Making a living…be flexible, responsible, and positive

This week, our studio class featured a nice guest performance by the brass quintet from the Travis Air Force Band in San Francisco.

Again and again, they stressed the importance of flexibility.  In other words, be able to do what is asked of you (even if it is out of your comfort zone) and do it well.  I am reminded of a former colleague from my own Air Force Band days who once said..

“Professionalism is playing music you may not like so well that you convince people you love it.”

I know most young performance majors  drill away on the excerpts with dreams of winning the big symphony job.  In the real world, a tiny percentage ever get that chance.

However, if you are a flexible professional who is highly responsible with some good people skills, you can still make a living.

When I chat with prospective high school students wishing to major in performance, I often ask them what they hope to be doing in 10 years.  Most of them have a vague notion of getting a performance degree and winning a full time job with an orchestra.  I usually point out this crucial fact:

The great majority of working musicians never win the big audition…

…and still they find a way to have a satisfying life in music!

A more likely outcome for most performance majors is a patchwork career:

  • Lots of private students
  • Freelancing (perhaps subbing with a strong professional orchestra)
  • Holding a position in one or two per-service orchestras
  • Playing in the pit for musicals
  • Being an instrumental music director at a church
  • Teaching adjunct at a local college
  • Hustling gigs with a brass quintet

You may end up making extra income working in a music store, learning to repair instruments, offering your services recording (and editing) other people’s performances, building websites for musical ensembles, or contracting musicians for gigs.

And remember: if you have 12 different employers, the chances of being laid off are greatly diminished.

If you get called to play with a dance band, are you really going to say, “Sorry I only play classical music.”?  I’ve played in dance bands and pit ensembles, recorded jingles for public radio, designed brass trio educational concerts, worn Lederhosen for German band gigs, heck I even played in a brass quintet for a road race (we chose the Cheetham Scherzo)!

  • Never look down on income.
  • Be flexible with musical styles.
  • Be a responsible and pleasant person.
  • And never, never be late for a gig!


The Two Skills

In last week’s studio class, we had some more nice duet performances with good discussion about blending sounds and matching style.

I also had time to give one more short talk.  This week’s topic: The Two Skills.

I believe that, in order to succeed, you need two skills.

1. Trombone Skills
2. Pressure-Handling Skills

We spend a lot of our time focused on the first skill but less on the second.  It reminded  me of an old college colleague who, for whatever reason, simply did not get nervous for auditions.  It just didn’t occur to him, I guess.  He wasn’t the best player in the studio but sometimes better players would suffer from nerves and play worse when the pressure was on.  Something like this graph:


I believe that the ability to remain focused and play well under pressure is essentially a separate skill that can be worked on.

We talked about some different strategies for this…

  • Play in front of other people (especially people who make you nervous).
    This can be as simple as dragging a friend into your practice room and playing for them.  It might include playing at a local church or nursing home.  ASU has a great program called “Jury’s Out” which helps students get out into the community to perform their jury pieces.
  • One student mentioned the excellent materials by Don Greene, which can help performers redirect and re-focus that nervous energy towards specific goals.
  • I talked about something I call the Hopeful Shield, on which I did a 2011 blog post.  Basically, instead of constantly repeating to yourself that you’ll play great (which is often accompanied by an annoying little voice replying with, “No, you won’t”), think in a hopeful way about how great it would be if you really nailed it.  By imagining a great performance and how wonderful that would be, you are also conjuring up mental images of success which in turn helps to direct your thinking in a positive direction.

Each new phrase is another chance to nail it.
Just think how great that would be!


Varying the Resistance

During some of the studio class meetings, I sometimes speak briefly about a topic.  One recent topic: resistance.

It has occurred to me that there is an implicit connection between two popular practice tricks:

  1. Blowing through a practice mute
  2. Buzzing on a mouthpiece rim

In case you are not familiar with these tricks, I’ll describe them briefly.

