This will be my seventh column for the OTJ since February of this year,
and as I search for a worthy topic, I'm reminded of something a very great
trombonist said to me once. He was speaking of students and teaching in
general, and he said "You know, it used to puzzle me... students would come
to my house; I'd give them an hour lesson, tell them just about everything
I know, and then two weeks later they'd come back for another lesson and
I'd end up telling them the same damned thing all over again...year in and
year out, the same routine, until they either got bored and changed
teachers or finally figured out that the basic principles of playing the
instrument aren't really all that complicated in the first place.
However, I think I've finally figured it out...now I can tell'em all I
know in under twenty minutes."
I took some lessons from John Coffey in Boston, a legendary trombonist
and teacher, and his whole approach to the horn...he was quite old by the
time I met him, and he'd had a lot of time to refine his techniques...could
be summed up by three things he said at least once in almost every
lesson..."Tongue and blow, kid, tongue and blow; that's all there is to
it," "Relax, kid, it ain't gonna bite you," and, somewhere near the end
of the lesson, "Have a drink, kid, have a drink." This from a man whose
playing career included such disparate jobs as bass trombonist with the Boston
Symphony and subbing for Tommy Dorsey on recording sessions, a real working
musician and life-long teacher.
OK, what am I trying to say here...??? Playing the trombone is not all
that hard??? If it's so easy, how come we can't all play like Joe Alessi or
J.J. Johnson or John Coffey?
I think the problem is better stated by saying that the act of making
music on the trombone...and by extension, any other instrument...is TOO
complicated to THINK about, while being performed...thus the need for
practice, the need to separate the various acts that become "playing" into
disparate, smaller elements that CAN be considered, put under a performance
microscope, perfected, and then further, the often neglected need to
reintegrate these parts into a larger totality called "technique," and
further still into "music."
Rereading my previous articles in this series, I realize I've said just
about everything I know about the trombone...unlike the musician I
mentioned at the beginning of this article, I've not yet succeeded in
getting it down to an hour, let alone 20 minutes...and any further articles
would be a repetition of what I've already written. Therefore, at least
until I discover something new about the horn that I think I understand
well enough to be able to write it down, this will be my last regular
column for the OTJ.
In light of what I said about concentrating fairly complex information
into elegant, compact packages, I would like to end this series of columns
with a group of teaching stories. Some of these are taken directly from
personal experience, and thus are as close to "true" as words will allow,
and some are apocryphal, stories that have probably circulated orally among
musicians, in various forms, since the court musicians of the Pharaohs, and
certainly since jazz began to take form in New Orleans around the turn of
Here they are, in no particular order...
Someone once asked Fats Waller, the great jazz pianist and songwriter of
the '30s, to define swing. His answer? "If you don't know...I can't tell
Think about it...
I once played a show where the horn section, because of space
considerations, was in the balcony of a fairly large Broadway theater while
the conductor and the rhythm section were in the pit. There were a couple
of players in the woodwinds that absolutely could not play...not such a
rarity, on Broadway, especially in the '70s...and I myself was just
beginning to be able to play passably, after a major embouchure breakdown
from which it took me several years to recover.
When the conductor gave a downbeat, we saw his hand fall about half a
second before we heard the sound from the rhythm. Add to that the terrible
pitch and sound of a couple of the musicians, and my relatively insecure
embouchure, and within two days of rehearsal I had lost the ability to
reliably attack any note, anywhere, any time, on the horn. Panic!!!
I was studying with the great brass teacher, Carmine Caruso, at that
time, and I hurriedly made an appointment for an emergency lesson. Carmine,
who was the very soul of calm and clarity in the frenetic, high pressure
New York City free-lance music world, greeted me in his old, cluttered
office, sat down in his old, battered easy chair, and asked me to play him
his basic first exercise, which he called The Six Notes, to see for himself
what was happening.
One of the basics of Carmine's approach was to let the muscles of the
body find their own way into good playing, by relating highly simplified
exercises that isolated small parts of brass playing to (mentally
subdivided) good time, and every exercise was done to the accompaniment of
your own tapped foot. I picked up my horn, started tapping my foot at the
tempo I meant to play the exercise (about 60 BPM), got about three beats
into the tapping, started to raise the horn to my lips, and Carmine said
I looked at him...he looked at me...and he said, very slowly and kindly,
"You're not listening to your foot."
There ensued a long pause, while I digested that one, followed by
another four foot taps, folowed by the first good, secure attack (on a
third-partial F) I had experienced in days. Carmine smiled, said "OK,
that's enough; go home and practice now." Within 20 minutes of
practice all my attack problems were gone...at least for that episode.
Whenever they, or any other timing problems, have ever reappeared again, I
have always remembered Carmine's words..."You're not listening to your foot."
The world's shortest lesson.
A word on the difference between notation and music, from that world
reknowned musician, Pablo Picasso...
Picasso was painting one of a series of works he did, using models, but
painting them as if they had exploded into many dimensions
simultaneously...the beginnings of what's known as Cubism, the attempt to
paint a three dimensional object on a two dimensional plane in such a way
that you can see it from all sides, like sculpture...and the model's
husband, after several weeks of painting, dropped by one evening to see how
the work was going. Picasso showed him the piece, and the man was outraged.
"That looks nothing at ALL like my wife !!" he said.
Picasso stepped back, eyeing the painting this way and that, and then
asked "Well, what do YOU think she looks like?"
The man drew a snapshot of his wife out of his wallet, and handed it to
Picasso, saying "There. THAT'S what she REALLY looks like."
