Double, double toil and…trouble?

Lately, the topic of doubling has proliferated trombone social media sites and seems to be a more common practice than it has been in years past. Or perhaps the information super-highway (and my own naivety) makes it seem that way. The most viewed post on this entire website is the survey I conducted a few years ago on orchestral trombonists who double (and often triple) as part of their jobs. Over the past few years I have visited many universities, and am often surprised — for the better and sometimes worse — by how many young players are working on two instruments: primarily tenor and bass.

My personal experience has taught me that doubling can be an extremely healthy practice. As a tenor player, I started dabbling with the alto my senior year of high school. After a severe case of Bells palsy during college, I moved to bass trombone for a year as that was the only register I could play! That entire story is here. As an example from the physical perspective, playing bass trombone helps my air and often extends my endurance. Playing alto trombone makes me focus my buzz and be more cogniscent of pitch. Mentally, switching between instruments demands that I preconceive my sound and style concepts before taking the first breath. In the orchestra, I’ve discovered that I listen in different ways depending on which chair I’m playing, and which instrument I’m using. More on that in a future blog post.

All that being said, I pose that there is also a danger in practicing a double too soon in ones development. It is this authors opinion that all too frequently, there is not enough focus on primary instrument fundamentals. Hear me out before you pounce (as some people did on my “Excerpts: teaching to the test” blog). There is a standard of fundamentals that I feel many people do not achieve before adding doubles to their plate. Concept of pitch, time/rhythm, sound, and articulation are frequently suspect. I’ve heard many collegiate level players on both instruments, with significant flaws in one or more of those categories. My concern is that the double is serving as a distraction, while the development of these skills on ones primary instrument should be of more concern. To me, establishing great control of these fundamentals on one horn is better than mediocrity on a few. The phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind.

Once you establish a solid sense of pitch, you can carry it to any instrument. Same with time/rhythm. Articulation can offer more challenge, as the degree to which one engages the tongue can change instrument to instrument. Sound concept could be the topic of a completely separate blog, but it is this authors opinion that one must spend concentrated time understanding and developing the specific sound qualities associated with each trombone.

So when is the appropriate time to add a double? That really has to be up to the individual player. Some considerations:
– Can you continue to develop and maintain the aforementioned skills while adding more instruments to your practice?
– Can you afford the equipment?
– Do you have a teacher/colleague who is knowledgeable on the double, or another readily accessible resource?
– Are your role models and sound concepts firmly established?
– Is there a professional obligation or incentive to add a double?
– Are you willing to steal practice time from your primary to develop a double?
– Similarly, are you willing to accept that adding more instruments to your plate MAY result in not reaching the highest level possible on your primary? 

This last question leaves room for debate. I myself could argue that doubling on bass trombone has significantly improved my tenor playing, but then again, the time I spent developing bass trombone skills could have been spent practicing tenor. Determining which route would have had more benefit is impossible, but for me, developing the double opened up many more opportunities professionally, and quite frankly, has been more enjoyable.

Once the practice of doubling has begun, I firmly believe in spending time “paying your dues”. If you are serious about your playing, you have already spent significant time with tuning drones, a tuner, a metronome, and a recorder. So why not do the same with your double? The more refined your ear is from developing those skills on your primary instrument, the easier and less time-consuming this should be on your double(s). However, I feel many people simply pick up the double and start playing repertoire, which can leave large gaps in your playing. If you’ve done all your warm-up and maintenance practice on tenor, then suddenly just pick up the Wagenseil Concerto on the alto, you’ll probably sound like a tenor. You can certainly work towards establishing the ability to switch quickly, but pay your dues in the practice room first!

On that note, Colin Williams of the New York Philharmonic recently posted a wonderful video where he discusses and demonstrates how he stays in shape on all his doubles. I like that he talks about doing some of the same exercises on each horn, so that there is overlap. I believe the overlapping exercises also help identify the differences between instruments, and how one compensates for — or accentuates — those differences. He also directly addresses the change of air and concept between horns. Too often, I feel young players don’t spend the time adequately develop this, and end up subconsciously making the same sound on each instrument.

Let me be clear that my intention is not to discourage anyone from the practice of doubling, but rather give serious consideration to how they practice doubling. As with all my blogs, I am not professing to be an expert. I only hope to encourage more careful consideration when it comes to taking on the responsibility of a double.

