Rediscovering Leisure

The first week or two after the end of the spring semester might be my favorite time of each academic year. While it is true that I only teach full time about eight months of the year, those eight months are so packed with activity (60+ hour weeks are not uncommon in November and April particularly) that the 15-30 hours per week I typically work the rest of the year (musicians rarely get days that are completely “off”) seem positively restful.

One of the ways that I have long facilitated productive academic years is by spending a week or two in mid-May organizing. I will spend a fair amount of time during these weeks cleaning, filing, scanning, reading, thinking, and planning so that when school starts again in August I am able to allow those plans to work themselves out with only minimal retooling and redirecting along the way. Among the casualties of the frenetic activities of the fall and spring are the cleanliness and orderliness of my offices both at home and at the university; as I write now I sit in a half-cleaned office that seems to long as much as I do for the coming return to order and balance. The time spent cleaning and filing gives me time to think and formulate plans for future teaching, practicing, performing, and writing, and I relish the time to do simple work that allows me to be alone with my thoughts for a bit.

While taking a short break from cleaning today I received the regular weekly email with a few selected articles from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Those familiar with ISI will gather from my being on their email list (in the unlikely event that they have not already reached this conclusion) that I am, unlike many of my faculty colleagues, a man who identifies with the political and cultural Right. ISI is, to my reading, more politically conservative than distinctly Christian, though there is a vague, more or less Roman Catholic element to its ethos. In any case, the articles in these weekly emails often exhort readers, particularly those pursuing lives of teaching and scholarship, to return to older ways of thinking, teaching, being, and doing.

The article that I found most compelling this week is entitled “Redefining Leisure,” and in it the author laments that modern Americans structure their lives around overwork, followed by wasting their dwindling leisure time in mindlessness. In contrast, she exalts “low art” and crafts-type hobbies as desirable forms of leisure, activities that “instill virtue and discipline, humility and wonder,” activities which through their repetitive nature provide opportunity for deep thought and reflection while creating simple beauty that edifies and fulfills the craftsman and others. She even suggests that “high art” cannot well exist and thrive in a society without a foundation of thoughtful craftsmen and artisans.

I can’t say that I really enjoy cleaning and filing and organizing, but I do enjoy having time to think, and that is my favorite aspect of this time of year. Applying this to my musical career throughout the year, maybe this is part of why I cling to the Remingtonian idea of a daily routine. That time of repetitive, daily fundamentals practice not only enables me to maintain my performing skills but also allows me to be alone with my thoughts as I play the same long tones, lip slurs, and scale studies as the day before. Sure, I’m listening and evaluating and fixing playing issues, but there’s still plenty of time for contemplation in there. Interestingly, with each passing year I spend less time listening to music for leisure. That might seem unfortunate, but with music making occupying the largest portion of most days for me, the return to silence (or perhaps a quiet news broadcast, sermon, audiobook, or podcast) is most inviting, and maybe even necessary.

Reading between the lines of the aforementioned article just a bit, what the author is suggesting is the forsaking of franticness in both work and leisure. Instead of overworking and then collapsing into mindlessness, she encourages a measured pace and thoughtful pursuits both in our vocations and avocations. I’m not sure our modern workplaces and schedules will permit this, but it is a lovely thought. Come to think of it, didn’t the psalmist give a similar exhortation three millennia or so ago?

Be still, and know that I am God…. (Psalm 46:10)

 

 

Posted in Beauty, Christian Worldview, Doctrine of Vocation, Education, Emory Remington, Higher Education, History, Playing Fundamentals, Practical Christianity, Practicing, Society, Teaching Low Brass, Truth, Work and Leisure

Three Areas of Tension that Brass Players Miss

Brass instruments are amazingly simple devices. In their simplest form, these “lip-reed aerophones” as Anthony Baines called them are just tubes into one end of which players vibrate their lips to generate musical tones. The overtone series native to a particular length of tubing determines which pitches are available, or at least which ones will resonate. The function of valves and slides is to vary the length of tubing so that more resonant-sounding pitches become available. Beyond that, variances is design and construction serve only to provide particular tonal ranges (higher and lower), different tone colors, improved ergonomic or mechanical function, and even greater visual interest. Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but not by much. We brass players operate delightfully simple machines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these simple machines generate the best sounds when the players operate them in the simplest manner possible, using “minimal motors,” as tubist and pedagogue Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) would put it. Indeed, much of my effort in my own practice and in teaching students is devoted to eliminating unnecessary, extraneous, and sometimes even painful physical actions from one’s approach to playing the instrument. To put it differently, while an important aspect of practicing is the development of the strength, skill, and coordination needed to play a brass instrument, of at least equal and sometimes greater importance is the elimination of unneeded tension.

While the deleterious nature of excess tension in the jaw and embouchure muscles, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and chest is no doubt obvious, these are not the only areas of the body in which tension can negatively affect brass performance. Here are three areas where brass players too often harbor unnoticed and unhelpful muscle tension.

1. The abdomen. Although this type of breathing instruction is becoming less common, many of us were taught in one way or another to “breathe low,” with the focus being upon abdominal expansion. While the movement of the diaphragm and pelvic floor with associated shifting of the abdominal organs does introduce some movement in that part of the body with each breath, the lungs themselves are in the chest, not the abdomen. An unwarranted focus on the abdomen can often lead to excessive engagement of the abdominal muscles when breathing, which in turn creates a tension that can negatively affect tone quality and resonance, free movement of the arms and hands, and even embouchure flexibility. Should the abdomen move when you inhale? Yes, but there should be movement throughout the torso, and movement should occur as a result of the air coming in, not because of unnecessary and unnatural engagement of the abdominal muscles or other muscle groups. Let the abdomen expand, but maintain a “flabby belly” as much as possible (though there will be a bit more muscular engagement here when playing in the high register).

2. The legs and glutes. A few years ago I heard another trombonist give a lecture on this topic and when sharing his own struggles with tension he mentioned an orchestral concert in which he proudly reflected at the end that he had remained more or less tension-free in his arms, shoulders, and neck—or so he thought. His pride evaporated when the conductor asked the orchestra members to stand and he discovered that his legs were so tight that he couldn’t move from his seat! Brass players are quite prone to recruiting unnecessary muscle strength in the hamstrings, glutes, and other muscles when playing, especially when seated. Over the course of a performance this tension can creep up the back until the body is literally pulling against itself during the act of performing. Because Western medicine tends to treat the various parts of the body atomistically we are prone to forget that tension, injury, disease, or other maladies in one part inevitably affect other parts of the body in some way. Tight legs might seem immaterial to brass playing, but tight legs lead to tight back, then tight breathing apparatus, then tight shoulders, then tight arms, neck, and embouchure. Keep the legs relaxed when playing. When sitting, make sure whenever possible that your feet are flat on the floor in front of you rather than drawn back underneath the chair, as the latter position promotes this tension. When standing avoid locking the knees or otherwise flexing these muscles. As with the abdomen, it is loose, relaxed muscles that lead to free, comfortable playing.

3. The forehead and eyebrows. Emory Remington (1891-1971), longtime trombone professor at the Eastman School of Music, was known to admonish his students to “keep your eyebrows out of your playing.” I’ll confess that I did not understand the importance of this until a few years into my teaching career. Excessive tension in the forehead and eyebrows tends to manifest itself in two opposite but equally destructive ways. Either the player will furrow the brow, making an angry sort of face and causing the opposing musculature around the embouchure to tense excessively, or he will lift the eyebrows in a bid to open the eyes more widely, thus lifting the musculature of the top half of the face and to a certain extent pulling the upper lip away from the lower lip. The player thus has to expend extra effort in order to keep the embouchure together. The solution to this problem is simple; keep the eyes relaxed. An angry face won’t enable you to play with greater intensity and focus, and slightly more open eyes will not improve your reading ability. A relaxed face will, on the other hand, lead to better, easier tone production in addition to giving the appearance of effortless playing, which audiences always receive positively.


