Category Archives: Advice

Impediments to Progress: Holes and Loops

David Waters, my professor in grad school, referred to deficiencies in technique as “holes.”  Just like a depression in your yard, the hole could be filled with the right tools and some hard work.  Others call them hurdles or obstacles.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not as easy as going to the shed and grabbing a shovel.  Sometimes you are not aware of the hole, sometimes the motivation isn’t there to fill it and sometimes it seems like no matter how much you put into the hole, no amount of work will hide it.  It’s the last scenario I will address most but I’ll also touch on the first two.

Being aware of an issue is the first step.  That may be obvious but the issue itself may not.  Continuing with our “hole” metaphor, if we don’t get into the yard and look we’ll never know there’s a hole to be filled.  Musically speaking, we listen to recordings and attend concerts to discern what others are capable of, we talk to others (friends, teachers) and they tell us what we should be able to do.  Then, if we have enough motivation, we start addressing it.

A dissertation unto itself.  Here are just a few points.  There’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic being motivation that is tied to a task and exists within the individual performing.  Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the performer: money, fame, competition, cheering crowds, fear of punishment, etc.  In our “hole” situation intrinsic motivation would be love of manual labor or the joy we get from a beautiful yard, extrinsic motivation would be getting paid to do the work or a fear of someone tripping and twisting an ankle.  There are beliefs about the relative merits of each: studies show that both can be beneficial but the lasting effects of intrinsic motivation usually trump extrinsic.

The Black Hole:
Occasionally we encounter a hole that just can’t seem to be filled.  Try as we might the problem remains.  This is far from uncommon.  Here are just some thoughts on why this might be:

Fear of Success
This is a form of self-sabotage that will keep us from achieving all that we can. Think about this in depth before you go any further.  Fear of success can take a few forms:

  1. Fear of lost friends/relationships
    The belief that, if we improve, others will resent it and we’ll lose them in our lives.  Think about athletes who “make it big.”  They go from unpaid high school or college players to multimillionaires overnight but their friends and family haven’t changed.  It’s easier to see how someone could be afraid of losing those they care about in a situation like that but it can happen in the less lucrative field of classical music as well.  (“Will my friends resent my ability?”)
  2. Fear of responsibility
    The belief that, if we are successful it will be expected of us again.  Showing that we’re good at something puts pressure on us to be good again and again, which then causes people to look to us when they need something done, which adds more responsibility to our lives…. something not everyone can handle.
  3. Fear of reaching our potential
    The belief that, if we do our best it still may not be good enough.  Simple as that.

You haven’t made it a priority
Be honest with yourself, have you really prioritized the issue?  Too often, I see frustration in others over a particular habit they can’t change or skill they can’t do that could be alleviated if they would make the issue a priority.  For instance, if they are having difficulty with air flow they spend their time practicing their solo repertoire without touching on exercises to address the problem, hoping the problem will work itself out on its own.  It should be your goal to spend so much time working on your weaknesses that they become your strengths.

Unreliable Sensory Perception
 This a concept from Alexander Technique that, in short, means we can’t trust ourselves.  Our habits are so engrained that even things that hinder us (that we even know to be detrimental) will feel ‘natural’ and ‘right.’  This makes it difficult for us to change the habit.  An outside perspective (teacher, mirror, recording device) can help you become aware of when you’re not being efficient.

Trapped in a loop
While at Rice University I took several courses on performance psychology with Dr. John Eliot.  There are many great things from those classes that I still use on a daily basis.  This “Performance Circle” is one of them:

By following the arrows you can trace the path of performance and find places where you can become trapped in your efforts.  Some people are inclined to get stuck in a “training loop” in which they feel hard work is the solution to their problems, others will get stuck in a “trusting loop” in which they feel that their creativity will pull them through.  To escape either try applying techniques from the other loop.  Without doing so you run the risk of burnout or never achieving what you’re capable of because of fear.

Think about your personality.  Do you feel that hard work is always the solution?  There’s a possibility you should think more creatively about your performance.  Do you feel like you can achieve your goals using your natural ability and your imagination?  A little elbow grease might improve your performance.

