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Trombone: Interview and demonstration with principal Joseph Alessi

Video transcript

("Symphony No.2 - I. Allegro maestoso" by Gustav Mahler) This is a tenor trombone. And there's a bass trombone and an alto trombone, and a soprano trombone, and a contrabass trombone. So we've got a lot of different sizes. Trombone goes back to the Baroque ages. And then they had a funny name called the sackbut. Trombone, of course, lot of people associate it with jazz, because that's its natural habitat. But then there's a whole world of the classical trombone. There's usually three trombones in an orchestra, two tenors and a bass. But then there's the brass band world, the concert bands, wind ensembles. And then for crazy trombone players there's trombone choir, and trombone quartet, and that's a lot of fun. If you've never heard eight or 12 trombones together, it's an incredible sound. ("Symphony No. 9 in E minor - II. Largo" by Antonín Dvořák") The brass player and the vocalist share one special thing in common. And that is, the brass player makes the pitch with a body part, and that's our lips. And the vocalist makes their pitch with the vocal cords. It's not far, though. That's not that far away from the brain, actually. It's pretty close. And no other instruments share that same association. All brass players have to conceive the sound the sound and the pitch in their head, then it's transferred to here, then it's transferred to the mouthpiece, and then you send that message into the instrument. And if the brass player doesn't hear the pitch... I do this with my own students. They have to be able to hear the pitch, and transfer it to here, and then the instrument will basically do what you want it to do. That's how people get a great tone, is this center of sound and center of pitch first, before you play. So many days I'll start my day in the car, I'll have my mouthpiece. And I have about a 45-minute commute. And without turning on the radio or anything, I'll just start playing or start buzzing something on the mouthpiece. And in my mind, I will know exactly what pitch that is. "Well, I'm buzzing an F. "I'm buzzing a C." Or whatever. On the mouthpiece. When I get to work, if that pitch center is correct, when I pick up my horn, bingo. That's exactly the pitch that I was buzzing all along. (whistles) That's a B flat. Better be. (buzzing) And I know that last pitch I just played is a B flat. (horn blowing) So... The whole world of brass playing I think is essential to the brass player, a very good brass player, to have that pitch in their mind even before they play. This way, if you sing in your mind, then it happens very easily on the instrument. I'm sending the message from my brain to my lips, and all the muscles that are around my face determine what pitch I make. The instrument is just sort of an aid, in some ways. It's aiding, it's allowing this pitch to happen. ("Daphnis and Chloe - Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel) One of the keys to the success of the classical trombone player is ultimate control of how you move the slide. That's the key, in classical trombone is to have complete control of the slide, where you don't show any glissando at all. So, if you play a scale. (horn blowing) I'm very careful how to move the slide. And you can play a scale not carefully. (horn blowing) You know. Lot of glissandi that I was making. So, glissandi. (horn blowing) Something like that. If you played, let's say, Mahler three, and you used the same technique, it would sound like this. (horn blowing) Okay? So, that doesn't really work. ("Symphony No. 2 - I. Allegro maestoso" by Gustav Mahler) My father was a trumpet player, and he played here in New York at the Metropolitan Opera. And my mother sang at the opera also. Then we moved out to California. I would watch my father warm up on the trumpet. So I kind of gravitated to that, and I probably begged him to start me on the trumpet, and he did. He started me on cornet. And I did that for several years. But always had trouble with the high register on the trumpet. My father came in one day and said, "Why don't you just try this trombone?" I reluctantly tried it, and found that I had a fantastic high register on the trombone, at a very young age. And I think the reason why, he knew brass pretty well. His father was a trumpet player, my grandfather. But it just, I think, this is not true for everybody. But in my case, just the size of the mouthpiece fit my face better. So that's how I ended up on the trombone. And I didn't really know what I would do with the trombone. It wasn't something that I was interested in. Until I started to listen to J.J. Johnson, and also the Chicago Symphony Low Brass came out with a record, educational record, where they played orchestral excerpts as a group. And then I got to hear the trombone section, by themselves, in four-part harmony, with the tuba. And that really interested me. I started to get recordings, and listen to all kinds of repertoire. The teachers in San Francisco at that time were fantastic. They all had played in the San Francisco Symphony. A lot of times it's who you study with, too. I think I was lucky in that way. In our high school we had a great jazz band, and good high school music department. And I went to the audition for... Monterey Jazz Festival had a band, high school band, that they put together. So I did that for two years and got to work with the Heath Brothers, and Bill Evans, and all these great jazz players. So I got more and more into that. And there was a... a music competition sponsored by Pepsi-Cola in San Francisco. There were four divisions. Brass, woodwinds, piano, and strings. And so I entered this competition, and I won. And the prize, it was a great competition, was a chance to solo with the San Francisco Symphony. $500, back then that was pretty good. And also a two-week tour of Europe, all expenses paid. And that year the piano winner was Jeff Kahane. Everybody has to be encouraged. And I think when you're encouraged and there's some kind of success that happens, you ramp it up and you want to practice more and you want to study more, and it gives you a boost of confidence. ("Daphnis and Chloe - Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel)