Jazz vs classical
Ever since I started playing, I’ve loved all kinds of music, both to play and listen to. As a consequence, I’ve never been able to decide if I wanted to be a classical trombone player or a jazzer. As much as I love sitting in an orchestra and play the great music by the great composers, I can’t imagine not playing tunes with a swinging rhythm section. The result is, that so far, I’ve put off making a decision, and while waiting for the right moment, I’m doing both! Years ago, I had a conversation with the great Swedish jazz musician Ulf Johansson-Werre. You gotta check this guy out, he plays piano like Art Tatum and trombone like Urbie Green! I asked him if he thought of himself more of a trombone player or a piano player (he’s also a phenomenal drummer and singer!) and he said that when he’s playing piano, he considers himself a piano player, and when he plays trombone he’s a trombone player. ‘Nuff said! I think that’s an important point. If you can identify with what’s going on around you musically, you will have an easier time to feel like you are a part of the musical process, and not feeling like being out of your element. In other words, think like an orchestra player when playing orchestra, and learn to speak that language, and vice versa with a jazz gig. For the classical player who wants to play jazz: it takes a lot of work! It involves lots of listening, transcribing solos, study harmony and learning tunes. It’s a different way of thinking about playing. Just practicing the scales the “jazz“ way can be a really fun and liberating experience, turning the scales inside out, building chords, practice patterns etc. If you’re serious about jazz and improvising there are some excellent resources. Get volume 1 “How to play jazz and improvise” of the Jamey Aebersold Play-Along series. It’s a step-by-step method on how to get started, complete with a swinging rhythm section on the CD. Also get some good recordings of players you like and start transcribing solos. J J Johnson is a great starting point. His playing is very clear and logical, and you can hear all the notes. Then go on and learn about the modes, the blues-scale, how a blues is constructed, the difference between rhythm-changes and other 32-bar tunes etc. There is a whole universe of new musical experiences just waiting for you to start exploring.
In my experience, classical players who want to do more jazz playing sometimes have a hard time getting the concept of swing. They also tend to “blow through” the phrases too much. What works in classical playing, a steady air stream to make sure that all the notes get the same sound quality and volume can make a jazz phrase sound overbearing with no swing. Usually relaxing the air and use a more legato-type tongue helps. The most important thing to remember is to not get overwhelmed and discouraged by all the new information you have to process. Take one step at a time, and you’ll get there. Jazz players who like to add a more orchestral style to their playing might not be used to the amount of sound you have to crank out in a large orchestra. A forte in an orchestra is very different from one in a big band, usually with a little less “bite”, but more sustained playing, even in faster passages. I also like to hear a clear attack, with the tip of the tongue between the teeth instead of legato-tonguing on everything. In playing orchestra, I’ve also learned to be much pickier about my own playing. Little details matter! It’s not unusual for an orchestra player to practice a seemingly easy passage over and over again, to make sure he or she can perform it perfectly every time under pressure.
Inevitably, the question of switching instruments comes up. I like the idea of playing all the jobs on the same horn if possible. For a while I used to play all jobs on my King 3B, but nowadays I do so much classical playing, it’s the other way around, I sometimes play my big horn on jazz gigs. Most of the time though I try to keep up both horns, that means practicing both, every day! It’s gotten easier over the years, and I’ve learned to not overblow on the small horn. There is definitely, at least for me, an element of frustration in trying to sound good in every style. In the back of my mind is always the question if I should concentrate on one thing and try to master it. Do my excerpts get worse by my practicing doodle-tongue? I have found though that I get more frustrated if I don’t get to play both jazz and classical, something’s missing! Ideally, the idea is to become a complete musician, comfortable in expressing him- or herself without being limited by different styles or concepts. My thought has always been that if I want to work as a trombone player, I can’t afford to be picky. That means being able to play the gigs you’re hired to do, and sound like a pro, whether it’s swing or straight. And it’s a lot of fun in the process; you get the best of both worlds!
