Vocal repertoire revisited

A few years ago, I asked Dr. Cory Mixdorf (University of Arkansas) to write a guest blog for me based on a clinic he did regarding the preparation and performance of vocal repertoire. It is a rather thoughtful, convincing article that you can read here to get up to speed. I have been wanting to add my thoughts to this for quite some time, not only to reinforce Dr. Mixdorf’s points, but also add a few of my own.

It has always seemed to me that there are two ‘dug-in’ camps regarding the performance of vocal repertoire on trombone. One side says “Why bother? You can’t hear the words anyway. We have enough trombone repertoire from which to choose.” The other side — to which I heartily subscribe — says “Of course we should play vocal repertoire! We are a vocal instrument and this repertoire offers wonderful study and value regardless of missing text.”

I’m not here to say that I am right and you are wrong, but I would argue that there is a tremendous amount to gain from the study and performance of art songs, lieder, arias, folk tunes, and even Broadway/film melodies. First of all, the overall caliber of composer and wealth of compositions in the vocal repertoire is far superior to that of the trombone catalog. Granted, we have some wonderful repertoire, but nothing that truly compares to Brahms, Schubert, Vaughan-Williams, Butterworth, Faure, Rachmaninoff, etc. We often fall into a trap as instrumentalists — especially brass players — of studying “Grade B” or lesser music. There is a place for it, and what I call Grade B might be your A+ prime, and vice versa, but we as a subculture too often get caught up on a trending composer or style that offers little aside from technical display. I’m not going to name names, and I’m sure we are all guilty of it, but there is that “bandwagon” repertoire from which can be challenging to break away. The masters who have set text to song offer something deeper for both the performer and audience to experience.

Furthermore, study of vocal repertoire directly benefits study of other repertoire, be it solos, etudes, or excerpts. Not only does the vocal approach help transport you out of the mindset of instrument operator, but seeing the direct relationship between text and compositional technique can greatly broaden your perspectives on non-vocal works. For example, Schubert’s “Der Atlas” from his Schwanengesäng cycle correlates to moments in the trombone solo from Mahler’s Third Symphony — at least to me. It is quite strong, forte playing that demands full, broad sound but also crystal clear articulation and direction of phrasing. It is frighteningly easy to lose control of sound and go BLASTO in both of these works, but the vocal concept greatly aids in avoiding this.

Along a similar veign, “Let Beauty Awake” from Vaughan-Williams Songs of Travel yields this lovely legatissimo, flowing style yet with a demand for clear articulation on repeated notes that helps me set the right mindset for the solo from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Rather than just trying to play great trombone technique and sound, one must become a vocalist. To me, that is a much more daunting task if one avoids the vocal repertoire! Put another way, give yourself the opportunity to break free of instrument operator.

The compositional and music theory aspect also play a role. Experiencing the direct correlation between text and compositional device greatly influences how we choose to play a phrase. When I prepare a song, I’m not just looking to play my best legato and make it all sound like a Bordogni. I analyze the chord qualities, differences in repeated text or compositional material, and generally how the composer conveys or supports the text through the notes. How do these qualities effect my musical interpretation and technical execution? Thinking this way opens up more possibilities and can offer more clarity of interpretation when you adapt this to non-vocal repertoire. Suddenly, the first page of the Ropartz, or Jongen, or Martin become something greater than a technical achievement.   I realize that without scanning exact examples of harmonic progressions, rhythmic devices, etc, it is difficult to point out exact places — perhaps in a future installment.

The last point I want to make relates to articulation. As trombonists, we tend to focus on either marcato or legato. So much of what we do is one or the other! However, I’ve always found that vocal repertoire demands much more nuance and exploring the “gray areas” in between marcato and legato. By studying the text and composers markings, we can adapt a more linguistic approach to playing. You make find yourself breaking written slurs in order to emulate the enunciation of a syllable, or using a firmer legato tongue than natural. This is great! It is rare that our trombone repertoire challenges us to make these decisions and employ such nuanced gradations of articulation. Embrace it, experiment with it, and carry it over to other repertoire.

OK, this is my last, last point. Listen to singers. Get multiple recordings. Follow the piano score. Be curious.