Excerpts: teaching to the test?

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I’ve been dormant on this blog for the last few months, mainly because life has been busy (who’s isn’t) and I’ve been giving considerable thought to this posts topic. This month’s blog is an offshoot of the January 2015 post regarding the (im)Practicality of Audition Lists, and I will warn you that it’s a long one! A reader shared his views with me concerning the alarming frequency at which orchestral excerpts are a requirement of undergraduate auditions in the USA, which quite frankly, I share. I have never been in favor of high school (and younger) students working on excerpts, unless they were performing them with their youth orchestra or advanced enough to be auditioning for top conservatories.

This is not to say that young students should never work on excerpts, but that the motivation and logic behind this study is too often flawed. Standardized tests have been under fire lately in this country, mainly due to the concept of “teaching to the test”. Students are prepared to do well on a test, rather than prepared to assimilate and demonstrate working knowledge on a subject. I pose that a direct parallel can be drawn when it comes to young players preparing orchestral excerpts. The bulk of this excerpt training is simply to fulfill an audition requirement (i.e. college), not necessarily to prepare students for an orchestral career. Even more egregious is the fact that many students are simply learning the notes with no consideration of style, historical context, or musical logic. Yes, there will be plenty of exceptions to this statement, but for the most part, it is this bloggers opinion that students are being taught to the test.

A respected professional trombonist and educator recently commented on a previous post of mine saying “I hear so many talented, enthusiastic, ambitious young trombonists who can play an amazing Saints-Saens Cavatine at the beginning of an audition and then a lifeless, line-less Tuba Mirum or Hungarian March, often with pitch, time and sound that don’t come close to what they do on solo repertoire.”         (full post here: http://tromboneforum.org/index.php/topic,84717.0.html)

I have had a similar experience many times when working with older high school students and college students: the solos/etudes sound pretty good, then it’s as if they left the room and sent a life-less drone back in to play excerpts.

These observations pose two glaring questions:

1) Why are students preparing excerpts at a point in their development that it may actually be detrimental to their overall musicianship?

2) How/where does the disconnect between music-making and excerpts happen?

Let me address these questions one at a time. The study of excerpts is not a negative thing; in fact, I think it’s a great thing even for the non-orchestrally ambitioned player. They teach how master composers treated our instrument, and often offer a window into the evolution of our instrument and its role in the orchestra. However, where the negative aspect enters is when students are taught excerpts when they lack the musical and technical maturity to make informed decisions as to HOW THEY GO! I can comfortably make such a bold claim, as this applies to me. While I didn’t play my first excerpt until my college sophomore year, I was still musically not prepared and I still carry many of those skeletons with me. By this, I mean that some of the simplest, “beginner” level excerpts challenge me the greatest, as I have negative baggage from musically immature study. Perhaps ‘baggage’ will be a future blog topic….

Deviating slightly off-topic, etudes seem to be a vehicle for learning that many students have abandoned, and I wonder if this is a result of their teachers’ abandonment of etudes. There is not a skill or style in any excerpt that cannot be improved and mastered through study of etudes. Well, I might be hard-pressed to think of an etude to help prepare The Miraculous Mandarin, but it’s safe to say that the bulk of the orchestra repertoire can be greatly aided with etude study!

I also hold the opinion that many teachers (primarily those of pre-college students) are ill-equipped to be introducing excerpts to their students. Having visited many colleges over the last few years as a guest artist, I’ve had numerous conversations with professors who frequently share stories of students auditioning for them, and playing excerpts that seem to have zero bearing: Tuba mirum blasted and non-legato, The Ride of the Valkyries in 7/8, Bolero without the ownership of any notes above F4….the list could go on. Why are students being allowed and encouraged to demonstrate this ignorance? I theorize that many teachers simply don’t have the knowledge of, or experience with, the excerpts, and therefore blindly pass this ignorance on to their students.

HOWEVER……

Is this really the early teachers’ fault, or the fault of a system that requires students to be practicing Bolero and Ride of the Valkryies at junior high and senior high school age? Like I said a few paragraphs ago, there are always exceptions and the phenoms who buck the norm. This blog is not about those select few, but rather the multitude of students who learn to play the notes without any consideration of what the piece is about, or how their part fits into the grand scheme of the work. The shame of this truth is that this is the next generation of musicians that we are cultivating. I’ve heard plenty of audition-winning caliber players who can play the snot out of their instrument, and could repeat a passage perfectly 10, 20, 30 times. While I’m envious of this technical ability and consistency, something is often missing in the form of personality and flair. Where does this disconnect happen?

Let’s address that second question, as if I knew the exact answer, I wouldn’t be someone who struggles with this myself! Listening to my own recordings, I have discovered many inconsistencies. One of the most prevalent (and frustrating) is when it is clear I’m just trying not to miss. What is the repertoire type that I most often have this experience? You guessed it: excerpts. The same syndrome seems to exist with many students.

As a community, I feel we put excerpts on a pedestal, and bind ourselves with the idea that they must be this flawless, rigid, unarguable, black & white, Holy Grail of playing that is separate from anything else we play. In the process, the flexibility of an open and musically logical mind goes right out the window. Sometimes we are trying so terribly hard to emulate our teachers, that we lose sight of making music. For example, years ago I was preparing the last movement of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler for an audition. Being Chicago-schooled, I typically use natural legato wherever there is a slur. A colleague pointed out to me that while my efforts were noble, it sounded sloppy. Well, I’ve heard Jay, Michael, and Charlie do this effortlessly and beautifully, so that’s what I have to do – right? I took my colleagues suggestion to try some light legato-tongue and the result was fantastic: cleaner, easier, and consistent. My point is that I was so self-bound to doing it the way I thought it had to be, that I missed an opportunity to try something different that ultimately worked much better for me.

Perhaps the concept that “an excerpt is forever, while an etude just gets checked off” has something to do with the musical disconnect. Does anyone take Kopprasch 15, Tyrell 10, Bitsch 8, etc as seriously as they do William Tell or Russian Easter? Theoretically we should, but those are things that we would never have to perform so why would we be accountable for them? So, perhaps we give ourselves license to have more fun, play with more flair, and experiment more with the etudes. When it comes to the excerpts, we transform to being rigid, authoritative, and perfection-of-execution oriented. Hmm, sounds like I’m describing a robot.

Listen, folks, I’m not claiming I’ve got this figured out, and a lot of this blog is an exercise in me trying to wrap my brain around something that has bothered me for years. If nothing else, it’s a chance to kick around some ideas and see if some of these opinions resonate with any of you. I would love to hear from you if you have any ideas/suggestions/counterpoints.