This season, I am moving over to the Bass Trombone chair, as Jeff Dee assumes his new post in Pittsburgh. While I have been filling in as needed on bass trombone for years, the idea of doing it full time was a bit scary when I was first approached. I have to give so much more consideration and preparation to everything I play in that position, not to mention filling Jeff’s shoes is an imposing task! However, I quickly found confidence in the fact that my concept of bass trombone is rather strong. I credit that to the years I spent hearing some of the best players, both in my education and professional life. Sitting next to Jeff for 7 years created a solid concept, plus having such influential teachers (Randy Hawes and Charlie Vernon) established a sound in my head long before I began playing bass trombone in the orchestra. One of my next posts will include observations from playing the different chairs in the orchestra over the past few years. It really keeps things fresh and educational!


Sub Standards

This entry is the culmination (thus far!) of a decade of experience working with orchestras and chamber groups alike, both as a full-time member and substitute player. While I do not profess to be an expert, there are many things I have learned along the way and feel worth sharing in this installment. At some point, each one of us has — or will — walk the narrow path that is subbing in an ensemble. It is a skill that demands sensitivity not only as a musician, but also as a person, and is too often overlooked in our formal education.

In gathering my thoughts for this post, I considered the position of both the substitute and the full-time player. They are two unique standpoints that can vary as much as the personalities that occupy these roles, and it is easy to lose sight of the others perspective. Subbing with many top orchestras around the country, and also hosting subs next to me in my own orchestra, has forced me to consider these unique perspectives in order to make the most positive situation possible – both in terms of camaraderie and musical product. Horror stories about the treatment of subs, and likewise, horror stories of substitutes behavior, are great entertainment for the post-concert beer amongst friends, and can be hilarious! However, you never want to be one of the antagonists in that story!

For starters, you want to build relationships and make sure people in the position to hire you know you and your playing. Many people simply send a form email to Personnel Managers, stating they are available and would love to play, then attaching their resumé. Nice idea, right? Not really. The people making the hiring decisions are the sections themselves, and often the Principal player. They are the ones who tell the Personnel Manager whom to call, and if they don’t know you or are unfamiliar with your playing, why would they call you?! There are plenty of impressive resumés out there, but a resumé doesn’t say how you play or if you are an astute, adaptive player and respectful, attentive colleague. Contact the section or individual player and let them know you are interested in subbing. Better yet, ask them how to get on the substitute list. Even better, ask for a lesson. A lesson not only demonstrates your playing, but how flexible and easy to work with you are. Be prepared to pay for the lesson – in fact, ask up front how much their fee is. Never expect anything from anyone for free, and always be prepared to pay in cash. Now and then, someone will cut you break, which often means they like you 😉

So, let’s imagine you’ve been contracted to substitute with an orchestra. It doesn’t matter if it is the Chicago Symphony or a part-time regional group; there are certain rules of professionalism to which one should adhere. This may seem obvious, but make sure the schedule is correct. Communication can easily be obscured, and no one can fault you for double- and triple-checking the dates/times. Even if a miscommunication is someone else’s fault, you will be the one with pie in your face if you get it wrong. Plus, schedules (especially rehearsal schedules) can change last-minute, so be savvy and make sure you have the right information.

Secure music in advance, and if you are using your own, make sure it’s the correct edition! With the proliferation of music on the internet, there is almost zero excuse for unfamiliarity. Most music libraries will happily send you scans if you are geographically unable to pick up the folder. Kindly send them an email, tell them you are subbing, and ask if it’s possible to have music emailed to you. In the event that it is a thick book (ie Pops show), they may be too busy to make all those scans. At minimum, secure the repertoire list and listen to the tunes. Odds are that most of the players in the orchestra will have only scanned through their folder, or even be sight-reading, but guess what? You don’t want to be that person – especially as a sub!

Make sure you have the proper equipment. Find out what kind of mute the section prefers, and do your best to get one. At least ask if there is one to borrow.  Some orchestras are militant about using particular mutes (usually the ones that pay more) so go the extra mile and get the right gear. At least you can use it again, plus it is a tax write-off! Also, depending on the repertoire, you may be asked to scale down to a smaller instrument, or even play an orchestra-owned instrument. If you think this may be a possibility (ie Mozart mass, Beethoven, Schubert, etc), contact the Principal and ask.

Attire: if you are going to be a professional musician, dress like it. Sure, most of us have nasty, yellow pit-stained tux shirts, but you don’t see that from the audience! The audience will, however, see the ratty shoulder stitching on your tails, or if you are wearing black Velcro sneakers rather than proper dress shoes. You don’t have to wear Hugo Boss, but you do need appropriate attire. Also, when it comes to tuxedoes, make sure you double- and triple-check if it’s black tux or tails – and bring the appropriate bow tie. Many orchestras have a different dress code depending on day of the week, type of service, and time of the concert. The Personnel Manager should send you this information, but again, double-checking saves you embarrassment.

Arrive early and be warmed up. This gives you time to double-check music, scope out the venue, and generally get comfortable. Plus, it also assures your temporary colleagues that you appreciate the opportunity and take it seriously. Arriving 5 minutes before a service means you don’t “have it together” and this can make your colleagues stress out. Even if your playing is stellar, being undependable will keep you from coming back!

Feeling comfortable and at ease is great – but, don’t get too comfortable. You will undoubtedly hear comments, jokes, and gossip that may sound inviting for you to jump in and add your thoughts. Unless you have a secure, established history with your colleagues, don’t do it! Remember that these folks have earned their place in the ensemble, and a familial environment – albeit dysfunctional at times – has developed over years. You may hear someone make an off-color remark about another colleague at some point. Leave it be! This is where being a person with common sense and consideration comes into play. Some sections/orchestras are pretty stuffy, and create an “all business” environment. Other places are on par with kindergarten recess. Be sensitive and know your place.

Do no damage. This should actually be Rule #1 in a subbing situation. Do not draw attention to yourself. Don’t hang over on cutoffs, don’t play louder than the guy next to you, and adjust pitch to the ensemble – even if they are playing sharp or flat! A phrase that comes to mind is “When in doubt, leave it out!” and it has kept me from stepping in holes on several occasions. Most folks will appreciate you applying discretion rather than trying to be the hero. The ‘do no damage’ principal also applies to non-playing aspects, such as talking, dropping mutes, creaking chairs, and loudly turning pages.

Be a chameleon. Listen. Adapt. Adjust. If the player next to you is playing longer note lengths, adjust. More front to notes, adjust. Zippier or warmer sound, adjust. Etc etc. I’ve always been amazed at the number of fantastic instrumentalists who don’t use the most important tools we have: EARS! Avoid being so set in your ways that you can’t adapt. This is part of being a musician.

Have a pencil.

If you are in need of feedback, don’t ask, “How am I doing?” but rather, “Can I do anything differently for you?” or “Does that feel comfortable for you?” Avoid inviting criticism, but show you are considerate and flexible. “How am I doing?” makes you sound unprofessional and unsure of yourself, as well as thinking selfishly. The other questions show a team attitude and confidence that you can adapt.

One of the best compliments you can get is from a member of another section. “Your section (or you) sounds great!” is a nice one to get, especially considering that most of our egos are terribly fragile. When someone goes out of their way to compliment you, they usually mean it. Say “thank you”. Of course, the supreme compliment is being invited back.

Added after original publication, courtesy of Ken Wolff:

Spending more of my time teaching young eager students than subbing myself, these additional comments are more for the inexperienced player who may be offered chances to sub early in their career. I would add just a few additional comments if I may for those young players specifically.

Be gracious and appreciative of the opportunity and keep your opinions to yourself. Your suggestions are not welcome unless solicited and still you should be careful here. If you have traveled to play, don’t expect to be entertained by your section mates during off hours. If they invite you to hang out by all means do so but don’t intrude. They have lives to attend to. And finally, personal hygiene is very important. Not only should your attire be clean, so should you.


Play what you love

A couple weeks ago, I had the honor and pleasure of being a featured guest artist at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. Hosted by the gracious Dr. Mark Hartman and his enthusiastic studio of 20-something trombonists, I was treated to some soul-cleansing experiences in my masterclass, piano rehearsal and recital with the fabulous David Heinick, and in private lessons with some of the students. On my 5-hr drive back to Buffalo, I kept catching myself humming and whistling some of the tunes from my recital. This is a bit abnormal, as usually when I finish a program, I put it out of my head and move on to the next project. I tend to program each recital from scratch rather than recycle most of the program, so my preparation is fairly involved starting a few months out. Hence, I’m usually ready to “turn the page”, so to speak.

However, this time was different. The melodies from my program have been sticking with me. The answer can really be found in the reason I chose these works to begin with: I LOVE THIS MUSIC!! I usually program music that I at least like, so why, this time around, are the melodies still welcome in my head after the performance is over?

As students and professional musicians, the bulk of our repertoire is chosen for us: by our teachers, our music directors, the contractor, etc. It is our job to bring these works to life, and we must take the role of an actor in sound, regardless of if we like the part or not. A great musician can do just that. But aside from a very select few soloists and chamber musicians, most of us do not get to choose the repertoire we perform. Even in many solo situations, the soloist does not have carte blanche over the choices, whether it’s a student programming a degree-required recital, a soloist with an orchestra/band, or someone hired to perform a specific type of music for a specific audience.

