Trumpet on a String Legend Part 2 – Rafael Méndez

There is a brass musician urban legend where a famous musician, usually a trumpet player, is said to have the instrument hanging from the ceiling on wires of some sort and then proceeds to demonstrate playing loud and high notes with “no pressure.” A while back I tried to duplicate this for fun.

 

Recently I got an email from Jackson, who was doing some research on the great Mexican trumpet player Rafael Méndez. Jackson came across the following, which may be a letter written as part of Méndez’s 1981 obituary. It was written by Ronald E. Dishon and he reminisces on when he met Méndez in 1953.

As I sat there in awe, watching and listening , he suddenly stopped and asked me to approach where he was standing. In the middle of this room, suspended from the ceiling, was a trumpet on wires. He detached it and asked me to hold it and play a single note–any note–for him. I was so taken by his presence that I was reluctant to play and sheepishly declined his offer. However, he immediately assured me that it’s okay and he just wanted to see how I held and played the horn. Little did I know, he was about to teach me some things I have never forgotten and lacked the ability to perform well then and now.

What he was about to demonstrate was non-pressure blowing. Most student trumpet players press the mouth piece somewhat hard against the lips to make the sound come out of the horn. What he demonstrated to me was that this method was not necessary to make a solid tone emanate from the trumpet. So he asked me to now try his method. Of course, I had lots of difficulty making a strong sound, but got the idea that he was trying to show me. He then placed the trumpet once again in the wire hooks suspended from the ceiling and asked me to try to play a note not touching the horn with my hands, but only with my lips.The trumpet went swing back and forth, every which way, for I lacked the ability to smoothly control my embouchure. After my attempt, he then told me to go practice all that he had taught me. Before leaving, I thanked him many times during that short stay for his kind and gentle instructions. After we were through, he went back to blowing low notes, some loudly, some quietly, from this trumpet suspended in air, never touching it with his hands

For the record, I doubt that “no pressure” is a desirable thing for brass players. Research has been done on the amount of mouthpiece pressure brass players use and even seasoned professional players use quite a lot. We also know that experienced brass teachers can’t accurately judge the amount of mouthpiece pressure a player may be using.  “No pressure” approaches are based more on a philosophy or playing ideology, rather than any sort of objective description of how functioning brass embouchures actually work.

That’s not to say that excessive mouthpiece pressure is OK to ignore, or that reducing the mouthpiece pressure might be good for some folks, but it’s entirely depends on what the individual student is doing. Before I try to reduce a student’s mouthpiece pressure I want to make sure that his or her embouchure formation is held firmly enough to accept a typical amount of playing pressure. In my opinion, avoiding technique issues or damage to the lips by mouthpiece pressure is best approached by developing the muscular strength and control in the embouchure to hold the lips firm at all times.

Classic Jazz At Half Speed

Here’s a neat site that has a number of classic jazz solo recordings played back at half speed. It’s called Half Speed Jazz.  The recordings aren’t really at half speed, they are retained at the original pitch. And then it’s played at the original speed.

Someone who isn’t a jazz improviser might wonder why recordings slowed down to half speed are helpful. Transcribing classic jazz solos is considered an essential part of learning to improvise well. Particularly when you’re a beginner at transcribing, it’s helpful to be able to slow down the recording to pick out individual notes.

While it’s much more convenient to simply get a hold of software that will do this for you, I found it interesting to take some time to listen to the slowed down recording and then the original speed. Different things about the solo stuck out to me, depending on which speed the playback was. It’s also striking how hard some of the solos swing at half speed.

New, Old Trombone Forum Up

A while back some of the staff members of the Trombone Forum (TTF) created the Trombone Chat forum. TTF has been languishing for quite a while due to a variety of issues and from time to time simply would go offline with little or no notice. Recently it went off line for a server move and software update, but it’s been down for longer then planned.

Regardless of what happens at TTF, I wanted to plug Trombone Chat. Having seen the work the moderators there did with TTF I know that it will be a friendly place to discuss trombone related topics and, unlike TTF, a number of staff members over there have the “keys to the forum” and can keep things running if the chief administrator gets too busy to handle general upkeep.

Registration is free and pretty quick (your account does need to be approved by a human, but they seem to be checking up on that regularly). Head on over an join in the discussion.

Bozo As Played By Ed Cuffee

One of my favorite bands to play with is the Low-Down Sires. We strive to recreate the spirit of early jazz styles as authentically as possible, frequently even through recreating performances of groups that pioneered the style. One tune we recently added to our repertoire is Bozo, as recorded by Clarence Williams (featuring King Oliver).

After learning to play this solo, we discovered that the tune “Bozo” appears to be a plagiarized version of “Tozo,” by Fletcher Henderson. Check out what the blogger for Pop From Yestercentury noticed in his post, Tozo and Bozo.

Regardless of who originally composed this tune, here is the melody/paraphrase of this tune as played by trombonist Ed Coffee on the Clarence Williams recording of “Bozo.” Check out the first four measures and think about the historical context of the melody and chord.

Listen closely to the recording on the embedded video above and let me know if you hear it the same. I hear the harmony pretty clearly as an Eb7 chord. While an Eb7 chord isn’t all that unusual in a tune in G major during this style period, having it right at the beginning of the tune is odd. Even more strange is the A natural and E natural (enharmonically Fb) in the melody notes.

For a jazz tune composed at least as early as 1927 this is harmonically surprising, very much ahead of its time. This is quite early in jazz for an altered dominant chord. You will find examples in swing style tunes, but it’s not until the emergence of bebop where this sort of harmonic relationship becomes common.

In the context of this tune, which is in the key of G major, an Eb7 chord more commonly leads by resolving down a half step to the dominant, D7. In “Bozo” it skips the dominant chord and jumps immediately to the tonic, but only after a fairly long time. In most jazz tunes of this time period it’s not uncommon for chords to remain static for so long, but a harmonically sophisticated chord of this type would normally not sit statically for so long.

Then there’s the altered extensions of this chord. Looking forward again to the 1940s and later, it became common in jazz to alter the dominant chord extensions by altering certain chord tones like the 9ths and 11ths. It’s unusual in a jazz tune from the late 1920s.

As an interesting aside, I’ve often heard of this chord relationship (VI7 chord) as called the “pineapple chord,” but never understood the context of why. My formal music theory background compares it to the Neapolitan chord, but my jazz theory background things about it as a tritone substitution to the V chord.

Does anyone know why “pineapple chord” has become a common term for this chord function?

The link below is a PDF to my transcription of the melody/paraphrase. As always, take it with a grain of salt and check it yourself for errors. Let me know if you find any.

Bozo – Trombone

How to Discuss Music Online

Having a comments section here in my blog is sometimes a double edged sword. I do feel that one of the most powerful tools the internet can be used for is the ability for us to question and discuss things with people that we would not otherwise get the opportunity to interact with. The flip side of that benefit is that online discussion often breaks down and has the opposite effect that we want. I see this all the time on brass fora. Too often folks offer advice to someone they have never seen or heard play before. Sometimes I question whether the confidence they seem to have about their responses are unjustified. Sometimes those folks don’t (or can’t) demonstrate even basic competence. Joey Tartell has noticed similarly and written about this phenomenon in his blog post, Nuance.

I do not argue with these people.  In fact, I choose not to engage with them at all. What I’d like to discuss today is what’s missing from so many online discussions.

One common pattern Tartell notes is the false dichotomy, when a disagreement is framed as either all or nothing, black or white, without acknowledging that there can be a continuum of possibilities and shades or gray in between. My posts a while back about the relative value of metronome practice is one example. The ensuing discussion between blogs and in the comments section kept getting reduced, in spite of my efforts, to “metronome practice is bad versus metronome practice is good.” There was little room to discuss the nuance between. Another similar pattern is the assumption that when someone says one thing is good, that means the author is calling something else bad. The metronome discussion is another good example. Just because I find a metronome a good practice and teaching tool doesn’t mean that using other approaches are bad.

Tartell lists several suggestions for how to make an online discussion more fruitful. Here is his basic list, but I suggest that you go over and read his elaborations on his original post.

  1. Decide what’s important to you.
  2. Will getting involved do any good?
  3. Stick to the subject at hand.
  4. Realize that other people could have something important to say.
  5. Not all opinions are equal.
  6. Know when to get out.