Tension in any of these areas is easy to overlook, as these muscle groups are removed from the embouchure and might not seem immediately relevant. And yet, such tension destructive of great playing, and exceedingly common, at least in my teaching experience. Happily, eliminating tension in these areas is also rather simple, and the benefits immediately realized.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Arnold Jacobs, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Embouchure, Emory Remington, Ergonomics, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

The Boring Part Comes Before the Fun Part

Our society’s obsession with fun is, I fear, one of our most harmful collective traits at the present moment. We see this in the workplace, where positions in challenging yet necessary and well-compensated trades go unfilled. We see this in family life, where most parents—and I am at times as guilty as anyone—make it a mission to see that their children are never without stimulation of some kind. We even see it in the church, where people have seemingly little desire to engage with the sacred and the holy unless it is presented in an entertaining fashion (perhaps that could be a topic for a future post). The reader could no doubt cite other examples of how as a people we have little taste for that which is not immediately rewarding, and too often forego that which in the long term is more pleasing, more enriching, even more fun in favor of that which gives an immediate reward yet is really unenduring, trite, and banal.

This creates a particular challenge for those of us engaged in the fine arts, as our best works demand of both performer/creator and audience a level of commitment, of preparation, of “pre-engagement” that is off-putting to most. Speaking specifically of music, popular songs are often entertaining and even clever, but most are one-dimensional; there are no deeper levels of meaning to be found through repeated listening. The same is true of Muzak and other forms of music intended to serve only as background noise. They are not without redeeming qualities, but there is little depth. Art music, on the other hand, is usually more complex, with multiple layers of both compositional craft and expressive meaning that are revealed progressively through repeated listening and even musical analysis. The great composers are recognized as such not because their works yield an immediate emotive effect (though they often do) but because repeated engagement is rewarded with additional discovery. The same can be said of great works in other artistic media.

Of course, the ability to comprehend music (or literature, or visual art, etc.) at this level often requires years of study. Even the dedicated amateur reaches the height of his understanding through repeated engagement, if only as an audience member. The music theorist who is best able to understand great works reaches that point after a great deal of analytical training and examination of scores, often specializing in the works of a particular composer or school of composers. This training is not always immediately “fun”—in fact, I can testify from my somewhat limited training in music theory that it is often manifestly not so—but the perceptive tools that it engenders lead to music reading and listening experiences that yield a deeper, better “fun,” one which makes both listening and performing better for all involved.

Many readers will recognize what I’m speaking of as the concept of delayed gratification, the idea that the payoff after hard work—whether monetary, emotional, experiential, or some combination of these and other types—is greater than when one takes the first superficial reward that presents itself. In brass playing this is most evident in the practice room, and not in the repeated playing of exciting musical works. I am often amused when I hear “overnight success stories” in our little corner of the music business. Almost without exception, these “overnight” successes were born out of years of a different type of overnight, the kind that involved staying in a practice room into the wee hours honing one’s craft. And what do these successful players work on? Concertos? Sometimes. Entertaining chamber works? Occasionally. Jazz and popular standards? Sure. Orchestral excerpts? Yeah. How about long tones, lip slurs, scales, and arpeggios? All the time. I am reminded of a story one of my teachers told of a visit by a popular touring jazz ensemble to the university where he then taught. The students asked the visiting trombone section what kinds of materials they practiced, hoping to spur a curriculum change to more entertaining and popular fare. To their disappointment, the guests listed the same “boring” fundamental studies and method books that the students were already studying as the materials for their training and continued practice.

As a teacher, I strive to assign enjoyable and rewarding solo and chamber works for my students’ performances, but rarely do I assign something that they will be able to achieve on a first reading, much less something that they will have the strength and flexibility to play without regular fundamentals work. My students are assigned a rigorous daily fundamentals routine and accompanying scale and arpeggio studies in order to help them to hone these skills, yet many of them will skip some or all of those “boring” calisthenics in favor of going immediately to the “real” music…and then wonder why they fail to reach their potential. They don’t understand (or refuse to accept) that the boring part comes before the fun part. A precious few really “get it.” They succeed.

