Jun 9, 2009

Torpedos away

To follow up on last month's reflections column, which I said if I had one thing to impart to the trombone/brass world, it would be the concept of correctly starting notes to produce a beautiful sound. Here's another way to visualize that technique, which I have found to be the most misunderstood and under utilized facet of brass playing. Remember in those old WWII submarine movies, when they loaded the torpedoes in the torpedo tubes and the captain would say "fire one, fire two," etc? Well that's pretty close to the way we should start notes. The torpedo is loaded into the tube, the tube is sealed by closing the end. Then the torpedo is ejected by some kind of built-up pressure, air or gas, because even though the torpedo has it own motor, it needs to be started on it's way with a powerful surge of motion, the same way we need to start our air stream. The tongue acts as a seal so pressure can be built up behind it. The sealing and building of pressure in the mouth must happen simultaneously and in an instant to send the note on it's way. The exhalation of the lungs then provide the motor that carries the projectile the intended length of travel. If the torpedo isn't given enough of a burst of speed when it leaves the tube, it's liable to fall to the bottom before it gets up enough speed for the motor to take over. Get my drift? In the old days teachers used to tell beginners to "spit some air into the horn." Maybe in their naivety they knew something we don't, because that about sums it up.

Many people advocate practicing attacks with no tongue in order to totally rely on the strength of the air to start the note. This is a great idea that certainly gets the air working, which is what starts a note and makes a great sound, and now I'll tell you why it doesn't work for me. As I said, it's a great idea and focuses on getting the air to start the note and that ain't a bad thing, right? Believe me when I say I'm big on air! The problem I see is when the embouchure doesn't seal, the articulation (point of departure) moves from the embouchure down to the diaphragm and that is when trouble starts. Since we can't move the embouchure or the front of the launch tube on the submarine, not sealing the embouchure is like making the torpedo tube 10 feet longer, which will require 10 times more air pressure to get that torpedo on it's way. Besides that, something has to start that air, and it will be muscles in the lower torso, AND THAT WILL RUIN THE SOUND. I know many people who start notes from the diaphragm area, and they are not getting a good sound. Want the secret to a great sound? Do everything from the chin up. If the articulation production can be kept in a small area inside the mouth, that way everything else can stay relaxed. When you watch olympic athletes getting ready to perform, do they see how tight they can get their muscles? No, they shake out their arms and legs to get rid of any tension, which is the way we need to play. A good exercise to perfect this technique is to imagine you are spitting BB's as far as you can. There are basically two ways to do this; the first is to lock up your lower torso, force air up using the diaphragm and expel it with a partially open aperture. This will result in a forced, distorted sound. The second is to take a large breath, let the natural elasticity of the lungs build up a large flow of air, and at that very moment the tongue seals a tiny spot between the front teeth, retreats to the bottom of the palette, and voila, the BB is shot forward, all the while the diaphragm was completely relaxed and unused. This results in a sound that is pure, focused, strong in fundamental and therefore rife with overtones. If you can learn to spit your air fast without the use of the muscles in the lower torso, keep the air stream narrow, fast and concentrated, you will produce the sound I am describing, and it will be done with minimal physical exertion. Let's get the "solid foundation" (flexed lower torso muscles) nonsense buried once and for all, and out of trombone pedagogy.

Just for your added information, I thought I would let my readers know what instruments I use for the repertoire I am required to play in the orchestra. I use alto trombone, a 1966 Latzsch, model Kuhn on works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, even the C major Symphony, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and certain Dvorak works. I use an early 20th century Kruspe, large bore, 547 on Bruckner and music from the late Romantic period. For impressionistic music I use a Bach 8 or a small bore 1927 Conn 500 bore "ballroom" model with tuning in the slide. I also use this horn on Symphonie Fantastique. I had always played Bolero on my Bach 42/50, but now I use either a Bach 16 or 36 because I want the classic French-style sound on this excerpt. My normal instrument is the new Bach 42TG50LW. I normally use a Parke 1010-760 mouthpiece, which is based on a 3G size, but modified for my preferences. My alto mouthpiece is a Bach 6/12 AM. I also have a smaller alto mouthpiece for extreme high playing, such as Beethoven 5.


This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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