Nov 8, 2010

Behold the Bright Seraphim

In this era of bigger is better, a fundamental element is often lost in the fray. That is, the concept of a beautiful sound and a clear line, a concept that was first enunciated by one of the greatest musicians I have encountered, the conductor Hans Rosbaud. By clear line I think he meant a singing sound with a pure fundamental core, something that I have recently written about in some detail. This brings me to another statement that will ruffle a few feathers; in everything except the loudest dynamics, a player should strive to get the brightest sound possible. By brightest I mean clearest, liveliest, most resonant. Bright doesn't automatically have to have the negative connotation often associated with it. Bright can also mean brilliant, centered, pure, etc. The size of the instruments in vogue today in orchestral playing can overwhelm a clear line, and what was intended to be big and vibrant can, without careful attention, become dull and heavy. Of course no one wants a sound in fortissimo that is lazer-like and hard, but in the medium and softer dynamics a laser-like approach is needed because of the sheer size of the instruments in use today. Take middle Bb on the trombone for instance. Often this note emerges from the horn with a dull, flat sounding timbre because of the ease of producing it, and the habit of not buzzing the brightest, clearest, liveliest part of that note. Another common tendency is for the D above middle Bb to be dull, flat and fuzzy. I have heard this happen myriad times when coaching the opening bars of the Mozart Requiem solo, because of the ease of production of that note. Often the player will buzz a C or C# and a D will come out, but it won't have a clear, resonant sound. F above middle Bb can also suffer from this if the brightest part of the note isn't buzzed on the mouthpiece and into the horn. A bright, desirable type sound is achieved by basically two components; a suitably firm embouchure (and just as important, a relaxed body) coupled with a relatively small, intense, fast moving airstream.

This brings me to another feature unique to the trombone. The trombone is the only wind instrument (other than the slide whistle) that doesn't have to lip pitches up or down to correct intonation. This gives us the advantage of producing every pitch in it's "sweet spot." That means we can play every note with one aim and one aim only, to get the clearest, purest, brightest most resonant result, and then move the slide to correct intonation. So how about trying this; play a middle register one octave scale, one note at a time at a mezzo-piano dynamic, and concentrate on getting the brightest, clearest sound on each note possible. You will notice it takes a more aggressive setting of the corners of the embouchure to achieve this. If the middle of each note is difficult find, the use of a wide jaw vibrato can help locate the optimum center because of the movement of the lips. When every note of that scale is in it's own "wheelhouse," it's time to see where the slide goes in each position now that the absolute middle of each pitch has been found. This you can do with a tuner, because it may be necessary to put the slide in slightly flatter positions to compensate for the change in sound characteristic. This can be a pretty exciting discovery if done correctly. Caution; don't flatten the pitch with the embouchure to correct intonation, that's what the slide is for. Also, remember the tuner shows you only correct root position pitches and not where to put other notes in a chord.

Incidentally, lately I've gotten a trial subscription to Sirius Radio, and they have a station called 40's on 40, in which they play recordings of the big bands from that era. Boy, I have to tell you, if your a trumpet or trombone player you need to hear some of the players and bands from that time. They have an almost classical quality that is seldom heard today. I think many of those people could have been great players in any medium, including symphonic. This is not a plug for Sirius Radio, as there are other ways of accessing the music of that time. It's too bad that the 50's went crazy over the electric guitar and sent the big band era into oblivion, but what a great decade that was for instrumentalists, trumpet, trombone and sax players especially.


This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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