Jan 8, 2004

Equipment - Size does matter

Last month, I said I would give you an idea on how I got to the point of playing the equipment I play at the present time. I probably won't play this forever, but for the time being, I am satisfied. I started on a mouthpiece that Renold Schilke made for me in 1958 when I was a student. He said he had a special cup shape that he wanted to use. He called it the "Geffert" cup, after a former 1st trombone of the Chicago Symphony. It was the size of a 61/2 AL, but more funnel shaped. I later had the rim changed to one like my teacher, Robert Lambert, played. The rim was of medium thickness and rounded, not like the flat, sharp profiles some of the Bach mouthpieces have. This mouthpiece later became the Schilke 51B, although they never were able to copy the backbore accurately in those days, and it came out smaller than the original. I played that mouthpiece for 25 years.

In the early eighties, I started experimenting with larger mouthpieces, always keeping the same rim. I eventually wound up on a 4G. Then something weird happened. A few years ago I was asked to play the Mahler 3rd with the Atlanta Symphony for the opening of their season. I always used a 3G for that piece so I started practicing on the 3G a month before the performance. After I came back I couldn't go back to the 4G. The 3G fit my face and gave me the sound I'd been looking for all my life (but didn't know it). I would have never found this out had I not stuck it on my face for an extended period of time and not compared it to anything I was used to. I hope all of you will take a lesson from this experience of mine.

I then designed a mouthpiece after the 3G which has the features that I like. In order to have a little more focus in the upper register, I made the backbore smaller and put my old rim contour, and cup shape (after the Geffert cup). This is what I play today, and is being made by the Parke Mouthpiece Center of California. Several players in the United States and Europe are now using this mouthpiece.

The 51B has become my "Bolero" mouthpiece. I will probably have a smaller version of my regular mouthpiece made for certain things which require a smaller sound. I used to think I could not play a big mouthpiece because I would lose the singing quality in my sound, but I've learned over the years that equipment has very little to do with singing quality. It is the way you use your air. I also thought that if you played 1st trombone you had to concentrate on the upper register as far as equipment was concerned. Now I believe you can be an "all court player", but things are not as easy as they once were. I used to be so strong in the upper register that nothing in the literature was an endurance problem for me. Now, I have to work much harder up there in order to get the sound I want all over, especially middle and low. But it is worth it to me. I have no problem with focus because I've always been a fanatic about it. I wish more people were, especially many bass trombone players. Everything they play softly has a hole in the middle of the sound. That is NOT a big sound!

If you play in an orchestra full time, your choice of mouthpiece should have a great deal to do with the hall you play in. If I played in a great hall I could use a smaller mouthpiece because I wouldn't have to create so much warmth at the point of origin. I could get more help from the acoustics. The hall the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays in is dry and hard sounding. Therefore, we must create most of the resonance ourselves, which requires that there be no edge in the sound whatsoever. That begs the question of whether you pick equipment that is the easiest to play or that sounds the best, and those two are usually not the same. As I have said before, American style instruments have a tremendous ability to focus the sound in the louder dynamics and lose core in the softer ones. Our job as players is to reverse this tendency. It may feel good for you to drive a hole through the wall with your fortissimo sound, but that is not music. Try to keep those hormones in check. I wish someone had told me this when I was starting out. My concept is to make the biggest sound that I can still focus in the medium and soft dynamics.

I play a Bach 42G with a Thayer valve and a 50 lightweight slide. I play the 50 slide because it is so free blowing, and that is what I like in a horn. I don't want to sound like a bass trombone, and couldn't if I tried. I just want as little resistance as possible, and look for a slide and bell that have a lively sound and instant response - and above all, blows completely freely.

I would like to finish this column with some comments about the recordings we made with the CSO and London records with Georg Solti in the 1970's and 1980's. In my opinion, these recordings are a poor way to judge the sound of the CSO, especially the CSO brass section. London Records was never interested in capturing the natural sound of the CSO. They had a pre-conceived sound which they were determined to force on the orchestra that focused on hard, edgy sonics in a boomy, over reverberant space. Most of those recordings were made in Medinah Temple, which was never designed for music, but more for circuses.

I remember the horn section was placed 50 feet or more from the trumpets and trombones in order to get a gimmicky stereo effect. The results of these sessions produced a raucous, rough, hard-edged sound that in no way represents the CSO, especially the brass section. Solti was a great conductor, but was unable or unwilling to get the people at London (Decca) to give an accurate sound picture of a great orchestra. However, I do remember his unhappiness with the sound of the first Mahler 5th recording. He wanted to cancel the recording, but it was too late.

In latter years, many times we in the brass section would complain about the reproduction of our sound when London, Decca recorded us, but Solti would always say "Listen to the latest recording, I think you will be very happy." Needless to say, we weren't. To get a true picture of the CSO brass sound, one must go back to pre-London Decca recordings or better yet listen to live recordings of concerts.

One of my favorite CSO recordings, which is now out of print, is the Nielsen 2nd Symphony with Morton Gould conducting on RCA. This may be the most exciting record we ever made. It features some very fine low brass parts, played by Mr. Kleinhammer and Mr. Jacobs. Enjoy!

Download Nielsen2.mp3

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