To bring back our hole metaphor… imagine we have a hole in our backyard that we can’t fill no matter how hard we try.  Maybe there is a spring at the bottom of the hole that washes the water away.  Thinking creatively we’d realize we need to block the spring first.  No amount of sheer hard work was ever going to solve the problem.  Alternatively, contemplating the nature of the hole will never get it filled without some hard labor.

Everything You Never Cared To Know About the Trombone Glissando

The single most common “mistake” I see in trombone parts is the unplayable glissando. Perhaps the most famous is from the fourth movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra:

Excerpt from the third trombone part of the Fourth Movement of Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra."

Excerpt from the third trombone part of the Fourth Movement of Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra."

Can’t do it (for reasons I’ll explain in a bit) but ugly little things like this keep turning up in my parts, maybe because one popular orchestration book calls it “perfect.” (Cough, Adler, cough.)

To his credit, Bartók probably knew what he was doing when he mocked Shostakovich. More than likely he was writing for someone playing a bass trombone pitched in F which would make this lick most playable. But 99.9999% of trombones today are pitched in B flat bringing us to the question of “what makes a trombone glissando possible?”

tl;dr: scroll down to the “Exhaustive List” below.

The Harmonic Series (You Should Know This)

To know what gliss a trombone can do you have to first understand the harmonic series, then understand the layout of the trombone.  If you don’t know anything about the harmonic series take a second to digest that info (particularly the section “Frequencies, Wavelengths…”) I’ll wait here.

K, welcome back. Octave, fifth, fourth, major third, minor third, flat minor third, etc. You’re a better person now.

The Trombone (It’s An Extendable Tube)

Now let’s talk trombones. You’ll generally be dealing with one of two types: tenor trombones and bass trombones. There are plenty others: alto trombones, soprano trombones, contrabass trombones, piccolo trombones. They all work in the same basic way. Know what key they are pitched in and you are well on your way to figuring out how they tick.

As I mentioned, the vast majority of tenor and bass trombones are in B flat. This means if you blow through the instrument with the slide all the way in you will get a note from the B flat harmonic series. Most professional tenor trombonists can reliably produce notes from the fundamental (B flat below the bass clef) to the twelfth harmonic (F at the top of the treble clef). Professional bass trombonists should be able to play at least up to the D below that F:

B flat harmonic series (the A flat is unusably flat)

You can extend the slide (longer tube = lower sound) for six half steps giving you each down to the E harmonic series starting on the E two octaves below the bass clef:

E harmonic series

For a bass trombonist the low E should be no problem. Depending on your tenor trombonist, that low E might be doable/might not. For tenors you should be safe down to the A flat:

Lower than that, ask your player. The more astute reader may notice that there are some notes missing, a fat diminished fourth from B natural below the bass clef to the E flat just above it. Trombonists have devised systems for playing these notes that open up opportunities for even more glissandi.

Valve Systems (More Options/More Confusion)

To make the trombone fully chromatic (or close to it) from its lowest to highest register, trombonists usually have a valve and extra tubing on their instrument. When the player presses a trigger and opens the valve the tube lengthens making the pitch lower. Professional tenor trombonists usually have a valve that will lower the pitch of the instrument by a fourth pitching them in F (giving them the F harmonic series when the slide is all the way in):

F harmonic series

F harmonic series

Remember, that low F may not be playable by your tenor trombonist.

Here’s where things can get confusing. As you move the slide out with the valve depressed each subsequent half step is slightly further apart. In the end, the F valve (also called an “attachment”) can only lower you a fourth to the C harmonic series:

C harmonic series

C harmonic series

You guessed it, that lowest C will probably not be playable by your tenor trombonist. Now tenor trombonists are only missing one note: the B below the bass clef. For special occasions they can pull the tuning slide out on the valve section and lower the pitch of the valve to E giving them the E harmonic series down chromatically to the B harmonic series. You need to decide whether your occasion is special enough to ask a trombonist to do this.

Bass trombonists generally have two valves available to them and here’s where things get really wild. There’s no real standard for what keys their valves are pitched in. Generally, they all have an F valve and some other valve that will give them that low B. One common system is one valve in F, the other in D (or the combination of the first and second will give D).

See below for a slide position chart by Dr. Jurgen Faisst that shows approximate positions and harmonics for the B flat trombone, the trombone with the F valve depressed and the trombone with a D valve engaged (notice that with the D valve the trombonist can only get a major third):

Slide Position Chart

Possible Glissandi (The Exhaustive List)

Using the info above we can construct layer upon layer of glissandi.

B flat trombone:

With the open B flat trombone these glisses can be as wide as a tritone. The first conceivable gliss would be from pedal E to pedal B flat but because of its extreme low register it’s not playable by all tenor trombonists:

The remainder of these glisses should be fine:

F valve:

With the F valve depressed you get these glissandi (maximum of a perfect fourth):

Not playable by most tenor trombonists.

The next two glisses overlap with those possible on the open B flat horn. The next unique glissando would be:

Any glissando higher than these can be produced without the F valve.

D valve:

With the D valve engaged you get:

Low even for a bass trombonist (but playable by many).


Any glissando higher than that is playable either with the F attachment or on the open B flat trombone. You can use any of those in full or in part and have a playable glissando on the trombone.

Extending the Glissando

This is why the glissando from the bass trombone part to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is not possible on most modern trombones. (Most, but not all. There are some valve combinations that can handle it.) To get from that B to that F you have to cross between two harmonics. When you cross harmonics you get a “bump,” an audible break in the sound (think switching from normal voice to falsetto). Much like a vocalist can work to minimize the noticeability of his break, a trombonist can do the same. With the ability to hide that change and some quick slide motion larger glissandi can be achieved. Take for instance:

Or, better yet, if you’re working with more than one trombone you can begin another player on the pitch on which the first player ends:


In use the glissando can sound anywhere along the range of hokey to eerie. The hokiest probably being Lassus Trombone, the bane of every trombonist’s existence:

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And the eeriest may be from the last movement of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. The trombone rises from the unbearably long oboe tone. (Side note: this movement covers basically the entire range of the trombone from pedal F to F at the top of the treble clef.)

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Michael Daugherty uses the trombone glissando beautifully in the last movement of his Motorcity Triptych. First in a bluesy bass trombone solo then in a ethereal plunger mute passage with the trombone section.

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Michaela Eremiasova uses the gliss to create an undulating texture and to add tension.

747 by Jim Pugh and David Taylor begins with parallel glissandi between a tenor and bass trombone.

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The fourth impromptu from Jan Koetsier’s Five Impromptus (for trombone quartet) contains a glissando passed between the members of the ensemble to create a continuous gliss. (The continuous gliss starts around 0:33.)

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Harmonic Glissando

A similar technique is the harmonic glissando.  This is where the player quickly moves through the harmonic series.  I’ll cover this in a future post.

Ask A Trombonist

Finally, when you’re done writing your part send it to a trombonist and have them check it out. They should be able to tell you relatively quickly if what you’ve done works. Look, here’s the email address of a trombonist right here: michaelclayville (at) gmail (dot) com.

Get Me to the Gig on Time

One of my biggest fears in life is that I’ll be late.  As a musician it’s unacceptable.  A concert has a start time: the audience will be there, the other performers (if there are others) will be there.  It’s like showing up for a meeting late… except with more people… who probably paid.  Getting to a rehearsal late is less offensive but is still an issue (more like the meeting).  You just try not to do it.

Most musicians have experienced some form of the “slept through the gig” nightmare.  Stories abound of up-and-coming musicians who get called for a big gig and sleep through their alarm/blow a tire/get caught in a knife fight with a monkey.  The story usually ends with the player never getting called again by the contractor (I’ve heard versions where the player was blackballed by an entire city and was forced to move).  It’s enough to put a fear of tardiness in anyone.

I’ll be the first to admit that things happen.  Just a month ago I needed to be in New York for a 3pm rehearsal, when, at the same time the skies burst and flooded central Pennsylvania.  (It was sad.  The rain was so bad one buffalo at a local zoo drowned and they had to euthanize another or else it would have had the same fate.)  Amtrak cut off service between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.  I had to wait for a bus to get to Philly, then a train from there to NYC putting me at the gig about three hours late.  There was nothing that could be done and, in the end, the world went on turning, but that rehearsal lost a bit of its usefulness and I couldn’t help but think “What if that had been a performance? …Would the world have stopped spinning? Or worse, would I ever get called for a gig again?”

To avoid that ever happening I’ve developed strategies for ensuring I make the gig.  First and foremost my approach involves planning to be early.  Any band director worth his salt has told his students “Early is on time.”  There’s a lot of truth to that.  A concert may have the downbeat at X o’clock but you need to get your instrument out, prep it, warm-up (if you didn’t do that at home earlier in the day), set up your music and whatever else you need and generally just get accustomed to the space.  I figure that for a rehearsal I need about a half hour, minimum, to do that; for a concert I add another half hour.

The next step in my strategy is factoring in travel time.

Travel time is where the greatest danger lies.  Regardless of what Google Maps says or your mode of conveyance (mass transit, car, bicycle, walking) so much of the trip is out of your control.  Consequently I developed a formula for myself:

tt = travel time (what you should plan to get to the gig)

wu = warm-up time (usually either thirty or sixty minutes)

btt = base travel time (this is what Google or Amtrak tell you)

wct = worst case traffic (what you believe is the absolute most time you can sit in traffic, your knowledge of the area/judgment comes into play here)

x =  the “plan for the unexpected” variable, determined by how far away the gig is (within 25 miles, x = fifteen minutes; 25 to 50 miles, x = thirty minutes; greater than 50 miles, x = sixty minutes; I use a similar system by substituting “miles” with “blocks” and changing the ranges when I’m in NYC)

tt = wu + btt + wct + x

(Flying is another matter completely with TSA shenanigans and parking and such.)

I developed this formula when I played with a brass quintet in Washington DC.  At the time, I had just graduated from Eastman, lived in south central PA and drove to Kensington, MD (just north of DC on the beltway) twice a week for rehearsals, plus random other days for school shows in DC, MD and VA.

If you have ever driven in DC you know the hell it is (note: I’ve lived in Houston and have had to commute in NYC as well so I know a variety of bad commutes… though I’ve never had to deal with LA or any of those crazy places outside the US).  Getting into the city can be a nightmare: the intersection at 95 and 495 can be horrendous… add to that the potential for traffic problems around Baltimore and a drive that would take me an hour and a half in the dead of night without traffic could take me three plus hours on a bad day (it once took me eight hours in the snow).  Unfortunately, there was no way of telling when it would be a bad day.  So I used the formula.

For a noon school show in downtown DC coming from PA:

wu = .5 hour
btt = 1.5 hours
wct = 1 hour (fluctuated depending on the time of day)
x = 1 hour

tt = 4 hours

Leaving four hours before a gig that should, for all intents and purposes, take me about an hour and a half to get to, meant I could get there incredibly early… I’d use those days to explore the neighborhoods/grab food/do other work; occasionally I’d show up just in time despite my efforts.  The important thing is, I was never was I late.

I still use it today.  Two months ago I had a session in NY at 11:30am.  Doing the math:
wu = .5 hour
btt = 3.5 hours
wct = 1 hour
x = 1 hour

tt = 6 hours

I left at 5:30am and was lucky I did, I ran into a seventeen mile backup (traffic stopped for the majority of it) in NJ and got to the city at 11 o’clock.  Without the traffic I would have made it to the city at 9:30am and would have had two hours to kill.

My formula fell apart in the flood though.  It can’t account for disaster on that level (Amtrak shutting down).  Though I can say that if it was a performance to which I was traveling I would have done everything in my power to get there (rental cars were completely sold out, but I could have taken a taxi back home and then driven to NYC).

Now if only my students would be able to walk across campus to get to rehearsal on time.