Saturday, December 19, 2009

Trombone 101

I don't really write as often as I should about trombone or trombone-playing.  Heck, I don't really play very much anymore.  I'm becoming a gentleman!  That is, someone who knows how to play trombone, but doesn't.

Back in the Seventies, I was a student trombonist and played at every opportunity.  In the Eighties, I spent four years in an Air Force band; when I separated from the military, I worked as a computer programmer in various locales, and played a little here and there.  For a while, I was the second trombonist in the Boulder Philharmonic, and also played in various municipal bands in northern Virginia.  We moved to Omaha in 1988, and I started playing seriously again.  Then, in 1991, I won the bass trombone position in the Lincoln Symphony -- a decent orchestra, but (at the time) about as entry-level as a professional symphony job gets.  I also played with a lot of brass groups in Omaha and did some subbing with the Omaha Symphony.  But inexplicably, I somehow got old and gigging began to take too much of my energy and peace of mind.  So when we moved to Virginia, I made it a point not to pursue trombone on a professional basis and just to enjoy whatever playing comes my way.  And it hasn't been much -- too many youngsters out there doing what I spent my youth doing.  I played for a community orchestra for several years, and still play in church.  Once in the archetypal blue moon, someone offers me a little money to play.  But not very often.  It's an avocation, now.

It's strange how the passions that once stirred our souls are finally put into perspective, if one just lives long enough.  Sometimes I really wonder why I ever majored in trombone-playing.  I had a four-year ROTC scholarship, and could have majored in anything.  I've always loved history and writing, and I've always been adept at math and science, so I could have gone off happily in almost any direction.  But I really did love to play the trombone, and was (at first) blissfully ignorant about how hard it could be to make a buck in that field.  It's a tough profession, even for those who are very, very good at it.

Young and stupid, that was me.  But... you don't know what you don't know.  What I didn't know was how good the competition was, and how far behind I was relative to the trombone players who were graduating from the conservatories and colleges with great music programs.  Though I played for years in grade school, I never had a trombone lesson until I was a freshman in college -- and I never had a lesson from a real trombone professional until I was a junior.  I knew I was behind the 8-ball, but imagined that I could work my way out of the hole.  Unfortunately, musical intelligence is very different from the types of intelligence that  had always (well, not quite always) enabled me to do well in my academic studies.  Age and experience count for something, of course, and hard work never hurts -- but if God didn't put it in there, it just ain't in there.  I'm sure there were freshman at Eastman Conservatory who could play rings around me when I was in grad school, and most of them weren't going to make it in the field, so what chance did I have?  It took a while for me to learn all this.  It took even longer to accept it.

Fortunately, God always works His plan out according to His perfect will, even when we think we're doing all the driving.  Life is good.  I'm fifty-five, and still love playing trombone.  What's especially fun now is to watch the young players as they start to "get it" and begin making great leaps and strides in their playing.  Bill McGlaughlin was my first real trombone teacher when I was a student and he was a trombonist with the Pittsburgh Symphony; he went on to become a conductor, composer, and radio personality.  As Bill explained to me, "Music is a great art, but a lousy profession."  I like watching and hearing the young players who are just discovering it's a great art.  It makes me remember how I used to feel.

Really, though, it is an odd instrument to fall in love with.  It's like saying your favorite actor is Charles Durning.  Now, Durning is indeed a great actor, but with his portly frame and comical face, he was never a big star and certainly never a leading man.  Like Mr. Durning, the trombone is by and large a member of the supporting cast -- and also like Mr. Durning, it shines in that role.  Except for the triangle, almost every other instrument gets to play all the solos and take all the bows; the trombone players, meanwhile, usually play the background chords and sometimes get to carry the melody as a section, but seldom as individuals.  Not many trombone players have become prominent soloists.  (The last one whose name was a household word was Tommy Dorsey, and he died in 1956.)   For me, the joy of playing trombone is in the sound, especially the sound of a good trombone section.  The trombone is a good solo instrument, but it really comes into its own as an ensemble instrument.  When two or more are gathered, the mating together of the overtones is magical -- rich, dark, intense.  Our job, mainly, is to help create the context in which others shine.  This requires a selfless attitude, and as a result, trombone sections are generally free of the Prima Donna attitudes that can poison the experience in many other sections and settings.  At least, that has been my observation.

So, what would I tell a young player who wants to make a go of it?  Here are some observations, take 'em or leave 'em.

1.  I remember, first of all, the advice given to me by another one of my trombone teachers, the late Byron "B.B." McCulloh:  "Find a profession that you wouldn't mind doing for the rest of your life, and then practice like hell!"  He meant to say, learn a decent profession to fall back on -- a good "day gig", in the vernacular of music pros.  (For me, it has been programming.  I'm not God's gift to programming any more than I was His gift to the trombone world, but mediocre programmers often get paid, while mediocre trombone players often don't.) Then, if you still want to do the trombone thing, you practice your butt off, play as much as possible, and take auditions.  Of course, if a young player likes teaching, he can major in music education and become a teacher, or go the academic route (which is almost as competitive as performing).  The point is, art is a wonderful thing, but try not to starve.  Trust me, I've been there.  It isn't as much fun as it sounds.

