H ow did I miss it? What I am I taking about and what is it? Well, actually it was yesterday, and it was Tuba Day.
No posts since December? Er, Happy New Year? To get things rolling again, a trombone article from the April, 1955 issue of ETUDE magazine is discussed below. The history of The ETUDE magazine is recounted here. This particular issue featured the ad pictured in the inset on the back. Click for a larger version.
The April, 1955 issue of ETUDE music magazine featured the article, “Two Centuries of Trombones.” The title was a little deceptive: instead of covering everything about trombones over the course of two centuries, the piece focussed on how trombone playing was historically significant to the town of Bethlehem, PA. Specifically, the town trombone choir’s performances were used to mark events that were solemn, lighthearted, or . . . anything. Below are excerpts from this article that frustrated readers of this website — yearning for new content — may find edifying:
“Why trombones? It has been suggested that the somber tones of these slide instruments were in keeping with the idea of playing chorales to announce a death as well as providing music at a funeral. Add to that an all-weather instrument for outdoor playing (although the slides of the trombone will freeze in very severe winter cold), and you have a practical as well as an aesthetic reason for the use of the trombones.”
Remember, though, these trombonists were not buskers. In fact, in stark contrast to buskers, the trombonists could be mobilized immediately as defenders of the town, particularly around Christmastime.
“A legend has grown up around the Christmas tromboning of that year . The story has long been accepted by many people that late Christmas Eve a war party of Indians camped across team Monacacy Creek, planning to attack the settlement as the sun rose. However, the trombonists from their rooftop position greeted the day before the Indians. The redmen, hearing sounds they could not understand, thought that it was the voice of the Great Spirit telling them to leave Bethlehem in peace.”
It’s likely that some sort of qualifier was needed there, like “may have thought it was the voice of the Great Spirit.” Or, a complete revision: “The native americans, hearing sounds they quickly identified as trombones, felt a little sorry for the pale-skins and decided that any sort of attack was simply not worth it.” Anyway, back to Christmas:
“Of course, at Christmas the trombone is not neglected. The Christmas eve love feast is opened with the playing of Hail Thou Wondrous Infant Stranger, and later the vigil services begin with the notes of Hark a Voice from Yonder Manger. These are old chorales. Either one or both may have been used in 1755. At that time it was the custom for the trombonists to announce Christmas day at dawn.”
The majestic sounds of the trombone are both festive and appropriate for Christmastime, and likely met with the approval of the townsfolk (provided the intonation was halfway decent). The possible downside? It seems the musical encouragement meant the trombonists were always up and playing at the crack of dawn regardless of the time of year or holiday. Easter is next, and naturally that involves waking everybody up, too. But how? With a large F-Bass trombone with a handle that allows the player to reach the longer slide positions.
“Long before the congregation assembles in the church, from whence they proceed to the cemetery, trombonists pass through the community awakening the sleepers with the chorales announcing that The Lord has risen.”
By the time 4th of July rolled around, the town had the good sense to put the kibosh on the “up-early and always playing the trombone” thing:
“In the past it was even customary to herald the Fourth of July at daybreak, but this custom has been given up, either because folk living near the church liked to sleep on a holiday morning and objected to being disturbed at sunrise, or the trombonists themselves preferred Morpheus to Polyhymnia.”
Importantly, there can be no ETUDE trombone article without a funny little anecdote that involves the total disruption of a beleaguered trombonist’s embouchure. Here goes nothing:
“Stories are still told of how one player’s false teeth fell from the steeple to be shattered on the roof of Simon Rau’s drug store far below, but there is no record of a trombone ever having fallen to the same doom, although from time to time someone’s hat becomes a casualty.”
To conclude this ETUDE article, there’s a quote from Rufus A. Greider, who, 80 years previous to 1955, had written about the unwavering dedication of the Bethlehem trombonists.
“It requires not a little self-denial to serve as a performer of the trombone choir. He is required to attend all services when they are used. He is obliged to assist in announcing every death which occurs in the congregation, to play at the funerals, to play on every festival, morning and afternoon, to perform before the celebration of the Lord’s supper. He is duty-bound to go to the graveyard or climb in the church belfry at all seasons and in every kind of weather; cold or rain must not be heeded, he goes through it all.”
In other words, these guys should have unionized.
That’s one way you know an ETUDE article is over. There’s a big “THE END” at the article’s conclusion.
The jazz trombonist Eddie Bert died on September 27. He was born in Yonkers, New York in 1922. Like Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young (whom he studied with), Eddie Bert was a true jazz maverick who played with musicians of broadly ranging styles: Red Norvo, Shorty Rogers, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and Charles Mingus, among numerous others. Notably, Bert played on the big band orchestrations of Thelonious Monk’s compositions for a concert and recording at NYC’s Town Hall in 1959. As Bert’s New York Times obituary notes, he continued performing until last year.
