More Contrabass Tromboning

December 29, 2014

I was able to pull out the contrabass trombone this afternoon and spend some time working with it. This is a rare chance, and I took full advantage. The instrument needed some slide grease, but was otherwise in fine fettle from the last time I used it. I pulled it out and after the obligatory long tones to warm up, I attacked the scales, later progressing to some runs and a few impromptu tunes as well.

Feedback: I am beginning to get a handle on the horn and my tone has definitely improved. I don’t have either a true ‘trombone’ sound or a real ‘tuba’ sound yet, but it’s getting closer, though it is still somewhat ‘honky’.

I found today that I also can control my attack on the horn far better now, and my range has improved to a solid three octaves. That’s not too bad for this horn – it is unwieldy in the upper register and for me to hit the D above Middle C was an unexpected achievement. However, with that said, there are far too many notes that are not coming out clearly, and the instrument is still quite foggy in its tone. The improvements I’ve seen so far encourage me to think that this is something that time and practice will cure, but it is still a problem. The slide work can only be described as awful.

The slide itself, though heavy and sluggish, responds acceptably, so the problem is clearly on my end – the horn is not to blame. I simply have to accustom myself to the double-slide and master the differences in technique that this instrument requires. This issue too I believe I can eventually overcome, but the process will be a long one. I would definitely recommend prospective contrabass trombonists to be aware of this obstacle as it is a substantial one.

I did not do any mouthpiece switching today, but stayed on the one that Wessex provided with the horn. Overall, it did a good job, though once I have a better handle on the horn, I will begin trying different mouthpieces so as to get the sound I’m looking for. I like a dark, rich sound with plenty of bite when necessary. I can get it on the bass trombone, the helicon, and the tuba, so I know it is possible. I just have to figure out how to do it on the contrabass trombone. Right now, I am getting bite in the wrong places, which is why i describe the tone ads ‘honky’, and my control of the tone is not nearly complete.

Contrabass trombones, as I have stated before, are not easy instruments to play. They demand a very powerful airflow, and they require far more control than do tubas. It is easy to sound bad on a contra unless you know what you are doing. I expect that eventually I will achieve an acceptable sound and attack on this horn, but I do not expect it to occur in the near future. However I am enjoying the journey.


Thoughts on Doubling

December 28, 2014

As a musician who doubles between trombone, bass trombone, tuba, and cornet, I thought it might be useful to post some of the methods I use to aid the transition. As an autodidact, I do not mean to imply that these are methods anyone else should use, but they have worked for me, so I thought I’d put them out there.

  1. Preparation: I mainly play trombone and euphonium. When I know that I’m going to be playing a smaller size mouthpiece than my normal one for a sustained period of time, as opposed to a one-off during a gig, I tend to want to prepare for it. Cornet requires a vastly different embouchure than does trombone or euphonium, so I usually try to make sure that I have several days’ concentrated practice on the instrument before I play the job. I usually like to warm up with some long tones or scales, and then go through the repertoire for the gig, before warming down with some more long tones. When this is not possible, I’ll simply play the cornet as much as possible in the days leading up to the performance. I find that this provides my embouchure with the necessary flexibility and endurance to make it through the gig.
  2. Planning: Switching from a large mouthpiece to a smaller one and vice-versa is very demanding – especially for those of like me who are not professional musicians. You don’t want to constantly be switching back and forth unless you are an extremely experienced doubler with an iron lip. So planning is important to make sure that you will not overstress your chops. Personally, I prefer to switch from small to large as opposed to vice-versa. However, it is sometimes necessary to go from large to small, or small-large-small. Each of these requires different strategies, but essentially, they all boil down into ‘find the progression that makes it easiest on your embouchure’. Plan your performance as carefully as possible so that the stress is minimized until you have achieved the necessary strength and stamina that will enable you to perform these changes without any ensuing difficulties.
  3. Repetition: As I stated above, only practice and repetition will make you a true doubler. Work constantly on the horns that you plan to perform in public. I prefer to focus on one at a time, and then slowly begin to switch between them as I practice so that I accustom myself to the process. However, some musicians seem to prefer to go back and forth between the various instruments to build the lip’s flexibility and stamina. Whatever method you use, there is no replacement for concerted hard work on the fundamentals of each instrument. Only time and hard work will give you the necessary base to become an accomplished doubler.

Ultimately, only you can determine the best methodology for how you approach doubling, but hopefully, this will give you some ideas that you can then develop more fully.

