In the past month or so I have played lead in a big band on a small tenor trombone, a concerto with orchestra on alto trombone, a brass quintet concert on large tenor trombone and euphonium, a solo with piano on bass trombone, and this weekend I am performing again on the bass trombone in an orchestra. “Doubling” on multiple low brass instruments has become a big part of my regular work as a musician. Today I want to expand upon the posts I wrote several weeks ago on the daily routine (here and here), and discuss specifically and in a bit more detail how I approach performing daily fundamentals work on multiple instruments.
Have a “Home” Instrument
No matter how many instruments one plays, I have found it very important to have one of those instruments be the “home” instrument. This is the instrument on which the player will perform his most thorough fundamentals routine each day, and from which any secondary instruments will be treated as a point of departure. While there are successful “doublers” out there that would disagree with my conclusion here, when I have tried to vary from day to day the instrument on which I perform the most thorough daily routine I have found that this lends a certain inconsistency that is unproductive. For me, I play all of my instruments better when one of those instruments is clearly the primary instrument.
This is not to say that the primary instrument needs to be the first one played each day. An early morning engagement on a secondary instrument might preclude the performance of a thorough daily routine on the primary instrument, followed by a shorter routine on the secondary instrument—that is, unless you want to wake up very early and have your family and neighbors do so, as well! This touches on the difference between a “warm up” and what I call a “daily routine.” The former can consist of just a few minutes of breathing, mouthpiece buzzing, and perhaps some long tones, lip slurs, or scales. The latter might require as much as 45 minutes of fundamental exercises on the primary instrument, in addition to any secondary instrument work. Just as we might not always have the luxury of playing a thorough daily routine prior to the first engagement of the day, so we might not always be able to play the primary instrument first each day. This is ok—the primary instrument is first in priority and usually first in amount of practice time, but not necessarily first chronologically each day.
Shorter Routines for Secondary Instruments: Emphasize Differences
In a perfect world, one would be able to perform a thorough fundamentals routine each day on every instrument one plays. That, of course, is impossible, so the player must construct shorter routines for secondary instruments that enable the player to work basic playing skills on those instruments as thoroughly as possible, in the shortest amount of time possible. In order to accomplish this, routines for secondary instruments should emphasize differences between those instruments and the primary instrument while devoting less time to areas of similarity. For example, my secondary routines, which were developed for those whose primary and secondary instruments are both brass instruments, devote the majority of time to tone production, fingering, and range—areas which can differ a great deal from one brass instrument to the next—while spending less time on things like lip slurs and articulation, since these are more similar between brass instruments (legato tonguing on trombone perhaps excepted). These routines are not sufficiently complete to serve as a thorough daily routine for one’s primary instrument, but used in conjunction with a more comprehensive routine on the primary instrument they help the player to achieve maximum skill development and facility on secondary instruments with a minimal time commitment.
Scales and Arpeggios
In addition to an abbreviated fundamentals routine, playing scales and arpeggios on secondary instruments is an important part of developing facility on those instruments. This is an area of practice that players tend to neglect even on their primary instruments, so sometimes mustering the “want to” needed to practice scales and arpeggios on secondary instruments as well is especially difficult. While I will concede that scale and arpeggio practice is often tedious and boring, the benefits are tremendous. After all, most pieces of music that we encounter consist largely of common patterns such as these. The more familiar and “automatic” these patterns are, the better we will be at successfully reading and executing them when we encounter them in performance.
At the very least, master major and minor scales and arpeggios, as well as chromatic scales, on every instrument that you play. Even better, spend time on seventh-chord arpeggios, modal scales, and the more unusual patterns such as blues, bebop, pentatonic, and octatonic scales. That may sound like overkill, but on at least one occasion when learning a difficult piece in a short amount of time it has been greatly helpful to me that I knew my octatonic scales!
My “Level 2” and “Level 3” scale and arpeggio routines cover all of these skills, the “Level 3” covering the more unusual scales just mentioned. I hope to address scale and arpeggio practice more specifically and thoroughly in a future post.
What about Multiple Doubling Instruments?
The method of practicing I have described here, consisting of a thorough daily routine on the primary instrument, a shorter routine on a secondary instrument, and some scale and arpeggio practice on both, sounds great for those that have only one secondary instrument. But, what about those with two, three, or more “doubles?” If even a short routine and scales are completed on all of one’s secondary instruments, one might spend more than two hours per day on fundamentals before ever moving on to “real” music. There must be a more efficient way to manage multiple “doubles.”
The way that I have managed this, with a primary instrument and four “doubles,” is to perform a thorough daily routine on the primary instrument (large tenor trombone) each day, and then a “rotation” on the secondary instruments (alto, small tenor, and bass trombones, and euphonium). I will perform my “secondary routine” on one of those instruments each day, and one-third of a “Level 3” scale routine on the other three. By rotating through these materials, I am still able to cover all of the necessary skills on my primary and secondary instruments on a regular basis, while keeping the time spent on fundamentals work each day under 75 minutes or so. While not perfect, this way of approaching skill development and maintenance on multiple instruments does seem to balance thoroughness and efficiency.
Sound Concept is Paramount!
Whatever method you devise to incorporate secondary instrument work into your practice schedule, remember that developing a characteristic sound on each doubling instrument is of the utmost importance. When you show up for a playing engagement on one of your secondary instruments, your listeners won’t care that the instrument you are playing is not your “main horn”—they just want to hear great music! One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from the personnel manager of an orchestra with which I once subbed regularly on bass trombone. He noticed me practicing the tenor trombone backstage during some downtime and he said “I didn’t know you played tenor trombone!” That was high praise indeed—based on my bass trombone sound, he assumed that was my primary instrument.
Keep sound concept in mind as you develop routines for secondary instrument work. Your job is to sound great—“primary instrument” great—on everything you play. With careful development and execution of secondary instrument routines, this can indeed be accomplished.