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Articulation, Range, and Arched Tongue 

Question

Hello Mr. Sprott, 

First of all, thank you for not only taking the time to read emails from the trombone community, but to answer them in an effort to assist fellow trombonists continue to grow and improve. I apologize for the long email, but my question is a little hard to clearly explain. 

I see on your "Playing Tips" section that under the subcategory "High Range" you have the topic "Arched Tongue" listed, with no further information. This is an element I am excited to see, because I am currently experimenting with my understanding of an arched tongue, specifically in terms of how I articulate in the high range. I believe I have fundamentally had a flawed understanding of how to articulate in the high range, trying to keep the back of the tongue down (to avoid closing off the throat) while using the tip of the tongue to articulate. In essence, trying to use a tongue placement similar to a fourth line F or tuning Bb in the 8th partial and up. The results of this have included hesitant attacks, inconsistent reliability in the high range, lacking power and endurance, and an inability to ascend any higher than a high G without mild to severe discomfort. 

So I changed my approach, and allowed the back of my tongue to arch up. The results have been a "too good to be true" kind of miracle, and I would like to ask your perspective on the matter, specifically if you find in your playing you allow the tongue to arch up in the back, and if so, how exactly do you articulate in such a way that allows to tongue to remain in that position. 

I hope to hear back from you. 
xxxx

From Weston

Hey XXXX, 

Thanks for writing in. Your question is a good one, and it's also a reminder to me that whenever I find some time, I need to update my website! My pedagogical concepts are so much more complete now than they were when I first put a lot of things online. Time is in short supply these days. At any rate... 

The idea of the arched tongue has never been one that I think of with regards to articulation. Rather, it is a concept related to air compression. That being said, I almost never consciously think of arching my tongue or using the "E" vowel sound when I play. I think this is a technique that is most useful to increase the speed of air that is already at a very high speed. For example, I imagine some lead trumpeters or horn players think about this a fair amount. This video gives an explanation of the three main compression sources. I generally aim to only compress with the lips or the tongue as an absolute last resort. 99% of my playing occurs without consciously thinking about these compressions. 

Trombone is not one of the most high compression instruments. I find that I can get from the bottom of my range up to the F at the top of the treble clef staff by simply compressing from the source of the air and making sure that I hold my lips in place. I'll spare you the long explanation. Watch this video and you'll basically have a clear understanding of how I aim to play higher, lower, softer, and louder. I'm in complete agreement with James Morrison on this one. 

Regarding articulation, I don't think there is a correct place to articulate for high vs. low, and at least for me, it can be very confusing trying to control both ends of the tongue simultaneously. I prefer to simply think of a particular syllable and let things fall where they naturally want to go. If you get too deep in your thoughts, you can really create a "paralysis by analysis" issue. My general philosophy on articulation is that the closer the articulation occurs to the source of the vibration, the more firm it will sound. So, tonguing very far back in the mouth will create a very light articulation, while tonguing between the lips or between the teeth will create a very firm articulation. This holds true for all registers. Verbalize the following: THa, Ta, Da, Na, La (say La by licking the roof of your mouth). This is quick look into a nice palate of articulation, starting firm and getting progressively lighter. Practice being able to dial up this range of articulation in all registers. Don't worry about if you're using the tip of the tongue, the whole tongue, or raising the back. 

Long story short, choose the intensity of air you need to play a particular note, the width of aperture you need for a particular dynamic, and the appropriate syllable you need for the firmness articulation you desire. Move the slide at exactly the same time as you tongue. Choose a peak for each phrase. Check with the tuner, metronome, and recording device to see if your results are in alignment with your goals. 

Good luck! 

Weston

Goal Setting 

Question:

How can I go about setting medium and long-term goals for my playing (and otherwise I suppose) when I have limited experience/knowledge of what is possible in a certain time frame? I am pretty good at setting goals for the day, but I have trouble setting goals that are months or years into the future and determining what steps needs to be taken to accomplish them. What are your thoughts? Do you have recommendations for other resources on this topic? 

Thanks from an aspiring high school player and a fan of your work. 

Answer:

Fantastic question! There’s so much territory that can be covered here. I’ll do my best to get to what I think you’re after, but I’ll begin with a detour and touch on some applicable concepts that perhaps you, or some other readers, were not previously considering.  

Step 1 - Have a dream.  

I’ll revive one of my favorite quotes here to illustrate the point. 

"I tell young people that you can't arrive someplace until you determine the destination. It sounds simple, almost clichéd, but it's an inescapable truth. If I'm at the airport, I can't buy a ticket until I know where I'm going. That's the first thing they ask you when you step up to the counter." - Al Sharpton  

I encourage my students to begin with their dream ending in mind. Give some thought to what that is for you. Is it playing in a great orchestra, funk band, jazz ensemble? Being a soloist, college professor? Having a portfolio career? Try to answer this question first.  

Step 2 - Determine the component parts of your dream.  

Time to do some homework. Want to play in a great orchestra? Learn about people you admire who have done that and chart their paths. Where did they attend school? Who did they study with? In what festivals did they participate? What competitions did they enter? Where did they play before they arrived where they are now? What is their musical philosophy?

Much can be learned by simply scouring the internet, but even more depth is gained from taking lessons and communicating directly with people you respect. Don’t annoy people, asking them for information you could easily find on your own or obsessively stalking them, but don’t be afraid to ask a few thoughtful questions that can guide your path. (Side note - If people aren’t willing to respond to you after a few attempts, consider new heroes.)  

Gathering this information helps you chart a route from where you are now to where you dream of being. No two paths are Identical, but you can chart equivalent trajectories. A rough example could look something like this... High School Region Band - All-State - Major Summer Program - Good Music School - Elite Music School - Major Summer Festivals - Freelancing in Major Cultural Center/Taking Auditions - Regional Orchestra Position - Major Orchestra Position. Keep in mind that this is just one version I put together quickly. Your goals may be completely different. Feel free to combine different paths! 

Step 3 - Take an honest assessment of where you currently stand.  

Take a good look in the mirror and be honest about your current status. Are you a below average high-schooler, an above average collegiate, an elite talent on the doorstep of a major career? If you’re not sure, play for some qualified people who are willing to give you an honest opinion, and take a look at how you have fared up to this point. How do these assessments/results line up with your view of the world? Maybe you’ve never qualified for High School Region Orchestra after years of trying, but you dream of a major career. Maybe you just graduated from Juilliard and made the finals of a major orchestra, but you think you’re a failure. Try to be objective about where you are on the path. The legendary football coach Bill Parcells was known for saying “You are what your record says you are.” If you don’t like what your record says, do something about it. Have an honest conversation with yourself and those you trust about whether or not your goals are based in reality. Maybe you will determine that you need more time before you can say for sure.   

Step 4 - Define and create long, medium, and short-term goals.  

Yes. That’s the correct order. The overarching concept is that you always begin with the end in mind, but you invest your energy on the hurdles directly in front of you. Getting ahead of yourself is a recipe for disaster. This philosophy is why you often times hear athletes say “We’re taking it one game at a time” during the course of a season or a playoff series.  

Long-term Goal (Something you can only hope to accomplish at least one year, or maybe several years, from now.)

These are dreams. Disregard actively working on long-term goals. Rather, make sure that your short and medium-term goals are aligned in a way that you may be able to one day put something from this category into the “medium-term” category. For example, you may be a high school trombonist who dreams of playing in a major orchestra or being the next Christian Lindberg. By all means, think about it before you go to sleep at night and be inspired by the thought of it at a great concert, but don’t apply for the Chicago Symphony when you’re 16. Most people you admire didn’t skip steps. A select few may have gone through the steps at an expedited pace, but rarely were steps skipped altogether. So work on what is immediately in front of you, and if it’s in the cards, the rest will take care of itself. Redirect your enthusiasm to the next component part of your trajectory. Maybe you will be great one day, but let’s learn these scales and how to stay with the metronome first.

“Be serious about these tasks and you’ll earn the respect or jealousy of your peers. And if genius plans to meet you down the road, you won’t miss the introduction, man.” - Wynton Marsalis  

Medium-term Goal - Something you can accomplish in less than a year.  

These should be the next logical steps on your trajectory. Maybe it’s making the All-State Orchestra, playing a great sophomore jury, or advancing at a professional audition. In the same way that you broke down the dream into its component parts, do the same for medium-term goals. What does accomplishing this goal require? Maybe you need to learn particular pieces or overcome certain technical hurdles. Make a list and see to it that your short-term goals combine to achieve these goals.  

Short-term Goal - Something you can accomplish in a week or less.  

“Organizing on a weekly basis provides much greater balance and context than daily planning. There seems to be an implicit cultural recognition of the week as a single, complete unit of time... Most people think in terms of weeks. But most third-generation planning tools focus on daily planning. While they may help you prioritize your activities, they basically only help you organize crises and busywork. The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. And this can best be done in the context of the week.” - Stephen Covey from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 

Plan your practice, in detail, one week in advance. Be specific with exercises and time frames. Daily goals seem nice, but they don’t give enough context to be of optimal use. In order to achieve your medium-term goal, you may need to improve the speed of your tongue, improve your intonation, increase your range by a whole step, and learn 1 hour of repertoire. You can’t do all of that in a single day (or a single week for that matter!). If your plan is to just cram as much of it as you can each and every day and then continue where you left off tomorrow, you’ll soon be frustrated. However, you can plan an intelligent week where you, for example, practice one movement and range on Monday, a different movement and articulation on Tuesday, etc. Look at the week as a whole and make sure you have addressed the relevant issues in a way that is balanced and thoughtful. Imagine a scenario where one short-term goal rolls seamlessly into the next until a medium-term goal is achieved.

Schedule time at the end of each week to evaluate what you did and create a plan of action for the following week. Were you able to completely follow the plan you made? Did you improve in the way you hoped? Did you work/rest enough? How can you make your work more efficient and mission-driven next week? The answers to these questions will let you know what you’re capable of in weeks or months.

And finally, make sure that in this time of being organized and regimented that you leave yourself some time for peace, reflection, and thoughtfulness. My most productive periods have always been preceded by some degree of emotional and physical solitude. You don’t have to escape into the wilderness for months. Maybe just one hour a week where you disconnect from everything and let yourself be free to think. You’d be amazed at the ideas and clarity that find you.

“Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.” – Maya Angelou

In the spirit transparency, those last two paragraphs were more for me than they were for you. It’s sage advice from one of history’s great thinkers, and I could afford to listen to it more myself!

I hope these thoughts are helpful. Good luck!  

Recommended Reading 

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey 

Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov

Controlling Pitch While Using Vibrato 

Q: I'm now studying Larsson Concertino and I wanted to ask you something. In the second movement I like to use vibrato on some notes, and I've noticed that when I do it, the pitch goes sharp. If I practice vibrato in isolation it doesn't happen, but the intonation tends to rise in a musical context, and I don't know why or how to control it better. What would you do in my situation? How would you practice it? Thanks for your time! 

A: 

Good to hear from you. The problem you’re talking about is an interesting one. I think you may want to try practicing your vibrato by only going BELOW the pitch. When you practice vibrato, think of the center of the pitch being the highest point and bend the pitch only on the low side. Some people think of vibrato as being both above and below the pitch, but I generally prefer to only adjust the pitch on the low side. Try experimenting with this and see if it helps. If you want to add a visual element, you can experiment with doing slide vibrato this way. Keep the pitch steady with your lips, then gradually add slide vibrato, only moving the slide position lower than the center of the pitch. 

A quick Google search reveals that this topic has gotten a fair amount of coverage in different string player forums. You can also take a quick trip to YouTube and watch many of your favorite violinists and cellists play. A lot can be learned from studying the vibrato of string players because, unlike brass players using lip vibrato, the speed and width can be seen. I think you will notice that they mostly vibrate below the pitch as well. I hope this helps. Good luck!

Range/Endurance 

Q: 

Hey Mr. Sprott, 

I know I just e-mailed you recently, but I have another quick question regarding your words on building high range as I'm having issues in my upper register at the moment. (https://westonsprott.com/articles/blog/high-range) 

I have major issues with endurance in the upper register (which I suspect is from playing mostly bass trombone in the past 8 months), and I've been working on keeping the proper embochure in the upper register as I rebuild strength. It's very tempting for me to do things like flatten my lips or change the mouthpiece position to get out high notes when my lip are tired (which is usually after just 15 mins in the upper register). 

My question is if/when should I do the exercise(s) you outlined in your article where you gliss up to a high note or play slow scales up? 
I ask because I am working on the David Concertino with my lessons teacher which hangs out in the upper register a lot on its own so I am hesitant to spend my strength on an exercise. 

It is also worth noting I did not have this serious of an endurance/embochure problem with the range the David is in until after I started bass trombone. 

Thank you in advance for your response and for all the amazing educational work you do- it truly makes a difference, 

XXXXX

 

A:

I think range-building exercises should be done earlier in the day. If you feel like they cause too much fatigue, increase the amount of time you put in between exercises, or consider only working very hard in this register every other day. Build up slowly. It's worth mentioning that 15 straight minutes straight of high register work is a heavy lift. Instead of playing things that stay exclusively in the high register, work on scale and lip slur patterns that sweep up into the upper register and come back down. Playing lots of long notes in the upper register is exhausting for most people of all levels. Regarding your specific example, it probably wouldn't be wise to do a lot of heavy high-range exercises and then go directly into David without much of a break. You have to listen to your body and tailor your practice routine to the demands currently on your plate. I would highly recommend reading Joe Friehl's book The Cyclist's Training Bible. If you replace the word cycling with trombone, you will find it extraordinarily informative about how to intelligently build strength and endurance. 

A simple principal to consider is that as the intensity of an exercise increases, the duration should decrease and the rest period should lengthen. I often find it helpful to put this in a physical exercise context. If you're tasked with doing 100 pushups, you'll feel differently if you do all 100 in 1 set with no breaks vs 5 sets of 20 with brief breaks vs 20 sets of 5 ​with long breaks. Think about that when working in an intense fashion. When you're lifting very heavy weights, you do fewer repetitions with longer rest periods. This is analogous to the upper register. 

Finally, spend more time on lip slur patterns, particularly in the middle register. This should help endurance. Check out the flexibility section of the Marsteller book and take 15 minutes a day to blow through the first 15 exercises. Regarding embouchure formation and fundamentals of high note creation, if you haven't read Philip Farkas' The Art of Brass Playing and watched the educational videos on YouTube by James Morrison and Charlie Porter, you should do that. There's a lot of good information out there! 

Weston

Suggested Summer Reading for Trombonists (and other musicians too!) 

As part of my teaching, I often recommend books to students that will help them improve themselves as both players and people. The majority of the time, these books aren't directly related to music, but they usually teach principles that are valuable in the quest for continuous self-improvement. Most students take to it very well and actually end up coming back to ask for more recommendations! With the summer break from school upon us, hopefully there will be more time to catch up on some reading. Below are suggestions of books I think you may find interesting (with links if you wish to purchase), including a quote or two from each book and what about it I enjoyed. If you have any reading suggestions for me, please share!!

