Fundamentals, not Feelings

Well, Ole Miss’s football season, which began with such high expectations, ended 5-7 tonight (2-6 SEC) after not only a loss but a blowout at the hands of in-state rival Mississippi State (5-7 overall, 3-5 SEC). While a coaching shakeup is already underway, a case could be made for laying much of this season’s disappointment at the feet of injuries which have slowly but surely robbed our team of veteran starters on both sides of the ball. Perhaps most disappointing this season has been watching in multiple games how quickly our team lost its drive in the face of adversity. When things were going well and positive emotions were running high, the team performed well. When things were going poorly and negative emotions set in, the team spiraled into ineffectiveness.

jalen-hurtsDuring a trombone ensemble rehearsal a couple of weeks ago I employed a sports analogy, exhorting my students to approach musicianship not like our football team, but like that of SEC West powerhouse Alabama (12-0 overall, 8-0 SEC). To watch Alabama’s team play is to watch a team that is in complete control of itself in every respect. Instead of displaying a palpable emotional excitement when winning, the Crimson Tide team appears downright businesslike, as if they simply showed up to do a job, and then executed the job in exactly the way they planned. In other words, this team’s fundamentals of ball handling, clock management, play execution, etc. are so well-honed that these young men are rarely caught operating outside of a well-established rhythm. While these players no doubt experience positive emotions as a result of their repeated wins, the “good vibes” are a result of successful play, not a cause of it.

Needless to say, my students were taken aback at first by this analogy, but they soon came to appreciate it. Musicians are certainly in the business of creating and stirring emotions in our listeners, but to depend on the experience of such feelings ourselves is to invite disaster on stage. Not only might one’s emotional state at the moment of performance be incongruent with the message of the piece of music being performed, but reliance upon feelings to deliver effective performance makes one even more susceptible to that most dangerous feeling for the performing musician: fear. Performance anxiety affects nearly all of us to a greater or lesser extent, and to depend upon feelings to enable us to deliver effective performances makes it even more likely that the slightest surprise or unexpected difficulty on stage will elicit a sense of despair that jeopardizes the entire performance.

Instead, just like effective athletes, we must depend upon solid playing fundamentals to enable us to deliver quality performances. This begins simply with regular and diligent practice, but more specifically requires daily, systematic, and comprehensive practice of playing fundamentals. Many players and teachers have found this to be best accomplished through the use of a daily routine that varies little from day to day. Others recommend that the specific content of fundamentals practice be more varied, though the same general areas are covered each day. Both approaches can be effective, though I prefer the former and have published several routines to that end here.

When our playing fundamentals are consistent and dependable then we can count on things to work regardless of the playing situations in which we find ourselves. There may still sometimes be “butterflies” before or during especially important performances, but relying upon consistent method rather than positive feelings to yield effective playing means that any nervousness can be expected and even welcomed without having a negative effect upon the performance. This also leaves us free to infuse our performances with whatever emotions are demanded by the music or chosen by us, just like great actors will do. Will we experience “good vibes” as a result of this? Probably so, but just like those great Alabama players the positive feelings will be the result rather than the cause of successful performance.

And with this, I will take my usual December hiatus from blogging. I look forward to sharing more thoughts with you all again beginning sometime in mid-January.



Posted in Alto Trombone, Bass Trombone, Daily Routine, Euphonium, Higher Education, Intercollegiate Athletics, Music, Pedagogy, Performance Anxiety, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Our “Unprecedented” Situation

As this post is being written and published the 2016 American presidential election is now more than two weeks past, and much to the chagrin of seemingly everyone the drama, division, and discontent that permeated the campaign have not diminished following its conclusion. Supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton remain baffled by the success of President-Elect Donald J. Trump, and members of the pundit class on the political Left and Right alike are similarly confused. News outlets both mainstream and “alternative” continue to discuss the “unprecedented” nature of recent political events, particularly the populist surges that brought about both the “Brexit” vote this past June and now the election of Mr. Trump. From every corner one hears sensationalist proclamations that the present political and cultural conditions are entirely unique in human history. Whatever the reason—the constant clamoring for ratings and “clicks” among news organizations struggling for market share, the inherent nature of the 24-hour news cycle, the public’s general ignorance of history, or a combination of these factors—the continuously overstated message sent by modern media is that humanity is moving into uncharted political and social territory, and new solutions must be devised to meet new challenges.