Whether you’re a classical player or jazzer, professional or student, sooner or later you will find yourself in a situation where you have to show what you can do on the horn, whether it’s a chair test in middle school or auditioning for a symphony orchestra. When I was a kid the thing to do each year was to go to the Salvation Army Summer Music School. They invited some very fine conductors, like the legendary Bernard Adams, longtime bandmaster of the International Staff Band, William Himes, bandmaster of the Chicago Staff Band, and Roland Cobb, the former principal cornet of the ISB, father of current ISB bandmaster Stephen Cobb and grandfather of LSO principal trumpet Phil Cobb. It was a great musical experience for a kid like me, coming from a small (not very good) corps band with maybe 10-12 players. In those days, they had two bands, the Starlake Band, named after the famous band camp in New York, and Dragudden Band, the top band. The first day of camp everybody had to play a little audition to get in the right band. I was petrified the whole summer leading up to camp. When it was my turn, I did my little thing, played the scales, some sight-reading and topped it off by playing the theme from “Soap”, the TV sit-com, which was really popular in Sweden at that time. When later that day they announced that I made 1st trombone in the top band, I thought I’d gone straight to heaven! I still get goose-bumps thinking about it, and it’s probably the reason I wanted to become a professional trombone player. That camp is still one of my most memorable musical experiences of my life. Even after doing this, I hated auditions! In Sweden at that time, all males 18 and older had to do their military service. My dream was to get in to the Swedish Army Band. There is only one band, they play for the changing of the guards at the Royal Castle in Stockholm, go on tours etc, things that are really exciting when you’re 18! To prepare for this I decided to audition for the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. Not to get in, just to practice for the Army Band. I did pretty good, advancing to the finals and so on. But it was such a nerve-wrecking experience; I vowed never to do it again! I went through with the Army Band audition, and made it in to the band, but I still couldn’t stand auditioning. I was done doing this! I guess the pull to play music became too strong, I was back for the college auditions the next year, and made it to the Gothenburg Conservatory, where I was fortunate to study with Ingemar Roos, a wonderful teacher, and a great guy. By now, like it or not, I had to get serious about the audition business.
In the spring of my first year, the Royal Danish Opera had a utility trombone position open (that’s playing both tenor- and bass trombone). I prepared like crazy, practicing around the clock. I took the train and ferry down to Copenhagen and played the first round. No screen, David 1st mvt on the tenor, and straight to the Lebedev concerto for bass trombone. I didn’t think I sounded too hot, so I went and packed my horns, but to my absolute amazement I advanced to the second round! That definitely gave a boost to my confidence, and I actually ended up being runner-up! After this initial and unexpected success in the audition business I had a long string of bad auditions. I don’t think I advanced in any of them. This frustrated me quite a bit but had the advantage of pushing me to get more serious about my jazz playing. After all, I wanted to feel good about something in my trombone playing!
Then a job came up I thought would be perfect for me. It was the Bohuslän Big Band, located north of Gothenburg. The job was fifty/fifty big band-concert band, with some great jazz players in the band. I became really serious about the preparation, just like I had been for the Danish Opera. They asked for the David Concertino and a piece of your own choice. I had prepared both Arthur Pryor’s Thoughts of Love and a jazz ballad. I wanted to show the jury different aspects of my playing, and it worked, I got the job. Unfortunately, this approach is not possible on most auditions. There might not even be a solo-piece on the list, only orchestral excerpts. In my opinion, that is a mistake on part of the jury, but that is a whole other discussion.
My next successful attempt at auditioning was in Västerås. That job was mostly brass ensemble, with orchestra roughly one production a month. I had subbed for three months before the audition, and really wanted this job. This time the jury had a different approach than the Bohuslän Big Band jury. All rounds behind the screen, no ensemble test, and no solo pieces, except the David concertino. They also had a trombonist from another orchestra on the committee to make sure everything was fair. I prepared thoroughly, played for everybody who cared to listen, and felt pretty confident on the day of the audition. It worked, and I got the job. That turned out to be a great job for me; because that same fall I met my future wife Tina! After we moved to the States in -97 I’ve been back to Sweden to audition three times. I made the finals for the Stockholm Philharmonic in 2002 and was runner up for the Linköping Wind Symphony in 2003 and the Swedish Radio Symphony in 2007. I finally scored in 2009 when I got the principal trombone position at the Houstn Grand Opera/Houston Ballet. A year later I won another job, 2nd trombone with the Royal Opera in Stockholm. For a lot of reasons having to do with family, schools for the boys, housing etc. I ended up turning that job down, but that's another story.