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Covey, Steven 

"It becomes obvious that if we want to make relatively minor changes in our lives, we can perhaps appropriately focus on our attitudes and behaviors. But if we want to make significant, quantum change, we need to work on our basic paradigms. In the words of Thoreau, 'For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.' We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitudes and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow."

"It's incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it's leaning against the wrong wall. It is possible to be busy--very busy--without being very effective."

There's a reason this book has sold more than 25 million copies. It's fantastic! I think this book is great at putting everything into its proper perspective. Even if you become the greatest musician on earth, so what? What are you going to do with your gift? Where are you going with all of this? What are you doing here? How are you doing it? Why are you doing it? Make sure that all of your exhaustive efforts are being effectively applied to something that is deeply meaningful. It would be a shame to work tirelessly and not maximize your impact in this world!

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It Grown. Here's How. - Coyle, Daniel

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it's about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.”

“Although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop, and we have more potential than we might ever presume to guess.”

We spend so much time in the practice room trying to hard-wire different things into our muscle memory. This book explains the science behind how your brain works to develop the fine motor skills that help you excel in any particular craft: music, golf, tennis, etc. Many of us think that a fantastic technical capacity is reserved for the ordained few. This book provides a liberating explanation of why this excellence is available to us all, so long as we know the correct mental buttons to push. 

DAVID AND GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, AND THE ART OF BATTLING GIANTS - Gladwell, Malcolm

"There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources--and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former."

Over the years, I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students. They represent a wide variety of ability levels, races, sexes, ages, and national origins. One of the greatest weaknesses I see among them is a lack of sincere confidence. They see themselves as underdogs lacking a legitimate shot at reaching the mountaintop. Confidence should not to be confused with blind arrogance. Rather, it is belief that if you commit yourself fully to something and do the requisite work, you are capable of achieving a goal. Many believe because they are currently behind the curve or began with a disadvantage that achieving real excellence isn't possible for them. 

David and Goliath is an empowering book about the advantage of disadvantage. By any objective standard, my upbringing was not one of disadvantage. However, I grew up in a home that didn't have a love for classical music. I didn't have regular private lessons from an early age. In fact, I didn't begin regular weekly lessons until the summer after graduating high school. I didn't make the top band at my own public high school until my junior year. This isn't the normal trajectory for someone who joins the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at age 22. In the eyes of many, someone with my background is not likely to be an accomplished classical musician. However, this book teaches that often times things that seem like disadvantages are actually advantageous. Understanding this can create a very powerful paradigm shift. 

Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better - Lemov, Doug

"A critical goal of practice, then, should be ensuring that participants encode success--that they practice getting it right--whatever "it" might be. While that may sound obvious, practice that encodes failure is common. There are a lot of reasons for this, but two seem especially pervasive. First, we can fail to observe our practices carefully and strategically enough to see whether participants are getting things right, and second, we can put participants in situations that make failure likely in a mistaken effort to steepen the learning curve."

I found this book to be incredibly insightful. Even if you only read the first section of the book, you would leave with numerous practical pieces of advice for how to improve your craft. Practice Perfect has countless pragmatic approaches for making your work more effective and efficient. I used this book for my brass pedagogy class and the students loved what they learned from it. If you're looking for ways to get more bang for you buck in the practice room, you can't afford to not read this book.

To a Young Jazz Musician: LETTERS FROM THE ROAD - Marsalis, Wynton 

"I used to hear my daddy and them talk about going to the woodshed. Man, I thought the woodshed was a place where you got your behind whipped. And it is, but it's also the place where you get your stuff together. You know, Charlie Parker got a cymbal thrown at him; he went into the woodshed and came out with a technique to play the music he needed to play. And we still need to go there. That's why we call practice 'shedding'. By the way, practice--there's another P word for you. That reminds me: Don't forget that productivity. You want to be a musician? Get out and play gigs. Remember the simple equation: What you do is what you will do. So if you play, you will play. If you bullshit, well, that too will speak for itself, right?"

"A pristine technique is a sign of morality. If you don't want technique, you can't really be serious. You'd be like the guy who comes to a game out of shape. The other team will just run you to death and exploit you as the weak link. You thought you were rebelling against the team regimen, but now you see that your laziness was really self-crippling stupidity. Don't start professing a love for the game. The love is what would have made you get your ass in shape."

Wynton Marsalis has been a hero of mine since childhood and has since become a friend and mentor. My experience has taught me that if you need some words of wisdom, he's a great source. This book is a very quick read that gives you an inside look into the mind of one of the greatest artists to ever grace the planet. You will laugh. You will contemplate. You will be inspired. After starting this book, I couldn't put it down. I can't recommend it highly enough. 

WOODEN ON LEADERSHIP - Wooden, John 

"Compete Only Against Yourself: Set your standards high; namely, do the absolute best of which you are capable. Focus on running the race rather than winning it. Do those things necessary to bring forth your personal best and don't lose sleep worrying about the competition. Let the competition lose sleep worrying about you." 

"We live in a society obsessed with winning and being number 1. Don't follow the pack. Rather, focus on the process instead of the prize.... The score will take care of itself when you take care of the effort that precedes the score."

This book is solid gold. It addresses numerous areas vital for successful musicians to master: industriousness, time management, enthusiasm, condition, competition, and confidence. John Wooden remains the most successful coach in the history of college basketball. The lessons taught in this book carry over into all aspects of life. Applying his principles to your musical life will reap phenomenal rewards! 

ICSOM Speech 

Weston Sprott ICSOM Conference Address – 8/26/2015 

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Bruce Ridge. He had just seen a new documentary film that beautifully depicts the impact music education has on the lives of young people. One of my now former students and I are two of the principal subjects of the film. The film is incredibly powerful and beautifully filmed, and I hope that you enjoy the trailer that has been prepared for you to see. Perhaps noticing that I have a passion for teaching, as I’m sure many of you do, Bruce reached out and asked me if I would share some words with you about the film and the value of music education. 

When you’re the second trombonist of an orchestra, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to stand in front of the group and say your piece. 

On the other hand, after ten years worth of counting rests at the Metropolitan Opera, I’ve had a little time think through some things and form some opinions. 

The last time I attended the conference was in 2012 in Chicago. I was a newly elected member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Committee, still just a little too far removed from the upcoming negotiations to realize exactly what lay in front of me. The Met had just announced record-breaking fundraising and a budget surplus. Needless to say, I felt terrible about the struggles my colleagues in other orchestras were going through, but I was relieved that, for the time being, things were different in New York. Fast-forward a few years, and I think you all know the story. You can ask Tino Gagliardi, President of New York’s Local 802, and I’m sure he can confirm that I have since been thoroughly acquainted with the harsh realities of our industry. 

I remember many of the conversations with my colleagues during that conference in Chicago. We asked many important questions. How do we bridge the gap between musicians and management, turning positive labor relations into constructive labor negotiations? How can we be advocates for ourselves and help others effectively advocate for us? How can we cultivate the next generation of musicians, audiences, administrators, and donors? 

In examining these questions, we learned that we have many ideas in common. We also observed that we share similar fears. Chief amongst these fears is a concern for the current state of music education in our country. Hopefully, we all understand that an education system absent of the arts spells the beginning of the destruction of our civilization. 

We all seem to agree that if we don’t shore up the issues with education, our long-term hopes for professional respectability, community appreciation for the arts, not to mention fair pay, secure retirements, and quality working conditions, will be a losing battle. 

The arts, music in particular, teach us who we were, who we are, how to be, and how to let others be. I have read about the civil rights movement, and my mother has told me the story of being in her high school’s first integrated class, but when I listen to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”, that’s when the gateway to understanding the people of those times is truly opened. Music has that power. We’ve all been preached to that society works best when people from different backgrounds, with differing perspectives, look past trivial disagreements and work towards a common goal, but we understand that playing in an orchestra or a chamber group teaches you how to do that. 

With each passing generation, there is dissolution not only of these values, but also in understanding why these values are important. I stand before you today as a product of that dissolution. Almost exactly ten years ago, I proudly joined the professional ranks of one of the world’s great artistic institutions, having just graduated from arguably the finest school for my craft, by most objective measures, a 22-year-old kid who was reaping the benefits of having worked hard and done things “the right way”. 

At the same time, I was embarrassingly uneducated about the cultural legacy that I am a part of, how that legacy reflects our greater societal history, and how to articulate why the craft I love so much should matter to anyone. And if I had these issues, I can only imagine what’s it like for the millions of kids who grow up with far fewer resources, who don’t have music programs and concerned teachers. As I teach the next generation, I spend the few free hours I have trying to figure out what I missed. I’m sure that many of you feel the same way. 

Despite exposure to music programs, excellent teachers, and a life in orchestral music, we still yearn for greater understanding. Our lack of understanding doesn’t stem from a lack of curiosity. It is rooted in the fact that our curiosity wasn’t properly nurtured to begin with. That being said, those of us in the classical music community are representative of what it means to have an in-depth knowledge of culture. 

We all wish that things were better. We join together at this conference because we desire improvement upon what we have, and we want those who are coming next to learn from our mistakes instead of having to learn from their own. Each day when I watch the news, I wonder to myself if people in our society who take great pride in the confederate flag, suppressing voting rights, who don’t support equal pay, or who think that arts programs should be the first thing to go when slashing a budget.... I consider if our system has stolen from them the chance to understand how our collective history has brought us to where we are today. In his 2009 Nancy Hanks Lecture, Wynton Marsalis said, “Where you come from ain’t where you’re going, but if you don’t know where you’ve been, you might just end up where you started, or further back.” 

As cultural ambassadors, it is incumbent upon us to not only perform well on our instruments, but to support the artistic education of those who come after us. It is through music that we best learn what it means to strive for excellence. It is through the arts that we best learn about our collective history. 

In 2007, I started teaching at Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program, an outreach program that provides music education to underrepresented minority students. The program was established in 1991 as a response to massive cuts in music programs in New York City public schools. Despite the impact the program had on students, a 2009 New York Times article announced the program would be abandoned due to lack of funding. 

Thankfully, some good things came about as a result. New donors came to the rescue of the program, and it is now more expansive and broader in scope and length than it was before. Also, the article grabbed the attention of filmmaker Ben Niles. In Ben’s words, “If an outreach program at Juilliard is struggling, we’re all in trouble.” 