And then there’s me, not believing a word of it, and not worrying about it all that much. Here are three reasons why.

1. Our circumstances are not historically unique. Sure, we have more technology than human beings living in prior eras, but beyond that even a cursory reading of history will reveal events and personalities that seem eerily familiar. From political demonstrations, slander, and violence, to crooked politicians who use service to the public or to the king as a means of self-enrichment, to populist candidates who soar to electoral victory on the wings of impossible promises, to occasional popular uprisings against rulers and policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many, to “wars and rumors of wars,” one finds much in the historical record that could be mistaken for contemporary news reports with only the dates and the names of people and places changed. Moreover, one finds a significant amount of repetition when considering historical accounts from different locations and eras. There are differences in the particulars, but one can experience more than a slight sense of déjà vu when perusing the annals of human history.

Other than some disappointment that humanity’s collective ignorance of history appears to mean that we are indeed doomed to repeat it (again and again), to paraphrase Mr. Santayana, I find in our historical non-uniqueness an odd source of comfort. After all, humanity has endured similar circumstances before and will do so again, assuming that God’s providence in the immediate future continues more or less as it has through the centuries.

2. Human nature remains unchanged. One reason that the present circumstances are not unique is that human nature is still the same. Having now read the Bible through more than fifteen times (and listened through it easily that number again), whenever I come to its various historical narratives I find myself remarking that “these people are us.” (Members of my Friday morning Bible study group have heard me say this repeatedly.) In the Scriptures we find the best and truest explanation of the human condition, that we were made “very good” by a loving and purposeful Creator but fell from that state into one that is corrupted and in need of redemption and restoration. Throughout its pages we read of people who are very much like ourselves, capable of acts of great goodness, generosity, heroism, and faith—just as one would expect the image-bearers of God to be—and yet marred by the effects of the Fall and its resultant tendencies toward selfishness, greed, falsehood, and death. Does this understanding of humanity not explain both the virtues and the vices of individuals, political parties, candidates, and organizations throughout the ideological spectrum, where we see genuine goods being sought on all sides but never without a greater or lesser degree of corruption, confusion, and outright untruth? Does it not likewise explain both for good and ill the various societies and personages that have preceded us?

Of course, this view of humanity’s corrupted original goodness does not make me feel good about our present situation. Our shared nature with those who preceded us simply reassures me, along with a reading of history, that our circumstances are not unique.

3. God is still sovereign. Thus far I have described why I find little that is new in our present circumstances, though in terms that provide little comfort or hope for the future. Where I find hope is in the promises of the Creator and Sustainer of all things. After all, if there really is a God who “[declares] the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3), and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11), then his good purposes will not be thwarted by the rise of any president, party, king, emperor, or potentate. Human civilization, with all of its goods, evils, and repetitive vicissitudes, is proceeding according to God’s eternal decree and with the glory of God and the good of his people in view. This doesn’t mean that humanity in general should expect centuries of uninterrupted progress, nor should Christians in particular expect continuous comfort and tolerance—quite the opposite, in fact (cf. 2 Timothy 3:12)—much less a future period of geopolitical dominance in some sort of renewed Christendom. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that Christians are permitted to be passive observers of the outworking of God’s purposes; we are called to diligently seek the good of ourselves, our communities, and God’s kingdom more broadly (cf. Jeremiah 29:7). It simply means that the God whose ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) is bringing things along to his promised and intended end, the end for which the experiences of this life both good and bad—perhaps especially bad—prepare his people: to live with, to reign with, and to rest in him forever. Read the end of Revelation, Christians; it describes a very happy ending for us, indeed!

Carl Trueman (b. 1967), one of my very favorite ministers and church historians, once described his view of human history as “we started out good but after the Fall have been more or less bouncing along the bottom” (my paraphrase). I tend to agree with him. Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the recent election results, or about Brexit, or about other particulars of our historical situation, I hope you will dismiss the hype about how “unprecedented” these things are as just that: hype. Humanity has seen unpopular rulers and discontented peoples before, and will again until Christ returns. Our fallen human nature essentially dictates that this will be so. We can take perhaps a small measure of comfort in that our forebears have endured similar circumstances, but for the Christian our ultimate hope is in the God whose good purposes are being worked out in even the most dire situations, and who promises to bring about our ultimate good both in this life and in that which is to come.


Posted in Bible, Calvinism, Christian Worldview, History, Political Systems, Politics, Practical Christianity, Providence, Society, Theology, Truth

Unedited Videos: “The Big Horns”

As often happens in November, which along with April is one of the two busiest months in every university music department, I have found keeping my regular blogging schedule to be impossible. After missing an entire week this post comes a few days late; I hope to have two more before taking my usual “winter break” hiatus.

In my last post I provided some program notes for my then-upcoming Faculty Recital Series performance at Ole Miss. Today I am providing videos of the entire program. While I have for some time been in the habit of posting complete recital videos here on the blog (see here, here, here, and here), a few of my colleagues at other universities have begun intentionally posting live performance recordings on social media just to remind everyone that the edited-to-perfection presentations on commercial recordings are not accurate reflections of “real life,” and I am happy to stand with them in doing so. Overall, I was happy with this performance, which was my first with a significant portion performed on tuba, and I hope visitors to The Reforming Trombonist will enjoy it, as well.

Fantasie Concertante by Jacques Castérède (1926-2014)

Stereograms Nos. 7, 3, and 21 by David William Brubeck (b. 1966)

Worlds Apart by Frank Gulino (b. 1987)

Walking by Anthony Plog (b. 1947)

Tuba Suite by Gordon Jacob (1895-1984)

Fnugg by Øystein Baadsvik (b. 1966)

I almost forgot to mention that this performance of Fnugg contains a brief reference to one of my son’s favorite cartoons (and mine). Having heard Mr. Baadsvik himself interject a reference to a popular tune into one of his renditions of the piece, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. 🙂

Posted in Anthony Plog, Bass Trombone, David William Brubeck, Doubling, Frank Gulino, Gordon Jacob, Jacques Casterede, Micah Everett, Music, Oystein Baadsvik, Performance Videos, Performances, Trombone, Tuba

Monday Evening: “The Big Horns”

This Monday, November 7, pianist Stacy Rodgers and I will present the second event in this year’s Faculty Recital Series at Ole Miss, a recital for bass trombone and tuba that I have somewhat humorously entitled “The Big Horns.” I have chosen this particular instrumentation in part as a fitting counterpart to my recital program last year which was on tenor trombone and euphonium, and also because it has provided a good opportunity for me to stretch out my nascent “tuba chops.” As I have discussed previously in this space, despite having studied tuba pedagogy at the graduate level and having taught lessons on the instrument for a number of years, only in the past 18 months or so have I purchased an instrument and begun to seriously hone my performing skills as a tubist. The tuba pieces comprise the second half of the program; the first half is a reprise of a bass trombone program I performed back on August 1 during the Trombonanza event in Argentina. Given my unusually large teaching load this semester and that I have yet to perform any of this material in the northern hemisphere, to repeat those pieces rather than prepare new material was a logical choice for this part of the program. Here are some notes on the planned repertoire.

Fantasie Concertante by Jacques Castérède (1926-2014)
Castérède studied mathematics before becoming a celebrated pianist, theorist, and composer, winning the Grand Prix de Rome in 1953. He taught solfège and analysis at the Paris National Conservatory and later taught composition at the Central Academy in Beijing. Composed in 1960, Fantasie Concertante is reminiscent of the composer’s earlier Sonatine for tenor trombone and piano. The two works share a frequent use of the mordent and a predilection for exotic scales and colorful harmonies. While Castérède’s music extends in some ways beyond the bounds of traditional tonal harmonies and melodic constructions, it remains beautiful and approachable even to listeners without an understanding of the advanced compositional techniques employed.

Stereograms (selections) by David William Brubeck (b. 1966)
Bass trombonist David William Brubeck teaches at Miami Dade College and began composing his Stereograms for unaccompanied bass trombone in the 1990s. Intended as both performance and study pieces, these short works also pay tribute to Brubeck’s favorite bass trombonists and other musical heroes. On this program I’ll be performing three of these pieces, beginning with Stereogram No. 7, which is a funk dedicated to bass trombone innovator David Taylor (b. 1944) and saxophonist and bandleader Bob Mintzer (b. 1953). Next will be Stereogram No. 3, a ballad channeling the beautiful, warm sound of “Mr. Bass Trombone,” George Roberts (1928-2014). Last will be Stereogram No. 21, an upbeat funk-rock dedicated to Bill Reichenbach (b. 1949), a fantastic L.A.-based bass trombonist and multiple low brass doubler—he’s one of those guys that you’ve heard often in movie scores, even if you’ve never heard of him.

Worlds Apart by Frank Gulino (b. 1987)
Ending the first half of the program will be Worlds Apart by the young attorney, composer, and bass trombonist (not necessarily in that order) Frank Gulino. While Gulino began his studies as a bass trombonist at the Peabody Conservatory, he went on to earn a juris doctor from George Mason University; he now works largely in the areas of entertainment and music industry law while continuing to perform and compose, winning ASCAP Plus Awards in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Worlds Apart (2010) betrays Gulino’s familiarity with the bass trombone’s sonic capabilities, exploiting the instrument’s capacities for lush timbres at softer dynamics more than the more aggressive sounds with which the instrument is often associated.

Walking by Anthony Plog (b. 1947)
Anthony Plog began his career as a trumpet player, holding positions with prestigious orchestras throughout the world. As he became more accomplished and known as a composer his career moved inexorably in that direction, and he finally retired from performance in 2001 to devote his energies to composition. Now retired again from his position at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany, he holds a half-time teaching position at the Norwegian Music Academy in Oslo while also giving master classes elsewhere. Walking (2014) is billed by its publisher as an “intermediate”-level instructional piece, yet its high tessitura is typical of more advanced repertoire. Melodically the piece consists largely of the “modified chromatic” (my term) writing—and associated odd fingering patterns—that characterizes Plog’s more challenging works for tuba and other instruments, yet there are sounds strangely reminiscent of the “walking bass” patterns for which the piece is undoubtedly named, and which make the piece an entertaining way to begin the second half of this program.

Tuba Suite by Gordon Jacob (1895-1984)
Gordon Jacob was a British composer of no little renown, having taught at the Royal College of Music for more than forty years in addition to providing music for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. He turned to composing for wind instruments relatively late in his career, though his catalogue includes a number of works for low brass soloists and ensembles, of which his Trombone Concerto (1955) might be the most well-known. The Tuba Suite (1973) is clearly Jacob’s modern take on the Baroque-era dance suite, with several of the movements even sharing the titles and rhythmic patterns associated with those old courtly dances.

Fnugg by Øystein Baadsvik (b. 1966)
Norwegian tuba soloist Øystein Baadsvik is one of the premiere tubists performing in the world today, having premiered over 40 new works for tuba while pursuing a full-time career as a soloist and recording artist. While much of Baadsvik’s efforts are devoted to serious music, he frequently programs and even creates lighter works as well, of which Fnugg (2004) is a prime example. Written for unaccompanied tuba, the piece uses multiphonics in order to create a didgeridoo-like effect, then introduces beatboxing, and then begins to mix these two extended techniques to great effect. It provides an unusual, challenging, and entertaining way to end a solo recital.

The program will take place on Monday evening at 7:30pm in Nutt Auditorium on the Ole Miss campus. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students. All are welcome.

Posted in Anthony Plog, Bass Trombone, David William Brubeck, Doubling, Frank Gulino, Gordon Jacob, Jacques Casterede, Music, Oystein Baadsvik, Performances, Tuba, University of Mississippi

Does the Tongue Start the Note?

Articulation on brass instruments is a relatively simple affair, or at least it ought to be. I frequently admonish the young teachers in my methods classes to teach tonguing to beginning students not by using anatomical explanations of tongue placement, but by simply telling students to say “tah.” As students progress the variants “dah” and in select cases even “thah” are added, along with “kah” and “gah” that are introduced for multiple-tonguing patterns. And, of course, there are the changes of vowel shape needed to change registers; “thaw” is a favorite for the lowest notes on bass trombone and tuba, along with “tee” for the highest notes on all the brasses, and several other intermediate vowel shapes. Explaining articulation using consonant and vowel sounds that students already know from spoken language is one way to prevent the paralyzing effects of trying to think in detail about how the body works while playing while at the same time avoiding the use of unwanted types of articulation such as “pah” and “hah.”

When playing brass instruments a tongued articulation is used at the beginning of each note except when slurring, in which case the tongue strikes only on the first note of the slurred passage. The near-ubiquitous presence of tongued attacks can promote a certain felt dependence upon the tongue to begin notes. This is especially common with trombonists, who are able to truly slur less frequently than other brass players, but it happens with others, as well. When this happens there is sometimes a long pause between the breath and attack (which negatively impacts timing) and often the student will plant the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth very early, and then allow the air to back up behind the tongue for a split-second before releasing it, making the tongue a sort of gatekeeper for the airflow at the beginning of each note. The result is a predictably explosive beginning to the note, though some students will manage to do this with more refinement. Still, the achievement of a truly delicate attack in this way is impossible, to say nothing of a good legato tongue.

When a student comes to the university articulating in this way (not an uncommon occurrence) one of my first questions for that student is “Does the tongue start the note?” Most students answer in the affirmative, though a few surmise from my even asking the question that the correct answer is “no.” Either way, I demonstrate that the tongue does not begin the note by playing a series of notes using breath attacks. Here there is no tongued articulation, and yet notes still occur. I then indicate to students that the necessary ingredient for a sounding note is vibration, supplied in the case of brass instruments by air blowing through the lips and causing them to vibrate. The tongue is engaged at the beginning of the note, but it is not absolutely necessary for the note to be present. The only necessities are air and buzz.

So if the tongue does not start the note what does it do? Simple: it shapes or defines the attack. Its job is to eliminate the unwanted sounds of breath attacks and of smears when legato tonguing on the trombone, and to give the beginning of each note the desired character, whether gentle, forceful, or something in between. I tell students that the default articulation ought to be one where just enough tongue is used to provide clarity, avoiding the uncertain beginning of a “hah” attack. From there the strength of the articulation can be increased or decreased as needed to produce the correct sound in any given context. We do this all the time in our spoken diction; articulating on a brass instrument should be no different. At no time should we play as if the note sounding at all is dependent upon the tongue striking at the beginning of the note.

Is the use of the tongue an important part of brass playing? Sure, but is a tongued articulation necessary for tone production on a brass instrument? No. Cultivate a way of playing in which air and buzz are primary (because they are!), and enjoy the freedom of being able to use a variety of tongued articulations to shape the attacks as desired but without ever depending upon the tongue to start the note.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Articulation, Bass Trombone, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Playing Fundamentals, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba

Want to Understand Brass Instruments? Understand the Overtone Series!

The overtone series is an acoustic principle that is sometimes cursorily discussed in music theory and other music courses, but is often poorly understood even by musicians. The “short, short version” is that the pitch sounding when, say, an open string is plucked or bowed is actually a complex sound containing a number of tones, sometimes called “partials” or “harmonics.” Readers of this blog will be more interested in how this applies to brass instruments. Consider here the “pedal B-flat” on tenor or bass trombone. Here is that note along with the twenty-three notes above it in first position.


That pedal B-flat is the fundamental pitch of an air column vibrating in a tube approximately nine feet in length (i.e. a trombone in first position with no valves engaged). It is a complex tone, containing all of the notes here listed above it (and more). Ascending to pitches higher than the fundamental on brass instruments is achieved by “overblowing” to higher partials in the overtone series by increasing the air speed and the speed of the vibrations of the lips. This makes an exponentially larger number of notes available to the player, and as one ascends to higher harmonics multiple fingering possibilities with differing timbres and tuning tendencies become available for each note. You’ll notice that while the fundamental and its octaves tend to be more or less in tune, the other harmonics deviate to various degrees from a perfectly tuned version of that note as registered by a tuner.

At this point I have nearly exhausted my rudimentary technical knowledge of the physics behind the overtone series, but the practical ramifications of this for brass players and teachers are both familiar to me and vitally important. Here are a few thoughts on the benefits of understanding the overtone series for every brass player and teacher.