I am aware that the concept of repeating a consistent daily routine has fallen on hard times among many in the brass teaching world. Some say that the routine should be varied, and while I freely modify my routine to address peculiar issues that a student or I might be facing, I still find undeniable value in the daily and systematic review and extension of fundamental playing skills. Others advocate accommodating the desire for “fun” by inventing “cool” MIDI accompaniment tracks for otherwise “boring” exercises. I am not opposed to this, but it seems to me that this would work for only a limited time before that which was once cool became boring through repetition, and I am not inclined to constantly compose and create new tracks to satisfy a perceived need for what is in the end an only superficially more enjoyable approach. At some point if you want to be a successful brass player you will have to buckle down and do the hard work, even the boring parts!

I am not opposed to music being fun—far from it! But the best fun comes after diligent practice and study of materials which do not yield immediate enjoyment, for it is mastery of these “boring” things that makes the musician a better player, a better listener, a better “understander” of music.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go and practice some long tones.

 

 

Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Education, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Music Theory, Musicology, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Scales and Arpeggios, Society, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Why I Still Hand Out Printed Bibles

While as an older child and teenager I was always keen on having the newest technologies available to me—particularly with regard to entertainment—as I’ve gotten older I’ve definitely become a “late adopter.” I resisted exchanging my desktop PC for a notebook until 2008, was slow to start using text messages and smartphones, and I have only recently begun using a tablet computer for displaying sheet music in practice and performance. And after years of resistance I have at last sharply curtailed buying printed books in favor of using a Kindle Paperwhite. Both my wallet and my shelf space have benefited from these changes, and traveling is certainly easier with a small device or two replacing the multiple books and sheet music scores with which I once stuffed my carry-on bag. I have even begun doing my daily Bible reading on the Kindle, something I would never have imagined even a couple of years ago. I may be slow to adopt new technologies, but once I feel that a new piece of hardware or software is proven I am happy to put it to use.

540700717The proliferation of Bible reading apps in particular perhaps calls into question the continued mission and activities of The Gideons International, the association in whose scripture distribution ministry I have participated for the past twelve years. We are coming close to meeting our goal of distributing 100 million scriptures annually by 2020, but in a time in which even committed church members have exchanged printed Bibles for reading from phones or tablets during corporate worship, is giving away printed Bibles passé? Even The Gideons International itself has a free Bible reading app! Still, I don’t think the time for distributing printed Bibles has passed. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Printed text is an enduring technology. Digital archives are a wonderful thing. Because of the multiplied thousands of articles available in PDF format even 10-15 years ago I was able to complete my doctoral dissertation in considerably less time and with less expense than if I had done so a decade or two before. I well remember reading British brass band journals from over a century ago on my computer in my basement; in previous years I would have had to exchange my own basement for a musty library archive someplace in England. Despite the great promise of digital archives, though, I have also heard stories about how digital resources from even 40-50 years ago are no longer accessible because the hardware needed to access them no longer exists. Conversely, library books from the same period are still enjoying a long and useful shelf life. What does all of this have to do with Bibles? The Bible apps on my phone, tablet, and eReader are useful and convenient, but sooner or later (probably sooner) they will be obsolete. I have a Gideon Bible from the 1910s on my shelf, and its text is as plain and readable as it was when it was first delivered from the printer. Printed Bibles endure.

2. Electronic Bibles are not everywhere convenient. One of the most remarkable developments in the “Two-Thirds World” is the proliferation of digital communications to rural areas that were entirely bypassed by their analog counterparts. Cellular telephones are relatively common in parts of Africa that were once chronically underserved with regard to telephone service, electricity, etc. Still, digital media can be expensive and unreliable, whereas the Gideons have managed to bring the cost of printed New Testaments down to around $1.20 on average. Those Testaments rarely break, and never run out of battery!

3. It is still nice to hand someone something tangible. One of the things that I sometimes do not enjoy about my teaching position in a secular university is that religious expression is often effectively curtailed by regulations and expectations both real and perceived. I don’t have as many opportunities to personally hand out Bibles as would someone in a working environment more amenable to proselytizing. Still, when I do have an opportunity to place a Bible in a hotel room or hospital room or hand a New Testament to someone personally there is a sense that something tangible, something real is being given, something that came at a cost to the giver. People still appreciate that, even as we hope and pray that those receiving scriptures will read therein of the ultimate Giver, the One who gave Himself that we might live.

Giving Gideon New Testament4. God still uses these Bibles to save souls. Last night our Gideon camp held its annual banquet for area pastors, and while I regularly speak in churches to raise funds for buying Bibles I very much enjoy hearing others speak about how God is using the Gideon ministry, hearing new testimonies of lives changed through the giving, receiving, and reading of His Word. Will the time come when printed Bibles are no longer useful or relevant? Honestly, I doubt it, and in any case it is clear that God is still pleased to bless the distribution of scriptures around the world, now in 201 countries, territories, and possessions, and in 107 languages. I’m happy to still be a part.

Posted in Bible, Books, Digital Revolution, Evangelism, Practical Christianity, Salvation, Smartphones, Tablet Computers, The Gideons International, Theology

A Reliable Predictor of Music Majors that Succeed…and Those that Quit

Nearly ten years ago now I began a certificate program in systematic theology that consisted of five courses plus a substantial final project. I completed that program in 2011 and still consider it to have been a great blessing to me, one about which I have written here in a previous post. At the same time, the process made me aware of a major flaw in distance education that, while not entirely negating the value of online instruction, represents a marked lack in that model compared to on-campus instruction. That flaw is the lack of mutual support and camaraderie among fellow students and even between students and faculty. In traditional face-to-face courses students often study together, share ideas, and even socialize outside of class. Occasionally professors are involved in such informal gatherings, and “unplanned teaching moments” can end up being as vital to the student’s development as the lectures and activities during class. While online instructors sometimes try to replicate this via discussion forums and even scheduled “virtual gatherings” in chatrooms, the spontaneity of these interactions and even the “ministry of presence” among one’s peers is difficult to replicate in a virtual setting.

In the course of my online theological instruction I became aware of how men studying together for vocational ministry formed support groups which continued throughout and even beyond their time in seminary. The pastorate can be a lonely calling, and I can’t help but think that those in that profession who either lack a seminary education or who were educated online or via correspondence keenly feel the lack of this support group. In a similar way, albeit with much less eternal significance, music educators form similar support groups. The band directors whose former students I teach and then send back into that profession operate in a largely friendly professional milieu that builds upon relationships built during their time as college music majors. Over time one’s peer group within the profession expands to include mutual friends and acquaintances of others within the group until a very healthy and effective support network exists. Something similar exists among my colleagues and acquaintances within the university low brass teaching community. Being a band director or other type of music teacher can be, like the pastorate, very lonely, so having a support group in which one can confide and from which one can receive counsel is vital to success. And like I said, this begins in college.

In a healthy college or university music department students are hanging out at the music building all the time. Sometimes they are practicing, sometimes they are studying for theory exams, sometimes writing drill or arranging music, and sometimes they are just “hanging out.” The point is that they are together, learning together, performing together, and simply being together, helping one another through what might not be the most difficult degree program on campus, but it is certainly one of the more labor-intensive ones. This group that helps one overcome the challenges of the music degree program—especially the music education program—forms the nucleus of that support group which will last throughout a student’s career. Without it, succeeding in the degree program is difficult, to say nothing about the rigors of the music profession itself.

While I don’t have hard data to share in this little essay, over twenty years’ casual observation tells me that a significant percentage of students who begin their university careers as music or music education majors do not complete the program. Most simply decide that the “music life” is not for them and choose some other major in which they can be more successful. Others drop out of college altogether and pursue some other path, and some simply seem to “wash out.” Regardless of their reasons for leaving, a common factor that exists among many of these folks is that they are rarely in the music building more often than they absolutely have to be. They don’t participate in study groups, they don’t practice at the same times as others or engage in mutual critique, and they don’t spend time just “hanging out” with their fellow musicians. I am never surprised to see such students end up pursuing some other profession or way of life. The support of fellow students is too vital to success, and even continuation.

Now, please do not take me as somehow judging those students who leave the music program for some other pursuit. I’m glad whenever students build careers that enable them to have happy, fulfilled, productive lives, whether inside or outside of the music field. Students leave music for any number of reasons, but a common thread is the lack of engagement with and building support groups among their peers. Students looking to become musicians or music educators should find friends among their fellow music majors, and do it quickly. Trust me, you’ll need them!

Posted in Career Choices, Distance Education, Education, Higher Education, Instructional Technology, Music, Music Education, Pastoral Ministry, Teaching Low Brass, Theological Education

Performance Anxiety? “That’s a Boggart, That Is!”

I’ve written periodically about performance anxiety over the nearly six years that I’ve been blogging for one primary reason: I suffer from performance anxiety myself! I remember as a student thinking something to the effect of “I can’t wait until I’m really good and don’t have to deal with getting nervous anymore.” At the time, I’m sure I defined “really good” somehow in terms of “has a university teaching position and/or orchestral job.” The problem is, now I have that university teaching position and, at least on a part-time basis, an orchestral job, and yet in some respects my performance anxiety is worse than ever. This makes sense if you think about it—now that I’m “Dr. Everett” people’s expectations of me are higher, and thus the pressure I place upon myself to perform well is greater.

Happily, although my internal experience of performance anxiety has increased I have mostly learned how to minimize its external manifestations and its effects upon performance, and usually after the first ten minutes or so of a “big performance” I settle in and feel fine. In fact, I have sometimes been complimented on just how calm and collected I seem before going on stage (it’s an act!). If you would like to read more about the approaches I have taken in order to realize this amount of success in managing anxiety symptoms, here is a listing of my previous blog posts on the topic.

One approach that I have recently taken more often with myself and with students who suffer from performance anxiety is to encourage them (and me) to face the anxiety and the circumstances which precipitate it, to acknowledge the presence of the anxiety rather than attempt to deny its existence, to accept the anxiety as a more or less normal response to the factors which precipitate it, and then to dismiss the anxiety as a harmless feeling, one which has no power to disrupt performance unless we allow it to do so. Again, far from denying the presence or even the intensity of performance anxiety, by accepting it and then setting it aside we short-circuit the downward spiral in both our emotions and in our performing that comes from trying to suppress the anxious feelings. Once acknowledged and accepted these feelings begin to seem less monstrous, and are eventually set aside.

snape riddikulusIn this way, performance anxiety is a bit like the boggart, a magical creature which appears periodically in the Harry Potter series of novels by J.K. Rowling (b. 1965). We first encounter a boggart in the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999). In that story, third-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are introduced to a boggart in a controlled exercise supervised by Professor Remus Lupin. Although essentially harmless, when a boggart encounters a person it immediately assumes the form of that individual’s greatest fear, and in the class exercise the boggart is seen to take the form of a giant spider, Professor Severus Snape, one of the fearsome dementors (a much more frightening magical creature from the stories), and other genuinely scary forms. The boggart is defeated by using the spell Riddikulus, which causes its terrifying form to suddenly become a humorous parody of itself (such as Snape suddenly wearing an old woman’s clothing). In other words, once the wizard understands that the boggart is not truly threatening it can be easily banished.

Thus with the musician and performance anxiety. The solution is not to deny its presence, or to run from it, and certainly not to submit to it. Rather, we face it, acknowledge it, accept it, and then dismiss it. Is this approach always 100% effective? No—neither did the Riddikulus spell always succeed on the first attempt—but it is much more effective than cowering in fear. To feel heightened emotions in advance of a big performance is normal, but don’t allow them to keep you from succeeding!


Needless to say, I am speaking of temporary, run-of-the-mill anxious feelings experienced by just about everyone in advance of major performances or other important events, and which dissipate once the stressor is removed. This post should not be taken as denying the existence or seriousness of long-term anxiety disorders, or the necessity of treatment of such by medical professionals.

