Nov 9, 2009

It's fundamental

I spend way too much time on fundamentals with my students and myself. Most of the time in lessons we spend most of the lesson on the first couple of bars of a piece because it takes about 5 or more tries for someone to get the sound they are capable of making, and that, after I bug them about the quality of the first note, which will determine the sound of the whole phrase. This brings us to a most crucial point that is frequently overlooked; the most challenging part of playing the trombone in an ensemble setting or audition situation, is being able to sound warmed-up when you're not. This means being able to produce a great sound the 1st time. As I said, everyone sounds good the 5th try, but that isn't what it's about. There is no 5th try in an audition or performance. When you think about it, every time we play an entrance in an ensemble situation we have probably been sitting there for a while counting bars rest. We usually play a short phrase and then before we get to feeling warmed-up, we stop and sit there for another period of time, and then the same thing happens again. Unless you can make your best sound on command, all that fancy stuff you can do isn't worth a bucket of warm spit, as they say.

What's the secret of being able to sound warmed-up when you're not? Answer; practicing exactly that, and instead of waiting to see what kind of a lip you have that day by the way it feels, making your best sound no matter how it feels, and this is a skill that must be developed through awareness of the skill needed, and trial and error in a practice room. I get to do this all the time as a teacher, because when I am giving a lesson I am constantly picking up my horn to demonstrate something to the student, and because I never have time or inclination to warm-up before a lesson, it always feels awful! It doesn't matter however, because I have such a rock-solid mental vision of what my sound should be, the fact that it feels bad doesn't deter me from making that sound, and that's what I want you to start thinking about. When it all comes down to it, it will always feel bad when it counts! Everyone sounds good at home the 5th time, but that's not what the game is about. This sounds like such a simple concept, and because of that it is frequently overlooked. I remember a funny story my teacher, the late Robert Lambert, former principal trombone of the Chicago Symphony told me many years ago; he was giving a lesson and picked up his horn to demonstrate something the student was having trouble with, and he sounded so bad, when it came time for the student to pay him for the lesson, the student forgot and he didn't have the nerve to ask for it!


What makes a great player? A common thread of great players, I believe, is when they hear something someone else does well, they "steal" it from them, or at least the idea of it, and take that idea home to be developed and added to their arsenal of skills. This can be some particular feature of a another person's playing; ie, sound, legato, vibrato, articulation, phrasing etc. There is no guilt associated with this thievery, at least there shouldn't be. On the other hand I see many people with the attitude of; " that's yours, and I wouldn't presume to take that from you." Whereas, I would like to see more people have the attitude, when they hear something great, say to themselves; "gimme that, I'm taking that home with me." This can be only one thing that is outstanding about another person's playing, and that distinction needs to be made, because not everyone does everything well. Pick and chose the aspects of your playing, and you'd be surprised at how many people don't. They learn to live with whatever happens to come out of their instrument, instead of going to the musical supermarket and making choices. This can range from some original concept they themselves have come up with, in essence a dream feature, or as I said, "steal" it from someone who already possesses it.

This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

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