Ben decided to pay the program a visit and was inspired by what he saw. Over the next two years, he filmed the documentary “Some Kind of Spark”, a portrait of the teacher-student relationship and the profound impact that music education can have. Although filmed at Juilliard, the primary intent of the film is not to promote the school, but to shine a light on the value of an education in the arts. Many other programs around the country are making great strides in this department. 

Ben’s hope is that other programs and schools will use SPARK as an opportunity to inspire their students, teachers, and administrators to further agendas on a local level. My hope is that, as we gather to learn more about how we can further the agendas of our organizations, we never lose sight of the bigger picture. Each of us has the obligation, and the opportunity, to make our future brighter. Please continue to fight for music education with your talent, your efforts, and your votes. And while we progress in our own agendas, let’s not forget the greater agenda, the one great agenda, of connecting our collective pasts to the future through a meaningful artistic present. Thank you. 

Aspire Award Speech Transcript 


November 13, 2016
 

Thank you to everyone at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program. I’d like to give special thanks to Adrienne Thompson for helping organize my participation, and to Stanford Thompson for his introduction and friendship. 
  
I’m very appreciative for this particular opportunity, because whenever I work with young, talented, minority students, I inevitably see my former self. 
  
I recently watched a video about the Talent Development Program that featured current students Angela Leeper (bass) and Joseph Brown (cello). Angela said she understands pursuing music is risky busy, and Joseph said he’s planning to attend the University of Michigan or Indiana University. That sounds like what I used to say. 
  
In the year 2000, just like you, I was an enthusiastic senior in high school. I went to hear the Houston Symphony as often as I could. I created chamber groups with my friends, and I dreamed that one day I would be a musician in a great orchestra. Unlike you, I didn’t have the privilege of weekly private lessons, much less lessons with members of a major orchestra. I told my parents that I wanted to become a professional musician. After my mother finished crying, disappointed that I would be wasting a strong mind in pursuit of a career with limited prospects, she and my father agreed to take me to audition at my two top choices for music school. They were the University of Michigan and Indiana University. 
  
Just a few months later, I graduated from high school. We had a graduation party at my house with family and friends. The Indiana University flag flew in our front yard, and everyone was happy to celebrate the moment with me. In front of the group, my uncle asked me what I planned to major in. I said, “Trombone Performance”, and he said, and I quote, “Well, I guess the world has to have some poor people too!” Everybody laughed. I smiled and tried to give the appearance that my ego wasn’t bruised. 
  
Two years later, TDP alum Eric Thompson and I were shopping for apartments in Philadelphia. I was accepted and decided to transfer to the Curtis Institute of Music. As we walked down the streets of inner-city Philadelphia, we passed a struggling saxophonist playing on the corner with his case open. “He’s probably a Curtis graduate!” my dad joked. I didn’t appreciate that at the time. 
  
With some degree of regularity, someone would see me walking down the streets of Philadelphia with my case on my back. “What you got in there?” “I play trombone.” “Oh yeh. You play jazz?” “No, I’m a classical musician.” “Really? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black classical musician, but you can play jazz, right?” 
  
You see, when you’re trying to do something special, something unique, something different, something that people who look like you don’t normally do, you have to listen to this kind of stuff. And you know what? A lot of it is warranted. Most people who pursue classical music don’t make it, and a lot of the ones who make it don’t make it big. Even when you make it to the mountaintop, you have to fight to make sure that the peak is still there for the next generation. 
  
As you all know, we exist in a nation that is still deeply divided by racism and sexism. There are people out there that don’t care if you make it, and even worse, some who hope you don’t. However, there are also people out there cheering for your success and who have committed their lives to making sure you get your chance to live your dreams. 
  
I’m here to tell you that it CAN be done. It HAS been done. It’s not easy, and in any field, you will surely suffer your share of bumps and bruises should you choose to make the ascent. Music is fun, but it’s not all fun and games. I’ve seen the musical mountaintop and I’m here to tell you that if you’re willing to push your talents to their absolute limits, there’s room on it for you. You’ve been selected to be a part of this program because people believe you are capable of making the climb. 
  
The good news is that you don’t have to be first. Our predecessors have relieved us of that pressure. Despite what some may tell you, there is already a legacy of great African-American and Latin-American classical musicians. 50 years before I won my position in the Met Orchestra, the doors to many orchestras were closed to people who looked like you and me. These people pushed on that door for years so that a small handful of people could get through. My generation is working hard to open that door all the way. I hope that your generation will kick the door off the hinges and storm the room. We’re going to have a great party in there, and the music will be incredible! 

