What is YOUR voice on the trombone?

From the questions I am often asked to the Facebook posts to the trombone forum topics and responses, it is apparent that we trombone players tend to obsess a bit over our technical prowess. We constantly strive to play higher, faster, and louder – and view ourselves as players in terms of  our command of those much sought-after attributes. Okay, maybe not you, but a lot of players!!

I encourage trombone players to improve their technical proficiency of faster, higher, louder, etc., but I think there is a more important aspect of trombone playing that is not much spoken of. Perhaps this applies more to the jazz/latin players and other improvisors than to the classical players, but then again maybe not.

I am referring to the ability to play true to one’s unique personal musical voice.

I suppose it’s natural to be drawn to emulate musicians with advanced technique. Who doesn’t love Watrous’ high range, Rosolino’s angularity, or Fontana’s speed?  But can really good music be made on the trombone without elite-level technique of speed and range? And, more importantly, are those physical characteristics of those trombone athletes an important part of YOUR individual inner voice? What IS your individual inner voice for trombone, anyway? Do you hear it or is it being drowned out by the little voice in your head screaming that you still don’t play high or fast enough?

Honestly, I don’t effortlessly play consistently above high C. I suck playing rolling eight note bop at anything above 120. So, I have a choice: I can spend my limited time expanding my upper range and developing multi-tonguing, or I can nurture a style that creates satisfying music within my natural playing abilities. And while maybe it’s not an either/or situation for younger players with all the time in the world to practice, I think my point still applies.

My point is: Find your voice on trombone and develop it as a beautifully unique one that plays music to the full extent of your musical gifts.

Here’s where I get provocative…

Faster, higher, louder (more tone). I am proposing that if you assume that your playing necessarily requires those attributes, you may be greatly limiting your potential to perform great music.

Did Miles chase after Maynard’s range? Did Paul Desmond chase after Bird’s speed? Did Monk chase after Art Tatum’s technique? No. They each pursued their own true inner voice, and that, along with their supernatural musical gifts made them great.

Think about a very technically proficient trombone player you’ve heard who played lots of notes throughout their improvisation. Ask yourself if you resonated with the playing emotionally, and not just from an admiration of technique? Did it say something musical to you? Ask the same questions of your playing.

Just getting a clear round in-tune note from a trombone is hard. It takes years. Playing a smooth sequence of two or more of those notes is harder yet. My theory about trombone playing is that the years of work developing that facility of basic notes and scales tends to ingrain in us a more rudimentary (rote) type of playing – something that players of other instruments like sax or piano more easily avoid since it’s easier for them to craft musical emotion with their range and flurries of notes. Are trombone players more likely to run scales and patterns than play melodies? I think so if your standard is “fast”, but it doesn’t have to be so.

I’m not suggesting simply that you forgo developing your technical proficiency. I’m suggesting instead to develop your proficiency as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. The trombone’s mechanics are far different from other instruments so why is it assumed that your playing has to consist of rapid notes – a style much more suited to trumpets, sax, piano, and most others. For Bob McChesney, that’s his personal voice on the trombone, not the standard by how all others are judged. Can you make terrific music on the trombone without always playing fast, high, and loud?

In the end, there is no wrong way to use the trombone if music is the goal. Armed with whatever musical talent you possess, you have the best shot at making great music with the trombone if you first find and then stay true to YOUR inner voice using whatever level of technical proficiency that voice requires. Before Jimi Hendrix, feedback was considered a problem.

10 Comments

  1. Ghost of Hendrix on September 12, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Great Article! Please don’t hate me for pointing this out, but it should be spelled “Jimi” Hendrix.

  2. Tim on September 12, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    I believe your assertions are even more important for an older player who took it up very late in life. Like you, I suck above high C. Still, I find the need to work hard pushing my range up. After all, it was hard work that made playing high C routine for me. But your point of not obsessing over range and/or fast technique is well-taken. It’s well-taken because you personify your words in your performances; so well that it never even dawned on me that you really weren’t playing all that high OR fast – until you mentioned it.

  3. Michael Lake on September 12, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    No hate, gratitude for speaking up so a bunch of readers don’t think I’m a bonehead. Hey wait a minute, I AM a “bone” head.

    Thanks!

  4. David Butler on September 12, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Right on point! I love a melodic style of improvisation and it certainly does not require higher, faster, louder, to achieve great melodic content. It never hurts to have that ability, but not having it doesn’t limit your ability to create great music.

  5. J.d. Smith on September 14, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    great stuff Mike! I find that these are all concerns mainly of younger, less experienced players… but well worth the consideration of us all!

    • Michael Lake on September 15, 2015 at 8:24 pm

      Thank you J.D. I question whether this is a young player’s issue more than an older player. I do think the younger players will have a harder time pulling off what I suggested relative to your comment in my response to Scott above.

  6. Scott on September 15, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    Mike, a terrific and well-written post. Finding one’s own voice – and being able to express it – has to be the ultimate objective.

