It almost always happens when I play a solo or chamber piece in a church service. Someone will approach me after the service, or later in the week, or even via email and say something to the effect of “Your playing is just so lyrical. I didn’t know the trombone could do that.” (Or euphonium, or tuba. The same applies to all of the low brass instruments, except that people generally don’t know what the euphonium is or what it is called.)
Although I enjoy the praise (who doesn’t?), I’m opening with this little anecdote not to brag but to establish context. The general public does not expect low brass instruments to be played with lyricism, or finesse, or taste. For a century and more popular culture has tended to use low brass instruments to portray buffoonish or clumsy characters (think: in Looney Toons scores), and when the instruments appear on screen the depiction is not much better. Dan Aykroyd as a tuba-playing dad in My Girl is sort of sweet, but awkward, and Jason Biggs’s trombone-playing “Petey” on American Pie 2 is offensive on many levels, not unlike the movie as a whole. None of this helps to establish the low brass player as a serious musician in the popular consciousness.
While factors like these explain why the general public does not expect musicality from low brass players, it does not explain why so many of us fail to achieve a beautiful, flowing, lyrical sound. In previous generations the average player in school or amateur bands might have claimed to never heard low brass playing of greater musical quality, but the easy availability of recordings online today effectively nullifies this excuse. Instead, I think the blame lies in two factors: the difficulty of playing lyrically on our instruments, and a failure of low brass players to correctly conceptualize the process of playing.
One of the main reasons that so few low brass players achieve a truly flowing lyricism is simple: it’s hard to do! The movies, cartoons, and such that portray trombones and tubas and their players as clumsy and buffoonish are right in that it is difficult to play these instruments otherwise. The coordination needed to achieve not only musical but clean playing on the trombone is tremendous, requiring, in my opinion, a program of daily exercises and calisthenics in order to develop and maintain the requisite strength and coordination. Coordination for the tubist is somewhat easier in one respect, but the large mouthpiece and tremendous airflow requirements bring their own difficulties, requiring daily fundamentals practice similar to the trombone. Comparably, the euphonium is easier to play musically, but players still have to know that this is possible and have equipment (particularly mouthpieces) that facilitate this, along with, again, daily fundamentals practice. In short, low brass players fail to achieve lyrical playing because, ironically, it takes a lot of effort in the practice room to deliver such flow and effortlessness on stage.
While playing lyrically on low brass instruments is difficult, in my experience so many players fail to achieve it not because of lack of effort but because of misplaced effort. To put it briefly, these players approach trombone (or tuba, or euphonium) playing not as a musical activity, but as a technical challenge to be overcome. The implicit thought (rarely does the player state this explicitly, or even realize it) is that if all of the technical “boxes” are checked and all of the right things are done, “music” will emerge. This never works. The sheer complexity of playing these instruments necessitates a plethora of coordinated actions that exceeds the ability of any human being to think about consciously. And besides, there is simply no way that “musicality” will emerge from a focus on “technicality.” If you want a musical sound, you’ll have to conceptualize that sound, and keep that goal before your eyes at all times.
So what is to be done? Simple. First, know that lyricism, musicality, finesse, and taste are possible on our instruments, and what these sound like. This goal must be kept in mind at all times. Secondly, one must undertake the fundamentals practice needed to develop the strength and coordination to achieve this goal. A correct concept is no substitute for practice! Finally, trust that the daily fundamentals regimen is sufficient to develop and maintain a certain “automatic-ness” about the physical process of playing. This frees the conscious mind to focus on musical goals rather than floundering about in a fruitless quest to achieve “music” by focusing on technique.
And if you think this won’t work, just consider how athletes train. In the past couple of years I’ve lost 75 pounds by swimming several days per week. While I’ve given some thought to the technique of my stroke, for the most part I’ve developed efficiency and stamina by simply moving from one wall to another, lap after lap, day after day, week after week. I certainly don’t try to think about the minute muscular movements of my arms and legs—that would be paralyzing. Those training for marathons don’t think very much about their legs—they simply run increasing distances each day in order to develop the requisite strength and stamina for the task. As Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) famously said, “Only in music do I find people worrying about using their bodies right. Go to the products, get the results. Don’t worry about the body just make sure it sounds better than anybody else, that is the big factor.”
That’s the ticket, friends. “Go to the products, get the results.” The trombone is a musical instrument.