At this point I want to recognize my friends at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the only schools I know of – let alone conservatory – that does not require excerpts for undergraduate admissions. Check out this link and notice how under tenor trombone auditions, incoming freshmen are excluded from the excerpt requirement.  The trombone department out there is on to something!  Kudos to Mark Lawrence, Paul Welcomer, John Engelkes, and Tim Higgins.  Another colleague of mine argues that the excerpts are an even playing field in which you can evaluate if a student has style and personality. While there is also truth to that, I counter that etudes and solos can serve the same purpose, without putting the undue pressure on kids to learn something for which they are not ready. Plus, it is one less opportunity to create baggage for their futures. Perfect segue to a future blog….

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Thoughts on the Alto Trombone

A 2nd Trombonist airing opinions about the alto trombone!! How dare he! He must be a witch!!  Now don’t be getting your skivvies in a bunch just yet – at least read on a bit.

In the last few months, I have been asked by a number of college trombonists about my approach to the alto trombone. Naturally, I was quite flattered that someone actually wanted my opinion on something, and furthermore, on a topic that is near to my heart. I’ve put a few videos up on this site and on YouTube that apparently got some plays, so I’m thrilled that someone enjoys them. The alto trombone is something I am rather passionate about, and I often say the worst part of playing 2nd Trombone is that I rarely – if ever – get to play alto in the orchestra.

To be clear, this post is not going to be a history lesson, as there are numerous other resources for in-depth historical information: anything involving Jay Friedman or Ken Shifrin is usually a gold mine – check out this discussion between both of them: http://jayfriedman.net/articles/j_and_k_talk_trombone_history).

The first point of my own concept that I’d like to address about the alto is that it is a separate instrument from the tenor. While it is still a trombone, it has its own unique voice, and this is something I believe many modern players overlook.  Each voice of trombone has it’s own pedigree and evolution, and I believe one must first acknowledge this before and during study of the alto trombone. It is not just a tool for playing high notes!  I’m sure you’ve heard/read people say that if you can’t play the range on tenor, it’s not miraculously easier on the alto.  Certainly, it makes some passages easier, but rather from a timbrel perspective.  More accurately, it makes many passages not necessarily easier, but appropriate. To repeat, acknowledging that the alto is not just a small tenor is the first step!

Listening to players who have a concrete, informed concept of the alto trombone is my next point. Just because someone is a monster tenor player does not make them a defacto alto virtuoso. As you would with any instrument, find multiple recordings and artists to sample, and evaluate why you like one over the other. Think in terms of sound, style, and nuance, rather than just technical ability. Does it sound like a tenor, or is there something different to the sound: smaller, brighter, more translucent, vocal, buoyant, etc. My personal favorite alto recordings (including YouTube) are those by Christian Lindberg, Jorgen van Rijen, Michael Mulcahy, Ken Shifrin, and Steve Witser. Each one of those players has a crystal-clear concept of the alto sound and style, and is unmistakable from the timbre of the tenor trombone. In 2005, I had the fortune of playing the Mozart Requiem with my teacher, Michael Mulcahy. He played first trombone, as well as the Tuba mirum (I did not mind one bit – it was inspiring!), and the alto playing left a timbrel imprint on my brain that I shall never forget. It has served me quite well as my model whenever I pick up the alto.

Note: I’ve actually had a few people compliment me in the past that my alto trombone sounds big; “like a tenor” was a phrase often used. At first, I was horrified, though I took the compliment graciously. Upon further thought and self-analysis, I realized that I always received that compliment when playing a particular instrument (more on that later), but also the fact that it was sound density they were hearing. The sound was still smaller than a tenor, but this particular horn – in conjunction with my concept of the piece – yielded a much denser sound than they may have been accustomed to hearing from an alto trombone. I digress.

My third point is in regard to gear. Finding an instrument/mouthpiece combination that matches your concept is critical, as it would be with any instrument. Often I see students with the small shank version of their tenor piece, or another small shank mouthpiece that simply does not compliment the horn. Get a pile of small-shank mouthpieces, and try them all. It might surprise you that the 12C on your shelf actually has a practical use!

When I began alto trombone studies, I had a Conn 36H and a small-shank Bach 5G. It took me a few years to realize the 5G was simply WAY too big for my concept, which would partially explain why pitch was never consistent! It’s OK to play a small mouthpiece – no one is judging you on size! I eventually replaced the Conn with a gold brass, dual-bore Glassl alto, which is one of my favorite instruments. I also have a sterling silver Glassl alto, which is the trombone that has the aforementioned dense sound. It is quite appropriate on Brahms Symphony No. 2 when you want some elements of the tenor sound, and on certain solo repertoire or trombone choir pieces. My colleagues adoringly nicknamed it “The Panzer” since it packs a punch when pushed. I use two different mouthpieces depending on repertoire: a Glassl 7C for most late-Classical/early Romantic orchestral repertoire and solos, and a Bach Mt. Vernon 11C for Mozart, Beethoven, and certain chamber music.

Continuing on the gear thread, there are a few players who advocate using the same rim on all your mouthpieces, regardless of what horn you are playing. Jim Nova, for one, is highly successful at this, and no one can say it doesn’t work for him! However, I find that downsizing everything helps me maintain the concept; a “match the instrument to the concept” approach. The physical stimulus of the smaller rim also reminds my brain that I want a smaller, more compact sound. Yes, the concept should always trump equipment and physicality, but why make it harder on yourself? Furthermore, a larger mouthpiece offers more ‘wiggle room’, while the smaller alto trombone affords less. I draw the comparison to beginner tuba players: they are all over the place without even pushing down the valves!! Of course, one must experiment and choose what works the best.

My last comment goes without saying…but I will anyway: practice the alto trombone (or any secondary instrument) like you do your main horn! This means all those scale, long tone, drone, articulation, slur, etc. exercises need to happen. It is very easy to break out the alto only when needed, but over time these skills atrophy. I’ve also found that some of the scariest passages in the repertoire often expose the alto trombone (usually soft, high or low chorales with awkward position shifts) and without regular exposure to scales, drones, soft slurs, one is setting oneself up for embarrassment. Being in shape chop-wise is also so very important, as many of the “alto-heavy” pieces are quite demanding on endurance: Mozart Requiem, Schubert Mass in Ab, Beethoven 5 & 9, and many of the lesser-known chorale works.

I found myself in an embarrassing situation once while performing the Mozart Vespers. It was a very heavy program of chorale works at a small church outside of Chicago about 10 years ago, and the trombone parts were quite demanding. Of course, the chorus was tiny so anything above a p dynamic was offensive to the conductor. Mid-performance, my endurance was sputtering and I literally started falling off notes. The tenor and bass trombonists starting laughing, and they started falling off notes since they couldn’t keep their embouchures together. This was, naturally, the point that the conductor noticed and shot us nasty glances. I look back and chuckle now, but man, I would have traded anything to be in better condition that day!

Thanks for bearing with me, and I hope my ideas resonate. Keep your eyes and ears open for a new sonata for alto trombone and piano over the next year: I’m initiating a consortium to commission an exciting young composer on such a work!

From active duty to the Atlanta Symphony — guest blog by Brian Hecht

Seeing that audition season is upon us, for both orchestra and military gigs, I thought it would be a wonderful treat to have someone with recent experience in both types of ensembles share their insight with us.  Brian Hecht, Bass Trombonist of the Atlanta Symphony and formerly of the United State Navy Band, graciously accepted my invitation to share his experiences and I am quite grateful to him for doing so.  Though still in the dawn of his career, Brian has assembled a rather impressive resume, including not only big audition wins (USNB and Atlanta) but professional experience performing with some of the most prestigious orchestras in the country.  You can read more about Brian, along with listen to audio clips, at his website.

Speaking of auditions, make sure you check out my opinion piece on auditions and audition repertoire from a few weeks ago.  It will be the next blog listed when you finish reading this one 😉

Next post: thoughts on approaching the alto trombone…

From Active Duty to Atlanta Symphony
by Brian Hecht

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I’ve been very fortunate in my career so far, to have had the opportunity to play in two very different and very talented ensembles; each with their own rewards that have given me different insights into the professional music world. Looking back on my experiences so far in both, I can definitively say that I would not have been successful in the Atlanta Symphony without the professional and musical lessons I learned during my enlistment in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C.

I joined the Navy Band after finishing my Masters degree at Northwestern in 2009. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into but, I knew that, because of the lack of bass trombone positions open in the country, it was either I join a military band or move back home and work at a bank.

After I won the audition it seemed like everything happened so fast! Before I knew it, I had a buzz cut, new clothes and a Chief Petty Officer screaming in my face about how much they hated looking at my ugly mug first thing every morning. Boot camp is one of those life experiences I never thought I’d find myself going through, and frankly neither did my family or friends. I wasn’t exactly the kind of person who liked following the rules or being told what to do. This is not a good trait to have as a bass trombone player, so I’m very thankful the Navy boot camp set me straight before I had to play in a professional section a couple months later.

The next two months would become the most miserable yet most memorable days of my life. From double days (48hrs of training with no sleep) to being tear gassed while our Petty Officers laughed behind a viewing window, to being fed a massive Thanksgiving meal then Intensively Trained until we puked because one member of our unit decided to get dessert. I remember the only things that got me through those 9 weeks were pictures of my family and a picture of my trombone (yep, that’s right) that I had taped up in my bunk. As a future musician in one of the Premier bands in DC, I was a rare recruit at boot camp, as were all my colleagues who were there with me, have been there before, and who will be there. Joining one of the Premier bands in DC is one of the few ways a US military recruit can shoot up the ranks the moment they graduate from boot camp. Everyone in the DC Bands comes out an E-6; for us that meant we were First Class Petty Officers. As cool as this was, this meant I had to actually stop acting like a child and grow up.

Once I left boot camp and joined the band in DC, I was eager to get to work. In fact, I’m probably the only person our Ceremonial Unit Leader has ever heard ask to be put on a funeral so I could get to work and start making music with my amazing new colleagues. For the next four years, I learned things, which cannot be taught in school. First hand professional experience is priceless! The bands in DC follow strict general military guidelines for all intents and purposes but once you get past being on time and looking clean cut in a uniform it truly is a fun and great place to be. Punctuality and cleanliness become almost subconscious habits that quickly define your practice discipline. I would arrive at rehearsal an hour prior to warm up just as I would arrive early to catch a bus to a day of ceremonial obligations that has become my routine and helped my preparedness for when I joined the Atlanta Symphony.

Aside from training in professionalism, the Navy Band was key in my development as a player. I was so green when I came in and learned countless lessons in musicianship and flawless performance from our Principal Trombone Jeffrey Knutson. These military bands are chock full of some of the best players in the country that require you to step up to their level or stick out like a sore thumb. I spent the entire four years there practicing to keep up with the best players in the DC bands. Even when I left I’m not quite sure I was successful in that endeavor. The guys and gals in each of those military bands are insanely talented musicians.

Performing as “professional last chair” in an orchestra can be very different to the same role in a band. For one, the size of each section is drastically different in each. In the Navy band we performed with anywhere from 4-6 trombones on stage, depending on the concert. In the ASO we use 3 trombones for most concerts. Having to perform with a larger number of players in your section means you have to blend more to perform as a single unit. Your volume has to match that of the other parts and your style must conform, further down the line, to present a singular product as a team. We would generally have two firsts, two seconds, and one on third. This often meant that I had to fill up my sound to try and match the breadth that two players could achieve. Though this task was near impossible, the process of it made me a better player. Having three players in a section, like in most orchestras, means you are given more of a solo role. Blend is equally as important but it’s different, in that each player is solely and completely responsible for the volume, color, and character of their part. Both roles can be a lot to juggle, but that is why rigorous auditions weed out the players capable of such complex multi-tasking.

An aspect of playing in a military band that does not exist in the orchestral world is the skills it takes to successfully perform all ceremonial obligations. Though this can be a repetitive job, it takes knowing your body and what you are capable of under different weather scenarios and levels of stress. I’ve had to perform ceremonies where the President’s face was so close to my bell that I had to lower my trombone as he passed so as not to clothesline him with my slide. I’ve had to perform on funerals for active duty sailors who passed long before their time. I’ve been within feet of grief stricken family members as we honor their fallen hero. All of this required a certain level of focus and concentration that one builds being thrown into these situations.

At times, we were required to perform memorized music in below freezing weather only wearing the equivalent of a business suit. One quickly learns shortcuts to being successful in these conditions from conveniently placed hand warmers to battery-powered mouthpiece heaters. A solid warm up can also go a long way when you have to sit for long periods of time and then perform a soft lyrical passage or even a loud march.

Wind Band music has its gems but it’s not the Mahlers, Brahms, and Bruckners I grew up dreaming of playing. Sure, we did transcriptions from time to time, but that’s roughly the equivalent to someone saying, “Here, this kind of tastes like Blue Bell ice cream, but it’s not.” It only makes you want it more. It’s this constant craving that kept me practicing my butt off to win an orchestral job.

After fours years of having this craving teased and treated by subbing with National Symphony, Washington National Opera, and Baltimore Symphony, I decided I had to win an orchestral job of my own. The timing of the end of my enlistment lined up almost perfectly with a vacancy in the Atlanta Symphony. In the Fall of 2013, I took on a very challenging and exciting new chapter of my life as a one-year sub with the ASO. Thankfully, my experience in the band prepared me for the level of professionalism and musicianship required of each member in Atlanta. In my new position, I was able to continue my lessons in these two areas through the guidance of my friends and section mates Colin Williams and Nathan Zgonc. These two guys showed me what it takes to win and maintain a professional orchestral position at the highest level.

In my year and a half with the Atlanta Symphony I have never once stopped enjoying the experience I have been fortunate enough to earn. The upsides are endless and the downsides (which I’ve yet to find) I’m sure can be counted on one hand.

In hindsight, I’ve learned from my time in the military band and ASO to keep your mind open, and your ears open wider! Never consider yourself “above” any job that opens itself to you, as some budding players seem to do with military bands and other non-orchestral gigs these days. Yes, you are locked in for a minimum of four years, it’s not an orchestra, BUT it is a learning experience and an amazing career with amazing players and people if you open your mind to the idea of something you had not yet considered. Allow where you are in life, to help prepare you for what you want in life. Anywhere you are, there are always lessons to be learned from someone who has been there before or is doing what you are, only better.

If you work hard enough and practice your butt off you may find yourself in either an orchestra or a military band someday. Don’t let that be the last success of your career. Always keep fighting and raising the bar in your practice. Don’t let the advancement of your playing and education of what’s great ever taper. Stay hungry for achieving a greater understanding of music and mastering your instrument.

The (im)Practicality of Audition Lists

The subject of audition repertoire has been on my mind lately, and even though I’m not preparing for any auditions at the moment, I thought it worth the time to organize my thoughts for this blog. Co-mingling with thoughts on audition repertoire are considerations for what is required musically of us while on the job. Audition lists are stacked with the major excerpts that we hone endlessly in school and in audition preparation, but most orchestras are not playing that repertoire on a week-in, week-out basis. While it is imperative to learn the skills and styles it takes to perform these masterworks, I feel that audition lists often over-stress these pieces and leave out a significant amount of styles that we are required to play. Like I said, most orchestras are not playing Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner, and Berg every week, but rather Pops of varying styles, light classics, rock concerts, chamber music, Broadway, movie scores, etc. etc. So why are audition lists grounded in the concept of asking only the ‘traditional’ orchestral repertoire, and often excluding a bulk of the styles one must be able to perform?

First, I must acknowledge that the skills learned through study of the orchestral masterworks and master composers are imperative and benefit us in ALL styles: time, pitch, sound, tone color, articulation, style…the list goes on. If one is to play in an orchestra, one must know the canvas regarding repertoire and styles. But why draw the line there? How practical is stacking the list with the repertoire of the aforementioned composers when 90% of orchestras are playing John Williams, Rogers & Hammerstein, Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson, Moncayo, and numerous other ‘Pops’ styles more often than the likes of Mahler, Bruckner, and Brahms?

Second, the culture of “excerpt obsession” that these audition repertoire lists have created does not necessarily breed good musicianship. There are tons of great instrumentalists out there – more than ever before – but often, you find folks who can play something incredibly well, but only one way: one articulation, one dynamic, one tempo, one tone color. When asked to change something, they are unable to modify their concept. I’m not saying I’ve mastered playing everything in every way possible, but I also was schooled to be open to different interpretations and be prepared to demonstrate. It is also a result of chamber music experience and learning to compromise on how a piece of music should go. Flexibility is a job requirement and trait of a good musician!

Third, auditions often don’t test the collaborative skills required on the job — ie. Section Playing – or give it the weight it deserves. A poignant tale demonstrating this comes from a good friend of mine who was taking a Section brass audition with a middle-tier orchestra. This person was a Finalist who played a section round, excerpt round, and solo piece round. The position was ultimately awarded to another candidate, though the committee told my friend that he hands-down played the best section round (he was told it sounded like he had been a member of the orchestra for years) but the winner played the best solo.   What I don’t understand is that for a Section position audition, the person who best demonstrated the skills most relevant didn’t get the job!

In continuation, I understand that the tenure process tests these collaborative skills, and often orchestras have trial periods before offering a contract. However, it is very common to hear about someone not passing the trial period or the tenure process because their collaborative (Section) skills are lacking.

Now that I’ve presented and critiqued what I would consider three of the main handicaps of audition lists, I should probably offer my humble suggestions for a remedy. I’m going to approach it from this perspective:

 What would I ask for if I were to be replacing myself in my own job?

  1. Wider styles of music. John Williams, Ferde Grofé, Rogers & Hammerstein, Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson, Andrew Lloyd Weber (gasp), Stephen Sondheim, Hans Zimmer….the list goes on forever. These are all composers with whom modern players must be familiar and who wrote tough stuff for our instruments. There are also inherent stylistic differences that cannot be tested through the classical masters: big band licks, movie scores, Broadway standards (76 Trombones…duh) that require a more diverse style. Not everything is played like Mahler or Wagner wrote it! Can you play light, tight, and bright? Can you make that .547 bore Howitzer of a trombone sound like a King 3B in a show pit, or Tommy Dorsey’s 2B?

Granted, every orchestra plays a different ratio of this repertoire, but at some point, you’re going to  play this stuff! The Mahler 3 excerpt is on every Principal Trombone audition, even though it might only come around every 20-30 years in some orchestras. I guarantee you’ll play 76 Trombones, March of the Toys, and Porgy and Bess with greater frequency.

  1. Musical personality and flexibility. Include a solo or two on audition lists (this is common for strings, not as much for trombone) that allows the candidate to demonstrate interpretation and personality. If a committee wants to hear a solo played in one way and does not appreciate another interpretation, don’t ask it! The solo doesn’t have to be the Creston Fantasy, but rather something simple, elegant and offer a variety of interpretation. Marcello, Galliard, Corelli, Bordogni come to my mind.

Regarding flexibility, I would ask a candidate to play their best excerpt a different way; perhaps with a specific comment to articulation or dynamic, perhaps more of a stylistic subtlety. I recently heard a story of a committee asking candidates to play Mozart’s Tuba mirum solo as if it were written by Shostakovich, just to see if candidates would make some sort of adjustment. It’s certainly a counter-intuitive concept, but sometimes things like this are required of us on the job.

  1. Section/Chamber playing. The best instrumental executor may not be the best listener and adjuster, and section playing exposes this. Balance, intonation, matching articulation and note-length, style, and generally knowing the role of the chair can be easily displayed in a section round.