1. Every brass instrument is built on this same principle. This might seem obvious at first, but if you’ve never thought about how brass instruments work in this way perhaps it isn’t obvious at all. While different instruments have different fundamental pitches, from there the overtone works in exactly the same way on every brass instrument. The second partial is always an octave above the fundamental, the third partial a perfect fifth above that, the fourth partial a perfect fourth above that (or two octaves above the fundamental), etc. Combine this with the fact that the second valve (or second position on the trombone) always lowers the open pitch by one half-step, the first valve (or third position) by one whole-step, etc. and you will see that understanding the overtone series provides a tool by which you can quickly and easily find multiple available fingerings for any note on any brass instrument. And the similarities don’t end there.

2. The tuning tendencies of each partial are the same on every brass instrument. While individual instruments will have a few notes that deviate from the rule, in most cases on any given brass instrument the third partial will be slightly sharp, the seventh partial quite a bit flat, and so on. Moreover, doubles of each partial (or octaves) will always have the same tendency. Thus, partials 1, 2, 4, and 8 are normally true; partials 3, 6, and 12 are sharp; partials 5 and 10 are flat, and so forth. Understanding how this works—and how simple it really is—enables the player or band director to anticipate the likely tuning tendencies of any note using all of the available fingerings for that note. When armed with a solid understanding of the overtone series choosing the best fingering for a note in a given set of circumstances becomes a rather simple matter.

3. Benefits of understanding the overtone series for doublers. As I have repeatedly opined here and in my book on the subject, doubling is a professional necessity for the working low brass player. The player with an understanding of the overtone series and how it works can quickly gain a working knowledge of a new instrument. Rather than slowly and laboriously memorizing notes, fingerings, and tuning tendencies one at a time, the player who understands the overtone series can quickly apply that knowledge to the new instrument, thus anticipating particular tuning difficulties and even associating known fingering patterns from other brass instruments with their applications on the new instrument. Those who find themselves teaching related instruments that they seldom play, such as when I teach F or CC tubas, can use that understanding to help correct students’ fingering errors and even find solutions for their tuning or timbre difficulties. This teaching-related benefit is even greater for band directors.

4. Benefits of understanding the overtone series for band directors. As I just mentioned, I use my knowledge of the overtone series as a means of effectively teaching every member of the tuba family, despite my rarely playing some of those instruments. How much more, then, can the band director, who works with trumpets, horns, trombones, euphoniums, and tubas on a daily basis—and these sometimes in multiple configurations—use such an understanding to effectively identify incorrect fingerings, correct tuning problems, and suggest alternative fingerings for particular situations? Memorizing just the first 8-12 open (or first position) notes on each instrument along with the tuning tendencies of each partial (which, remember, are the same for every brass instrument) will provide a basis from which you can extrapolate as needed to the overtone series for each finger combination or slide position. This will enable you to find multiple fingerings for any note on every brass instrument and prescribe those fingerings which best address specific tuning or execution difficulties.

Despite my best efforts, verbally describing how understanding the overtone series improves both teaching and performance always makes the process sound more cumbersome than it really is. In practice, the process is very fast, efficient, and intuitive, far superior to trying to memorize chromatic fingering charts for every instrument and learning every fingering and tuning tendency none note at a time. Overtone series charts for every brass instrument can be found easily through various search engines; I have several available on my website, as well.

Posted in Doubling, Music, Music Theory, Overtone Series, Pedagogy, Performing, Teaching Low Brass, The Low Brass Player's Guide to Doubling

The Utility of Clef Studies for Future Band Directors

The necessity of learning to read proficiently in tenor and alto clefs is a bane to many trombone players at the college and university level. In most countries the sheet music used for initial trombone instruction and performance is written exclusively in bass clef, but in advanced repertoire trombone parts in tenor clef begin to occur with great regularity. Alto clef occurs less frequently but often enough that learning it is necessary, and occasionally other clefs are needed, as well. While developing the reading abilities needed to master music in multiple clefs is an obvious necessity for those trombonists who are pursing performing careers, why trombonists pursuing careers as school band directors need to go to all of this trouble becomes a legitimate question. (A related question is why applied music study is necessary for future band directors at all, but that will have to wait for another time.) Here are two big reasons why clef studies are useful for trombonists in music education programs.

