Hey there, everybody! Welcome to the first installment (of what I hope will be many!) of what I’m calling, “Practice Posts.” The idea behind these is that I’ll post a recording of me playing a piece I’m working on and use the blog to not only discuss the piece itself, but a few things I’ve worked on, as well as a few things I look forward continuing to work on. The idea is to post a variety of material, including solos, etudes, exercises, excerpts and whatever else fits on a music stand. My hope is that these “Practice Posts” will serve a few purposes; expose some great repertoire to those thirsting for something to work on, share some of the things I’ve learned over the years as I approach each challenge, and last, but certainly not least, serve as an accountability tool for yours truly. Assuredly, these “Practice Posts” will be providing me with a cornucopia of humble pie….because really…I need to feel even worse about myself…
Anywho…first up is an old standard of the bass trombone solo repertoire, Walter S. Hartley’s “Sonata Breve.” This two-movement unaccompanied solo was composed in 1969 and written for Tom Everett, the undisputed champion of bass trombone repertoire. At last count, Mr. Everett has commissioned (or has had written for him) about a bajillion (ok, I think over fifty) works for our instrument. Hartley’s “Sonata Breve” was the first of what would be many contributions Tom Everett inspired for the bass trombone. He’s a good man, that Tom Everett!
Dr. Hartley, born in 1927, is Professor Emeritus of Music at the State University of New York – Fredonia. Dr. Hartley’s teachers include Howard Hanson, Bernard Rogers and Burrill Phillips. In 1962, Dr. Hartley received and award for serious music from ASCAP and now boasts over 200 pieces in his catalogue, although this “Sonata Breve,” I believe, is the only composition of Hartley’s written specifically for solo bass trombone.
The first movement, Allegro Moderato, is an atonal 12-tone-ish work featuring driving, angular themes with a few gentler melodic moments interspersed. While I’ll leave the theory for people that know about such things, as a performer there are particular characteristics of this piece that stand out as issues that need to be addressed. Here’s a run through I recorded on Wednesday, March 6, 2013:
Some of the Things I Worked On:
– The age old issue of “what it sounds like behind the horn ain’t what it sounds like in front of the horn” is especially exposed in this piece. Nine times out of ten, it comes down to the fact that we have to sustain notes far longer that we think is necessary. This piece contains many dotted eighth sixteenth lines with each note being a sizable interval away from each other, both factors already creating a disjointed melody. As performers, we don’t have to help this disjointedness out, because it’s going to happen on its own no matter what we do. By blowing through the dotted eighth sixteenth lines and sustaining each note into each other, I believe we give the piece the melodic phrase that is intended. If we play these notes any shorter, the phrases come across as percussive and pecky. Sustain, sustain, sustain.
– I can’t believe I’m about to say this…but beware of playing the opening too big. The opening line is only marked at a forte, which of course is relative, but due to the back and forth of linear sixteenth note runs and intervallic eighth notes, a controlled forte will allow the opening to sound more broad and stately. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always a time and a place to let the animal out of the cage, I’ve just found this piece isn’t one of them…no matter how much sometimes I want it to be.
– Due to the rhythmic intensity of the piece, while I think tempo fluctuations are perfectly natural, I wouldn’t advise a more rubato approach, as it tends to make the written rhythmic intensity become obscured. There’s one exception; the triplet figures found in measures 34-36. I see these melodic triplet figures as a contemplation of the intense drama that happens before, so I like to take them just a bit out of time. Of course, if you’re feeling it, go with it. I’d never want to force musical choices down anybody’s throat.
Some of the Things I’m Going to Continue to Work On:
– The sustained approach I mentioned earlier tends to create some other issues, namely smearing between notes and drifting into quarter note eighth note triplet land when they should be dotted eighth sixteenths. While I seem to be allergic to alternate positions most of the time, I’ve found that, in this movement in particular, using an alternate position to solve one problem just creates another somewhere else. A fast, accurate and smooth…emphasis on smooth…slide arm is something I’ll always be working on.
– Dotted eighth sixteenth rhythms suck. They do! They’re such a pain to play well. Everything from The Ride to Bordogni has given many a trombonist the agita over the years. At the heart of their suck is that they are so mathematically close to their much prettier sister, the quarter note eighth note triplet. Most of the difference between the two rhythms lies in the profile we give them; the dotted eighth sixteenth being more stately and the quarter note eighth note triplet being rounder. When tackling these dotted eighth sixteenth figures to smooth out the rough edges created by the size of the intervals written, we are tackling the very essence of what makes the rhythm stand out as the rhythm it is. Sometimes I was successful…sometimes I was not. A consistency of concentration is another thing I’ll always be working on.
– While it doesn’t happen every time I play this piece, it happened in this recording and it happens enough to where I should write about it. This is a prime example of practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. The worst thing you can do is continually practice something wrong, because good luck fixing it down the road. Back when I was a wee freshman in college (ok, I was never a “wee” anything) and I was first introduced to Dr. Hartley’s work, I short changed the E# that starts on beat three of measure 32, as I did every time I practiced it until I played it for my teacher and he said, “Hey, you’re short changing it.” Sadly, it was already too late. The incorrect rhythm has been ingrained in my skull and if I’m thinking about anything other than “three, one, off ta-ka-ta” I am guaranteed to slip back into the bad habit I developed some 15 years ago. Does public humiliation combat bad habits? We’ll see.
– While this was recorded in my psychological disorder creating, painfully unforgiving living room, it continues to keep me on my toes to continue to work on the clarity of my articulations. The fact of the matter is, the more clarity my articulation has here, it will even be that much better in the concert hall. Remaining focused on a solid air stream energizing a precise tongue is yet another road I’ll always be traveling upon.
Walter Hartley’s “Sonata Breve” is truly one of the cornerstones of the bass trombone solo repertoire. It works like a peach to open a recital with and displays a broad scope of technique in a short period of time if you want to use it for auditions or juries. Above all, I think it’s just a fun and challenging piece to play with a lot of history behind it. The second movement, Presto, is a playfully frantic piece that brings just about as much broad appeal to an atonal work as you’re going to find. An “oldie, but a goodie,” this piece should be in every bass trombonist’s library.
You can order Walter Hartley’s “Sonata Breve” for unaccompanied bass trombone from Hickey’s and other fine purveyors of sheet music.
Thanks for joining me on this new venture! I’d love to hear any feedback you’d like to offer as I figure out exactly what these “Practice Posts” will be.
Mike Dobranski is a professional bass trombonist, eater of good food and avid couch potato in the Seattle area. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeDobranski.