I often think of a story I once heard about Cal Ripken Jr (possibly apocryphal): to help avoid hand/wrist injuries he could be found slapping his hands against the asphalt after practice to build callouses/thicken bones/become generally more badass. The point being that he was going that extra step to condition himself for play… and in his case, condition himself so well that he would earn the record for the most consecutive games played. A record that had stood for 56 years.
It leads me to ask myself “what little things are other musicians doing?”
John Marcellus, Professor of Trombone at the Eastman School of Music, developed an intense routine of upper register lip slurs.
Rafael Méndez, trumpet player, would practice rapid articulation for minutes at a time, allowing him to do this:
David Waters, former Professor of Trombone at Rice University, broke down vibrato into a meticulous exercise to develop control (others do a similar exercise):
With so many skills to master most musicians have devised at least one unique approach. I’m pretty sure that if Cal Ripken was hitting his hand on the sidewalk it wasn’t the only thing he was doing. He had an intense routine of many “little things.” Each of the musicians above has/had an intense routine of many “little things:” fundamentals, exercise, score study, singing…
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.
Awareness: 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.
Motivation: 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:
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?”)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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…
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):
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:
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):
Possible Glissandi (The Exhaustive List)
Using the info above we can construct layer upon layer of glissandi.
B flat trombone glissandi:
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:
With the F valve depressed you get these glissandi (maximum of a perfect fourth):
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.
With the D valve engaged you get:
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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.