When I am engaged to play a recital at a university, I think about what the students will enjoy, what I enjoy, and to what music they should be exposed. As an undergraduate at Ithaca College, I was quite fortunate to hear many guest artists. It was also the height of popularity for a few certain pieces (Ewazen and Sulek Sonatas, in particular) that EVERYONE was playing — students, teachers, and guest artists alike. While I love these works, there is such a thing as overkill! For my programming, I almost always ask the hosting professor what compositions have been very popular within the studio and amongst guest artists. I then avoid these works, as we don’t need to hear more of it when there are so many other great pieces! I also have to consider what pieces can be put together rather easily with an accompanist on one rehearsal, so that rules out quite a few works, as well. Finding the balance between music that is rewarding for myself and the listener but also can be put together with a total stranger in a relative short amount of time can offer quite a challenge. There are plenty of works I would absolutely love to play that need more than a 1-hour piano rehearsal to make a program feel at least somewhat comfortable. So, I usually start with a long list of works I love (sometimes it’s the equivalent of 3-4 recitals!) and whittle it down based on practicality, audience, and rehearsal time.

Where we often run into trouble when programming a solo performance is choosing music we do NOT love. Often, there are pieces we think we should play because they are a staple, or because someone we admire recorded it, or because we may eventually need it for a contest or an audition. I think it’s safe to assume we’ve all been in this position. In my travels, I hear many young players who play a solo for me, but they clearly are not into the piece at all.  My question is, why waste your time?  Sure, there are pieces we all should know to some degree — David, Hindemith, Grondahl, Dufaye, etc — but there seems to be arbitrary reasoning for choosing to practice and perform much of the repertoire. Again, I must assert that whatever we play, we must sell it like we love it. However, it’s tough to do that when one rarely has the chance to perform what they truly love.

Perhaps there is also a learning curve involved. Since the goal (and job) is to play any given piece like it is the “Holy Grail” of compositions, we should have the experience of playing works about which we truly feel that way! It is essential to have the experience of playing music we have chosen because we love it.

I acknowledge and respect the fact that we must all be introduced to the “standards” during our study, and ideally, work them up to some degree of proficiency. However, what I do not advocate is playing them arbitrarily, or because they are determined — often by a teacher or other outside factor — to be the next logical course of study.  My love-hate relationship with the David rests on this principle. I began working on this piece at a musically immature phase of my development, and I played it because a classmate played it and I thought I had to be able to do it, too. I was not obsessed with the piece, was not listening to it non-stop and whistling the themes walking between classes, as I usually do when obsessed with a piece.  Looking back, I approached it very much like a technical study. Any time I’ve had to prepare this work for an audition, it has been a chore. I don’t love it, and the challenge is to sell it like I do!

Humorous anecdote: the day I received tenure in the BPO, I actually went home and burned my copy of the David in the grill. No joke. It felt so good to watch those old demons go up in flame.  But, I subsequently felt guilty and knew that I should at least have the music in my library, so I ordered a new, “clean” copy…..wah wah.

Anyway, back to my point. While the idea is to love (or at least fake) any piece we play, this author feels we should at least start by playing the things we truly love, and studying those that we don’t. Many folks out there discourage playing art songs as legitimate performance pieces. Why?? They are some of the BEST repertoire we can play as instrumentalists, as they teach us to sing through the instrument and find a way to express the emotion of the text through sound color, intensity, articulation, nuance, etc. [Another blog post on this topic is coming…]. I’m saddened when I see people only performing repertoire written for the trombone, as while there is plenty of it, it limits exposure to truly great music, and tends to be a dogmatic approach to programming.

The moral of my long-winded post: play what you love! Embrace it, even if what you love is not the ‘standards’, and play them like there’s nothing else you’d rather play.

Closing anecdote:

When I auditioned for Ithaca College as a senior in high school, I visited Hickey’s Music Center. I purchased Christian Lindberg’s “Romantic Trombone Concertos” CD and immediately started listing on the drive home. After hearing the Gunnar de Frummerie “Sonata”, I was head-over-heels in love with the piece. I called Hickey’s as soon as the CD played through and asked them to pull the sheet music and tell me the range. My heart sank when I was dealt the news, as I knew it was over my head technically. That didn’t stop me from buying the piece and tinkering with it from time to time, and eventually (about 10 year later) even performing some of it. My love of the piece fueled me to work on the technical challenges in a musical way, and I eventually became pretty comfortable with it. Now that I’m thinking about it, I should go pull it out of the stacks again….