Next in my list of edifying brass texts is Essentials of Brass Playing by Fred Fox. I like this book. Fox’s method might be summed up in his teaching slogan, “Eternal Vigilance.” He stresses that attention to details is what makes for excellent performance on a brass instrument, and likens mastery of these details to knowing a correct safe combination. Fox explains that the right way is the easiest way and eliminates the need for brute force (like blowing up the safe).
While there are few picture-illustrations in Essentials of Brass Playing, Fox uses his strong grasp of simile and metaphor to get his ideas across, and he uses his own descriptive names like “Accordion Effect,” “Hydraulic Effect,” or “Fourth Gear” to illustrate many of his concepts. When it comes to the production of brass sounds, these comparisons encourage the reader to think about cause and effect. Here, for example, is part of Fox’s discussion of the air column from early in the book:
Brass players usually believe, quite mistakenly, that they must literally blow the sounds out of the instrument. This is natural and very common misconception.
The purpose of the air is to pass between the tensed lips and make them vibrate. It is similar to a bow that passes across the string of a violin to make the string vibrate. True, more air is used to get a larger lip vibration, and thus play louder. In the same manner, more bow pressure is used on a string to produce a louder sound. But it should be observed that even when the violin sounds louder there is no rush of air past the strings. Similarly, with any other non-wind instrument, such as piano, tympani, or even loud speaker (which can reproduce recorded brass sounds), the rush of air is no factor in the volume of the speaker sounds.
Interestingly, Fox defines “diaphragm” in his own way:
For our purposes I consider the upper abdominal area the upper diaphragm and the lower abdominal area the lower diaphragm.
For firm, full-bodied notes, whether played loud or soft, the upper diaphragm must remain under tension as long as a note or phrase is played …
While Fox isn’t incredibly explicit about forming an embouchure, these main points come through strongly throughout the text:
- The buzz of the embouchure should be possible without using the mouthpiece as a crutch.
- The embouchure corners should be firm, more-or-less pinned in the same position throughout the range of the instrument.
- Most, if not all, of the embouchure tension changes should occur within the mouthpiece.
Essentials of Brass Playing covers every technical aspect of brass performance and a few non-technical aspects as well; it’s highly recommended.
Because it’s mostly true, it has often been said that when it comes to playing a brass instrument, there’s no substitute for a good one-on-one teacher. But it’s also true that people have been playing brass instruments for hundreds of years, and that, consequently, some great teachers have been able to collect their best insights and teaching methods into books. In a series of posts, I’m going to write about some books on brass playing I think are well worth your while. Is all the information you’ll find in these books perfectly consistent? Can you guess what the answer to that question is? I can say you’ll find common threads of wisdom throughout these books. First up, it’s Carmine Caruso’s Musical Calisthenics for Brass.
When I was in high school, I studied with a teacher who was studying with Carmine Caruso at the time [Warning: clicking on the previous link will cause you to return to the golden glory days of the World Wide Web, back when it was full of stars]. In turn, my teacher taught me many of Caruso’s brass calisthenics. To over-simplify somewhat, Caruso’s teaching and exercises revolve around three things:
- The exposure of embouchure muscles to the actions they need to perform in order to play a brass instrument.
- The consistency of airflow, or “blow.”
- The timing of 1 and 2 (accomplished by tapping the foot during exercises).
In the book, Carmine says this about timing:
It takes over 200 muscles to play a note. It’s important to remember that before you play music you must train your muscles to work together. The key factor is timing: it will determine when the muscles start and stop a certain movement. The type of time is established by tapping the foot to a regular, recurring beat.
You expose the muscles to a physical activity by repetition and timing until the muscles synchronize into a conditioned reflex response …
Caruso’s method also specifies a single setting of the embouchure on the mouthpiece for the duration of each exercise. During rests, the player breathes through the nose in order not to disturb the embouchure setting. The aim is to minimize the unnecessary movement of the muscles so that they can learn what to do. Caruso stresses that these are, after all, calisthenics, and not musical exercises.
What Carmine doesn’t discuss is how to create a embouchure specifically. Here, an embouchure that works — at least to a degree — is a given. This does not preclude the idea that, for a given brass player, a certain embouchure formation may be most efficient and simply “work better.” In my own experience, once I identified embouchure formation that worked well for me, Caruso’s exercises became that much more valuable.
How do you form an embouchure for playing a brass instrument? We’ll undoubtedly come across ideas about that as we proceed through the books I’ll be discussing in the next installment.