Jul 6, 2008

Ask Uncle Blabby

Q: What do you think about the upcoming election?
-Steve Wittenberg

A: Oh boy, where do I start? What a great question to start off this symposium. I want to say something about elitism. Barack Obama has been accused of being an elitist and not a man of the people. I say, "oh my god, you mean the guy who repairs my car down the street isn't going to be president"? "You mean a guy that went to Harvard and studied law, worked with the poor in the streets of Chicago, got elected to the Illinois General Assembly and the U.S. Senate might be president?" Wow, we're really in trouble now with a guy who might be thought of, if not actually, as being an elitist, the likes of say, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Remember that old joke about the guy who said; "I wouldn't want to join a club that would have me as a member?" Well that's how I feel about the presidential election. I don't want a man of the people, I want someone better!

Q: After seeing on your website the invitation for users to send you questions, I have to oblige. In your last article you mentioned briefly the dissolution of "national schools of playing" due to technology. I was hoping you might briefly talk about the dissolution of REGIONAL schools of playing. I am hoping that this might become a dissertation topic for me. Basically, we hear people refer to players, and/or their style as "New York" or "Chicago School." I can't always put my finger on it, but when you hear recordings from 20-50 years ago (and beyond) of Chicago, Boston, New York, LA etc. they are instantly recognizable due to the stye.
-Joshua Bledsoe

A; I'm going to answer this in what you will think is a strange manner. If you ask anyone such as myself or someone involved in one of the schools you mention, I'm afraid you would get a very subjective view of themselves, and just as important, the other regions. Everyone has a biased view of their own world and an even more biased view of other schools of playing. The people in those orchestras don't have a chance to go and hear live concerts over a period of time to evaluate another school of playing. It would take someone to put forth quite an effort over many years to scientifically catalog the differences in style you perceive. It would mean going to each group's concerts over a period of time. You wouldn't believe the stories I have heard over the years about the so-called Chicago style of playing, some of them really goofy and far from the truth. I'm sure the other schools have had similar experiences. By the way, recordings are not a very accurate test of the characteristics of a certain school, because of the variation in the circumstances encountered in recordings. Anyone interested in taking on this project?

Q: I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the necessity of embouchure shifting, and the dilemma of a trombonist with a break between registers and how best to work through this. Have any of your past students had similar problems?
-Ron Rosenbaum

A: I believe everyone has a break in their register somewhere, although in different places, because everyone's embouchure is different. The old Reinhardt pivot system was invented for just this purpose. In truth every note requires a different embouchure, so thinking in those terms, there is a break between every note, and at the same time, none at all. I like to have people bend pitches while lip-slurring. This can help you bridge the gap between a break in a register, and by that I mean when you have to have a completely new setting for a new register. When I say bend, I mean really gliss a lip-slur, say, in a Bb arpeggio of two octaves. This gives you a good command and control of the smoothness of that type of slur, instead of them just happening haphazardly.

Q: I find that I sometimes have sound production issues around low Bb/A in the staff. If I sit and concentrate on it for a while, I can make those notes sound great. However, my flexibility in and out of the notes suffers sometimes. What's causing this and what should I work on?

A: I'll take a wild guess and give you some possible causes. Either you don't have enough of an embouchure setting or you have too much. This would cause the air stream to emerge at either too high or too low of an angle. If you don't puff your cheeks, maybe you should, as many do. However I think when you find the right angle for the air stream, which should hit somewhere slightly below the throat of the mouthpiece in that register, it should result in a good sound. Remember, the best sound is the right embouchure. When you find that sound and setting, then it is just a matter of smoothing out lip slurs by blowing through them, making them last as long as possible, so that on the note and in-between the note are as close as possible in continuity. You might also have too much lip, especially lower lip, in the mouthpiece. On low Bb and A you need the lower lip to be kind of a ramp that those notes roll off of. Try different lower jaw positions in that register and see which one gives you the best sound.

Q: What do you feel are the most common deficiencies in younger players today, and how would you advise them to overcome these problems?
-Ryan Miller

A: I would say the number one deficiency in younger players is not realizing how fast the air must move when starting a note. This results in bulging, the prime reason for not producing a good sound. Also, most younger players have a jerky legato, just as I did when I started. Speeding up the air fixes a lot of basic problems in younger and older players. It's not only the fact that more air is needed, everyone says that; it's the speed and shape of the air that determines the characteristic of the sound. A large, slow moving air stream will produce a dull, uncentered sound, and a loss of resonance. A compact, fast moving air stream will produce a ringing sound with a strong fundamental, that will create overtones and add color to the sound, which adds resonance.

