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Some Perceptions & Observations That You May Have Missed
by Jay Friedman
"Since last issue's column was ...
Jay Friedman's "D'Ya Ever Notice"
D'Ya Ever Notice
Some Perceptions & Observations That You May Have Missed
by Jay Friedman
"Since last issue's column was subtitled "There Oughta Be a Law..." , I thought we'd get all warm and fuzzy this time and call it "D'ya Ever Notice?" So without any rational order or reason (once again) here goes.
D'ya ever notice that most of us do the right stuff when we buzz the mouthpiece? (although we work harder than we should) I like to buzz at a mezzo-piano volume and use no tongue while I'm slurring, which is what I do 90% of the time on the mouthpiece. I try to eliminate all tension from my body (and therefore the sound) to achieve a meditation--like quietness in my buzz, getting the most amount of resonance for the least amount of work. (Ah you say, real men don't buzz. OK, go ahead and throw away that magic bullet!) The problems start when we put the mouthpiece in the horn and tighten up the slide arm, bang with the tongue, and forget the air. Think of yourself as a computer. One program is buzzing the mouthpiece nice and relaxed, focusing on the air stream. Thankfully, it's not hard to do. Another (the one most used) is the rigid arm, wrist and torso, and hard tongue program we pop in as soon as we pick up the horn. If we could all play the horn like we play the mouthpiece what a wonderful trombone world this would be. Warning! When you try to do this your slide arm is going to put up a fight you wouldn't believe, (mine does, and I work on it all the time) because it's probably been bossing the air around for years. (think of the air as a small banana republic's newly elected democratic government and your slide arm as a military strong man just looking for a sign of weakness in order to stage a coup. ) Do yourself a favor and replace the horn playing program with the mouthpiece buzzing program. Remember, there's a gorgeous legato slur hiding in every blend of air and slide. the question is; how bad do you want to find it?
D'ya ever notice almost everybody tongues legato half-steps too hard? That's because most people think that if you think you move the slide the same speed and use the same amount of tongue on every slur it will all come out even. I call that "pop" trombone pedagogy. If I move the slide one position (half-step) and then I move the slide six positions, both at the same speed, which one is going to pop out first? If I get a nice slur moving six positions, then the half step will be way, way too hard. Incidentally, I quit using any tongue on half-steps years ago.
D'ya ever notice when a student plays a Bordogni etude, you can always tell when a grace note is coming because he/she starts to tighten up in order to "nail" it? They may not play with a good sound or legato but come hell or high water that grace note is gonna come out! That's why I never let students play grace notes until they are very advanced (I rarely play them myself).
D'ya ever notice that a lot of players--young and old--are always thinking about the next notes to come rather than the quality of the one they are playing at that moment? Everyone should heed Yoda's words to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back concerning his training as a jedi knight. "Always his mind was on something else and never on what he was doing!" The great players say through their instruments; "This is going to be the prettiest sound on any note you've every heard."
D'ya ever notice that the most difficult style to master is also the simplest? Give a player three or more articulated quarter notes at a piano dynamic level and in a moderately slow tempo and rarely will they sound convincing. The conventional wisdom is to play tenuto, even notes with dull attacks--a psuedo-orchestral style. Top players on string and other instruments wisely play this kind of passage with a clear attack and a slight diminuendo on each note, a style which has much more character and musical impact.
OK, I promised last issue to tell you what I thought the Chicago Symphony brass sound was all about. I don't want to make a big explanation of this, so the best phrase I can think to describe it is "life in the sound." I believe this comes from the fact that the speed of the air is always faster at the beginning of a note (loud OR soft) than in the middle or end, thereby creating its own reverberation, or a ringing sound. This gives the impression (repeat--only ‘'impression") of length. Dullness is usually the result of a note which starts with a medium or slow air stream that continues at the same speed (or even increases) throughout the duration of that note. If an entire brass section plays in a "life in the sound " style, it's almost as if 12 people were playing in a single unified solo style.
D'ya ever notice that a lot of brass players play much louder in ensembles than they are capable of producing a musical sound? Maybe there should be licenses issued like they have for driving different classes of heavy trucks. In other words - CLASS I-F - " You are hereby certified to play at a dynamic of not more than forte or so many Hz (HERTZ). However you would be allowed to practice on a bigger rig at home in your driveway until you felt qualified to take the test for certification at a heftier weight class.
