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Orchestral Excerpts for the Tenor Trombonist: Berlioz, Hungarian March

David Gier  - david-gier@blue.weeg.uiowa.edu
Professor of Trombone, University of Iowa
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  We've all experienced it: five minutes into the orchestra rehearsal and the conductor is berating the low brass for playing behind the beat and too loudly. The connection between these two common tendencies is not mere coincidence, and unfortunately, conductors' criticisms are almost always warranted. Hungarian March has proved to be an excellent audition piece because the seemingly universal flaw of dragging at louder dynamics is quickly assessed. This excerpt tests a trombonist's ability to play with strength, character, quality of sound and volume, while moving rapidly and rhythmically through the often cumbersome mid-register.

The tempo of this excerpt can be right "in the crack" with regard to slide technique--just a bit slower than the speed at which we move our slides smoothly, taking a series of notes in one gesture, and somewhat faster than comfortable for the type of slide motion that is more deliberate and stops distinctly for each note. Obviously, careful, slow practice to "program in" the correct positions is crucial, but as the excerpt approaches tempo, the performer should strive to have a relaxed (yet accurate) slide arm.

Careful work on intonation in the learning stages will pay off. Pay close attention to tuning the half-and whole-steps, particularly in groups of notes taken in one direction of the slide, such as the C#-D-E-F in mm. 9-10. At quick tempos, it is easy to fall into the trap of distributing those four notes over the slide in equidistant positions, leaving the D sharp and the E flat. Be sure to fully extend out to fourth position (m. 9, for example) so as not to leave the Gs sharp.

Position choices are always personal and in the case of orchestral music can be downright controversial. For me, the efficacy of fourth-position D's in m. 17 makes them the most musical choice. I choose to return to first position for the D's in m. 19, then take the C double-sharp in fourth in m. 22. At full speed, these slide positions are audibly more fluent for me. This sequential passage (from mm. 17-22) is a series of half- and whole-step neighboring notes around a chromatically climbing central pitch. Be sure to tune carefully!

Patience is a virtue when mastering orchestral excerpts. Resist the temptation to blow through this one at full speed and forte before you have carefully programmed in the correct rhythm. One of the most common difficulties is losing time on the tied notes. Always use a metronome in your practice, and get the feel for how quickly you must move on after the dotted quarters by playing the passage while tonguing constant eighth-notes (that is, turning the dotted quarters into three tongued eighths.) Slightly taper the dotted-quarters to keep a buoyant sound, but be sure to musically drive through the phrases. Toward this end, be sure to rebound off of the lower octave (m. 10 and m. 13) to propel the music forward. As with all audition excerpts, learn Hungarian March in a range of tempos. Keith Brown suggests half note = 88, but several recordings I recently listened to were quite a bit quicker, around 98 for the half.

To avoid the rough, "blatty" style heard so often in passages like this, learn the excerpt with very long, centered eighth-notes; as you move toward performance tempo the notes should remain long, but still firmly articulated. In particular, the octave leaps have a tendency to stick out. Ideally, the angularity of the line should not affect the tone and momentum of the excerpt. (You should add octave work to your routine if the leaps prove to be a problem. See the Schlossberg or Marsteller method books for excellent exercises.) I believe that any attempt to play short at the necessary dynamic and tempo will result in an edgy, unblending sound.

The first trombone part does not include the octave leaps (or the rising scale passage found in the second and bass trombone parts,) but in most performances all of the trombonists play the passage with the octaves. I generally encourage students to learn the second part just to have everything covered. Playing this in a low brass section allows for some liberties not possible when playing this excerpt for an audition. Without a section, your breathing should be symmetrical, that is, placed in musically consistent spots. You could try breathing after the dotted quarters (as recommended by Doug Yeo in his excellent comments on the Hungarian March excerpt), or after the octave leaps, although the latter will probably slow you down.

As with any excerpt, the technical demands can be overwhelming, and all thought of musical content or context is lost. Always imagine the orchestral sound around you as you "perform" this in the practice room! When preparing a group of excerpts, try to characterize the Hungarian March as more than just "loud and fast." This excerpt should be rhythmically exciting, big and bold without being ponderous, and it should drive to the end. Be patient, pay attention to details, and have a good time practicing!