2.  When it comes to selecting your trombone teacher, never settle for second best.  Once you know what kind of player you'd like to be, it should focus your mind on who to study with.  So go and study.  I studied in Pittsburgh with Pittsburgh Symphony players because, to me, they represented the ideal trombone sound.  To be honest, there were better sections, but there weren't any better sounding sections -- they had an ensemble sound quality that really sparkled.  If I had not joined the Air Force, I would probably have moved from there to Chicago to study with the Chicago Symphony guys (assuming one of them would have had me), or perhaps Philadelphia, another great-sounding section.  There is no sense languishing under a teacher who isn't doing you any good.  I've done that, too.  Which leads me to...

3.  Trust your instincts.  When I have made serious errors in judgment, usually it's because I overvalue my thinking and undervalue my instincts.  I studied for a year under a fine gentleman at a good Midwestern music school.  Don was an accomplished player -- a fabulous technician, with an encyclopedic knowledge of trombone, its history and literature.  But for me, he wasn't the right teacher; I knew this instinctively within a week or two, but allowed my intellect to talk me out of my conclusion.  Don was the ideal  teacher for someone with a more intellectual and methodical approach to trombone.  That wasn't me at all -- I'm an instinctive learner, and can't always articulate what I'm doing.  I have to hear it and be immersed in it.  For me, the best lessons are when I get to trade licks with the teacher and play duets, or at least to play melodious etudes or excerpts and have them demonstrated back to me when something needs improving.  But Don was more of a lecturer, and expected you to get it from his explanations.  He's had some wonderful students, and I know he was a good teacher.  Just not for me.  (And frankly, he deserved better than me as a student.)

4.  About equipment -- try to buy the trombone or trombones that make it easy for you to sound like that little trombone-player in your head.  You can start a lot of arguments between trombonists (usually a peaceable lot) by claiming this or that instrument is the "best" trombone on the market.  What you want is the best instrument for you.  In the U.S., most orchestral players seem to prefer Bach or Edwards trombones, while Conn trombones are perhaps more popular in England.  But no brand of trombone is the monolithic ideal, and many other fine trombone makers have a lot to offer -- Shires, Greenhoe, Kanstul, Yamaha, Getzen, B&S, Courtois, Rath, and others make wonderful trombones.

I've owned more than my share of bad trombones, and I was too stubborn to admit it's the trombone's fault.  Back in the 1970s, trombone makers were entering their Dark Ages and for many years it was hard to find a decent trombone.  Conn had moved their manufacturing operations from Elkhart, Indiana to Texas or Mexico, and I suffered for years with a 1972 "Mexi" Conn -- not a particularly good horn, even though 1960s Conns are justifiably sought out as some of the best trombones ever made.  When I won the Lincoln Symphony bass trombone position in 1991, I didn't even own a bass trombone (I won the audition on a borrowed Yamaha), so I had to buy one.  I wound up buying what I hope was the worst Bach bass trombone ever built.  After getting my butt kicked by this lousy piece of plumber's crease for two years, I was so desperate for a decent horn that I spent big bucks on a custom-made Edwards bass trombone, and couldn't have been happier with the results -- I still play it to this day.  When you've been trying to make music with junk horns all your life, a good trombone is a joy, and a great trombone is a revelation.  Edwards makes a great trombone, and many of the world's greatest trombone players such as Joe Alessi of the New York Philharmonic and the entire Philadelphia Orchestra trombone section agree.

But since the Nineties, the other manufacturers have come around.  The Pittsburgh Symphony section (it's a different section today) sounds fantastic on Yamahas.  Ian Bousfeld of the Vienna Philharmonic and Michael Powell of the American Brass Quintet sound like the Lord's own personal herald trombones on Conn 88Hs.  Jay Wise of the Omaha Symphony makes a Shires bass trombone sing like Caruso.  I have personally played Conns and Greenhoes which are as good as anything I've ever played.  Kanstuls are very popular on the West Coast, offering a sizzling sound and solid workmanship.  I hate to say it because I really love all of my Edwards trombones (I own three of them), but if I were starting out from scratch, I'd have to seriously consider trying to find something as good for less money (though it may not be possible!).  The situation that sent me scurrying to a "boutique" trombone maker doesn't appear to exist anymore; trombone-making has come back out of the Dark Ages.

The most important thing is to buy a trombone that won't hold you back as a player.  If you don't sound good, you want it to be your fault, not the instrument's.  So go to a trombone convention or workshop -- some place where you can sample many different makes and models -- with someone whose ears you trust (teacher, fellow student, fellow pro) and try as many trombones as you can.  When you find the horn that lights up your soul, you and your buddy will know.  (I had that feeling last March at the Eastern Trombone Workshop when I played a B&S tenor trombone with a "crown" around the bell -- mmmm! -- and when I played a Greenhoe-Conn 62H bass trombone -- yowza!)  Obviously, money is always an issue, but -- trust me on this -- buy the best horn (for you) that you can at all afford.  If you're unfortunate enough to be uplifted only by the most expensive horns (my favorite Greenhoe-Conn tips the cash register at about $6 grand), that's too bad.  But then again, the pain of paying for it is temporary, while the joy of playing it goes on and on and on.  My advice is to go for that joy, and spend as much as you need to spend.

