Jan 11, 2007

Explaining the unexplainable

As much time as I've spent talking about trombone legato, I want to talk about the various styles I've encountered in my career playing and teaching. These styles range from using no legato tongue at all, to articulating every note and calling it legato. I have always admired the European attitude of trying to avoid hardness in legato. This ranges from the old eastern European custom of not using any tongue at all in legato playing, something which I've heard about but never experienced first hand, to the central European way of making slight pauses in the air stream in order avoid a glissando, rather than using a legato stroke of the tongue. The eastern European version of legato where no tongue at all is used in legato may be no longer in use due to modern tastes and styles and the ease of communication across continents. Of course there are probably subtle differences from region to region and even player to player in a certain school of pedagogy, because trombone legato is a very personal thing and no two are alike.

After playing, listening and teaching for a good part of half a century, I want to share with you what I think is the most successful approach to this complicated subject, keeping in mind the concept of what the older European style was and what it was trying to accomplish. I'm sorry to say, but generally speaking, the state of legato in the symphonic trombone world today is in pretty sad shape. We seemed to have thrown out the old adage that the trombone can play smoother than any other instrument, and replaced it with the desire to be able to play cleaner and more mechanically correct. Now I'm all for cleanliness and mechanical correctness, but not at the expense of smoothness and resonance in legato.

In my search of the perfect legato (for me, at least) I have tried various methods, from the things I've described above to just about everything else in between. What I have come up with is, I think, combines the best features of both the old European style, which centered on smoothness and the modern American style of clean correct slurs. The most important feature in a type of legato that I look for is the amount of resonance it gives you. In other words, which style of legato gives you the most sound in a particular dynamic. I'm sure you've experienced hearing two players playing the same legato style etude, both playing the same dynamic, and one player getting a full rich, resonant sound while the other is getting a thin, pinched sound. In the old European style of legato where the tongue was little used, the only way to avoid glisses in legato slurs was to diminish the air flow between notes, which causes a certain amount of loss in sound. What they were trying to do, I believe, was eliminate the over use of tongue, which causes the sound to be interrupted, but the real problem was not enough air flowing past the tongue to keep the sound flowing forward, so they lessened use of the tongue to delineate legato slurs, which was one answer to this problem.

What works for me is a concept where from one note to another, the sound doesn't change or diminish in resonance. In other words, on the note and in-between the note is exactly the same sound. This results in a line or flow of sound through a phrase and that is what results in a great sound. Imagine a quiet stream in the woods with water flowing over rocks. If the water level is slightly over, the water will smoothly flow over the rocks without the rocks being exposed. This results in a placid peaceful flowing stream with no agitation. If the water level is slightly below the rocks, the water will flow around the rocks and there will be noise and agitation in the stream and the flow will not be smooth and peaceful. Also important is the size of the rocks the water is flowing over. If they are large and smooth the water will flow more quietly, but if they are small and sharp the water will swirl and agitate around them. I want you to think of the water as the air in legato and the tongue as the rocks, because I believe, in fact I know, that a combination of air that flows and fills every crevice, like water in a stream, combined with a legato tongue that emulates the rocks just below the surface of the water, gives you a great legato and a great sound. Where players get in trouble is when the flow of air is not sufficient enough to cover the use of the legato tongue and the sound stops even for a fraction of a second. For the best legato and sound to happen, the object should be to elongate the actual time that it takes for a note to change, rather than the common practice of making slurs happen as quickly as possible to avoid smeariness. Legato tongue should only be used when necessary in legato slurs and not at all in natural slurs. The player should try to match the natural slurs to the most beautiful legato slur, because of the fact that there is more variety possible in a legato slur than a natural slur.

Also, it is important to realize that the longer the shift of slide position the more possibility for legato. This applies to both legato and natural slurs. Once a perfect slur has been achieved by making a long shift with the slide, that legato should be matched in sound in the shorter slide position shifts. This will require the slide and tongue to make that slur last longer. The amount of air flowing through a slur will determine the amount of legato tongue needed and this is a balancing act that needs to be addressed by every player. I believe the use of adequate legato tongue coupled with an adequate flow of air and a smooth flowing slide movement results in the best legato and most importantly the best sound. And that brings me to a very important aspect in legato playing; THE SLIDE SHOULD NEVER MOVE WITHOUT THE AIR BEING GLUED TO IT. If the slide moves without regard to where the air is, a significant loss of sound will occur.

Some other analogies I use to get this concept across are; 1. blow the slide from position to position. 2. Imagine there is a rubber band attached from the inner slide brace to the outer slide brace and it represents the air, so that every time you move the slide you are dragging the air along with the slide. 3. When you slur from 1st to 6th position, imagine you are casting a lure with a fishing rod, and don't cut the line! 4. The sound is like those machines that make taffy, they pull and stretch but never break. 5. The slide should follow the air and never visa-versa. 6. The slide and the tongue should walk on tippy-toes in order not to disturb the air stream. 7. Between the note is exactly the same sound as on the note, that's why the legato tongue was invented. 8. Imagine a layer of air between the inner slide and the outer slide, like those trains that have a layer of air between the wheels and the tracks. 9. Imagine that the inside of your horn is like a tire on a car; if every time you move the slide the tire goes flat, the ride will be pretty bumpy. 10. Ya' know those ropes with the little round floats they use to mark off lanes in swimming pools? Imagine the floats are the notes and the water is the air.

Incidentally, I found a notation in an old copy of a Rochut book that my teacher, John Swallow wrote when I studied with him in the late 50's. It said; " Your legato is too hard, this is partly due to conception, and partly due to the way you use natural slurs." Needless to say, I've worked hard to overcome that.

And finally, my concept of legato is; as much sound between notes as possible without a smear. So now you know all my secrets and I can retire and quit trying to spread the legato the trombone is capable of all over the world. ......NOT!

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