D'ya ever notice how easy it is to get a good sound on three or four-voice trombone chords, and how hard it is to make unisons ( octaves are too easy ) sound anywhere near as good? What if you could get three or four players to play only unisons for six months. What would those first chords sound like. One of these days...
In the D'ya remember department--when I was a beginning trombone student in the late 1950s, there used to be books entitled Orchestral Excerpts for trombone. But when you got them home, they turned out to be little melodies from operas and incidental pieces. I used to hate them when I was a student, because I wanted to play industrial strength "real" excerpts. Now that I'm older and looking for music to play instead of pumping iron, I like them. I especially like the register they are in, which is mostly in the bass clef staff, that no-man's land from low B-flat to middle-F where most tenor players have trouble. In fact I'd love to see someone make an etude book ala Bordogni from actual master works using the melody line. The only arranging necessary would be to take and blend the melody line wherever it is and put it in the range of a trombone. Here's a few suggestions; Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, Second movement, the violin solo from the Missa Solemnis, Brahms Symphony No. 3, Third movement , or those gorgeous cello lines from Wagner operas. The opening of the second act of Lohengrin would make a great study for bass trombone. Many times in the middle of a practice session I've pulled out a score and started reading string parts because there is so much great music in them.
D'ya ever notice how many trombone players concentrate on focusing the sound in loud playing, but don't realize that focusing the sound in soft playing is more important? The problem with modern American-made trombones is their tremendous efficiency in focusing the sound in f and ff dynamics. No matter how big the equipment you use (I use a combination 3G/4G mouthpiece with a bass trombone slide and a heavy gold brass bell (sound familiar?); if you don't temper the sound in loud playing you're going to sound like a laser beam. Also, if you don't focus it in soft playing the sound will travel four feet and then evaporate, that is if you're really playing the soft dynamics like you should. So let's swap ends on the natural tendencies of our instruments and get closer to the best qualities of a good German-style trombone, i.e. a much more even sound across the diameter of the bell in forte and a resonant, live, golden halo--like sound in piano. Incidentally, I've had a love affair with the German trombone since I was a student in the late 1950s and use them on a regular basis.
Of course, if you play in a great hall you can use a kazoo and sound pretty good, but unfortunately the hall we play in (and maybe most of you) is dry and harsh toward brass, so we must manufacture almost every bit of warmth, and more importantly, eliminate any edge so as to add richness to the orchestra and not poke any holes in the musical canopy of the orchestra.
They are Not Our Teachers
There is an old story attributed to Mohammed about a lieutenant in his army who said; " They torture our prisoners so why should we not torture theirs?" Mohammed replied, "because they are not our teachers."
D'ya ever notice in orchestras and other ensembles when playing a soft passage, the person who plays the loudest sets the dynamic level for the whole group? Since everyone wants to be heard most players make sure they're heard by playing a tad more than the others. The result is that in effect each person is saying," Whomever is the most selfish, insensitive musician in the group will be my teacher." I believe that as common as the overplaying of loud dynamics is, the playing too loud on soft dynamics is far more pervasive (not persuasive!). A conductor may jump all over the brass section (deserved or not) for too much sound in a ff, but how often do they chastise the whole ensemble for not producing a real pianissimo?
D'ya ever notice the players who always complain about the trombones being too loud never play soft? (It's not the trombones they hate, it's loud dynamics in general, except, of course, their own).
The problem is that a love of soft playing is generally not being instilled in our younger players (of all instruments) because the big sound mania seems to have enveloped the whole world, from opera to chamber music. When was the last time you heard a string quartet play a real pianissimo? It also seems that the more limited your instrument is in the louder dynamics (woodwinds, basses take note) the more license you have to play loudly in soft dynamics. Every instrument sounds beautiful in pp, especially trombones. Lets teach and encourage our students and colleagues to love the sound of incredibly soft playing. Can you imagine playing in an ensemble where each player said to himself; I'll play even softer than the rest, for the group and for myself."
D'ya ever notice that when everyone tries to be heard, no one is heard? But, when no one tries to be heard, everyone is heard. And with that thought, I leave you once again and remember; don't strive to be a great trombone player. Strive to be a great musician.
Jay Friedman's "D'Ya Ever Notice" was first published in the Spring 1997 issue of The ITA Journal.
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