    However, I’d also make the point that I think we owe it to ourselves to develop our capabilities to the extent that our talents will allow. This limit will obviously vary greatly between individuals in the different aspects of playing a trombone.

    For me, I definitely felt that I reached some sort of natural peak some years ago….where lots more practice wouldn’t have improved my capability by much at all (the 80/20 rule is in play here perhaps?). I think this is where your post is particularly relevant. Developing the talents we have to their full potential…giving us the ability to freely express our own voice – without the feeling of being handicapped. (Many of us would know what it’s like to pick up a horn after an extended break where the body feels somewhat out of sync from where the mind would like to take the music).

    So, I’d pose the question, how do we most efficiently get to the point of reaching our full potential on the trombone? Perhaps the answer is different for each of us.

    I would also say, that different gigs have different non-negotiable expectations of players. If the bandleader calls up “I’m Getting Sentimental over You”, “Marie” or “Song of India” and you know anything above a Bb might fall apart on you under pressure, it could leave you feeling a little under prepared. Declaring “That’s Tommy’s voice, not mine!” probably won’t cut it. 🙂

    • Michael Lake on September 15, 2015 at 8:21 pm

      Right. “That’s Tommy’s voice.” won’t cut it. But remember, this post is focused on improvisation. You must have the chops to play your written parts on a gig. If you know you’ll be called on in the second set to hit the high notes on Sentimental, you better have the chops for that or don’t take the gig. I would never advocate “That’s not my voice” as an excuse for falling short on the parts expected of you.

      Back to improvisation: My point is that higher, faster, louder isn’t necessarily the mark of superior improvisation. I would go so far as to suggest that quality (improvised) music can be made at any technical level equal to the task of articulating sequential notes at a medium tempo within an octave and a half. Let’s call that my arbitrary theory of improvisation. BUT, it requires a mature sense of melody and harmonic hearing to make that limited technical facility into music.

      I’ve heard a lifetime of trombonists with well above average technique whose solos were no more than mechanical demonstrations void of music, at least to my ear. I think that that phenomenon comes from their 10,000+ hours of practicing to reach a high level of technical proficiency that serves as the basis of their solos. As I wrote in the original post, develop your technique as a means not an end.

      I disagree with J.D.’s comment that this is a young player’s challenge more than a mature player. I think that many older guys lament their lack of technique, and their solos sound like a struggle to play those rolling eighth notes or high notes. That, instead of slowing down and playing in the pocket like the first chorus of Miles’ Walkin. There were no high notes in that chorus or fast runs of virtuosity. Just a very present stroll through some great musical phrases. We could argue about the deeper level of Mile’s technique that allowed him to uniquely express himself with tons of nuance, but for now, let’s just agree that the notes of that solo can be played by most rudimentary players.

      I posted a couple of audio files within the article on improvisation here. I played a couple of very simple choruses that require just basic trombone technique. Is playing musical phrases at that technical level satisfying? Id be interested to know your opinion. My guess is that playing simple clean musical phrases with rests in the right places and dynamics would get the attention of your fellow players and your audience. That’s what jazz means to me. Not how fast you can play. It was Coltrane’s voice. It was Rosolino’s voice. It was/is both Brecker brother’s voices. It is exciting to hear, but if you lack the facility to make that into music as they all did, make music with the technique with which you’ve been blessed.

  7. michael bryenton on September 19, 2015 at 8:34 am

    This article could not have come along at a better time for me. I am a lifelong trombone player who just this last few months decided to take my playing more seriously. I have started taking private lessons, the first since 1974. I have been playing in big bands and concert bands for many years and was never confident about my soloing. With the help of my teacher I am finding my voice as a soloist. I used to think high and fast was the way to go but I’m enjoying playing more now that I play in a comfortable range for me. I am working on the high and fast part but meanwhile I have a new confidence and comfort in my range. I’m not comfortable at a high C yet but I am getting there. Great article!

  8. Jim Winters on October 14, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    It is hard to not toss in Shorty right off. For those who don’t immediately know, I mean Trombone Shorty. He has a quite a voice and for fun I channel it a bit, for about a year. Yet that doesn’t really say as much as this next point: we’re told in school to never put methodology ahead of thesis.

    Those are not exactly musical terms so I’ll explain this some more. Fast, high, exact articulations… those are methodologies. Methodologies are generalizations and observations we make in retrospect. I was advised to never chase after methodology. I suppose I could bask in the glow of a methodology for moments, but what matters– all that matters– is who I seem to be naturally.

    Thesis is about passion. It is personal, a little bit private I think, and it should have some passion. It ought to happen sort of naturally. Thesis is more of a literary and art term, but that is what I meant to describe here.

    There has to be a sense of who we are as artists and that is worth nurturing and expressing to others. We’re told in school to never make your work all about methodology. We admire method in retrospect but that is not who we are.

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