From the questions I am often asked to the Facebook posts to the trombone forum topics and responses, it is apparent that we trombone players tend to obsess a bit over our technical prowess. We constantly strive to play higher, faster, and louder – and view ourselves as players in terms of our command of those much sought-after attributes. Okay, maybe not you, but a lot of players!!
I encourage trombone players to improve their technical proficiency of faster, higher, louder, etc., but I think there is a more important aspect of trombone playing that is not much spoken of. Perhaps this applies more to the jazz/latin players and other improvisors than to the classical players, but then again maybe not.
I am referring to the ability to play true to one’s unique personal musical voice.
I suppose it’s natural to be drawn to emulate musicians with advanced technique. Who doesn’t love Watrous’ high range, Rosolino’s angularity, or Fontana’s speed? But can really good music be made on the trombone without elite-level technique of speed and range? And, more importantly, are those physical characteristics of those trombone athletes an important part of YOUR individual inner voice? What IS your individual inner voice for trombone, anyway? Do you hear it or is it being drowned out by the little voice in your head screaming that you still don’t play high or fast enough?
Honestly, I don’t effortlessly play consistently above high C. I suck playing rolling eight note bop at anything above 120. So, I have a choice: I can spend my limited time expanding my upper range and developing multi-tonguing, or I can nurture a style that creates satisfying music within my natural playing abilities. And while maybe it’s not an either/or situation for younger players with all the time in the world to practice, I think my point still applies.
My point is: Find your voice on trombone and develop it as a beautifully unique one that plays music to the full extent of your musical gifts.
Here’s where I get provocative…
Faster, higher, louder (more tone). I am proposing that if you assume that your playing necessarily requires those attributes, you may be greatly limiting your potential to perform great music.
Did Miles chase after Maynard’s range? Did Paul Desmond chase after Bird’s speed? Did Monk chase after Art Tatum’s technique? No. They each pursued their own true inner voice, and that, along with their supernatural musical gifts made them great.
Think about a very technically proficient trombone player you’ve heard who played lots of notes throughout their improvisation. Ask yourself if you resonated with the playing emotionally, and not just from an admiration of technique? Did it say something musical to you? Ask the same questions of your playing.
Just getting a clear round in-tune note from a trombone is hard. It takes years. Playing a smooth sequence of two or more of those notes is harder yet. My theory about trombone playing is that the years of work developing that facility of basic notes and scales tends to ingrain in us a more rudimentary (rote) type of playing – something that players of other instruments like sax or piano more easily avoid since it’s easier for them to craft musical emotion with their range and flurries of notes. Are trombone players more likely to run scales and patterns than play melodies? I think so if your standard is “fast”, but it doesn’t have to be so.
I’m not suggesting simply that you forgo developing your technical proficiency. I’m suggesting instead to develop your proficiency as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. The trombone’s mechanics are far different from other instruments so why is it assumed that your playing has to consist of rapid notes – a style much more suited to trumpets, sax, piano, and most others. For Bob McChesney, that’s his personal voice on the trombone, not the standard by how all others are judged. Can you make terrific music on the trombone without always playing fast, high, and loud?
In the end, there is no wrong way to use the trombone if music is the goal. Armed with whatever musical talent you possess, you have the best shot at making great music with the trombone if you first find and then stay true to YOUR inner voice using whatever level of technical proficiency that voice requires. Before Jimi Hendrix, feedback was considered a problem.