Fun, music and learning from the 2017 International Trombone Festival

Finishing our last beer and listening to the final trombone note, we bid farewell to the 2017 International Trombone Festival at California’s Redlands University last night.

In four short days, I heard wonderful new music, made lots of new friends and acquainted several dozens of people with my new book, “Trombone Improvisation Savvy”.

I didn’t hear nearly as many performers and talks as I did last year. Last year I was more an observer. This year I was manning my exhibit hall booth with my 16 year-old son while performing and teaching in the festival.

Wednesday afternoon, I held a clinic on alto trombone. Last year I complained that there wasn’t enough done for the alto. I am thrilled that the ITF gave me an opportunity to do my thing. In attendance within the audience were Bob McChesney and Doug Yeo who both contributed great points to the entire conversation. Only about half the players raised their hands admitting to being alto players. But that was fine because the conversation inevitably lead to improvisation and my book. I demonstrated improvising to some of the harmonic rhythms produced for the book and explained my underlying method for developing one’s improvisation. The feedback I’ve received since is that people got value out of the talk.

I was in the standing room only line for Brad Edwards’ talk, “A Simple Approach to Better Phrasing“. Brad has advanced a short but effective strategy for adding direction and nuance to one’s musical phrases. We stood and sang to Brad’s direction and was exposed to several important points about phrasing.

Thursday night I heard Scott Whitfield and his big band. Wow! Great players, and to hear Scott in his element was wonderful. He performed many classic Kenton arrangements including Frank Speaking. Now, Frank Speaking is my all-time favorite big band trombone feature. To be honest, when Scott first announced it, I thought that even as great a player as Scott is, there’s no one who can authentically pull that one off. Boy, was I wrong. For about 3 1/2 minutes, I swear Frank was being channeled through Scott! What a great performance.

Friday, I went to Bob McChesney’s talk on doodle tonguing. I was really looking forward to this. Bob said he’s given this talk throughout his career so it was no surprise that he knew every possible nuance and every possible stumbling point players will experience. I found two things particularly helpful. One was Bob’s emphasis on making sure the first and last notes are solid. The ear fills in the notes in between, so this is not a method for perfectly articulating every single note within the phrase. The second point was his comparison of his tonguing combinations with the fingerings of a pianist. The fingers of an experienced pianist unconsciously know their sequence in order to play a phrase. Bob no longer thinks about the various tonguing combinations that are required for playing up the same partial, or for playing up an overtone break, or down an overtone break.

Listening to him effortlessly fly around the horn reminds us that this must be practiced over time to become second nature. Anyone serious about learning this remarkable playing technique should check out Bob’s book entitled Doodle Studies and Etudes.

Later Friday, I heard Alex Iles lead a session with six of his studio buddies. This fascinating talk focused on studio playing. They sightread charts, shared studio anecdotes, and performed a trombone soundtrack under an original video. As the story was told, they went to a few studios to get some film they could use for the soundtrack demonstration. Everyone said “no” so Steve Holtman created his own.

The video began over dramatic trombone chords. We soon realized that he had stitched together Youtube cat vidoes! But as the cats fought, fell, cuddled and crashed, we we exposed to a superbly orchestrated and performed soundtrack of seven tenor, bass and contrabass trombones. Great music can really make anything entertaining!

Saturday, my good friend Gerry Pagano and I performed a piece I composed called “Conversations with Myself”. This was the final of five pieces in Gerry’s recital, all of which he played beautifully, proving again that musicality is the hallmark of his wonderful style. Doug Yeo and Gerry performed Michael Hennagin’s piece called Two Songs from Three Poems” and percussion was added for the piece Gerry performed with Yuri Inoo called “Distant Channels”. “Conversations With Myself” consisted of bass and alto trombones performing over a sound track of synth, samples and sound design I produced.

New electronic music was on display the following hour by Jen Baker and Jim Miller. Five speakers were dispersed around the perimeter of the room emitting a variety of sounds from recordings, live engineering and the trombone. Jen is a master at multiphonics, and hearing recordings of her intervals mixed with her live multiphonic sound was amazing. Very dense moving overtones filled the room.

I caught the closing concert starting with a multimedia presentation of “Schumann’s Last Procession” by Martin Padjing performed by Astrid Haring on harp and Brandt Attema on trombone. Next was the great Stuart Dempster leading trombones surrounding the perimeter of the Memorial Chapel in a kind of live improvised drone. Dempster is the master of slowly evolving drones comprised of trombones. If you’re unfamiliar with Professor Dempster’s work, check out his album called Deep Listening.

Next, John Kenny performed his multimedia piece called Multiplex in which he and a sound engineer on stage composed a structured improvisation that incorporated filters and delay loops. It was memorizing to see Kenny dramatically lit from the front within a dark stage playing and singing along with the massive waves of sound filling the great chapel. Immediately after, John received the Lifetime achievement award from the ITA. Congratulations John!

Last but not at all least was the Bob McChesney’s jazz gathering. After Bob played a few pieces, he brought up Bill Watrous, then Scott Whitfield, and then Dick Nash and a good time was had by all! The highlight of the festival for me was being asked to join these guys on stage. It certainly was a contrast between these four tenors and an alto, their super-close micing and my playing without a mic, and their great multi-tongued flurries of notes dancing around the harmonies and my single note to note phrasing. I think the contrast worked, however, and a good time was had by me!

It was a great four days. My son saw me selling and performing in a context he’d never before experienced. “Oh, that’s why you’re practicing all the time.” Around the third day, I found him behind the counter looking at my horn close-up, trying to see, really for the first time, what this trombone thing is all about.

Well, the trombone thing in Redlands was grand. The staff was invaluably helpful, the venue beautiful and the music not to ever be forgotten.


  1. luis on July 3, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    que bueno y que instructivo y valioso para los musicos y sobre todo trombonistas
    Yo vivo en argentina y toco trombon no hay manera de uqe puedan enviarme algun material de estudio para trombon me seria muy util porque aca no se consigue casi nada

  2. John Kenny on July 10, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Great to meet you there Michael – I’ve been enjoying your monthly alto bone broadcasts since No 1, and have loved every single one. Keep it going my friend, this is a wonderful new look at the our beautiful landscape!!

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