4.  Now, back to that little trombone-player in your head: listen to as much music as you can.  Listen to all the orchestras and big bands, old recordings or new, and decide what you love and what you only like.  Symphony players should not neglect the classic big bands and the wonderful Nelson Riddle and Billy May arrangements from the Fifties and Sixties (and all those great barking bass trombone passages played by the legendary George Roberts); and jazz or commercial players should pay heed as well to the venerable symphony sections -- e.g., the Chicago Symphony recordings from the Fifties to the Eighties, and London Symphony recordings from, well, anytime.  Music is an imitative art, and you can't imitate it unless you can hear it in your head before you blow a note.  It goes without saying you have to practice hard, but unless you know what you're supposed to sound like, practicing hard is like running very fast in a circle in your back yard -- lots of huffing and puffing, but you get nowhere fast.

5.  Play as much as you can.  Symphonies, concert bands, jazz bands, combos, rock bands, solos, church music -- you name it.  Back when I lived in Pittsburgh, I was once the only white dude in an otherwise all-black disco band.  (A light-blue polyester leisure suit, complete with psychedelic yellow shirt with giraffes patterns on it, never looked worse than when it was worn by yours truly.)  The more you play, the more confidence you'll acquire, and the more versatile you'll be.

6.  Try to get along with people.  (I should talk.)  Two things that will turn you into everybody's least favorite section player are a metastasized sense of entitlement, and being overly impressed by your own wonderful self.  As always, Christ shows us the way.  If God Himself can be humble, it ill becomes us to preen and prance.  God is certainly not impressed by the greatness of our works; He remembers we are only dust.


Anonymous said...


You could call this post 'Everything I needed for life I learned playing the trombone". Good post, great insights, I always enjoy reading your stuff.

Lee said...

Thanks! And very astute! I needed these lessons when I was starting out! As the saying goes, "Too soon old, too late wise." Or: "Life is not like school -- you get the test first, and then the lesson."

marlinmike said...

Hi Lee,

Great post...some good lessons. I diddled around with some subpar guitars for most of my life until my wife bought me a Martin. I don't play much better but (a) I enjoy it more, and (b) I can't blame the guitar for the low quality of my music!

My uncle used to play the trombone in Germany. My father (his brother) tells me the story of my uncle playing in one of those German umpah bands. Once, they decided to play a gig on a horse drawn cart and played while being pulled through town. I guess my uncle had a few too many beers and half way through the performance in the middle of some German marching tune or something, he threw his head back to blow a big note and fell off the cart. My father said it looked like it hurt, but he doesn't think my uncle felt a thing :-)

Crazy trombonists...


Lee said...

Don't drink and play trombone! Just kidding. A rule like that would start an armed rebellion by angry trombonists.

Kathy said...

Hey Lee,

Providentially I stumbled onto your site today; it's been awhile since I checked in. While my guys are not trombonists (you've heard from my guitar-player!) but rather an enthusiastic pianist and a (possible) saxophonist with a good voice, I think your advice will hold true for many instruments and I plan to share it with the younger two. Thanks for sharing,

Mr Happy said...

I love this post, and have walked in your shoes. I played an 88H from the 60's (although I played in the late 70's and early 80's). My vision (lack thereof) kept me from playing as a career, and I put the whole paradigm down and found something else to do with my life.

I found your post because lately I've really missed playing and am casually looking to buy a decent player and reacquaint myself with it. Anyway, I also read some of your more recent posts and like you blog a lot.

Lee said...

Mr. Happy, good to hear from you, thanks so much for your kind words about my post and my blog.

If you're looking for a good player, model-wise, these days there are lots to choose from. If you want a new trombone, if price is no limit, I'd look at an Edwards, a Shires, a Rath, a Schagerl (Austrian) or a B&S (German). I have two Edwards tenors but I'm saving up now for an Edwards Alessi...

If you buy an Edwards, best thing to do is go to the factory in Elkhorn, Wisconsin and have Christan or Michael listen to you play and help you build the horn that works best for you.

The Edwards-Alessi tips the scales at $4900. The other Edwards tenors will run you around $4500.

You'll pay similar bucks for a Shires, which are modern trombones with the sound and something of the vintage Conn 88H feel. Ditto for Rath, but with a British flavor (Shires are made in Massachusetts; Rath is made in England).

Schagerl trombones are awesome. Go to YouTube and listen to Mnozil Brass. They play Schagerl trombones.

If you want a new trombone that is less expensive, consider Conn, Getzen, or Yamaha. Getzen is the parent company of Edwards, and I think they're a great horn for the money. The new 88H trombones by Conn are very good now, or so I hear.

And eBay is full of used trombones, where you can find some real bargains. Vintage Conn 88Hs from the Fifties and Sixties, old Holtons, old Bachs, and newer stuff without the stiff price tags.

Do yourself a favor and buy a Greg Black mouthpiece. They run about $175 and are worth every penny.

And good luck!