Q: Maestro, how did you make the choice to pursue a musical career between other choices; and if times became tough, what is the secret to maintain such a commitment?
-Antonio Di Stasi

A: I remember in high school the guys were talking about what they were going to do as career choices, and many of them said they were going to be physical ed teachers. As much as I wanted to be an athlete, baseball in particular, I knew a 98 pound weakling wasn't going to excel in sports. The only thing I had going for me at that time was playing euphonium in the band. My band director, bless his soul, arranged for me to study with Vincent Cichowicz. I had never played trombone and was going into college. Vince switched me to trombone and I realized that music was my main interest, and I threw myself into learning to play the horn. I was a very average euphonium player, just better than the other kids. I had a lot of catching up to do and I spent the next 4 years doing so. I discovered classical music by listening to old 78's I found at the farm I spent summers at, and really developed a dream to play in a symphony orchestra. I played in every community orchestra I could just to play the literature. I made my own excerpt books, because there were very few in those days. I had many people tell me in those days to give up a dream of an orchestral career, but I wouldn't listen and just kept plugging along, oblivious to everything excerpt my dream. I used to work the night shift as an elevator operator at a hotel. I would work 11 at night to 7 in the morning, sleep days, get up late afternoon and go to play and practice with my fellow trombone players until I went to work. We had a trombone and tuba section that played together 5 nights a week. I was also going to school part time. We did that for 4 years. I wouldn't trade that time for anything.

Q: I wanted to ask you a question regarding tension in the embouchure. As a young player, I must have taken "firm corners" too seriously, because I developed a bad habit of using a significant amount of tension in the embouchure to play even a middle F in the staff. This can be easily observed by the amount of dimpling I have outside of my corners, resulting in a less than resonant sound in all registers. This also results in my bottom lip rolling completely in the higher I ascend. For the sake of discussion, let's assume the undesired tension is only in the embouchure, and the rest of the body is relaxed. What would be your advice on approaching this, and would you recommend the student take time off before working on it in an attempt to dissociate the negative muscle memory? Thank you for reading.
-Chris Green

A: I must say that if true, you have the opposite problem of most players. It is far more common to have insufficient support in the corners, which results in some other part of the body compensating, such as excess mouthpiece pressure or tension in the torso area, which absolutely kills resonance. I suspect from what you describe, that your air stream is emerging from your embouchure at an extremely high angle, maybe too high. Try to conscientiously aim your air to hit at a lower place on the mouthpiece, maybe a little below the throat opening. This should automatically relax the corners. You might also try setting the mouthpiece in a position as if you were going to play a third higher than what you are aiming for, (not with your corners, but the actual placement of the rim) so that you actually have to aim down a little to get that note. This will accomplish the same thing as aiming the air at a lower angle. This may sound counterproductive, but if you tried to set the mouthpiece for a lower register embouchure to relax your corners, this would cause even more tension in the corners, because you would automatically compensate for the lower setting by even more firmness in your corners.

A valuable tip: something I discovered early in my playing career is a technique where, when playing a long, soft note, (and only long, soft notes,) I lean against the mouthpiece with my embouchure and relax my corners. This is analogous to holding your arm out and trying to hold it steady in mid-air; the harder you try, the more it moves, as opposed to leaning against a wall with your hand, thereby making it very easy to hold it motionless, even with a glaring conductor!

Q: How old were you when you joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? And if you could give one piece of advice to a high school student looking to make it into an elite conservatory or school of music, what would it be?

A: I was 23 when I joined the CSO as assistant principal trombone. I was appointed principal when I was 25. If I had one piece of advice for a high school student entering college, it would be without doubt, to play with a really good sound. Almost any teacher will think they can make a fine player out of someone who has a good sound to start with.

Q: Have you ever played any jazz trombone gigs? What do you think of "crossing over"?
-Dan Pile

A: Yes, in 1960 when I was 21 years old, I was called to go on the road with the Les Elgart band for a week-end gig that started in Minneapolis and wound up in Grant Forks, North Dakota. It paid 75 dollars for the week-end, and by the time I paid my motel and food bill it only cost me about 25 dollars to play that gig. Les Elgart had the #1 hit on the pop charts that year with "Cherokee."

We used to play some nice 5 trombone and rhythm charts that I got from Lewis van Haney, but apart from things like that, I'm pretty legit oriented. Charlie Vernon, however, is one of the best ballad players you will ever hear, and I think it's valuable for symphony players to practice melodic type big-band solos. Anyone who has read my articles and listened to my CD, "The Singing Trombone," knows I developed my legato from listening to the great ballad players of yore. It's funny though, that as much as I admire the great jazzers, how much trouble they have when attempting to play in a legit style. Maybe our style is more complicated than we think.

Q: I have always enjoyed your colums and I wanted to get your insight on a question I have; how do you define/measure talent. I was involoved in a workshop for top level executives and one of the presenters talked about six-sigma and how it applies to the workplace. He talked about how he was able to break everyone down and was able to tell, through documented proof, that an individual was talented in one area or another.
I began to wonder if this could be applied to music. Many teachers call students "talented" or "naturally gifted" but cannot seem to define EXACTLY what makes that student talented. It seems that there are many teachers that throw out the "naturally talented" moniker quite often and it looks to me to be an easier way to label a student.
I just wanted to find out your definition of talent so that someone, either a teacher, or a student themselves, can actually describe themselves as talented.
-Justin McAdara

A: Talent is a mysterious thing, but there are certain signs you look for. The ability to hear the difference between a good sound and a bad one in your own playing. The ability to hear something that you want to copy in someone else's playing, and being able to copy it. The desire to want to do more than just play the notes. The desire to make the trombone a singing instrument, even if you don't know how to go about it. That's what the teacher's job is, to show you how to get what you imagine, but can't technically do. A good teacher will show a student how to turn into sound, the ideas the student has. If the student doesn't have ideas it's difficult to invent them, but sometimes they are very recessed, and just need exposure to the light of day to light a fire. I have had people pretty advanced who hit a wall and couldn't get passed it, and others not nearly so far along make terrific progress. Of course there are always surprises. It's great when you see someone totally surprise you with progress. Sometimes they will even sneak up on you, and all of a sudden at the end of the year they have made great strides and it wasn't apparent until then. Then we have the talent vs. the work thing. How much of so-called "natural talent" is the ability to focus and the desire to devote as much time and energy as needed to be a great player? That is a formula that varies in every player. Which one is more important? Again, it varies with every player.

Then we have environmental factors. Some people do well in an atmosphere where there are lots of other people doing the same thing, and others get confused because everyone tells them something different. When I was a student I was basically in a vacuum, having no one to hear or copy, so I made up my own concept, which was good because I didn't know how behind I was having just started trombone in college. Determination is an important ingredient in succeeding as a player, and not allowing other people's self doubt to influence you.

Q: I hope that you will be able to address my question in this months reflections column. I have read a good portion of your articles and have found every one of them inspirational and very informative. The question that I currently have for you involves a facet of my playing that I wish to improve upon. To me there is nothing more beautiful than an absolutely pure trombone sound. My ideal goal would be to achieve a production of sound free of as many defects as possible. For example, fuzz or dirt in the sound. I am currently really happy with the way I sound but I would like to further refine things to a point. I have been doing mouthpiece buzzing, free buzzing and recording in order to clean up the sound. I believe that a focused yet relaxed buzz is the way to achieve a pure sound. I look to you for your thoughts and opinions on how to achieve a pure sound. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this email and also for publishing so many great articles on your website.

A: I have written quite a bit on this subject, but I'll try to capsulize what I think are the prerequisites for a good sound. First, a good strong air stream coming from a properly set embouchure, coupled with a relaxed torso. Enough air must be taken in so that the lungs will naturally expel air without the diaphragm engaging. Sound must be produced from the chin up, then the body can act as a concert hall to create resonance. A great way to tell whether your sound is as good as it can be is to stand and play bell-tone style forte notes, such as the opening measures of the Mozart Requiem solo. If each note starts cleanly and speaks instantly with a natural diminuendo caused by the lungs emptying, in addition to a completely relaxed lower body, the sound should be clear and resonant, with no distortion. If there is distortion present, then either there is some unnecessary tension present below the chin, or the sound didn't speak instantly, which caused some other part of the body to jump into action to help. If I had one phrase to describe this it would be; spit air without tensing up.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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