Milt Steven’s Beefs and Pet Peeves for Trombonists

Milt Stevens (1942-2007) was the principle trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra for 29 years before his death in 2007. He maintained a busy performing schedule and also taught at Catholic University. A while back I was poking around to learn a bit more about him and found some notes from one of his clinics called Beefs and Pet Peeves. A lot of these are my own personal pet peeves as well and some I think are a little particular to Stevens’s own situation. Here’s a few of them that I had some additional thoughts ¬†or comments to make.

2. Not knowing tempos, styles, interpretations!
Listen!: Get lots of recordings.
Listen!: Keep radio tuned to classical stations.
Listen!: Attend live concerts.

I’ll add to this that I feel you should listen to all styles of music, not just classical (or jazz, if you perform jazz). Focus on what you want to perform most, but don’t neglect other styles. One of the reasons I feel successful as a musician is because I can step into many different musical situations and playing convincingly and stylistically. I perform with orchestras, big bands, traditional jazz combos, salsa bands, R&B bands, rock horn sections, brass chamber ensembles, solo recitals, and conduct a concert band and brass band. If all I listened to was jazz or classical music I’d not be as flexible, nor would I have been prepared to join these groups.

4. Pointing bell into the music stand!
Don’t wander with the bell as you play (unless you are David Taylor). Play off the left side of your stand, and when you read from the right hand page of music, don’t angle the bell into the stand.

I deal with this all the time with band students (and also frequently the adult players I conduct and sometimes even with professional brass players I perform with). The trouble is that when you play into the music stand you hear yourself quite clearly, but your sound isn’t projected forward to the audience and the rest of the group. Get used to directing your bell forward!

5. Pointing bell too low (toward the floor) or too high (at the head of the conductor)!
Ideally, the entire trombone section would agree on a mutually acceptable angle to hold the trombones. Use the “bells up” angle only for special effect.

On this one I’ll differ slightly with Stevens. Everyone has at least a slightly different horn angle and not every section will agree on a “mutually acceptable angle.”

I find it curious that Stevens would be such a stickler for this. One of my teachers, Doug Elliott, included Stevens in his film, The Brass Player’s Embouchure, and showed Stevens’s fairly low horn angle. If I recall correctly, Stevens had one of the most rare embouchure types. Doug’s teacher, Donald Reinhardt, called this embouchure type the Type III or “jellyroll” embouchure type because it is characterized by a rather pronounced lower lip roll and lowered horn angle. Even more unusual for Stevens’s embouchure, he used the reverse embouchure motion that most “jellyroll” embouchure players use, he pushed up to ascend and pulled down to descend. For a brief discussion of how Reinhardt’s embouchure types correlate to the embouchure classifications I prefer to use click here.

7. Allowing sound to puny, weak!
Get a weighty sound with resonance. Pretend that you can feel your resonant tone coming back into your body through your feet. Start with better quality inhales. Inhale thinking “OH”; exhale thinking “HO”.

Much like teaching articulations through using syllables, teaching breathing using these mouth shapes can be problematic if you’re not careful. Personally, I prefer to practice (and teach) keeping the lips just touching in the center (inside the mouthpiece) when breathing and breath through the mouth corners. When you open your mouth to inhale you end up having to hit a moving target when you make that initial attack right afterwards. Also, crashing the mouthpiece up against your lips every time after you breathe doesn’t seem to help your endurance in the long term.

10. Having tone production and embouchure problems due to using a dry lip embouchure!
Most brass players play with moisture on lips, even where the rim touches the lips. Mention survey of NSO brass.

I haven’t seen the NSO brass survey, but it doesn’t surprise me that most of the players played with a wet embouchure. There are some players who prefer a dry embouchure and just can’t fully adopt a wet embouchure, though. When I first made an embouchure change to the “low placement” embouchure type I was unable to keep my mouthpiece placement consistently on the same spot with a wet embouchure and I played dry. Gradually I switched to playing wet on the bottom lip and dry on the top lip to keep the rim from slipping off my top lip while playing. Eventually I was able to fully make the switch to a wet embouchure on both lips, which is my preferred way to play today. That said, every once in a while I’ll practice dry to work on some things.

