As was the case with most of the masterclass I attended at the recent ITF, I had no idea what to expect as I walked into room 308. Leading the class was Jen Baker, a New York trombonist with a unique skill. As I soon discovered, Jen’s specialty is multiphonics.
Multiphonics is the practice of singing specific pitches as one plays the trombone. It’s pretty common to hear trombonists playing the low Bb while singing the D above middle C, then play the low A, sing C#, and continue with this suspension resolution down the horn in half steps. But there is so much more to multiphonics such as creating complex overtone clusters, and Jen’s facility with it was impressive.
The only other player I know of who has made multiphonics his voice is Albert Mangelsdorff. Albert used multiphonics as a jazz player, sometimes as a soloist and other times with a rhythm section.
If you’ve ever tried singing while playing, you know that it can be hard on the throat – specifically the vocal chords. As Jen performed her pieces and demonstrated her facility, she was constantly drinking from her water bottle. She explained that there have been times when she has strained her throat while doing prolonged practicing and performances, so drinking water to ease the strain is an important element to multiphonics.
In essence, one is singing above the trombone pitches. I asked Jen if being a woman and therefore having a higher voice makes mutiphonics easier. She thought it did only for singing the higher pitches where the sung note is around the top of the treble clef staff. I’ve dabbled with multiphonics but have found it difficult singing the higher pitches required on the alto trombone. I end up having to sing a fourth higher, and my voice’s high range is limited to begin with.
Jen has recently published a book on multiphonics called Hooked on Multiphonics. She gave us excerpts of the book that contained exercises for growing one’s facility with singing and playing. To my knowledge, this is the only book on multiphonics and from what I saw, it looks like Jen has done an excellent job taking the player through incremental steps to gain proficiency with this challenging means of playing.
Jen has released a CD called Blue Dreams which is available in iTunes. Just listening to the previews will convince you that she has worked hard at developing this skill that few trombonists have mastered.