Equipment, equipment, equipment…

Here are my thoughts:

Equipment evolution:

Year Age Axe Mouthpiece
1972 10 King Bass Trombone Bach 3G
1976 14 King 3B Bach 6.5 AL
1979 17 Bach 36 Bach 6.5 AL/Bach 5G
1981 19 Bach 42B Schilke 51TB
1984 22 Bach 42B Bach 5G, 4G
1993 31 Edwards Bach 5G/various Doug Elliott pieces
1997 36 Shires Greg Black pieces
2003 41 Bach 42B Greg Black pieces

Instrument choice:

As of this writing, my main instrument is a Bach 42 with a Greenhoe valve section. I also have a 42T that actually has a good valve, so I keep it around as a collector’s item. When I decided to become a symphonically oriented trombone player I chose Bach, even though my teacher, Warren Baker, played a Conn 88H. It was on his recommendation that I bought a Bach. The Conns at that time, in his opinion, were not being made to the standard that they once were and he could not, in good conscience, recommend a Conn. In retrospect, I am so pleased that he was honest with me as the Bach sound is the one that I have always had and continue to have in my head. When I switched to Edwards, I ended up with an instrument that was as close as Edwards made to the Bach 42. I found the Edwards easier to play…and certainly easier to play LOUDER than the Bach I was playing. My section mates in the Seattle Symphony had switched to Edwards so I did as well. My biggest dissatisfaction with the Edwards instruments is the character of sound that they generally produce. In my opinion, the sound can be rather lacking in character…sterile if you wish. I have found that Edwards trombones play wonderfully consistently up and down through the registers. In the four years that I played Edwards, I probably went through 20 bells. In those days the bells were relatively inexpensive, at $300 each, so trying a bunch didn’t break the bank. As I mentioned above, I settled on a very “Bach-Like” instrument.

The Shires:

Sometime in 1996, a friend of mine in Seattle, Stan Jeffs, had purchased a new Shires trombone. I had heard “the buzz” about how great a craftsman and designer Steve Shires was, (he was instrumental in developing the Edwards trombone) so I invited Stan over to my house to try out the new Shires. My initial test drive was inconclusive. I liked the sound but it felt a bit uneven up and down. I was not convinced. A few months later, after I had chewed on the information a bit, I invited Stan and his instrument over again. This time, I was absolutely convinced. I focused only on the sound and not so much on the playing characteristics…that I found to be less objectionable than the first time had I tried it. The trombone had the character of sound I had been missing. I was convinced enough to sell all of my Edwards gear. The Edwards I had ended up with was quite a good instrument and I sold all of my Edwards gear for half of what I should have. Oh well, live and learn. The buyer got a great deal!

One of the first concerts I played with the Shires in the Seattle Symphony included Scheherazade…with the big second trombone fanfare. The music director, Gerard Schwarz, pulled me aside after one of the concerts and asked me what horn I was playing. He had noticed the difference and really liked it! I found that to be pretty incredible…not so much that Jerry noticed, because he has terrific ears, but that the Shires had such a definable character. I was even mentioned in the review in the newspaper. I became a Shires nut. I purchased another trombone to have as a back up. I tried all of the various valves and did all sorts of playing on each of them. The horns are made very, very well.

The switch back to Bach:

In the fall of 2003 one of my students at IU was ready for a new trombone. She had been playing a Bach intermediate model, which wasn’t adding to the ease of playing that she needed. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at getting a good horn through a mail order store, I placed a phone call to Pro Winds, the excellent music store across the street from the IU School of Music. I asked them how many Bach 42Ts they had in stock. I was dumfounded to learn that they had 15! I said that we’d be right over. We were able to mix and match and come up with a very good trombone for her. I really enjoyed playing all of those instruments (at least the ones that didn’t rattle). It was the most I had played on Bach instruments since I switched…ten years earlier. For a couple of weeks following that afternoon, I stewed about how easy it was to return to the Bach brand, especially when I had access to so many. Their intonation felt very natural to me, probably because of my formative years on Bach. One afternoon I returned to Pro Winds and after an hour of testing I left with a great 42T. The Creston Fantasy that is on the multimedia page of my web site is my debut on the Bach. I had been playing it for about 2 weeks. I figured, “What better way is there to try out an instrument than playing the Creston Fantasy, in front of Joe Alessi?” Joe was on the IU campus preparing the premiere of Ewazen’s “Visions of Light” with the IU Wind Ensemble.

Eventually I went to see Gary Greenhoe to test his valve. I was very, very impressed and decided to have him put one on an instrument for me. I searched for many months before I found another instrument worthy of his valve. The resulting instrument is quite extraordinary. It has a more compact sound than the axial flow valve and the throw is very short. The timbre between open low B-flat and trigger C is identical-as opposed to the axial flow where the trigger C is actually a bit more open and diffuse than low B-flat. I predict that many people will eventually return to a rotary valve of some sort. The invention of the axial flow valve, in the late 1970s did motivate many people to address the valve design on the trombone. In my opinion, if Ed Thayer hadn’t done the work he did, our instruments would not be as good as they are today. He is to be honored and congratulated. Unfortunately, his past 15 years have been filled with nothing but struggle. That is a topic for another time.

Mouthpiece choice:

I have less to say about my mouthpiece choice as it is very simple for me.

I play Greg Black mouthpieces exclusively. I have played Bach, Schilke, Wick and Doug Elliott. In 1998, I switched to Greg Black and have not played anything else since. Greg has figured out how to balance the mouthpiece in a way that works for me. I can go from one Greg Black to another with ease—they all have similar playing characteristics. As of this writing, I use a custom mouthpiece made by Greg Black. He combined the things I liked about his 4G-5G and the Alessi 5.5 into a piece that works very well for me. The best I ever sounded, in my opinion, was when I was playing a Greg Black Alessi 1.5. It is big, perhaps too big for me now. I can never blame how I sound on the mouthpiece. I have total confidence in Greg. I can’t imagine I will ever play anything else.

NYP and CSO Update

I am a very lucky guy. As I have written elsewhere on this site, I have also worked very hard and continue to work on my product. Success is the right combination of talent, hard work, perseverance, social awareness and LUCK…no single ingredient will suffice. Integrity is also a crucial ingredient.

Last season I worked 8 weeks in the New York Philharmonic and 2 weeks in the Chicago Symphony. Many people have asked me what it was like to play in those great trombone sections. People have also asked me to compare the adjustments I had to make in order to fit in with each section. It is always a great honor to play with these orchestras.

It is difficult for me to compare the two orchestras. These are the best trombone players in the world! It is like comparing a Lotus and a Lamborghini. They have very obvious things in common such as great intonation, rhythmic precision and blend. My job, as a guest, is always to fit in as well as I can. In order to fit I listen very, very carefully. I listen to them warming up, I listen to them tune and once the music begins, I listen even more intently and tack my sound to theirs. There were several times, when substituting as Associate Principal in the Philharmonic that I would play principal on piano concertos. When playing principal I had to lead, be absolutely sure of myself yet still blend with those around me. My job was to become one of them.

Although the sections play quite differently, all I really wish to share is that I came away with even more respect for every one of those trombone players. There is a reason that they are where they are—it is because they are the best at what they do. They all had practiced thousands of hours before they won their jobs and now they continue to practice, perhaps even harder. It is inspirational.