In preparing for an audition I make sure to get two hours of real practice in each day. I should probably do more, but with three little boys in the family, plus gigs and teaching it’s not always possible, so I’ve decided to feel good about the two hours I can get in. I put all the excerpts in a folder, to have them organized. Each day, I spend maybe 15-20 minutes on my warm-up, but not too much. You never know what will happen on the day of the audition, you might be the first one to play, without much warm-up time. I practice the excerpts very slow at first, in small sections, to make sure I cover all rough spots. The goal is to be able to play the whole excerpt in a very relaxed, natural and musical manner, no matter what range or dynamic. I pay extra attention to the rhythm, in my experience that’s where most players make mistakes. It’s hard keeping a steady beat by yourself! When I feel good about playing the excerpts one by one, I start playing down the list, several times a day. I only give myself one chance on each excerpt. The whole point is to mimic the audition process. I might even picture myself going out on the stage the day of the audition, to prepare mentally. During this process I record myself constantly, listen and take notes, trying to be really picky. If you have children running around the house while practicing, invite the neighbor’s kids, and bring the dog and rabbit too! You have to learn to play well even when there are distractions around. I figure that if I can play Schumann’s Third with my 4- and 5-year old boys climbing on me, I should be able to do it by myself during the audition! (And it actually worked, when I auditioned for the Swedish Radio Symphony, they asked for it twice in the finals, and I felt I nailed it both times.)
The whole idea with this process is to be able to play as good as possible every time under the worst conditions possible. When it’s getting close to the audition, I try to limit switching horns. That might mean I’ll play my jazz brunch or a big band gig on my big horn, I want to feel as comfortable as possible on the horn I’ll use for the audition. If you ever get the urge to switch mouthpiece the week before the audition, don’t! Stick to what you have and are used to. The committee won’t be able to tell if you’re playing a 5G or a 4G, but they can sure tell if you start missing notes because your chops aren’t used to that new miracle mouthpiece!
When you’re playing for the jury, there can be no question marks in your performance. You want to show them that “this is how the piece goes!” The jury wants to hear a player with confidence and control. I still get nervous, but I try to prepare myself, so I know exactly what will come out of the horn when I pick it up. Roger Lindberg, former Principal trombone of the Malmö Symphony in Sweden, taught me a valuable lesson once. We were playing a rehearsal, and he was mad at one of his students because this player missed a big audition by feeling out of shape on the big day. Roger mumbled “Damn it, when there’s an audition, you make sure to be in shape, no matter what!” Over the years, I’ve played some really good auditions and some really bad ones, but I learned that preparation is the key. You cannot depend on luck. Hopefully these thoughts can be of some value to the reader. There are lots of great resources on the web about taking auditions. One of the best ones is found on yeodoug.com, which gives a thorough walk-through of the whole process.
It’s been very helpful to me in my attempts. Good Luck!
For classical music I mostly play a Bach 42BO with a Schilke Symphony D5.1 mouthpiece. I also have my old Conn 88H Elkhart I bought in college. For jazz and commercial music, I use a King 2B with a Bach 6 ¾ C mouthpiece. My alto trombone is a Yamaha 671, I use the Yamaha 47A mouthpiece that came with the horn. Of course, being a trombone nut, I’ve bought and sold (regrettably in some cases) and played other instruments over the years. Holton, Yamaha, you name it. I did play a Schmelzer Model 2 for a few years, and then one of my friends in Spiritual to the’ Bone fell in love with it and bought it. Very smooth horn! I also have a King BB 4 valve tuba I play on dixie-gigs. It has to stay in the garage!
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