9 Random Non-Brass Playing Tips for Healthy Brass Playing 

  1. Humidifier – Once the temperature drops below 50 degrees F, and the weather starts getting more dry, I keep two humidifiers running 24 hours a day in my home (one in my bedroom and one in my practice space). Being completely parched and puffy is a killer for brass players. Drinking a lot of water is simply not enough. Make sure that when you can control your environment, you make it one that improves the health of your playing!
  2. Shave – I don’t always shave, but when I do, I do it late at night. I always find it preferable to shave at night, after all my playing for the day is complete. While you sleep, the hair grows back ever so slightly, allowing you to have a seal that is nice but not sticky. Shaving in the morning, or within a few hours of when I plan to play the instrument, makes the seal of the rim sticky and uncomfortable. It is preferable to have a bit of flexibility. Furthermore, excessive playing or rim pressure soon after shaving increases the possibility of ingrown hairs or pressure bumps right at the spots where the rim is in contact with your face. When these pop up, and you have to play, it can be very painful!
  3. Melatonin – Having trouble sleeping in the nights leading up to a big audition? Jet-lagged and have to play a concert tomorrow? Stayed out too late after a concert and now your body’s clock is out of whack? Become friends with melatonin. Take 5mg about an hour before you hope to go sleep for a couple of days in a row, and it should help you get back on track. It's also helpful to note that getting good sleep two nights before a big day is often times more important than the night before. Try to stay ahead of the game with your resting. 
  4. Ibuprofen – Every once in awhile, I have to deal with the issue of my chops being swollen from excessive playing. Ideally, you want to balance your playing in such a way that this doesn’t happen often. However, on the occasions when it does happen, it can be quite helpful to reduce the swelling by taking ibuprofen. My preferred choice is Advil Liqui-gels. They seem to take effect very quickly. Also, it can be helpful to launch a pre-emptive strike on swelling when you know you are about to put your embouchure under extreme duress. For example, I often times take one or two ibuprofen before Act 2 of Gotterdammerung or Act 3 of Die Walkure.
  5. Electric Toothbrush – If you have a tendency to brush your teeth aggressively, and every once in awhile you nick the inside of your mouth with your toothbrush…. buy an electric toothbrush. The cost is well worth the stress saved by not being worried about the latest cut in your mouth, and the fact of the matter is that a good electric toothbrush cleans your teeth far better than any manual brush can. It’s a win-win!
  6. Don’t eat airplane food – Airplane food usually doesn’t taste that good to begin with. On top of that, it usually leaves you feeling bloated and unsatisfied. Whenever it’s possible to not eat on a flight, take advantage of the opportunity. It’s better to eat a large, healthy meal with fresh ingredients pretty soon before boarding the flight, and then stick to water, light snacks, and sleep on the plane. I prefer to show up in the new city a little hungry, in search of a real meal, rather than arriving with that full, yet unsatisfied feeling which often accompanies the in-flight meal.
  7. Don’t stay up all night for a flight – You have a flight in the morning, and it’s you’re going to land several times zones away from your place of departure. Let’s stay up all night and hang out so that we’ll be sleepy for the flight…. BAD IDEA! At least that’s my opinion. I’ve tried this method a few times, and it has never worked well. On the other hand, trying to maintain a relatively normal sleep schedule right up to the flight has worked better. I’d rather show up to the flight rested than exhausted. Sleep on a plane is rarely as restful as sleep in a real bed. You end up getting zero sleep the night before, plus subpar sleep on the plane. I can’t for the life of me understand how increasing your sleep deficit is a good thing for your health.
  8. Value sleep over practice – At some point, we all run into the question of whether to rest or practice. You have so much work to do and things to improve, but you are so tired!! Well, 9 times out of 10, the correct answer is to rest. If you fall behind, at least you’ll have plenty of energy to make up for lost time. There’s almost nothing worse than being burnt out.
  9. Oil of Oregano/Baking Soda Paste – Something terrible has happened. You have a cut in your mouth, your lip split in your sleep, you caught an elbow to the chops playing basketball, you bit your lip while eating…. I’ve done all of these and more. It always happens at the absolute worst time, and then you’re panicking, hoping you will heal well enough to play at a high level for your next engagement. When this happens, I suggest rinsing your mouth with a water and hydrogen peroxide solution. Add a few drops of oil of oregano directly on the cut/split. This will be painful, but helpful. Do this a few times throughout the day. Before going to sleep, create a thick paste that is made up of baking soda and water. Apply the paste liberally over the cut and allow it to dry/harden as much as possible. Put some lip balm on the outside of your lips, and sleep as much as you can.

Variation of Articulation 

It is important as a trombonist to have a wide range of articulations at your disposal. Just as players with limited tone colors or dynamic ranges can be uninteresting, so too are players who only have one or two articulations! In my experience, the further forward you place your tongue, the firmer the articulation will sound. The further back you place the tongue, the lighter the articulation.
 
My “default” articulation is one that speaks clearly and firmly. I generally don’t like to play question marks or sneak into the note, unless the music indicates this is required.
 
Curve your left hand in front of you with your palm facing down. Imagine that your fingers represent your top row of teeth and the rest of your hand represents the natural arch on the inside of your mouth. My “default” articulation falls at the bottom of the fingers. This articulation would create the syllable “tho”. Think of saying the word “though” as you articulate, or spitting seeds off the tip of your tongue.
 
For legato tonguing, I like to use the syllable “la” or “lu”. Going back to your curved hand, to create the syllable “la” or “lu” the tongue has to strike on the palm or at the top of the arch inside the mouth. This creates a much lighter sound and can be used to make a very smooth legato. I recommend practicing this articulation over and over again on a single note, aiming to gain consistency of articulation that is light but clearly audible.
 
