My sister’s daughter, CJ, is five now, and after a long period of being not all that sure about Uncle Micah has, I think, decided that I’m an okay guy. Or at least tolerable. For the first four or so years of her life she was generally terrified of me. I don’t think I did anything in particular to frighten her, but we only see her a few times a year, and little kids tend to be scared of big guys with dark beards (my beard was still mostly dark back then).
Like most girls her age, CJ is enamored with all things related to Disney princesses, and one of my more successful strategies in the quest to win her affection was to play songs from her favorite Disney movies, by request, on the trombone. A particular favorite was Frozen, and I found myself playing “Let it Go” on several occasions during one visit. In her typically adorable fashion, and not quite knowing how to ask correctly, CJ would sheepishly ask “Uncle Micah, will you sing Frozen?” I was happy to oblige, and like I said, our relationship has steadily improved since then.
Of course, my niece’s request that I “sing” these songs rather than “play” them was a harmless error in terminology, yet she unintentionally hit on a very important concept for successful brass playing. After all, brass instruments are the closest to the human voice in their manner of tone production, the source of vibration being a part of the body rather than a reed, string, or other implement. Our playing is most pleasing to the listener, most natural to the performer, and most enjoyable to all when we are able to move the physical requirements of playing the instrument to what Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) called “the computer part of the brain” (i.e. the subconscious) and focus simply on “Song and Wind.” In other words, conceive the desired sound in your head, take a big breath of air, and then produce that sound without thinking so much about the body. The result is a very vocal-like approach to the instrument which is most desirable.
Does this mean that there is no place for long tones, lip slurs, technical studies, and other assorted calisthenics? Of course not; those things are entirely necessary. However, the brass player’s goal in such studies must be to make the technical requirements of playing so automatic, so “natural,” that when playing and performing “real music” he can focus on results, not processes; on expression, not execution. When we do this right, the result is indeed very much like the approach of a great singer.
Yes, CJ, I can sing, and I’m still working to sing even better.
And by the way, if you really want to hear some guys who know how to “sing Frozen” on the trombone (and euphonium), listen to this great arrangement by the Szeged Trombone Ensemble from Hungary. Such a great group!