I also like the idea of chamber music on an audition. Why not play a few duets, trios, or quartets, even if it’s simple sight-reading? Non-orchestral repertoire often removes the bonds of playing inside a particular box. This shows if someone is listening and adjusting, without any preconceived notion of how the repertoire goes. Maybe call it instinct testing.

While a student at Northwestern, I was initially frustrated that we didn’t have a course on preparing orchestral section excerpts, such as offered at other high-profile orchestral schools. My teacher, Michael Mulcahy, would often tell us that if we wanted to learn how to play in a section, we should play trios and quartets. I spent countless hours with my peers reading trios and quartets, and even won the ITA Quartet competition with my trombone quartet. The skills learned through these sessions tremendously benefited my section playing. I am very pleased to see that more and more semi-pro and professional trombone quartets are popping up, as these folks certainly understand the value of chamber music study and will be passing it along to their students.

Auditions are not a perfect system, but they are the best system we have. Could they be improved by making the repertoire more practical to the nature of the job?

Certainly.

Could this mean there would be significantly more variation from audition to audition?

Absolutely.

Might this actually help cultivate more well-rounded players?

Hmmm…..

Closing note:

I recently heard about a clinic Jim Pugh is presenting on being a well-rounded player, and also a clinic in LA being offered as an introduction to studio playing. These are FANTASTIC ideas and should be taken seriously by players of all styles. (Please post any relevant links below in the comments area.)

Next blog: thoughts from Brian Hecht on military band vs. orchestral performance.

Defining your success as a musician — guest blog by Christopher Davis

This month, I’m featuring comments by a dear friend, colleague, and badass bass trombonist: Chris Davis.  Chris and I met in graduate school at Northwestern, and we became fast friends.  We would spend afternoons playing Adam routines on the music school lawn overlooking Lake Michigan, stay up late in the recital hall playing drones, duets, and excerpts, and play mock auditions for each other.  Of course, we’d hang out and drink beer, too.  What immediately impressed me about Chris was his work ethic.  I’ve met few people, if any, who have the work ethic that Chris exhibits.  At one point, I remember Chris working the door at a local bar from 9pm-3am, going home to sleep for a couple hours, waking up to work the stocking shift at Menard’s (like Home Depot), then STILL being the first guy in the practice rooms the next morning!!  Playing-wise, Chris’s sensitivity on the bass trombone, warmth of sound, and ability to play EXTREMELY soft was a constant inspiration, especially in our trombone quartet.

OK, enough praise to Chris — I’m sure he is turning red while reading this.  This month’s topic deals with how we define success as musicians.  In school — or at least my school — there was so much emphasis on winning a major orchestra job that it was easy to lose sight of other possibilities in the music field.  This emphasis mostly came from peers, not from the faculty.  I remember one particular conversation with a freshman trumpet player where he said “WHEN I win by big job” and not “IF I win my big job.”  (He’s now in the New York Philharmonic, by the way) Of course, this kind of confidence is necessary to succeed in winning an audition, but this culture is also a double-edged sword.  What happens if you don’t win a big job, or discover that there are other things that fulfill you just as much or even more?

The reason I asked Chris to contribute this month is that he has wrestled with this concept and has found complete happiness in a diversified career.  He has performed with some of the country’s top orchestras, including Chicago, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago Lyric Opera and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, been a New World Symphony fellow and a Pittsburgh Symphony African-American fellow, secured teaching positions at Northwestern University and Wheaton College, is a wonderful father, and also referees basketball.  Most of these opportunities were secured not by an audition on one given day, but from a career of auditioning everyday in the way he approaches playing, musical citizenship, and interpersonal relationships.  In my mind, this makes one MORE successful than winning an audition, because freelancing really is a matter of proving yourself every day.

Thank you, Chris, for your insights and taking the time to share them with us!  I wish I had this wisdom while still in school.

Defining your success as a musician

By: Christopher P Davis
Lecturer of Trombone at Northwestern University and Wheaton Conservatory

At one point in my life, the ultimate definition of my success was winning a job in a major symphony orchestra. I have had many peaks and valleys throughout my voyage and after a while the audition circuit can become tedious, often times breaking ones confidence in their abilities. After strings of advancing and walking at auditions, I was at a point where I was letting the result of an audition determine my worth as a musician. In the midst of self-turmoil, I honestly felt that I wasn’t successful because I had yet to win a job in an orchestra. It is at this point in my life that I had to ask myself, what is my definition of success?

I’ve come to the conclusion that success in any category of life is defined by the individual. In order for you to figure this out, one has to ask a course of difficult questions. For example, what are my motives for pursuing this field? What do I really want to do with my life? How long do I want to take to achieve this goal? What are the steps to achieving said success? How much will I have to sacrifice to succeed? Is this what I want out of my life? After a point of self-evaluation, I came to the conclusion that I was indeed successful and that my pursuit of the “orchestral dream job” was actually more about my ego than my genuine love for orchestral music. At this same time I realized that I was extremely fortunate and blessed to have done so much in my career and that there were people who hadn’t accomplished nearly as much as me.

I have friends and colleagues that feel that their definition of success is winning an orchestral job. I have a friend who is a college professor at a big named school. I also have colleagues that are happy teaching Jr. High or High School Band even though they would be a tremendous player. These band directors give 100% to the craft and they are extremely successful at what they do and are ultimately happy with their lives. One of my best friends defines his success by his marketing and podcast savvy to ultimately make a living in music and to start an online music school. Another friend is a fabulous flutist and she uses her music degree to teach general music and private lessons to travel the world during the summers. There is no right or wrong answer to your definition of success, as long as you as an individual are at peace with your decision. Just know that there are various career paths within music where you can be successful.

I have always had great educators present throughout my career, starting with my first band director John Weber at Brooks Middle School, Phillip Crews at Thornton Township High School, Dr. Thomas Streeter at Illinois Wesleyan, and Michael Mulcahy at Northwestern. All of these individuals were selfless when working with students and always pushed us to be our best. Throughout the years, I’ve always enjoyed sharing information with people and my students can attest that I am very generous with my time. I started to think about giving back to others just as my teachers did with me. My mindset has always been – “what’s next”? This is when I decided to try to add a branch to the tree of

the things that I have done. In my short career, I have had a great performance experience, studied with amazing teachers, and have been a few places. If I wanted to expand from what I had already done, I realized that I had to get my “paperwork” together. So I started by making my Curriculum Vitae, Teaching Philosophy, and Cover letter; explaining how to formulate those documents is a different article in itself.

