my lower jaw vibrated giving me pain, limiting my range and articulation ability. I started playing without the partial and things immediately improved, but at a cost. Removing the appliance from my lower jaw caused more problems with my remaining lower teeth, causing tooth movement and incredible pain. But I could play! Well, until the pain got so intense I nearly passed out during a gig and was told the next day I was done playing.
To me this was not an option. Trombone playing is not a want for me it’s a need. To make a long story shorter since 1988 I have had a total of 9 surgeries on my mouth. All for one reason, to be able to play my instrument at a level that satisfied me and the listener. After each surgery I had to relearn to play. Any of you that have had any type of mouth work done can understand. The position of the mouthpiece feels different, air flow travels in different directions than it had previously, and the muscles of the embouchure need to be developed again. Learning to play all over again once is hard enough. Ask my dear friend and mentor Jay Friedman. He got kicked in the mouth by a horse. When your mouth structure changes due to injury or surgery it’s devastating to a brass playing musician. Jay has been my inspiration through all this in so many ways. Jay went through it and listen to the mastery that comes through the horn when he performs. Now try getting kicked in the mouth 9 separate times over a period of 25 years. Over those years I’ve have 11 bone graphs, 29 extractions, 7 millimeters shaved off both my upper and lower jaw bones and 15 implants. I now have a complete prosthetic device in my lower jaw and a partial prosthetic device in my upper jaw. I did it for one reason only, to play trombone. I could have had dentures. There have been a few professional musicians who have been successful playing with dentures. Their ability is limited, and it is short term. Dentures don’t last and don’t give the proper mouth structure stability that brass players need. I needed stability and longevity.
Today I play with more ability, passion and desire than ever before. Learning to play all over again so many times was very disheartening at times. Many a time I found myself with tears in my eyes in my practice room as I tried to play and listened to the garbage that was supposed to be music coming out of the other end of the instrument. I persevered. The desire to play well outweighed the challenges I faced and here is how I did it.
I became a master of redundancy. I have played the same exact warmup exercises every day when I started over the first time and every time since as I have relearned to play my horn again. The same long tones, the same blocks of sound, the same tonguing articulation exercises and the same lip slurs. The same exercises every day when I begin a new day of playing the instrument I love to play. No alterations, adjustments or short cuts. Redundant, for sure. Boring, at times, but completely necessary. What better way to chart your progress or lack thereof than by playing the same fundamental warmups every day? Warming up properly is vital to your success. The fundamental processes created in warming up are the foundation of every note you play in any piece you will perform. The proper and consistent warm up is vital and some don’t take it seriously enough. My last major surgery was August 26th of this year and beginning the third day after surgery I could start mouthpiece buzzing. The fifth day after surgery I could put my horn to my lips for the first time and like before the 5th grader was back. It was awful, but painless. I did 45 minutes, 3 times a day and all I did were those same warmups I had always done in the same order. Each day showed a little and at times, very little improvement. Soon after I was at an hour 3 times a day, then an hour and a half. Now I’m up to 6 hours of practice every day and each day starts the very same way with those warmups with no deviation. Tomorrow and every day till my time has come will begin the same way.
At no time am I stating that the warmup exercises of my daily routine are the key to your success. Everyone is unique and needs to find what works best for your daily warmup. Whatever you decide or whatever direction you are given by your mentor should be consistent and quite honestly redundant. That way you can measure your progress.
My month of December is filled with gigs. Gigs, according to what I was told so many years ago, I should not have had the opportunity or ability to play. Gigs including orchestra concerts, trombone quartet, brass quintet, brass ensemble, jazz trio and everything in between. Every one of those will be cherished.
In the nine lives I’ve lived as a trombonist the most important lessons I’ve learned is never take your warmup lightly, never give up on your desire and mostly never take playing your instrument for granted. There is a finite number of chances you can play your instrument. Make the very most out of every opportunity.