You may notice that there is a lot of space between “tho” and “la” on your palette. I encourage those interested in broadening their range of articulation to experiment with this space. Off the top of my head (in order of hard to soft)…. “tho”, “toe”, “doe”, “no”, “nah”, “dah” and “lah” provide a nice range of options. There are definitely many more. These are just a handful that I find myself using.
 
Some of my brass player friends from other countries who have a different language background have incredibly interesting and useful ways of articulating. I think the tone and inflection of different languages can greatly affect the way someone articulates on the instrument, and if you discuss this with some of your friends, you may learn some truly interesting things. Go to the practice room and experiment to find consistency with a wide range of articulations. Try something you never thought of before and see what happens. I met a GREAT player who articulates quick passages by moving his tongue from side to side. I still haven’t figured out how to do that, but his Blue Bells sounded AWESOME. Who knew?!?
 
 

Hungarian March 

Below are some tips for working on the excerpt from Hungarian March from Berlioz's Damnation of Faust.

1. Half note = 88 is a generally acceptable tempo. ALWAYS play this excerpt with a metronome. If you're anything like me, your natural tendency will be to rush. Set the metronome to half notes and think about the subdivisions as you play. For audition purposes, avoid the temptation to slow down during the last few bars of the excerpt. Just play straight in time from start to finish. Play through the excerpt several times at half tempo. Playing this slowly is a good opportunity to ingrain the habit of playing with extremely accurate slide positions. Be extra careful with 2nd, 3rd and 5th positions. There are no Eb's or Ab's in this excerpt. Be sure to always play precisely. Never play halfway between 2nd and 3rd positions or halfway between 4th and 5th. Come all the way in for 2nd and go all the way out for 5th! 

2. A good exercise for getting your slide coordination down on this exercise is the "hot note" exercise. I was introduced to this exercise by Joe Alessi. Basically, go through the excerpt note by note at half time. Play the first note staccato and immediately move the slide to the next position so that the slide arrives well in advance of the time when you need to articulate. Play the next note, and then continue forward in the same fashion. Practice a few bars this way. Then go back and do it again, this time shortening the space between the notes. Continue closing the gap until the notes occur in real time. Ideally, your slide should be reflective of the rhythm. As a test, make a video of yourself playing the excerpt or just moving the slide. Check to see if your slide motion is a clear rhythmic dictation. Watch the video again without the volume. Could someone who doesn't know what you're playing give a dictation of the rhythm?

3. Starting on the ascending scales 6 bars before rehearsal #4, begin with a dynamic that is COMFORTABLY SOFT. Don't start this excerpt at a dynamic that makes you nervous. Rather, play with a firm articulation at a dynamic that is soft but speaks easily. Think of making one long musical line from the beginning of the excerpt all the way to the second bar of #4. The intensity of articulation and dynamic should grow consistently from the beginning to this point, making the downbeat of the second bar of #4 feel like a true landing point. 

4. A major pitfall in this excerpt is stopping and starting the air. Often times, people struggle with keeping the air flowing consistently while moving the slide accurately. We use good air and move the slide sloppily, or we move the slide accurately and keep stopping the air. Work to do both good things at the same time! Otherwise, the music begins to sound choppy and the dotted quarter notes are cut off too early. There are a few exercises that I find helpful in resolving this issue from the second bar of #4 to the end... 1. Gliss the excerpt using a loose slide motion. 2. Gliss the excerpt using an accurate slide motion. 3. Flutter tongue the excerpt using an accurate slide motion, never allowing the sound to stop. 4. Play the excerpt playing all eighth note subdivisions. 5. Play as written. Try these exercises at slow tempos first to make sure you are doing everything correctly. If doing this for the entire length of the excerpt is too much, start by doing one scale pattern (3 bars) at a time, and then see if you can fuse 2 3-bar segments together.

5. Choose a dynamic that is comfortably loud. Try to avoid having a "swing for the fences" mentality with this excerpt. Never play a dynamic that is beyond your control. In a very generic sense, I view FF as being as loud as you can play with a beautiful sound. Avoid a sound that is raucous, blary and loses its center. If you're unsure about where you are dynamically, err on the softer side. It is preferable to play cleanly and in time with ultimate control than to err on the side of being over the top. Often times, playing too loud can compromise your ability to play in time and in tune. Begin your practice of this excerpt at a nice MF dynamic. Get your pitch, rhythm and articulation organized at this easy to control dynamic. Bump your dynamic up daily, but only as much as you can without compromising any fundamentals. Record yourself to make sure that you are playing with a full dynamic that doesn't sound the least bit out of control. 

6. In the last few bars, pay attention to the notes that are slurred. They are the only slurred notes that you have in this excerpt, so take advantage of the opportunity to show a contrast in articulation. Avoid clipping the second eighth note of the slur. Play full lenghth notes here, and use natural slurs as much as you can. 

7. Find a good recording to study. I would suggest listening to the entire opera Damnation of Faust. There's a ton of really great music, and there are more interesting trombone parts than just the Hungarian March. Check out the DVD recording we did a few years back at the MET. The production is really cool!