Cornetting – Updates

October 2, 2013

Back in 2012, I posted about my struggles preparing for a weekend leading a jam set at a local jazz society while playing mainly cornet. Since that time, I have continued to practice – albeit somewhat infrequently – and in December of 2012 I was invited to join the Mission Gold Jazz band as the second cornet. This came as a rather large shock, since I am not what anyone would call a good cornetist. However, I tentatively said yes and commenced to work on my cornet chops.

Ten months later, I am still not sure I will ever be able to build the stamina necessary to play a three-hour gig on cornet. But my tone, my range, and my stamina have all definitely improved, and I am no longer afraid of embarrassing myself on the instrument. I am finding the band a challenge due to the instrument, but it is a challenge I am enjoying, and it seems I have been doing acceptably, so I will probably try to continue with the band if at all possible.


July 23, 2012

I am primarily a trombonist, though I have been playing a fair amount of tuba lately, as I have been substituting with Fog City on tuba. However, I obtained a 1917 Conn Wonder cornet from my friend a few months ago and have been working on my cornet chops, with somewhat indifferent success. However, I was asked to lead the jam sessions down at the South Bay Traditional Jazz Society this past weekend and as we never know who is going to attend, I was faced with the possibility of having to play the entire afternoon on cornet. Needless to say, this was not my preference.

But it proved to be an excellent incentive. I pulled out the cornet and spent the week practicing. I spent the majority of my time going over the tunes that we were planning to play on Sunday, but I also spent some time working on my technique as well. Long tones, scales, and so forth. By the time Friday rolled around, I was no longer apprehensive at the prospect of playing the entire afternoon on cornet, though I was still hoping for a reprieve.

Come Sunday, I arrived at the jazz society to discover that the wonderful Don Abel and Paul Hilton were both in attendance, making it unnecessary for me to play the entire afternoon on cornet. However, Paul also plays trombone, so I did use it for a few tunes in the first set, as we switched off – he played trombone on a few tunes and for those I mostly played cornet.

The experience was mostly positive and I was surprised to get a few compliments from the guest band, which featured two very fine cornetists in Dick Williams and Rick Holzgrafe. However, the experience has given rise to a few thoughts about the trombone/cornet double, which I will share.

Going back and forth between tuba and trombone is not too difficult. It is a workout, but it is definitely doable, as they are both fairly large mouthpieces and the player is able to adjust without putting to much of a strain on his or her embouchure. However, trumpet/cornet is an entirely different story. The embouchure is completely different for the cornet (and different again for trumpet) and so the player must really focus. Speaking solely for myself, I find that stamina is the most difficult issue. the smaller mouthpiece is much more tiring and it is very easy to use pressure, which of course is a Very Bad Idea for brass players! In addition, the exercise of transposing from bass clef concert to treble clef Bb is a workout – I am not nearly as comfortable with Bb treble as I ought to be. But the main problem is simply that the smaller mouthpiece and the tighter embouchure is really tough to stay fresh on – especially if one is also playing a larger bore instrument such as trombone. Stamina was a real difficulty and b the end of the first set, my chops were tired. I have nothing but respect for guys like Dick Williams and Rick Holzgrafe who can play entire jobs of two or three sets on the instrument!

However, the experience was very valuable and I enjoyed it. My next goal is to increase my stamina to be able to play leads on cornet for an entire two to three-hour gig. I’ll keep you posted on that goal – I’m not there yet!

Learning Piano – Part III

April 8, 2011

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, I have been chronicling the results of my piano studies. These originally commenced at the local junior college, but for the past ten months or so I have been taking privately with one of the instructors. This has proven to be a very wise decision – I am progressing in he directions I most wish to go and my instructor, himself a superior brass player, has proven to be a wonderful teacher.

I have progressed through the Hanon exercises quite nicely and am now working on Numbers 7 and 8. These are coming along well and even I am quite pleased with my progress. I have also been working on triads and some rudimentary stride piano as well – I had the honor to play with a very accomplished stride player in my younger days and I myself play a great deal of tuba, thus interesting me in learning how to play bass lines on a piano. However, this is proving to be extremely difficult. My hands do not wish to work independently at this point and I am working very hard to convince them that just because the left hand is not doing the same thing as the right, I do NOT need to panic! However, I am seeing progress in this area as well.

On that topic, my most recent assignment was to work on a very basic rendition of the great pianist Bill Evans’ composition Peace Piece. This proved quite successful and brought some pretty compliments from my instructor. But more importantly, it showed me some important pointers in how to work he two hands separately and reduce tension – one of my biggest problems. I have also progressed through the Alfred Adult Book Two and am now working on a pair of tunes that will strengthen both my independent hand work and my triad work – Black Forest Polka and ‘Pomp and Circumstance’. The latter has some interesting intervals and is proving quite a challenge. But it is very good for me!