Posted in Music, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Worry

Only One Trombone in the Pit? Try the Bass Trombone!

For some reason I can remember as a high school student looking at the liner notes to an original cast recording of Les Misérables and being rather taken aback by the small size of the orchestra and especially the fact that there was only one trombonist listed—a bass trombonist. At that time I had no experience in pit orchestra work, so I knew nothing about the logistics of seating in orchestra pits, much less the periodic negotiations between the American Federation of Musicians and the League of American Theatres and Producers, in which musicians and theatre companies argue regarding the minimum size allowed for orchestras in live Broadway productions. Theatregoers—particularly those who travel from “flyover country” and only see Broadway shows on rare vacation outings—might be astonished to know that if some producers had their way live orchestras, which many see as a highlight of these productions, would be replaced by “canned music” and synthesizers. In any case, the small size of some orchestra pits combined with the shrinking numbers in these negotiated “minimums” has led to new shows whose brass sections consist of one or two trumpets, one or two horns, and a single trombonist. While older shows with fuller compliments of musicians are sometimes simply performed with parts missing, a recently more common practice is to have a composer or arranger rescore the program for a smaller orchestra. This generally leads to a more satisfying result than “taking stuff out.”

With both new and re-orchestrated small orchestra programs (including not only musicals but also opera and ballet) the single trombonist usually finds himself playing a chameleon-like role, sometimes acting as an additional horn, trumpet, or bassoon, or assuming the role usually occupied by the tuba. Occasionally he will even play an actual “trombone” part! While some of these scores ask the single player to double on tenor and bass trombones, or bass trombone and tuba, in my experience the part has usually been labeled simply “trombone,” and in any case there is not always adequate space in the pit for additional instruments. I have performed in pit orchestras for several productions like this in the past fifteen years or so, and have nearly always found the bass trombone to be my instrument of choice for these “one trombone” shows, even when the tonal range does not absolutely necessitate the larger instrument. Here are a few reasons why.

1. In these scores the trombone plays a foundational role in the brass section, and to a certain extent in the orchestra as a whole. In the absence of tuba and contrabassoon, and with usually a small number of celli and basses, the single trombonist often finds himself providing the “bottom” for the orchestra. Even when the notes are not incredibly low the bass trombone is still better suited to this than is the tenor.

2. Playing “third horn” and “second bassoon.” While the bass trombone’s heft at louder dynamics enables it to adroitly accomplish the above task, its mellow sound at softer dynamics is an asset when the trombonist is called upon to perform delicate section passages once assigned to now-missing horn or bassoon parts. A skilled bass trombonist will be able to add the additional notes to these passages without significantly disrupting the prevailing “horn” or “bassoon” timbre.

3. The second valve often proves useful. Most orchestra pits are rather cramped spaces and if you find yourself performing one of these reductions you will probably be seated in a back corner with very little room to operate. Alternate fingerings afforded by the second valve on most bass trombones can sometimes prevent extended handslide movements that are difficult in small spaces and even facilitate page turns. I’ll be doing the latter in such a performance later today, using the two valves combined to play D3 in first position and holding the handslide with my left pinky while turning the page with my right hand. This is a handy trick not possible on an instrument with one or no valves.

4. Adding additional low notes. This last suggestion should be taken only rarely and with special attention given to remaining in good taste. Orchestrators writing for a single trombonist often write with the tenor trombone in mind, and leave the trombone in a higher octave at cadences which would benefit from a bit more “bottom.” While blatting pedal tones would not be appropriate sometimes a well-placed note in the valve register fits very nicely. Of course, this should only be done with the (sometimes tacit) approval of the conductor.

There are, of course, instances where the bass trombone might not be the instrument of choice, such as productions with more jazz or pop influence which clearly demand the timbre and nimble movements of the small-bore tenor trombone. Often, though, the bass trombone just makes sense in these orchestrations. I guess that Les Mis orchestrator was on to something!

Posted in Bass Trombone, Music, Orchestration, Performing, Pit Orchestras, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba