Trombone

Huffington Post Interview

2016-05-29-1464525801-7044006-Gregory8.jpgPhoto credit: © Nancy Ruhling 2016

Early one Saturday morning, I had the pleasure to be interviewed by Nancy Ruhling for her long-running Huffington Post column “Astoria Characters”. She liked my iced tea and my kids, so she was very kind to me.

Read and enjoy!

 

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Tatra Epiphany

IMG_1618The blogger hiking in Roháče around the year 2000. Photo Credit: © Katarina Vizina

[A note to the reader: I wrote this essay many years ago about the intersection between trombone playing and the reality of body perception. I will follow up with a more recent take. I have tried to keep the editing to a minimum; these were my thoughts at the time. Enjoy!]

You can never predict when you might reach your next level of perception. Each summer, my wife and I stay in Roháče in the “Western Tatra” mountains of Slovakia. The mountain forests are flush with raspberries, blueberries, and mushrooms. Part of the vacation ritual is for my in-laws to collect mushrooms and dry them for use later in the year, especially for a soup made around Christmas time. The mushrooms smell woody, earthen. I practiced among tables of sliced mushrooms drying on sections of newspapers. It was among the mushrooms where I had an epiphany that took my playing to a higher plateau.

The journey of improvement on the trombone seems to be made of steps and plateaus. There are times when improvement can be felt. The higher plateau of ability is exhilarating, at first. Then there is the feeling of “I’m awful!” and the work towards the next step up occurs.Then there is the next plateau to conquer. I find myself asking, “Is this it?” when I reach a plateau. In my journey, as if I am climbing Mt. Everest, I am always making it to what feel like a higher plateau.

My teacher, David Taylor, counsels me to concentrate on what my tongue is doing. This is easier said than done. I realized that I was thinking of my embouchure as flat in profile like all the drawings of the lateral cut-away mouth used to show tongue placement. The type is well know – a tilted coat-of-arms with two white, long-tailed tadpoles that represent the teeth and gums surrounding an albino leech that is the tongue. This pale heraldry does not come close to the actual sensation of the mouthpiece touching the face and the roof of the mouth being tapped by the tip of the tongue. A superior diagram would imply a three-dimensional mouth and mouthpiece but would still fall flat.

In the mountains, I became aware of the difference between the way I was thinking about my embouchure and the reality of the fullness of experience. It was as though a flat drawing ballooned into the reality of my skull. In other words, I stopped “looking” at my embouchure from the side while trying to feel the drawing. I actually began to feel the hollow of my mouth, the width of my tongue. What helped me hold on to the feeling was my concentrating on the ring of the mouthpiece rim touching my face and lips. This feeling of “being in” my body was a strange, vertiginous experience especially at first, like the moment when first learning to balance a bicycle.

Too mystical? There are types of body-based learning in which we can participate. Anyone who has taken an Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais course knows this first hand. Although I am by no means an expert in either technique, our anatomy is often quite different from the way we think of it. For example, before taking an Alexander course, I thought of my rib-cage and spine as a ping-pong ball stuck on a stick like a candy apple. The truth is more like a ping-pong ball stuck onto the side of a stick, like a sculpture of a “P”.

The Feldenkrais Technique is a series of exercises that allow you to feel the reality of your body. Some exercises show you how to experience your pelvis in three dimensions. Others pinpoint your diaphragm. Still others articulate the range of motion of your neck, waist, and spine. With both Feldenkrais and Alexander techniques, the learning is done from the inside. Understanding begins with feeling. In the same way, the moment of clarity I experienced in the mountains taught me the truth of my embouchure in a way that no drawing could.

What has this mountaintop epiphany allowed me to do? I can feel much more accurately where I am placing my tongue. In just two months time, I could play multi-phonics much easier than before. Also, it has made me aware of how much air escapes from the left side of my mouthpiece. Most importantly, the mist has vanished between my perception of what I am doing and what is actually happening. I am certain this isn’t just a new plateau. Perhaps the previous plateaus were foothills leading up to this experience. Now begins the climb to greater heights.

Tonal Refraction: Every Gig is the Same

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

One of the mysteries of performance is that my part in making the music is the same. Pop, jazz, polka, symphonies or trombone choir, the job is the same. I need to put the right note in the right spot at the right time. I have participated in glowing, ethereal brass section tuning on a packed stage at two in the morning dressed like Freddie Mercury. I learned to push and pull the tempo of a group playing polka upbeats and how to apply that power from the cheap seats of the orchestra (when necessary). Even when “anything goes” making music, I help make it go within a musical structure.

These different groups and genres in which I participate have different ends but the same means – my playing trombone. The ends for some are for art, others for pleasure, and a few for “pure music”. Twelve notes, give or take, are spun into strings and bows and knots of melodies and rhythms and harmonies. The sounds I contribute can bray or sing; inspire or melt into the beer-logged background. If my playing notes and rhythms had a fixed meaning like a word or photograph how could they be heard in so many musical places and moods? However, my contribution is limited to the trombone and to me no matter how large my bag of tricks. So, I play and sometimes consider the sameness of the part I play.
I think about the beautiful refraction of that sameness: music filtered through the prism of me.

Meaningful Like a Lullabye

In Poetics of Music, Igor Stravinsky states that music has no meaning. He does not argue that music has no effect on people. And neither does he argue that certain types of music do not have meaning for individuals or groups. He simply states that a tone or chord, sounded, is not a word. A Bb major chord is not “cat” or a certain melody does not mean or imply “sword” unless we are told or shown the meaning. This is one of the central mysteries of music: it sounds, it effects, but it does not mean anything.

This mystery makes it difficult to argue for the superiority of one musical style over another. Take the trombone. You might be surprised to find the trombone is the oldest instrument in continuous use. For five hundred years, it has remained fundamentally the same instrument physically. Heinrich Schutz, a seventeenth century composer and contemporary of J.S. Bach, wrote complicated, beautiful music for trombone quartet.

Trombone players have been well represented through the years. Mozart wrote solo music for the Austrian Virtuoso with the funny name Thomas Gschlatt. During the Gilded Age there was probably no player finer than the Sousa band’s Arthur Pryor. He played unhindered by the  supposed superiority of the classical canon or dime-a-dozen cornetists. Band music was popular music, dance music. He played with a facility unsurpassed in his day. “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who played in Duke Ellington’s band, created an amazing “singing” effect using a trumpet mute and the business end of a toilet plunger. Tommy Dorsey played stratospherically high on the instrument; Bill Waterous plays high and fast. Stewart Dempster created his own bag of tricks.

Does the trombone solo from Mahler’s Third Symphony mean more than the trombone solo from Edith Piaf’s Polchinelle? Mahler’s solo is louder, larger scale, longer, but more meaningful? Music well written (or well conceived) and well played is meaningful like a lullabye and not like an argument.