Vining, David. What Every Trombonist Needs to Know About the Body. Flagstaff, Arizona: Mountain Peak Music, 2010. 134pp.
After recommending this volume in an earlier post with summer reading suggestions, it occurred to me that I had not yet read the book through in its entirety. David Vining’s What Every Trombonist Needs to Know About the Body lies somewhere between the usual definitions of “textbook” and “method book,” having long blocks of text interspersed with activities for the reader to try. Trombonists that do approach the volume as a “sit down and read” book will find it a quick and intriguing read, and one meriting repeated attention.
The author, David Vining, is no stranger to many trombonists. Diagnosed several years ago with Focal Task-Specific Dystonia of the embouchure—which rendered him entirely unable to play trombone—Vining sought to reverse his condition and recover his career rather than simply “give up,” as have others diagnosed with the same condition. This led him to study the movement and body usage techniques of F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), Moshé Feldenkrais (1904-1984), and others, and to apply these methodologies to brass playing. The results of his endeavors are obvious, including a full recovery of his playing (I have heard him perform and teach several times since his recovery) and new pedagogical methods and materials intended to share his discoveries with others, of which this book is a primary example. In this book and others that he has produced, Vining seeks to educate trombonists regarding proper use of the body while playing in order to prevent unnecessary injuries as well as debilitating conditions such as Focal Dystonia.
Following a forward by Denis Wick, former principal trombonist of the London Symphony Orchestra and now a successful businessman, the book includes ten primarily text chapters and an eleventh chapter containing exercises designed to improve and focus the player’s use of the body. The first three chapters set forth foundational ideas regarding the importance of correct body usage and the practice of “body mapping.” Vining defines the body map as “a representation in the brain of how the body is constructed and how it is supposed to move” (pp. 3-4). To put it briefly, the more accurate a person’s body map, the more efficiently and correctly he will use the body when playing, thus improving the overall musical result. Over the next seven chapters, Vining describes the various structures of the body and their operation, as well as common misconceptions among trombonists regarding each structure. He outlines the positive effects of a correct body map in each area, as well as potential negative effects of incorrect ones, and suggests activities to establish and improve the body map. In addition to these activities found throughout each chapter, in the final chapter Vining sets forth several “explorations” that can serve both as a daily fundamentals routine as well as provide daily reinforcement of correct body mapping and usage.
Vining’s understanding of the body and the effects of various techniques (and errors) upon trombone playing is quite sound. I was therefore relieved to discover while reading the book that there was very little in my playing and teaching that conflicted with what Vining has to say. Concepts such as the air being integral to the formation of the embouchure (pp. 61-62), the importance of not “micromanaging” the embouchure (p. 75), and using all of the structures of the shoulders, arms, wrists, and fingers in slide movement (Chapter 9) have long been part of my playing and teaching. Perhaps the biggest error on my part—which I inherited from my teachers—is the admonition to “breathe low,” an instruction that Vining identifies as having been particularly harmful for him (p. 131). Earlier in the book Vining implies that the errors in such instructions might lie in “accumulated misunderstandings” (my term) rather than in the instructions themselves, and I suspect that this might be the case here. Still, misunderstanding can lead to serious usage errors. Even before reading this book I was getting away from using the instruction to “breathe low” in my teaching; removing harmful interpretations of it from my playing has proven to be harder.
For me, the most helpful takeaway has been developing a better concept of “right” posture and balance. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have dealt for several years with spinal conditions that have led to pain and stiffness which have sometimes negatively affected my playing. While these “issues” are entirely unrelated to trombone playing, inefficiencies in my usage of the body when playing trombone can exacerbate my pain symptoms. Ironically, one of these inefficiencies has to do with maintaining “correct” posture, something I find tremendously difficult to do due to some curvature in my thoracic spine. Whenever I try to “sit up straight” I become quite tense and quickly fatigued due to the muscle effort needed to maintain this position. While Vining might, with qualifications, agree that good posture is important, he prefers the term “balance,” since this removes the implication of a certain fixed, rigid position with no freedom of movement and based upon an ideal that might not “fit” a given individual. Indeed, he rightly acknowledges that correct balance will not look the same for each person. He writes:
“Another danger in applying an abstract postural ideal is that there are differences in body shapes and sizes which create anomalies in our appearances. Balance allows for these differences because to be balanced is to cooperate with how we are built, imperfections and all. To be balanced is an internal sensation, not an external comparison to some abstract postural ideal” (p. 26).
For someone like me, whose posture almost never “looks right,” this notion has provided tremendous freedom. By embracing my own structural imperfections and striving to use the body in a way that is relaxed, efficient, and balanced—for me—my playing has improved a great deal.
Skeptical readers might think that Vining’s emphasis on awareness of how one uses the body could lead to “paralysis by analysis,” where playing is actually inhibited by the musician’s constant thinking about how the body is being used. While this is certainly a danger of any method which requires thinking about the body and its usage, this danger is avoided if Vining’s instructions are followed. He advocates a concept called “constructive rest,” which is outlined in Chapter 4. This process has five goals (p. 11):
1. To cultivate a whole and integrated body awareness. This is the most important step because the other four steps depend upon it.
2. To come to the greatest degree of muscular freedom you can find in the moment.
3. To work on the integrity of your breathing.
4. To develop an accurate and adequate body map.
5. To put yourself in a right relationship with space.
While these steps involve more than a little bit of analysis of one’s use of the body, after completing the constructive rest Vining admonishes the player to go about his playing normally, with little or no thought about these things. The aggregate effect of regular periods of constructive rest will lead to the desired result of correct usage, without the detrimental effects of “overthinking” while trying to play. In this way, better function is achieved, and “paralysis by analysis” is avoided.
Trombonists especially should purchase, read, and use this book; other brass players will no doubt benefit, as well. Vining unapologetically borrows and adapts ideas from What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body by Barbara Conable; non-brass players might find the ideas discussed in that volume to be more broadly applicable. In either case, all musicians stand to gain from the efficiency and freedom of usage promoted by the ideas in these books.