I’m not usually that prone to quoting “The Immortal Bard” but this phrase comes to mind often when I see what occupies the focus of many trombonists these days. If you’re not familiar with this quote from Hamlet, it concludes with the words, “signifying nothing”. It’s a classic story, with many oft heard quotes. If you’ve heard “to be, or not to be” and who hasn’t, it’s from this play by Shakespeare. But what might it have to do with our lives as trombonists?
In my opinion, and it’s just my opinion, I feel many players now desperately trying to impress everyone with pyro-technique on the instrument. Fast and furious, higher, lower, faster, whatever makes the most impact. Don’t get me wrong, we should develop our skills to the utmost.But the focus on music can get lost along the way.
One of the most important qualities for me is the sound. Sometimes it can get sacrificed in the effort to acquire sheer speed and technique. One of my favorite all time musicians is John Coltrane. He was amazing, and woud create what was termed “sheets of sound” by one jazz critic of the day. yes, he was like a machine gun blasting away at times, but to hear him play a ballad, well it was clear he knew how to get the emotion from his horn.And above all else, when I hear him play, i notice his sound. It’s how I immediately recognize him. The rich, full, thick tone that is ever present, and tender when the music dictates. But whatever he’s playing, from burning hot up tempos to ballads, it’s always clear to me that it’s Coltrane. You can say that about many artists, usually the best have that completely identifiable sound. Louis Armstrong, Pavarotti, Jean-Pierre Rampal, there is something that just makes them, them.
So for me, focusing on the sound is more important than anything. It’s why long tones figure so much in our fundamentals.This is where we can develop our sound. It all starts with a question, what do we want our sound to be?
As a young student at The Brevard Music center, I first was introduced to this question by a Mr. Charles Vernon. He said, “Gerry, what do you want your sound to be like? Chocolate, dark, rich, creamy?” Well gee, Mr. Vernon I’m thinking to myself at the time, I just want to get the notes out right! But clearly he’d asked himself that question, and it was a pivotal moment in a young students career.
Sound production starts in your head, with a question.What sound do I want issuing forth from my bell? Even if you don’t define it completely for yourself, just asking the question can create an awareness. Your answer appears every note you play.
But as important as sound is, it’s nothing unless it’s in service to the music. Some music may even call for an ugly sound! But whatever you play, the inherent goal is to communicate. What are we saying? What thought, or emotion? Music is so much more than just playing notes. Don’t get caught up in playing lots of notes. Don’t lose the forest for the trees.
oftentimes, simple is better than complex. A great potential meal can get ruined by too much going on. If it’s good, it won’t need ketchup. If you can play a simple phrase, with a sound that draws in the audience, you are more likely to get the attention of your audience. But don’t by any means confuse simple with easy! I’m not saying it’s easy. Try playing just one note the way you want it, start to finish. Simple, right? easy, maybe not so much.
I prefer to hear less noise. have something to say, make me want to hear more, rather than pushing the fast forward button. (ok, yes I know that’s an old reference, I’m an OLD guy!)
As Hamlet might say, “To listen, or not to listen, that is the question.” I hope your audience says “yes please, may I have some more?”
It could just be that less can really be more.