There Are Technical Challenges…and Then There Are Processing Challenges

My son, who will turn eleven in a few days, has been playing violin for four years. While his sight reading ability remains well behind his overall technique, over the past year or so he has begun working through what low brass players would consider high school or even undergraduate level repertoire, including works by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706). This is normal material for a fifth-year violin student, while a trombonist of his age playing the same repertoire would be considered quite prodigious, indeed. The main feature that makes these works so seemingly difficult to us: long series of sixteenth notes and sometimes thirty-second notes. For young string players, quickly moving notes are introduced by the time one reaches age nine or ten. Most students are a little older than that when first taking up wind instruments, but even woodwind players can expect to see such technical passages by the eighth or ninth grade. By the time they reach college, woodwind and string players seem generally unfazed by the appearance of sixteenth note “runs,” while low brass players tend to greet these with varying levels of panic. Why is this so?

The primary reason for this is simple technical difficulty. Although it can be disadvantageous to admit this to oneself in practice, executing fast technical passages is more difficult on our instruments than on many others. For trombonists, the reason for this is obvious. The handslide has a certain elegance in skilled hands but learning to move it deftly at great speed requires many years of diligent practice. It simply takes longer to learn to play quickly on the trombone than on the violin or clarinet. The euphonium and tuba do not share this particular difficulty, but they do share with trombonists the challenge of achieving embouchure accuracy when moving quickly. All of these skills can be mastered with diligent practice, and I can say that all of my university students and nearly all of my high school students have developed the technical skill needed to play fast-moving passages.

The skill to play them, that is. Reading and executing them at sight remains a problem for most, even when the passages consist of known patterns. That brings me back to my earlier question: Why? Ultimately, this is a problem with mental processing. Players of other instruments that encounter fast-moving passages earlier in their playing careers become accustomed to seeing, processing, and executing such passages at young ages. By contrast, trombonists and tubists can easily walk into college band for the first time having never encountered a thirty-second note. This represents a serious deficiency, especially considering that low brass players majoring in music education will one day need to teach those difficult technical passages to woodwind and string players. Addressing these problems with cognition or processing is harder, though there are some steps that one can take to improve in this way.

1. Admit that slowness in processing fast-moving passages is a problem. As a teacher, I am far less frustrated by students’ inability to read sixteenth-note passages than I am by their failure to see this as a problem. Granted, the dearth of technical challenges for low brass in large ensemble music can feed the perception that learning to read faster passages is an “extra” skill rather than a necessary one. Still, I am convinced that if my students who want to become teachers cannot read sixteenth notes effectively, they will struggle to teach those instruments that encounter moving passages more frequently. Besides, the technical challenges of our instruments do not somehow give their players corresponding cognitive challenges. A trombonist can learn to read and understand complex parts as well as a flutist or violinist…and should!

2. Incorporate daily exercises that maintain and develop speed. Every brass player should have a daily routine of some kind that provides systematic development of various playing skills, including moving through scale and arpeggio patterns at great speed. I have written about this here on several occasions over the years, and also provide several routines for this purpose on my faculty website at Ole Miss. Such routines not only provide necessary physical development of the muscles and tissues used in playing, but drills of assorted diatonic and chromatic patterns become particularly helpful when applied to sight reading.

3. Read and play music that demands increased reading ability. If your music making activities consist entirely of the low brass parts in band and orchestra music, your development as a musician will remain stunted. Our parts are, frankly, usually much simpler than those for more traditionally melodic instruments. One might ask whether band music has easy low brass parts because the musicians can’t play harder stuff, or if they can’t play harder stuff because they are never given such parts. The answer to that question might be “yes,” but even in the best of circumstances large ensemble music including many intricate technical passages for low brass would become incredibly “muddy.” Quality orchestration thus demands that our parts usually be simple, so in order to grow we must make special efforts to find, read, prepare, and even create challenging repertoire, including solo and chamber music and challenging method books. If you don’t have a private teacher that will introduce you to new practice materials and push you to achieve them, get one!

4. Learn to recognize patterns in the music being played, and execute accordingly. When my son was in Pre-K and kindergarten, he would read by sounding out words one letter at a time. This was an appropriate level of skill development for him, and we praised him for it. If he was still sounding out words in this way as a fifth grader, though, that would be considered a serious problem. Why, then, do so many young musicians persist in trying to read music one note at a time? This is the musical equivalent of “sounding out words!” Most music you will encounter consists of scale and arpeggio patterns, and derivative patterns such as thirds and fourths. This is perhaps especially true when you encounter long series of sixteenth or thirty-second notes. If you will learn to recognize and execute these patterns as groups of notes rather than as individual notes, your reading will improve in both speed and accuracy.

(Of course, success here demands the kind of daily fundamentals work mentioned earlier….)

5. Develop an expanded vision of what is possible. This is a more positive corollary to the first point, and its importance cannot be overstated. If you have a limited vision of the possibilities of your instrument or the level of understanding that is necessary, you will likely fail to realize even those small aspirations. If, however, you develop and diligently pursue lofty and aggressive goals for technical achievement and reading ability, you will eventually achieve much. Sight read everything you can find. Make yourself learn to quickly read, process, and execute challenging repertoire. If you can do this you might sometimes find your band and orchestra parts to be a little boring, but you will be a better musician and a better teacher for it, and when one of those last-minute calls comes for you to “sight read the gig,” you’ll be ready.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Tubist/Bass Trombonist of the Mississippi Brass Quintet, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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