Picasso looked at the photo curiously for a moment, shrugged, and handed
it back to the man rather rather noncommittedly, saying only "Really? I'd
no idea she was so small!!!"
Another take on notation vs. music...
A young tenor player...I've heard it was Wardell Grey, Lester Young, who
knows who it really was, or even if it happened this way at all...was hired
to join the Basie band in the late '30s. He was very talented, a great
soloist, and really knew the music the band was playing, having listened
extensively to it on record. During the next several months, he became one
of the band's most featured players, and he was really good in the section,
Some months later, Basie called a rehearsal to get together some new
music, and when they started playing, this guy could barely get through a
bar of the new stuff without screwing up.
After a few minutes of this, Basie got up from the piano and, walking
over to the tenor player, said "What's the matter with you, man...can't you
read?" To which the player answered with the deathless line, "No...at
least not enough to hurt my playing."
Thelonious Monk once hired a bass player in Washington DC to do a week-long
gig with his regular quartet. Now, Monk's music is known as
notoriously hard to play amongst jazz musicians, especially harmonically,
and this bass player found himself thoroughly challenged the first night.
He took the music home, practiced it, and the second night began to feel OK
with most of the pieces.
The next day he worked on the ones that were still giving him trouble,
and by the third night he was comfortable with all of the tunes but one,
which, no matter how he approached it, never felt right. He spent the next
day working only on that tune, and the day after that too, and by the fifth
night he finally felt as if he'd mastered it. After they played that
particular tune on the last night of the gig, he mentioned to Monk that he
had really had trouble finding his way inside that particular piece, but
felt he had finally gotten it.
Monk...known for his contrary, gnomic utterances as much as for his
contrary, gnomic music...growled "You played it better when you didn't know
it !!!" and walked away.
Again, think about it...
Another short lesson...I had the tremedous good fortune to play regularly
with Jimmy Knepper (a GREAT trombonist!!!) in various bands for a few years
in and around New York City. One of the things I tried to pick up from him
was his way of holding the slide, which consists of turning the wrist so
that it is parallel to the body instead of the more common approach, where
the wrist is turned almost at the perpendicular, and holding the slide with
four or five fingers, instead of just two or three. This allows for the
wrist joint to come more into play in the manipulation of the slide, plus a
more positive control of the slide itself can be gained with the use of the
It was quite an adjustment from the way I had always played before, and,
being an analytical kinda guy, I started experimenting with different
variations on the grip, and various ways of holding my shoulder and arm to
get the best possible results.
Jimmy and I were rehearsing some really difficult music in unison and
octaves with two saxes and two trumpets one day, music not really meant to
be played by a trombone, with lots of quick little triplet turns and
figures in the bottom of the bass clef, Cs and Bs and Bbs...and Jimmy,
playing a straight tenor, was making every figure, while I, with an F
attachment, was having lots of trouble playing the lines.
Finally, on a break, I started working on some of the more difficult
parts, changing hand positions, trying it with my elbow out, down, up,
over, using five fingers, four...no matter what I tried, I couldn't get it.
As I struggled with the music, I noticed Jimmy watching me, and asked
"Jim, I just can't seem to get some of these lines. What am I doing wrong
Jimmy answered...imagine Jimmy Stewart crossed with William
Burroughs..."Maybe you're not moving your hand fast enough."
Of course, that's two more words, three more syllables, than Carmine
needed, but it worked just as well.
Simple, ain't it, this trombone stuff?
A couple of song titles to chew on...
"It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing"-Duke Ellington
"It Ain't Whatcha Do, It's The Way 'Atcha Do It"-Trummy Young (ANOTHER
great trombone player)
That's about enough...my meaning should be becoming clear about now. The
REAL stuff almost can't be talked about, can't be said or studied, only
played. All the rest is just preparation, and commentary around the edges
of the unsayable.
In parting, I would just like answer a number of queries from various
people who've read this series of articles, regarding my use of the
pseudonym "Sabutin." I've written under a pseudonym, both here and on the
trombone list (an Internet based
e-mail list), because I just don't have the time to answer the phone a
couple of times a day and have conversations with people about equipment,
techniques, music, etc...not because it's not fun or interesting, because
it often is, but just because there are only so many hours in the day.
If anyone wants to pursue any of these ideas personally, either through
private correspondence, lessons or clinic/masterclass situations, e-mail
me at firstname.lastname@example.org and, if you sound serious, I'll tell you who I am and we'll meet, or at least talk on the phone.
I will say this much...I work and teach mostly around NYC and Washington
DC, playing almost every variety of music that uses lower brass, on tenor
trombone, bass trombone, tuba, euphonium, and valve trombone (with an
emphasis on those styles that are most American...Jazz, Latin, etc.),
travel maybe ten weeks of the year throughout the world...mostly USA, these
days, and mostly with the "Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra," directed
by David Baker...and, although I don't really want to write much more about
my approach to the instrument on the internet (due mostly to my fear of
screwing up some players with one piece of information who really need
another), I've got a lot more to say, LOVE to teach, and often get some
pretty good results.
Write me if you want more. It's been fun...
About the Author...
Sam Burtis attended Ithaca College and The Berklee School of Music. He has been a working musician in New York City since 1969, playing tenor trombone, bass trombone, tuba, valve trombone and euphonium in just about every idiom and situation available to a professional musician in New York during that time. He is also a composer and arranger, writing and transcribing for such musicians and organizations as The Lee Konitz Nonet, The Charles Mingus Band, The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Tito Puente, and the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra.He is currently forming his own ensemble to play his compositions. He is also a free-lance musician, playing studio, theater, concert, and jazz club work regularly in and around New York City and throughout the world.