In general, I’d recommend that any brass player who can play with a wet embouchure should try to adopt this. There are some advantages to this over dry for all around brass playing. Not everyone can play wet, however, and these players shouldn’t overly concern themselves about playing this way.

12. Trying to have a big sound by opening lips too far!
Your tone will be “woofy”, if your aperture is too wide for your air stream. Instead, open breathing apparatus, throat, and inside of mouth.

Players belonging to the “medium high placement” embouchure type are more prone to this problem than the other basic types, but all players should avoid this.

I also like this advice from Stevens because he discusses a good strategy for getting a focused and resonant tone – work on breathing and tongue position. Too often I come across advice from well-intentioned brass teachers who are all about breathing and keeping an open throat, etc., but when the encounter player with an unusual mouthpiece placement (e.g., the “low placement” type player) with a thin sound, they forget all about this important advice and immediately try to correct the mouthpiece placement first. Eliminate the other elements before you change embouchures.

14. Not letting lower jaw protrude enough to align lips!
When descending into lower register, allow a pivot. When ascending into extreme high register, try a reverse pivot!

Much like the horn angle above, this is personal to the player. Again, I’m surprised that Stevens would make this one of his personal beefs, because if I recall from Doug’s film, Stevens had a receded jaw position and lowered horn angle.

15. Having to shift mouthpiece up and down to change registers!
Learn to traverse registers without excessive shifting.

It’s best to keep your mouthpiece placement consistent, regardless of the register you’re playing. There will always be some pushing and pulling of the mouthpiece and lips together in an upward and downward direction, but keep it from being too excessive.

23. Having a non-existent or improper vibrato!
Discuss proper speed and amplitude. Discuss lip/jaw and slide vibrato. Mention diaphragm vibrato as not commonly done on brass instruments, except French horn.

I found Stevens’s comment of horn vibrato interesting. Most horn players I know don’t use vibrato, even for solo playing. John Ericson, from Horn Matters, has a nice article on horn vibrato here.

24. Not relying on basic tools to help you learn!
Metronome. 1/2-speed tape recorder. Mirror. Video camera. Tuner.

These days you don’t really need a 1/2 speed tape recorder, you can do the same thing with computer software. I remember lessons with Ed Kocher where we would record ourselves playing Rochut etudes phrase by phrase and then listen back to them at 1/2 speed. All the little cracked notes, out of tune pitches, and out of tempo rhythms were brought out even more by this. It was a real positive kick in the pants.

28. Exhibiting poor stage presence
Emptying water too obviously. Drinking water too obviously and too often. Not acknowledging audience/accompanists. Not bowing and taking curtain calls correctly.

This side of performing is something that is too often not taught, for some reason, yet it has a very important effect on the quality of the performance and how the audience perceives the sound. This topic deserves a post of it’s own at a later date.

29. Having no vocal training!
Sing in choruses and choirs. Be able to hear intervals before they happen. Have a singing quality to your sound.

One of the best things I’ve done for my trombone performing is to take a few vocal lessons and to perform regularly in choirs. Not to mention that it now allows me to sing backup in some of the groups I perform in once in a while as needed.

30. Not being a complete musician!
Listen to many and various recitals. Improvise. Be able to play by ear. Play in public often. Know how to effect a phrase and “turn a nuance”. Performing musically, with understanding, style, and emotion, is the primary goal of this art form.

See my comments on #2 above.

There’s plenty more beefs and pet peeves at Stevens’s web site. Go check it out here.

Got any of your own beefs or pet peeves you need to get off your chest? Leave your thoughts about them in the comments section here.

Paul T.

Dave,

I find Stevens’s use of the term “reverse pivot” interesting. I’ve heard some other people use it in reference to raising the horn angle as you ascend, which seems to me is in line with Reinhardt’s teaching (at least for a majority of players).

Have you heard this term used before? What do you think people mean by it?

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