Adam Morgan and Mark Barden wrote a terrific book called A Beautiful Constraint. The theme of the book is that great things can come from recognizing and embracing one’s limitations.
Face it, no matter who we are, we all have limitations. As trombone players, we are limited in our range, our articulation speed, our timbre (where we site on the overtone series), to name a few. But each of us individually has our limitations, and the issue that this book brings to bear is: how best to work within the limited skills and circumstances each of us naturally face.
The book starts out with the example of Google’s founder Larry Page. In the very beginning, Larry’s limited coding skills and budget constrained what he could put on Google’s home page. The result was a stark white page with a single search field. Larry’s limitation ended up becoming Google’s strength – a uniquely clean page with crystal clarity of its sole purpose.
I wrote a post a while back called, “What is YOUR voice on the trombone?” in which I suggested that each of us has the perfect voice within our trombone skill set. We just need to stop (after developing a certain level of proficiency) chasing after the approach we think we should have, and instead, listen to the voice inside to mold the approach authentic to ourself.
I believe that recognizing and embracing your limitations is the first step in developing that authenticity. For me, I play alto, so I am limited in a certain portion of the the low range and I have a somewhat thinner sound. I don’t multi-tongue. I don’t have a screaming high range. I don’t have a full-time engineer mixing my music or a world-class studio at my beck and call providing hours each day allowing me to craft my music. I am limited in the time I have to create music and promote the result. I am limited by not having a full-time band to back me up within my recordings. Wow, now that I think of it, I should just give up!!
Well, instead of letting my limitations get the best of me, I use them to my advantage. Rather than trying to emulate the speed of McChesney, I focus instead on weaving emotionally fluid harmonically interesting melodies within my single tonguing limitations. Rather than trying to craft melodies in the extreme high range like Watrous, I create melodies within my range (more in a live setting that the easier studio setting). Instead of trying to sound like a tenor, I embrace the limitations of the alto timbre. Instead of doing without other instruments, I have learned to incorporate an organic style of MIDI sequencing into my recordings. My current lifestyle doesn’t allow me to be on the road performing and recording so I perform my recorded music via the web for the rapidly growing tribe who subscribe to my list.
You may be saying that this is all painfully obvious, but what I am cautioning against is the temptation by so many players (of every instrument) to try and sound like… (fill in the blank). What is one limitation you have that you continue to work on that may be frustrating you by your slow progress? Articulation speed? What satisfying music can you create without playing tons of notes? (Think Paul Desmond.) High range? What satisfying music can you create within your range (One Note Samba anyone?) Overall technique? (Listen to Monk.)
I challenge you to become comfortable within your limitations, and in fact, use them as your personal style. I’m not suggesting to stop trying to improve your playing. But instead, I’m suggesting to stop trying to fight your natural limitations and instead develop a playing style and personality that capitalizes on what emerges from those limitations. What does your “home page” look like without huge resources allowing you to fill it with everything everybody else has? Yes, high and fast trombone is cool but so is a confident authentically consistent emotionally resonant voice.