For my next installment of these “Practice Posts,” I decided to go with a selection from a book of etudes that I’ve continually come back to over the years; the “Semester of Studies” by Kauko Kahila. This book is one of the most challenging, and I feel, one of the most relevant collection of etudes published today. Sometimes lovingly referred to as the “Three Semesters of Studies” due to the level of difficulty contained within, Kahila captured the ever-increasing “real world” technical demand placed on bass trombonists. Exploring the fringes of both the high and low ranges while featuring difficult to navigate interval jumps is well-covered in this book of sixteen studies.
Kauko Kahila was the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1952-1972. Along with Ed Kleinhammer and Allen Ostrander, Kahila is credited for developing the first double-valve bass trombone back in the 1950’s. Thirsting for a way to not fake the low “B” in Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” the addition of the second valve to the bass trombone changed the instrument….and dare I say the world…forever.
Written at the suggestion of the now-retired bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony, Doug Yeo, Kahila’s studies were first published in 1989. These studies pushed the envelope back then and they still do today. But beyond all of the advanced technique one needs to tackle this book, the studies are musically rewarding, with every interval jump, every note in the extremes of the range and every meter change being written with purpose. The third study, Andante con Molto, features exquisitely beautiful phrases, which makes having the technical difficulty sound easy that much more important. Here’s a run through I did of the third etude on Wednesday, March 13, 2013:
Some of the Things I Worked On:
– I hate the note F#. I swear, no matter the octave, that sucker is in a different place every time I try to play it. I also hate middle C, but I’ll save my rant on that note for a different day. Oh…and high Ab…. Ok…I need to get back on track… Be it in 5th or #3rd, I’m not a fan of F#, but only because it treats me with great disrespect. This etude has a boatload of them and has you coming at them from all sorts of angles. So not only does this etude greatly help with that note, it forced me to come up with exercises on my own to help me with the etude to help me with the note. Did that make any sense? I did things such as B major scales with the F# as a pedal (F# – B – F# – C# – F# – D# – F# – E – etc.) and also F# major scales with the C# as the pedal note (C# – F# – C# – G# – C# – A# – C# – B – etc.). I also like to hook up my Dr. Beat to a small amp and play pitches as drones. A great exercise to work on with drones are 6-note harmonic series slurs. I try to do these everyday anyway, starting on a low B in 4D and moving up by half step all the way to the Bb in 1st. In 5th position, the notes would be F# – C# – F# – A# – C# – F# ascending, then descending F# – C# – A# – F# – C# – F#, all in 5th position, with the tuning adjustments you need to make depending on the partial.
Now come to think of it….I don’t really get along with Gb, either….
– So often in the bass trombone repertoire we either get stuck playing burp and fart music or just a few devastating low notes to shake the foundation every now and then. It’s unfortunately becoming increasingly more and more rare for the bass trombone to be used as a singing instrument. I found a lot of enjoyment in finding the music that wasn’t written on the page with this one. While Kahila certainly didn’t skimp on writing in dynamics and phrase slurs, within those written instructions are all sorts of shades to play with. This piece, just as any piece of music, will say something different to each person that plays it. The important thing is that we say something. Here’s to hoping more bass trombonists play music like this around composers so they know that all the pretty stuff doesn’t have to be given to the horns. Bass trombonists can be sensitive, damn it!!!
– With these gorgeous, sweeping phrases that Kahila wrote comes a great deal of air control responsibility for the performer. In addition to all the breathing exercises one may find in The Breathing Gym or what have you, I’ve found one of the most effective exercises is the “Breath Control in Legato Extending the Octave” exercise found in the Remington Warm-Up Studies (Ex. 45 on p. 32 of the Hunsberger edition). Basically, the goal of the exercise is to play an entire ascending and descending scale in one breath, but starting only with the first whole step and adding a note each time. I usually play F major at quarter note = 72 on the metronome, starting on the F just under the staff, playing each note a half note in value, except the final F of each one, that one gets a dotted half note and I breathe on beat 4 to start the scale again. So the notes would be:
F – G – F
F – G – A – G – F
F – G – A – Bb – A – G – F
F – G – A – Bb – C – Bb – A – G – F
All of this is so much easier if I just wrote it out on staff paper and posted a PDF. One of these days I’ll go do that. But, I’m not inventing anything here. All this and so much more can be found in the Hunsberger edition of The Remington Warm-Up Studies, which, should I ever be elected President of the United States, will be the book I place my hand upon as I take the Oath of Office. If you don’t have this book…get this book!
Some of the Things I’m Going to Continue to Work On:
– Some days my life seems like one big battle to reduce tension in the upper register. Some days go better than others, but it’s the path toward consistency that we all must travel upon. Today it’s Kahila exercise #3, tomorrow it’s Haydn’s “The Creation” or Franck’s “Symphony in D Minor.” Then the next day it’s some recording session that has three trombones inexplicably playing unison licks up to high C#’s. Either way, we bass trombonists need to embrace our high registers, because there’s a whole bunch of composers out there, dead, alive and somewhere in between, that think we’re nothing more than better looking tenor players.
– As previously discussed, the range of the bass trombone these days is all over the place. When I’m tired and have been playing in the high register a bunch, the sound of my low register closes off a bit. It’s all about staying relaxed, projecting the air and filling the horn with vibration. When we practice we tend to practice the stuff we need to practice when we’re feeling our best. We had a good warm up, still have a clear head and aren’t too tired yet. Unfortunately in the real world, we rarely get to play on fresh chops, so whether we like it or not, practicing while we’re shot is just as important, if not more so, than when we feel like we can conquer the world. It is indeed humbling, but it pays off in dividends when we have the gig that followed six hours of rehearsal that day.
– It ain’t over ’til it’s over. Maintaining concentration and projection of air through the end of a note or phrase is crucial. Sure, not having the goods at the end of the phrase often means a mistake we made at the beginning, but I have to constantly remind myself to not kick my feet up and crack open a beer too early. When you do that, you tend to get something like having the final D dropping off in pitch at the end.
The “Semester of Studies” for Bass Trombone by Kauko Kahila has a little taste of everything in these short sixteen etudes. As the preface of the book says, these studies are “designed to fill a need for practice material which is in the difficult style of writing often found in the modern orchestral repertoire.” Where this book was once solidly in the extremes, these extremes have become almost commonplace in not just modern orchestral repertoire, but also show and commercial music.
You can order Kauko Kahila’s “Semester of Studies” for Bass Trombone at Hickey’s and other fine purveyors of sheet music.
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.