I then applied for a couple of teaching positions and was surprisingly called back for 2 of the 3 jobs. These callbacks (success) taught me that, In the process of diversifying my career, I could do many things that I always wanted to do, for example, record CD’s, tour, perform recitals and teach. I realized that I still can perform and give back at the same time. To me, this is the ultimate definition of success. I’m not saying that I will never take another orchestral audition, but I’ve eliminated the extraneous stress in my life by embracing the many different successes that I have had while continuing to try to improve as a musician, trombonist and now educator. With this mindset, I know I will be happy and successful teaching and sharing music with others.

My only advice to you is to define what you feel success is, connect the dots of what you need to do in order to achieve said success, and be fearless in your pursuit of it. I was in a masterclass held by John Clayton (Jazz Bassist) while a member of the Disney Band in California in 2002 and he shared the most poetic but simple quote, “If you want to be successful in music, don’t quit!” John then proceeded to explain various degrees of success within music. If your ultimate success is to become an owner of a music store, a private lesson instructor, jazz mogul, or an orchestral player you can be successful in this if you just don’t quit.

Survey on tenor/bass trombone doubling

The practice of doubling has been a long-established one, but it is often shrouded in mystery when it comes to equipment and concept. For this blog, I’m focusing on tenor players who double on bass trombone, as this is of great interest to me. I also believe this is becoming a more popular practice, and evening tripling when you factor in the alto! Bass trombonists: don’t get your dander up – no one is gunning for your gigs or playing a 0G mouthpiece!

In an attempt to demystify doubling, I have reached out to several of my orchestral friends and colleagues for their thoughts on concept and equipment – mainly mouthpieces – when it comes to tenor players doubling on bass trombone. As you’ll see, there is a wide variety of ideas. While I focused on full-time orchestral players for this blog, it should be recognized that other stellar examples of doublers live and thrive in the studios of LA, show pits of NYC, university studios, and other locales. I had to draw up parameters somehow for this survey, and ultimately decided to keep it to players in the orchestral spectrum. This is not a slight towards those many other players who do this on a regular basis – in many cases more regularly than those I surveyed. Perhaps that is a topic for an extended post in the future….

Some of the contributors below have Bass Trombone responsibilities labeled as part of their contracts, others simply enjoy the opportunity when it arises. The employment of the doubler is quite different in the USA than it is in Europe, where the title of “Wechselposaune” is the technical term for the trombonist responsible for covering tenor and bass trombones. While it is a concept that has not quite caught on in the USA, some of the folks below are essentially “Wechsels”. The position in European orchestras is often much more demanding and I’m hoping to elaborate on this concept in another post.

My sincere thanks again to my guest contributors!

Mike Becker, Principal Trombone, Tucson Symphony; Bass Trombone, Britt Festival Orchestra

Tenor Trombone: Parke 700 cup, 1000 rim. Basically a 4G
Bass Trombone: Lasky 85MD, Hammond 20BXL and 21BXL

I generally use mid size bass trombone MP’s when I go back and forth between tenor and bass. I primarily play tenor in my job as Principal in TSO but do a lot of free lance work on bass. Generally, I have been using a Lasky 85 MD on bass which is like a 1.1/4 size cup, but has a deeper richer sound and sometimes I use a Hammond 20BXL, again like a 1 and 1/4 but a bigger bowl for a slightly richer sound. If I stay on bass for any extended period of time, I shift to a bigger bass size like a 21bxl. Like when I play at the Britt Festival in the summer. Bass is my position there. For most things though i find I can get away with the Hammond 20bxl or Lasky 85MD. I also think that the “bass trombone sound” concept can be achieved through concept and being able to control and get focus is more important than just trying to us big equipment.

John Ilika, Principal Trombone, North Carolina Symphony

I have always doubled (trebled?) on alto, tenor and bass trombone. I played (and won a national audition) for the Eastern Music Festival in the 1990’s. I have even subbed on bass with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I encourage doubling in my teaching studio at the UNC School of the Arts, in Winston-Salem. I believe that playing a secondary and tertiary instrument is beneficial as long as your primary instrument does not suffer.

When doubling, the mouthpiece cup volume needs to be appropriate to the instrument to produce the proper sound. A tenor trombone mouthpiece on a bass trombone simply does not produce the necessary lower overtones. The pitch will be sharp and nasal. Jim Nova has the same rim for his mouthpieces but has custom cups (e.g., very, very deep for bass trombone) from Greg Black. A deep cup or a real bass trombone mouthpiece works as long as the volume enables good sound/articulation etc…

For bass trombone I use a Griego 1.25 now. For years I played the Yamaha Doug Yeo but find the Griego more efficient now that I am getting older.

Using a bass trombone mouthpiece on a tenor trombone makes it flat and dull sounding. On my orchestral tenor (Greenhoe Bach 42) I use 2 mouthpieces, a Griego/Alessi 5F and a Griego 3 depending on repertoire.

I also use a Bach 36 regularly for pops concerts. Using a big mouthpiece like the Griego 3 with a small shank defeats the purpose of a brighter sound of the Bach 36, so there I use a Hammond 11. Zippy!

On alto, I use a custom Greg Black with a 5 rim and the cup of a Shilke 51B mouthpiece.

Confused yet?

Not really, it all comes down to how you warm up. In general, I think it best to warm up on your primary instrument fully and then work on the other instrument. I encourage students to spend most of their time on the secondary instrument playing scales and basic routines, not excerpts.

Pitch/lip bending exercise with the mouthpiece alone and on the instrument help center the embouchure and the sound. Flexibility before long tones.

One of the reasons I have always been able to switch horns easily is that I play the entire range of the instrument on all my horns. F pedals to high F. Switching mouthpieces is like choosing a different color to paint with but it is all the same sound canvas.

David Murray, Second Trombone National Symphony Orchestra

Tenor Trombone:
Griego 4 NY
Griego 4 Deco

Bass Trombone:
Greg Black 2G
Schilke 59

My approach to bass trombone is that it should simply be an extension from the tenor trombones, and that a larger instrument will inherently add fuller timbre to the blend. I choose a Greg Black 2G as my primary mouthpiece. It has ample richness, nice vibrancy, and a quick response. For the occasions where the repertoire is more substantial, I will use a Schilke 59. It is a large mouthpiece, but keeps the sound focused. I generally have no issue switching between mouthpiece makers and rim shapes. If I focus on achieving good sound and airflow, the idiosyncrasies between mouthpieces are less of a concern.