Tuvan Throat Singing and Harmonics

I’ve been fascinated by harmonic singing for a long time, ever since I first heard that it was possible for singers to produce more than one pitch at a time. There are different musical traditions that make use of harmonic singing, but to me the most interesting is the traditional music of Tuva. While I’m no expert, my curiosity led me to explore the techniques and taught myself the basics.

Mike Ruiz is a former colleague of mine. In addition to being a fine classical pianist, Mike is a physics professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where I used to teach in the music department. I’ve enjoyed picking his brain in the past about acoustics and recently Mike asked me to assist him with some physics education articles and videos he was producing. He was interested in trombone multiphonics, but in the course of our conversation I mentioned the harmonic singing. The resulting article is called Tuvan Throat Singing and Harmonics. The abstract can be read here. Here’s the video abstract.

At the same time that I demonstrated the Tuvan throat singing technique for Mike I also demonstrated trombone multiphonics as well, including some techniques that incorporated the throat constriction used for harmonic singing. When I put together trombone multiphonics with harmonic singing I have been able to come up with some interesting sounds that are similar to what you might hear on a didgeridoo. If and when that paper gets published, I will post about it here too.

In the mean time, here’s an older post on trombone multiphonics.

Playing for Swing Dancers

I’ve been playing gigs for dancers since I started playing professionally, but in the past few years a very active community of younger swing dancers has emerged and I’ve been playing a lot more. I’ve been fortunate that the bands that I work with also happen to be made up of swing dancers (some quite good!), and so I’ve been picking up on a lot of what dancers are looking for from the bands they book to play their events.

I’ve only performed with Laura Windley a handful of times, but she has a unique background as a singer, dancer, and event organizer that makes her advice on this subject worth listening to.

I’ve been seeing a bit of this lately with some local bands who would like to play for swing dancers – bandleaders who contact local organizers to promote their events or about being hired, but have very little experience playing for dance events (or playing for swing dance events specifically, as opposed to ballroom events or more general dancing) or had past experience playing for dancers but haven’t kept up with trends in music in the swing dance community. Several people have written blog posts about playing music for dancers and I agree that the music is the most important aspect and that feedback should be considered, but I want to focus on relationships and communication.

Laura notes something similar to what I see all the time – excellent jazz musicians who don’t play in a stylistically appropriate way when playing jazz from he 1920s and 1930s. I guess I was lucky in that my undergraduate jazz teacher (Dr. Tom Streeter) made sure that the jazz band was regularly performing swing music and performing it correctly. A lot of jazz programs tend to emphasize modern jazz (nothing wrong with this, per se), and sometimes a student’s interests will pull them in one direction and leave a hole in their stylistic knowledge.

There have been great swing bands that lost gigs because they insisted on featuring their soloists for umpteen choruses and the songs ended up being 10 minutes long. If you have never danced to an uptempo song for 10 minutes, try running for 10 minutes and see how winded you are. You want the dancers to be exhausted at the end of the night, not in the middle of the first set. The guidelines and norms are there for a reason, and the reasons are generally practical.

Selecting the tempos of the tunes and how you put them together is very important for keeping dancers on the dance floor. Too many fast tunes in a row and they will start sitting out tunes. Too many of the same tempos in a row gets repetitive. One dancer/musician I once asked about it said that he likes to put dance sets together in groups of three – medium, fast, medium. When you repeat back to another medium tempo you want to have a slightly different tempo or groove to help provide variety.

But there are exceptions. This past weekend I performed for a Balboa dance weekend. This particular dance is done to faster tempo tunes, so we ended up playing more faster tempo tunes than we might have otherwise. James, the bandleader was very careful about tempos both dances we played, frequently double checking with a metronome. He had also arranged one chart to exactly fit the length of time needed for a dance competition.

Needless to say, in addition to being an excellent ragtime, stride, and swing pianist, James is also a swing dancer. The two dances we played went very well because he understood exactly what the dancers wanted and was organized so that the band was prepared to do it.

Again, I’ve been lucky that I get to rub elbows with some dancers and musicians who are plugged into the swing dance scene at a national level and gotten to tag along to perform at events around the south east. It’s been an invaluable help for those times when I’m the band leader on a dance show or even if dancers show up to one of my regular big band gigs. If you’re wanting to break into this scene, check out Laura’s post.

Singing in the MRI

Here’s a neat video I came across by Tyley Ross, a voice teacher and vocologist from New York City. He demonstrates four distinct vocal styles while in an fMRI to show how his vocal tract changes for each style.

I am always excited when musicians and pedagogues investigate the science of how we create musical art. It’s easier to do with voice than with brass instruments, since there’s not external instrument that needs to go into the MRI. Because the voice is also an area that medical science specifically studies also, we happen to know more about how sound is produced when singing.

I was somewhat surprised by how open the soft palate was open on the operatic style compared to the rock style. It’s pretty cool to be able to look inside the body and see what’s going on.

Arguing For Science Based Brass Pedagogy

Learning to play any musical instrument, including trombone, is an inherently “knacky” experience. So much of what you need to do to be successful involves trying something a bunch of times, making small physical adjustments each time, until it clicks once. Then there’s a lot of trial and error trying to make it work that way consistently. Each musician’s playing sensations are going to be different and be influence by not only anatomical differences, but also the history of how they played before and their personal beliefs and biases.

This is undoubtedly why a lot of brass pedagogy involves teaching musical artistry first and teaching technique through modeling and metaphor. The end result, however, is that there is less consensus about what good brass technique is and how to achieve it. We have a tendency to look towards so-called “natural players” for advice, who may be the least qualified to tell us what’s actually physically happening when performing.

Couple this with a persistent culture of ignorance in brass pedagogy. It’s normal for some brass teachers to discourage folks to analyze their playing. It will to lead to “paralysis by analysis.” If you do,  you won’t see the forest for the trees. Imitate the sound you want and you’ll learn it, just like you learned to talk as a baby. If a centipede had think about how it walked it would get nowhere. Don’t think, play.

I find this attitude confusing. Why would a teacher disparage questioning and thinking? That’s the message it sends. And that’s what those students end up passing on when they become teachers.

The other side of this coin is the vast amount of pseudoscience you can find in brass pedagogy. Part of this is due to literal interpretations of analogies and over reliance on fallible playing sensations. A lot of it is due to us over estimating what we actually know. At its heart, it’s a lack of scientific literacy. Trombone teachers usually aren’t scientists, but we tend to misunderstand what science actually is and mistrust it. It’s often seen as a non-overlapping magisterium with both music and teaching. If the science suggests something we’re teaching is wrong, that’s just an egghead in the white tower who hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches.

Science isn’t a collection of disciplines like anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and acoustics, although those disciplines might inform how we teach trombone. Science isn’t about acquiring facts either, although they might help us too. At it’s heart, science is about exploring the limits of what we know. It’s about testing a hypothesis and challenging assumptions. And it also happens to involve a lot of creative thinking, much like in music.

Superficially, we probably already do this in our instruction. We try out something with a student and assess whether it worked. We test it out for a while and then try something else. If we can’t find the answer is a resource we have, we create one specific to the student. When something works for one student, we try it out with another student and see what happens. Over time, we can develop a large repertoire of analogies and methods and get a good feel for when to try one and when to try the other.

However, we sometimes confuse this for science. Science recognizes that the nature of that experimentation we did in our teaching studio is inherently biased. It’s too easy to simply confirm what we already believe, rather than learn something new. You can’t look for evidence that your hypothesis is right, you look for ways to falsify your beliefs. If you ideas withstand that sort of scrutiny, then maybe you’re on to something. Brass pedagogy has long only looked for evidence to support our preconceived beliefs.

Herein lies the scientific method’s greatest strength. It is self-correcting and always looking to learn more. Science-based pedagogy has been more popular in other disciplines (e.g., athletics) because brass pedagogy hasn’t been as good at fixing our old mistakes. We routinely revere long dead pedagogues, now and then referring to their texts as “bibles” and former students of those teachers as “disciples.” This isn’t an attitude conducive to change.

There is good science being done on brass pedagogy. Our understanding of both the acquisition of motor skills and the specific physical process of playing the trombone is better understood now than it was when I was a student. The exciting part is that access to this research and the scientists who do this is easier than ever. What’s difficult is vetting the information into a correctly nuanced context. That takes some effort and should be an ongoing process. You can’t just look at what we know, but also question how we know what we know.