I shall continue to update this series of posts as my skills on the piano advance.

Learning Piano – Part Two

February 22, 2011

I initially commenced studying piano at the tender age of six – my mother was herself a piano teacher and insisted that my siblings and I study music when we were young. However, I so switched to the low brass and thought no more of pursuing piano though I did occasionally pick my mother’s brains about various chords whilst picking out my favorite pieces on her little Steinway S.

When she passed, I inherited the Steinway and decided that i would actually learn to play it. To this end I enrolled at the local junior college, where I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of one of the professors. When he retired, he invited me to continue studying and so for the past few months i have been making a weekly trek to his house to further my knowledge.

The greatest challenge, from my perspective, has been the mechanical aspects. My hands are not trained to work in the actions so necessary for piano work and i have a terrible time trying to force them to do different things. In particularly, i am very fond of walking bass lines and look forward to the day when i can do a creditable rendition of stride piano. But I am not there yet.

I am currently working on contours – where the hands form the notes of the scale all together – and triads, where the player does the main inversions of the major scales. The contours are beginning to come to me, but the triads are much more difficult. I suspect this is because, unlike the contours, the triads require the hands to do different fingerings, instead of being exactly the same. However, I am slowly beginning to get a handle on it. And I am finding that my reading is improving as well. I have always been able to read bass clef, but I am slowly beginning to get more confident with treble as well. I am looking forward to the day when i can sight-read a real piano piece.

In the meantime, I am discovering that I am also learning more about theory than i ever knew previously. This is very good for me, as it translates well to the other instruments I play. in particular, I am finding that the bass lines I play on tuba are becoming rather more inventive as I comprehend the inversions and the relative minors for the root notes of the scale.

Piano is very good and I would highly recommend it for any young musician – it provides a basis that no other instrument can match. I am even preparing to start my young son on piano – at least I will once I receive a response from the teacher!

Happy Easter

April 5, 2010

Happy Easter to all my gentle readers! Easter is one of the traditionally busy seasons for musicians of all genres, and we traditional jazz musicians are no exception. Thus I spent a pleasurable couple of hours performing with the Barrelhouse Jazz Band for the Montclair Presbyterian Church on Sunday.

We performed a number of traditional jazz numbers that fit well in a religious environment, including such standards as Down By The Riverside and Shall We Gather At The River. We also performed a rousing prelude and postlude of tunes from our repertoire, including the classic Ory’s Creole Trombone. This proved to be an entertaining experience, as I had my small son with me and he enhanced the performance by weaving his toy planes through my slide as I performed the Ory showpiece. This made the piece somewhat more difficult than it might otherwise have been, but I successfully negotiated these challenges and finished the piece without any mishaps. Afterwards, I was told by a number of parishioners that they had found watching the performance one of the most entertaining things they had seen in some years! i am delighted that it proved to be enjoyable, but I would not recommend combining musical performances with watching one’s children!

A few words about playing in churches would be in order as well. Church services are unique in that the church choir director is usually responsible for starting and ending tunes. This can lead to some interesting experiences, especially if the band and the choir use different tempos in their renditions! Fortunately this did not occur yesterday, as the choir director had done her homework and had matched the choir to the band and vice versa.  The other thing about church services that stands out is the necessity of keeping one eye on the events taking place in the church itself. For example, if one is performing during a Communion or Offertory service, one must constantly be ready to end as soon as the event itself is actually complete, so as to avoid dragging things out unnecessarily.

In addition, church acoustics tend to be of a wide variety. Some churches are well-designed while others are not. So one must be constantly aware of one’s intonation, volume and balance, as it is easy to make mistakes. And it is especially important to watch one’s volume as most churches have a high degree of echo and reverberation built-in. Finally, one must be careful to listen to the choir when performing. Church choirs are largely made up of well-meaning and enthusiastic amateurs. Very few have any real experience singing with bands and often tend to get out of balance. At that point, it is the musician’s responsibility to correct the problem – the choir is unlikely to realize the problem. It is especially important not to get into a volume escalation.

Having said that, performing in churches is an entertaining and enjoyable experience. Choirs and choir directors are usually delighted to perform with instrumental musicians and a good choir director is a pleasure to work with. Yesterday was no exception. The choir and the choir director did very well and the congregation certainly seemed to enjoy the experience. As did we.