Timothy Owner, Acting Associate Principal Trombone, San Francisco Symphony

Tenor Trombone: Hammond Design “Tahu” modified 11, flattened rim, semi-shallow cup

Bass Trombone: Hammond Design 20BL

I have always favored smaller mouthpieces: for a long time I used a Bach 5G and a Bach 1.5G. After a long period of testing, I have settled on the Hammond mouthpieces listed above. I find the “Tahu” to be large enough to allow me to perform all of the lower tenor trombone parts in the orchestra, including 3rd in a four person section, but it is also efficient enough to sit on top when playing principal. On the bass trombone, my choice to use the 20BL came similarly. I tried to stick with 1.5-sized mouthpieces as they work well as a light bass trombone mouthpiece in my tenor with a 50LT slide, but the sound was inappropriate for regular bass trombone playing. As a result, I moved to more of a 1.25-sized mouthpiece in order to get a fuller, more appropriate sound without feeling like I was swimming in the mouthpiece. I choose Karl Hammond’s mouthpieces as I find that they give core to my sound, but I am still able to change my sound, brighter or darker etc, to match the context in which I find myself.
I find I need more time to adjust back and forth, but that particular trade off is worth it to realize my musical and professional goals on both instruments.

Tim Smith, 2nd Trombone, Buffalo Philharmonic

Tenor Trombone: Hammond 11MXL custom
​​ Hammond 10.75MXL custom
Bass Trombone: Hammond 20BL

I have chosen a true bass trombone mouthpiece in an attempt to make as legitimate a “bass trombone” sound as possible. The Hammond 20BL is comparable to a Bach 1.25G, with what I feel is a bit more space, as well as more point and center to the sound. The one downside is that I must spend more time on the bass in order to feel comfortable, but the upside (in my opinion) is a truer sound. While it takes more time to adjust when going back and forth between horns, keeping the mouthpieces unrelated — in size and feel — helps me establish a separate concept for each trombone. I apply this to the alto trombone, as well. The trick is to play at least a bit of bass every day, as refreshing the concept on a regular basis allows me to switch over to it more easily.

I will vary my warm-up on a daily basis, often starting on the bass trombone rather than tenor. This is contrary to the advice offered by many of my colleagues, who support starting on your primary horn every day. I find that this maximizes my air support, and more importantly, keeps me mentally engaged, as the different physical stimulus aids in keeping me focused. I agree with Mr. Ilika that the bulk of time on your secondary should be scales and etudes, not excerpts.

James Justin Kent, Solo Posaune: Bruckner Orchester Linz

Tenor Trombone: Bach 4G
Bass Trombone: Bach 1 /2G

Before I was Solo Posaune with the Bruckner Orchester, I spent a lot of time playing Bass Trombone in College and then professionally as 2nd/Bass Trombone with the “Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg”, and subbing with the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hanover, Germany. While I was in Luxembourg, I also played bass trombone in a Trombone Quartet with two University Trombone Professors and a colleague from the OPL. So I was playing a good bit of bass trombone during that season going back and forth quite often.

When I first started doubling on bass trombone in High school, I played on a Bach 2G. I tried larger ones, but I found the quality of sound throughout the register to be not very good. I simply wasn’t used to the big switch. I find that when starting out, making either no change, or a slight one to be a better way to start out. The most important thing is to keep the quality of sound and not allow the sound to become unfocused. I found myself trying the open the sound too much when playing bass trombone in a effort to fill out the horn. While you will need to use a lot more air for bass trombone, don’t allow the aperture to come too big. When using too big of a mouthpiece (then you’re normally used to) this is a common pitfall. I found simple mouthpiece buzzing exercises when warming up to help with this. Make sure the mouthpiece buzzing sound quality is more buzzy then airy. This should properly limit the size of aperture.

When choosing your doubling mouthpiece, don’t go too wild in size. As a doubler, you want to always keep your quality of sound and not try to compete (size wise) with a devoted bass trombonist. If you are interested in going full time to bass trombone, then go nuts! But if your home base is going to be tenor trombone, then you don’t want to sacrifice your tenor playing too much.

If you sound better playing on the same size mouthpiece as your tenor trombone, I would recommend that at first. Making the best quality of sound throughout the bass trombone register is always number one. After you’re comfortable with that, if you want to try to go a little bigger, then do so, but if you sacrifice the sound, there is no shame playing on your tenor trombone mouthpiece.

James Markey, Bass Trombone, Boston Symphony (formerly Associate Principal, New York Philharmonic)

I have to confess that I don’t totally remember what I played [before moving to Bass Trombone full-time]. I’m thinking that when I played tenor I used a Bach 3G for bass, but it might have been a 1.5G. When I won the job on bass it was on a GW Harwood mouthpiece–deep cup, wider rim with a sharp first angle. Lately I’ve gone back to a brass mouthpiece made by Griego.

Jim Nova, 2nd/Utility Trombone, Pittsburgh Symphony

SE Shires horns:
Alto – A7YLW – A85/95
Large Tenor – TII 7YM A5 8.5″ – Axial Flow- TB47L
Medium Tenor – 7YLW 8″ – straight pipe – T25NLW
Bass – BII 7YM – Inline Axial Flow – B62L

Just for fun…
Miraphone soprano trombone
Kanstul F Contra bass

Mouthpieces all are Greg Black with his 3 rim
Alto – C cup
Large Tenor – 5G cup
Medium Tenor – 5GS cup
Bass – 1/2 G cup

Just for fun…
Soprano – Trumpet cup and shank
Contra – Greg Black contra cup

I found early in my career that when I maintained the same rim on my tenor and alto mouthpieces, but altered the cup shapes and depths, I could switch very easily. Then when I joined the Pittsburgh symphony and I had to start playing bass trombone, I found that maintaining the same rim size also worked on bass, but in the opposite direction with respect to cup depth and size. I always warm up and do my daily routine practice on the large tenor. As a result of my anchor points being the same for all mouthpieces, as long as I’m warmed up, I can switch easily to an auxiliary. I’ve also found that switching around offers numerous “cross training” benefits. Playing bass increases air flow and tone width and richness, which transfers back to tenor. Then when I play alto, the crispness and clarity of articulation transfers back to tenor as well. I think if introduced carefully, doubling is a fun and beneficial way to enrich the color options available to any trombone player. It goes without saying, I’ve put doubling to great use with arranging and overdubbing! http://www.soundcloud.com/jimnova

Jonathan Reycraft: Utility Trombonist, Saint Louis Symphony

Tenor Trombone Griego Alessi 1C
Bass Trombone Griego 2

I feel it better to use a Bass mouthpiece even if it is in the entry level size. I have ventured into tuba territory once before playing in marching band through high school, and even a little at Indiana University. Maybe this helped me feel more comfortable on bass trombone equipment, or by having bass trombonists as formative teachers. For Bass Trombone, I choose a Greigo 2 which falls closer in diameter to a Bach 1.25.