1. Proficiency in multiple clefs greatly increases the amount of music available to you to play. As mentioned above, advanced repertoire for trombone makes frequent use of the tenor clef. One assumes that composers and publishers choose to do this in order to reduce the number of ledger lines needed to notate parts in the upper register, but whatever the reason, the ability to read tenor clef is simply assumed by those creating music for trombonists of a certain level of proficiency. I often say that learning to read tenor clef triples the amount of music available to the trombonist, but even that might be an understatement. In any case, without the ability to read tenor clef a wealth of solo, chamber, orchestral, and increasingly even wind band music becomes inaccessible. Alto clef, while less common, still occurs enough to be a reasonable expectation even when one does not play alto trombone (in fact, the first trombone parts for my orchestra gig next weekend are notated exclusively in that clef despite being intended for tenor trombone). Continuing with the movable C-clefs, learning to read mezzo-soprano clef is not a bad idea, either, as it provides a relatively simple tool for reading Horn in F parts at sight (I will explain how this works below). Learn to do this and you’ll never again sweat when a church music director puts a horn part on your stand and sheepishly asks you to play it. (Yes, this does happen. Fairly often.) Non-transposing parts in treble clef are rare, but those who specialize in high register work should not be surprised to see it. If you play in churches or otherwise with choirs you can expect an occasional need to read tenor voice parts notated in treble clef but with an octave displacement.

2. Proficiency in multiple clefs provides a tool for the band director to be able to read a transposing score as if it were in concert pitch. While the above examples provide ample evidence of the utility of clef reading for the performing trombonist, should that trombonist one day become a band conductor he will find those skills to be a great aid in score reading. In most cases, wind band scores in the United States will have some instruments with parts notated in concert pitch in both treble and bass clefs, some instruments notated in B-flat in treble clef (meaning that the sounding pitch is one whole step lower than the written pitch, sometimes with an additional 1-2 octave displacement), some instruments noted in E-flat in treble clef (meaning that the sounding pitch is a major sixth lower than written, also sometimes with an additional 1-2 octave displacement), and the horns in F in treble clef (sounding pitch a perfect fifth lower than written). Excepting the rare instances in which one encounters a part for D-flat piccolo, clarinet in A, or some other odd transposition, the four possibilities mentioned above provide a comprehensive list of the types of parts one typically encounters in a wind band score. Happily, the bass, tenor, and mezzo-soprano clefs can be used as an easy way to read the transposing parts in B-flat, E-flat, and F as if they were notated in concert pitch.

For parts written in treble clef in B-flat, simply imagine that the part were in tenor clef and add two flats to the key signature (or subtract two sharps). In the example provided below, the D as notated in treble clef sounds a C, which occurs on the same line in tenor clef. Depending on the instrument there will be octave displacements to keep in mind but at least the work of transposition is eliminated.


Incidentally, this way of using tenor clef to read B-flat treble clef parts makes the tenor clef a simple way to train bass clef euphonium players to read treble clef parts which use this transposition, likewise trombone and tuba players who will encounter such parts in British brass band music.

For parts written in treble clef in E-flat, imagine that the part were in bass clef (with octave displacements) and add three flats to the key signature (or subtract three sharps). In this example, the C as notated in treble clef sounds an E-flat, which occurs on the same space in bass clef.


For “French” horn and English horn parts in F, imagine that the part were in mezzo-soprano clef and add one flat to the key signature (or subtract one sharp). No octave displacements will occur in these cases. In this example, the G as notated in treble clef sounds a middle C, which occurs on the same line in mezzo-soprano clef.


This way of “transposing without actually transposing” parts while reading a band score does bring with it a couple of oddities: a few of the written accidentals have to be altered to make this work—for example, written C-sharp in B-flat parts sounds a B natural—and as mentioned before, there are in some cases octave displacements involved. Nevertheless, the obvious utility of being able to look at a full score and know immediately what each instrument’s sounding pitches should be more than makes up for these minor adjustments.

Perhaps instead of trombonists complaining about being required to study multiple clefs in their lessons, players of other instruments should complain that this is not included in their training!

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