D’Ya Ever Notice?

This article was originally written for the ITA Journal.

Since last issue’s column was subtitled “There Oughta Be a Law…” , I thought we’d get all warm and fuzzy this time and call it “D’ya Ever Notice?” So without any rational order or reason (once again) here goes.

D’ya ever notice that most of us do the right stuff when we buzz the mouthpiece? (although we work harder than we should) I like to buzz at a mezzo-piano volume and use no tongue while I’m slurring, which is what I do 90% of the time on the mouthpiece. I try to eliminate all tension from my body (and therefore the sound) to achieve a meditation–like quietness in my buzz, getting the most amount of resonance for the least amount of work. (Ah you say, real men don’t buzz. OK, go ahead and throw away that magic bullet!) The problems start when we put the mouthpiece in the horn and tighten up the slide arm, bang with the tongue, and forget the air. Think of yourself as a computer. One program is buzzing the mouthpiece nice and relaxed, focusing on the air stream. Thankfully, it’s not hard to do. Another (the one most used) is the rigid arm, wrist and torso, and hard tongue program we pop in as soon as we pick up the horn. If we could all play the horn like we play the mouthpiece what a wonderful trombone world this would be. Warning! When you try to do this your slide arm is going to put up a fight you wouldn’t believe, (mine does, and I work on it all the time) because it’s probably been bossing the air around for years. (think of the air as a small banana republic’s newly elected democratic government and your slide arm as a military strong man just looking for a sign of weakness in order to stage a coup. ) Do yourself a favor and replace the horn playing program with the mouthpiece buzzing program. Remember, there’s a gorgeous legato slur hiding in every blend of air and slide. the question is; how bad do you want to find it?

D’ya ever notice almost everybody tongues legato half-steps too hard? That’s because most people think that if you think you move the slide the same speed and use the same amount of tongue on every slur it will all come out even. I call that “pop” trombone pedagogy. If I move the slide one position (half-step) and then I move the slide six positions, both at the same speed, which one is going to pop out first? If I get a nice slur moving six positions, then the half step will be way, way too hard. Incidentally, I quit using any tongue on half-steps years ago.

D’ya ever notice when a student plays a Bordogni etude, you can always tell when a grace note is coming because he/she starts to tighten up in order to “nail” it? They may not play with a good sound or legato but come hell or high water that grace note is gonna come out! That’s why I never let students play grace notes until they are very advanced (I rarely play them myself).

D’ya ever notice that a lot of players–young and old–are always thinking about the next notes to come rather than the quality of the one they are playing at that moment? Everyone should heed Yoda’s words to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back concerning his training as a jedi knight. “Always his mind was on something else and never on what he was doing!” The great players say through their instruments; “This is going to be the prettiest sound on any note you’ve every heard.”

D’ya ever notice that the most difficult style to master is also the simplest? Give a player three or more articulated quarter notes at a piano dynamic level and in a moderately slow tempo and rarely will they sound convincing. The conventional wisdom is to play tenuto, even notes with dull attacks–a psuedo-orchestral style. Top players on string and other instruments wisely play this kind of passage with a clear attack and a slight diminuendo on each note, a style which has much more character and musical impact.