Nathan Zgonc, 2nd/Utility Trombone, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Tenor Trombone: Greg Black NY 3
Bass Trombone: G&W Adriano, and Mark 1

I play the Gregblack New York 3 series on tenor. Depending on the rep I play the different cups sizes.
I have been playing bass in the orchestra for 4 years now, but I have liked the Giddings and Webster models, Adriano and Mark 1. They are a true bass mouthpiece but they have the thicker rim that I am used to on the tenor. I tried the Jim Markey model for a long time but it’s just toooo big. But I do agree one needs to be able to use a bass mouthpiece to at least get as close to the right sound that you can.

Preparing and Performing Vocal Repertoire – guest blog by Dr. Cory Mixdorf

As promised in one of my previous posts, I will be inviting guest bloggers to write articles on various topics. My goal is to host at least one guest blogger per month, and I’m very pleased to present Dr. Cory Mixdorf as my first guest! Dr. Mixdorf is Assistant Professor of Trombone at the University of Arkansas. A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a trombone festival program at which Dr. Mixdorf was presenting a lecture on the preparation of art songs for trombonists, and while I was not in attendance, this stuck in my memory. Song performance has always been near and dear to my heart, but I know there are many instrumentalists out there who don’t embrace the value of studying this repertoire. I asked Dr. Mixdorf if he would be willing to write an article on this topic, and he graciously obliged. I hope you enjoy his article, and regularly check back for new contributions!

“Preparing and Performing Vocal Repertoire”, Dr. Cory Mixdorf, University of Arkansas

mixdorf_rdax_145x115

When I was in my master’s program at Indiana University, a comment I would hear frequently from my teacher (M. Dee Stewart) was, “That’s nice, Cory, but if that was a movie soundtrack, what would be happening on the screen during that music?” He continually prodded me to give inspiration to a piece, usually by means of a story or at least a set of emotions. His goal for me (and now my goal for my students) was to create in me not just an excellent trombonist, but an inspired musician! The name of the game is to convey an idea, emotion or story to an audience through our performances. Performing vocal repertoire is a fantastic means to this end simply because we don’t need to create a story; it’s already provided by the composer! In this article, my goal is to assist in how to select works to perform as well as give insight concerning the preparation of vocal works on a brass instrument.

If this is the first time you’ve considered performing a vocal selection, choosing one can be a daunting task due to the sheer volume of works in this genre. I would be hard-pressed to find one major composer who did not write art songs. This is, however to our benefit as we get to perform works by those composers we love so dearly for their orchestral writing, but never got around to writing a solo piece for our instrument. (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself!)

There are different ways you can go about choosing a piece. The first would be to go to the art song section of the music library and find the composers that did it the best: Schubert, Schumann and Faure come immediately to mind. (Schubert alone wrote over 600 lieder!) One could feasibly pick out almost any work by these composers and perform it on the trombone. Other names that come to mind include: Brahms, Donizetti, Ives, Ravel, etc. Another “gateway” into the world of vocal repertoire is choosing pieces that vocalists sing often. The following are pieces that are performed regularly in college juries due to their accessibility of range and transparency of phrasing: Giordani, “Caro mio ben,” Schubert, “Die forelle,” Schubert, “Du bist Ruh” and 24 Italian Songs and Arias (sort of the vocalist’s Rochut). Other means of selecting works include choosing popular crowd-pleasers (such as Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” or “O mio babbino caro”) or finding out what pieces other brass instrumentalists perform frequently. In the trombone world, it seems that Brahms’s, Four Serious Songs, Op. 121 and Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer are most commonly chosen.

The most effective way to find repertoire that you will fall in love with is to simply expose yourself to more literature. Go to vocal recitals (*gasp*). Check out opera DVDs from your library. Watch vocalists perform on YouTube. If you only listen to trombone music, you’re inhibiting yourself from becoming a true musician!

Once you have a song or aria selected, the first thing to do is to get a good understanding of the text. If it’s an aria, what’s happening in this point of the opera? If it’s from a song cycle, how does this song fit within the larger picture? For most works, a translation will be needed. Translations that almost always accompany these songs are great for getting the general idea of the plot. However, in order to dig deeper and accurately delineate phrases, it is important to know how each individual word translates. Why get so picky? First of all, knowing the definition of each word will help you know when to adjust your sound, articulation and dynamics, giving you the opportunity to do some subtle text painting. For example, in the third of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, the Text reads “O Tod, wie bitter bist Du?,” which translates to “O death, how bitter art thou.” To capture the seriousness of the subject matter in correlation to the ferocity of the piano chords, I play the first two notes (“O death”) with a big, solid sound and a firm marcato articulation. The other reason why it’s important to know what each word means is that sometimes the English language doesn’t fit the phrase intent of the composer. There have been a couple times when after researching the translation of each word, I’ve discovered that my phrase structure is different from what the English translation suggests. (Beginners to this process might be best suited towards selecting a piece by an English or American composer, such as Charles Ives, in order to avoid the translation issue altogether.)

Concerning phrasing as it relates to breathing, one should line up breaths with punctuation. Typically, if there’s a period, comma or semicolon, that’s either the end of an idea or at least a pause between ideas. If no punctuation exists where a breath is needed, look for words in the text that may provide an opportunity for a breath. This is another example of a word-by-word translation coming in handy!

After coming to an understanding of how the text and music relate, it’s important to discover the intricacies of performance traditions. Just like certain moments of trombone solo repertoire have developed from tradition (i.e. octave displacements in the Grondahl), your song selection may have unmarked gestures that are only known by means of performance practice. So, as you would for any standard trombone solo, listen to as many interpretations of your piece as possible so that you may give an informed performance.

If I may speak to one more aspect of performing vocal literature, I would like to encourage performing directly from the piano score. Unlike many conterti, sonatas and other solos we perform, art songs are written more as duets between the voice and the piano, not as solo/accompaniment. This interplay can be intricate at times, making it valuable to see what is going on while you perform. (In all honesty, I would probably play all solos from the piano score if it weren’t so logistically impractical!) Yes, this mean you will have to read C treble clef. Big deal. It’s great real-world practice. There have been many times in a church gig where I’ve been given a hymnal and been asked to play the melody, which is always in the top treble clef line.

Performing art songs and opera arias enable trombonists of any age to learn more about phrasing through the relationship of words and music. The texts to many of these songs have come from the world’s best poets and storytellers. Utilize that asset to convey meaning and purpose to your performance. Be more than a trombonist, be a musician!