The “practice mute trick” was first revealed to me in Denis Wick’s book Trombone Technique.  As described in his book…

This mute has the added advantage that, being made of metal, it gives a metallic ‘buzz’ when played loudly. For obvious reasons, most players do not normally practice at maximum volume. When occasionally they are called upon to play fff, all kinds of distortions of pitch, sound quality, and rhythm occur. If ten minutes or so per day are set aside for fff practice, using the practice mute especially in the low register, and always maintaining careful control of the sound by listening to the ‘buzz’ of the mute, considerable improvements in other areas of playing will be achieved. The glottis is better controlled and the overall tone quality improves dramatically.
Trombone Technique, p. 68

The use of the buzzing rim has been advocated by many teachers.  One recent excellent video by Toby Oft has been a hit with my students.

The connection between these two techniques is resistance.  The mute dramatically increases resistance above that normally posed by the trombone.  Conversely, buzzing on the rim offers significantly less resistance.

We can’t break bad habits, we can only build good habits and let the bad ones wither away.  Often the way to do this is to trick the body into a different approach.  After blowing loudly against the resistance of the mute, we remove that mute and the notes tend to ‘fall out’ of the bell.  Often the sound is bigger but the effort is less.  When it works it’s a wonderful feeling.

When we buzz on the rim, we often find it difficult to produce a sound partly because the resistance is reduced.  Students who are used to ‘dialing up’ the pressure to start a note usually struggle the most with rim buzzing.  By learning to get a good sound on the rim, we also learn to blow more gently and perhaps realize that the instrument itself doesn’t need such force of air.

This simple diagram plots the different degrees of resistance to the blowing action.  Higher is more resistance, lower is less.  The line represents the normal resistance of your instrument.


In the end, the goal doesn’t change: blow freely with a pure buzz.


Here comes Spring 2017!

And so my second semester begins at ASU.  I’m going to try to be more systematic in doing a blog post each Sunday to summarize the week.

As the students and I get to know each other, I’ve tried out some new ideas and made some adjustments.  I hope that, as a teacher, I never stop learning and growing.

This semester, I’m once again asking students to take on an extra-credit project but I’m giving a little more guidance.  

#1.  Community outreach/engagement

Plan and deliver a concert or educational clinic for the local community.  Students are encouraged to work together.

#2. Learn something by ear

Relying solely on a recording, prepare and be able to play 2-5 minutes of music.  This can include a new jazz transcription or a classical piece.  This can be a solo piece for trombone that you haven’t previously studied.

#3.  Orchestral excerpt section

Meet regularly with a trombone or low brass section, develop a schedule of approximately 10 orchestral passages to play for a coaching.  Also understand the historical context of the piece in question.

We will continue with our ‘studio tune’ plan in which we learn a tune by ear and all play it together in every key.  I’m starting the semester with the beautiful Shenandoah.

Our semester will finish with a June performance at the International Trombone Festival.  We will also be giving the regional premiere of Christian Parrup’s Transmogrify.

Of course the semester will have a boatload of trombone recitals.  Some weeks are going to feel like a trombone festival!

My first faculty recital will be Feb. 6th.  Every piece on the program will invoke the human voice in one way or another.  More about that later.

Spring Trombone Night will take place on Monday, April 10th.  I hope to add some videos from Fall Trombone Night on the Youtube channel soon.

I’m please to see that so many prospective trombonists have expressed interest in the wonderful program ASU has to offer.  I look forward to hearing all those auditions!

Projects, we have projects

This semester, students took on independent projects for extra credit.
Many people worked on audition recordings either for grad school or summer festivals.
Other projects included:
* A summary of our music library trombone holdings and comparison to recital programs in order to generate a purchase list.
* Motivational posters
* Overdub recording of a Dr. Dre tune
* A new composition for trombone choir.
* An arrangement which was a mash-up of E.T. and Superman (also recorded as an overdub)

And then a number of people created professional websites. In future posts, I’ll include links to those sites.

Nice job, everyone!

More from Lesson/Practice Notes

As we roll into the latter half of the semester, I am really pleased with the insightful notes that some students are keeping.

A few examples:


I tried to do sight reading while doing a run-through, that way there would be more pressure. I don’t know if it was more effective for me to just jump in and start playing, or to sit there and look over the piece. I think there was a fine line. If I just jumped in, I was more relaxed, but I didn’t see tricky things until they were right in front of me. If I took time to look at the piece, then I could anticipate some parts of it, but I felt that it kind of made me more nervous.


Started practicing new tonguing technique on stuff done in lessons, then scales, then solo. Did exercises for Ride– helped a lot. My F# sounds way more solid. Need to apply it to later areas of Ride. Working on fixing dotted eighth rhythm.


I was talking to X about the tonguing problem I was having and he unintentionally gave me a huge piece of advice. He asked that I was using a “tawtawtawt” instead of a “tahtahtah” tongue. I didn’t think much of it at the time but the next time I went to a practice room I thought of using a more “tah” tongue and it worked wonders.


Played Rochut 1-5 on the Conn 5H. I feel like I UNDERSTAND it more. I can more easily think about them as the vocalises they are. Went to my usual horn and played them again and I was much more lyrical in both octaves. Lots of fun. I have to do this again in the future.


Moises Paiewonsky

Nice visit today by Moises Paiewonsky from the University of Arizona.
He performed the Sulek Sonata from memory, worked with Alex Mayhew on Blue Bells of Scotland, gave a short presentation on equal vs. just tuning and finished by tearing it up over some F Blues.  All that in only 50 minutes.

Desert Bones @ Homecoming

This year at homecoming, the Herberger Institute for the Design and the Arts (HIDA) had a stage set with various performers.

The Desert Bones kicked off the festivities with a mixtures of fanfares, fight songs and one Trombumba!

asu_bones_homecoming_1 asu_bones_homecoming_2


Lesson Notes – those freshman have got game!

As students write up their lesson notes and practice reflections, I have to say that some of the freshman students are putting everyone to shame.

Some highlights…

Practice Notes:

Reflections of Intonation

My intonation still isn’t great, but has improved drastically. Through drilling the right pitches in my head, it is very hard to unhear when the note is wrong. One thing that has also improved is the clarity of the pitch. I noticed this when I was playing an Eb Major Scale. As I proceeded to tune and fix each note, they became easier to play and the tonality was much better. (more focused and more depth was added) Intonation is a grueling process, but it has been proving to help in more aspects than one.


Reflections on High Range Studies:

I have been continuing to develop my high range throughout my practice sessions, but nothing seemed to work. I was told exercises by numerous people that gave me a basis on how to continue the study, but I didn’t realize that I was still creating bad technique. Until, I watched a video by James Markey: Bass Trombonists for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the video, he explained what should be happening with the embouchure and the anatomy of the process. I realized that I was changing my embouchure too much and tightening in the wrong places. “Smiling” is a common misconception, one I thought I knew, that tightens the corners and stretches them so far that it  results in an unrelaxed middle portion. FLAG POLE!!! When I processed this and played correctly, the higher register came easier in a sense that: there was more clarity to the note, there was more airflow, and it just felt better!

James Markey on Upper Register


Ears are your tuner, the machine CALIBRATES your ear.

“We SPEAK with inflection, so we PLAY with inflection”

“Trust ear more than arm”

Trusting your ear more than the position you think is right… play around with the pitch: if it sounds  wrong, fix it!

BREATH CYCLES – take a breath and let it out before you play (get the air working)

Bigger breaths are for louder music; don’t take too big a breath for softer passages


  • Played SLS #5.  I played this “Slowly and Freely” like it says, without a metronome.  The notes sound really full and open, very much like they sounded this morning.  I caught myself craning my head ever so slightly at the beginning and fixed it once I got to the second phrase.
    • I played this again but this time with a tuner handy.  I had to make many adjustments to the majority of my notes.  I worked on making my note transitions more graceful, too.


  • Played FLS #2a).  On the downbeat of this, I both craned my head and started it by moving my horn up and down again, and I immediately caught myself and started it again correctly.  I played through it once and my tone and note transitions weren’t where I wanted them to be.  I played it one more time and my tone and note transitions were a million times better.


Got Riverbanks up to Level 6 on Incentive Spirometer. It takes a lot of deep breathing (almost have to breathe after every measure), but it has helped a lot!


Playing with a more confident sound and trying to sound like Christian Lindbergh made a big difference.