I’m reasonably sure everyone that reads this, likely to be a trombonist, has spent at least some time playing what we endearing call “Long Tones”. Some folks start every day playing them, while some others may eschew them altogether. But that’s not what this post is about. What I want to talk about is a little different. It’s a couple things, actually.

The first thing is the importance of being present to what you’re playing in the moment, the note you’re on right now. We have to think ahead, prepare, and so on, however a lot of the music we play moves slowly, whole notes, half notes and the like. We can have our attention drift, perhaps lose focus on the note we’re on right now. To me, my priority is sound, first and foremost. I want to constantly have awareness on the quality of my sound, on every note. Listening carefully may not always happen, our mind may wander. We may get distracted when things slow down, start to think about what’s for lunch, what channel is the game on tonight, why did so and so say that to me, just everyday stuff. Keeping our attention on what’s going on in every moment, that might get harder the more things slow down. But this is our opportunity to be super aware, sending out our radar for intonation, balance, releases of notes, all aspects of being a good, if not great team player. The more simple the music is, the more every detail is heard. So working to stay in the moment, this note, right now, it can be your Zen practice.

The second thing to me is trying not to get pulled into some competition. I’ve noticed many players can be very impressed with lots of notes. Fast, technical passages and such. Don’t get me wrong, speed can be impressive. More and more players today can play a lot of notes. Speed is cool, fast cars, fast football players, fast internet! But in my opinion, the trombone wasn’t built for lots of notes. We are ill equipped to compete with flutes, clarinets, violins, and many other instruments. Why try? To me, when I hear a beautiful sound, on any instrument. it’s more engaging than lots of notes. 

Technique in the service of making music, that is the real goal, to me. And really, simple doesn’t mean easy. Playing slow, simple music is just as hard, often harder than a rapid fire release of notes, akin to a machine gun. If I really listen to every aspect of my sound, that just isn’t easy to do, I think. You can hear every little thing when the music slows down. A simple melody, a short, but beautifully executed phrase, that gets my vote. Because it’s not about how many words you speak anyway, it’s did you say anything? I don’t think a lot of activity equals meaning. A quote from Hamlet comes to mind, ” sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

So maybe less is more. Having a high quality of sound, great musical phrasing, maybe beauty can be found in one note. Perhaps one note, played with such detail, such beauty, such attention to every aspect, that can make the audience want to hear more.

I want to go back just a bit to the “long tones” aspect of trombone fundamentals. It’s the most important thing on any brass instrument,  producing the sound. If you can’t hold a note on your instrument, it will be pretty hard to succeed, whatever you’re playing.

I think of them in four parts:

  1. The Breath
  2. Articulation
  3. Sustain
  4. Release

All of these things have to be controlled to really play well, regardless of the style of music. But even though they are made of of four things, none of them happen at the same time. Each one can be focused on, so that all the aspects of good fundamentals get your attention. To develop a high quality of sound has to happen somewhere, and for me, it’s right here.

With some dedicated work, you can turn just one note into something musical, something with shape, beauty, interest. 

I’m thinking especially of the famous trombone solo in Mahler’s Third Symphony. That first note can tell me a lot. Often, I’ve heard enough, and I’m not interested after one note. Does it say something? Does it create interest? If you’ve lost me after one note, it’s hard to recapture my attention. If you haven’t said something with one simple note, adding more is not likely to change anything.

So I think there is a lot of value in just one note. Always be aware, don’t throw any notes away. Make each one count. And don’t be fooled into thinking that more, and faster is better. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said many years ago, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Don’t be in too great a hurry to get somewhere else. Be here now.

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