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Trombone: Interview and demonstration with principal Joseph Alessi

Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

("Symphony No. 2" 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 got a lot of different sizes. And the trombone goes back to the Baroque ages. And then they had a funny name called the sackbut. Trombone, of course, a lot of people associate it with jazz 'cause 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 trombone together, it's an incredible sound. ("Symphony No. 9 in E minor" by Antonin Dvorak) 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. That's not that far away from the brain, actually. You know, it's just pretty close. And no other instruments share that same association. All brass players have to conceive the sound and the pitch in their head. And 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, then they, you know, 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. And 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. And when I get to work, if that pitch center is correct, when I pick up my horn, bingo. You know, that's exactly the pitch that I was buzzing all along. (whistles) That's a B flat, better be. (pitch fluctuates) And I know that pitch, that last pitch I just played is a B flat. (pitch elongates) 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. And this way if you sing, if you sing in your mind, then it's just, and 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 aide 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. And so if you play a scale. (scale fluctuates) I'm very careful how to move the slide. And you can play a scale not carefully. (scale fluctuates erratically) You know? A lot of glissandi that I was making. So glissandi. (scale fluctuates rapidly) Something like that. If you played, let's say, you know, Mahler, three, okay? And you used the same technique, it would sound like this. (scale fluctuates dramatically) Okay? So that doesn't really work. ("Symphony No. 2" 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. So when I was, then we moved out to California, and I would watch my father warm up on the trumpet. So I kinda gravitated to that, and I probably begged him to start me on the trumpet, and he did. He started my on a cornet. And I did that for several years, but always had trouble with the high register on the trumpet. And my father came in one day and said, "Why don't you just try this trombone?" and I reluctantly tried it and found that I had a fantastic high register on the trombone at a very young age. So and I think the reason why, he knew brass pretty well. His father was a trumpet player, my grandfather. But I 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 and I started to get recordings and listened to all kinds of repertoire. And the teachers in San Francisco at that time were fantastic. They all had played in the San Francisco Symphony. So a lot of times it's who you study with, too. And I think I was lucky in that way. In our high school we had a great jazz band and a good high school music department. And I went to audition for the, I think, Monterey Jazz Festival had a band, a 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 trombone, was not a trombone, a music competition called, it was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola in San Francisco. And 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 know, you ramp it up and you wanna practice more, and you wanna study more, and it gives you a boost of confidence. ("Daphnis and Chloe - Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel)