Counting down to FRATRES: The Yeo/Pagano Project

Counting down to FRATRES: The Yeo/Pagano Project

As I mentioned in a previous post on The Last Trombone, my friend, Gerry Pagano (Bass Trombonist of the St. Louis Symphony), and I have recently recorded a compact disc of music for two bass trombones. In this we were assisted by Michael Lake, who not only was the recording engineer for the project, but also contributed superb accompaniments and enhancements to many of the tracks. And he also wrote a piece for the album. And he played alto trombone along with us on three tracks. And a partridge in a pear tree. You get the idea. This new album is a true collaboration between Gerry, Mike, and me, and we believe we have some very interesting, unusual, special, challenging, and inspiring music and performances to bring to life in the coming weeks.


Gerry and I recorded the project in Michael Lake’s studio in Phoenix, Arizona, a place where we could do things that just couldn’t be achieved in a large, live acoustic space. I wrote about this previously so there’s no need to repeat myself here. But we are now moving ahead with the final phases of production of the album that include mastering, design, licensing, manufacturing and distribution. We hope to have the finished product in our hands by the end of this calendar year.


At this time, Gerry and I are reaching out to people who we hope will be interested in supporting our project. FRATRES – Latin for “brothers” – is an album that we hope will inspire others to look at the bass trombone differently. We’ve recorded a wide range of repertoire that spans nearly 600 years. Over his career, Gerry has released four solo albums and I’ve released five. This kind of duet collaboration is something new for us, and something that, in a sense, was 31 years in the making, with the seed of it planted long ago in 1986 when Gerry and I first met and played duets together.

So we have launched a Kickstarter program to invite people who are interested in what we are doing to stand alongside and support our vision for FRATRES. As much as we value your investment in our project – and as you will see when you visit our Kickstarter page, we are offering a number of “thank you” gifts for your support including a digital download of the album, a physical CD copy of the recording, pencils, t-shirt, beer/iced tea glass, and a coffee mug – we are most of all interested in your partnership in our vision.

Michael Lake has also made a video about the project that includes some interviews with Gerry and me, and photos from the session. Gerry and I really appreciate Mike’s many contributions to the project and I think you will catch his excitement about it if you view his video (click below or see it on YouTube by clicking here):

While we were making our recording, we also took some time out of our schedule to record a music video in the desert. Michael Lake’s drone was able to capture both the grandeur of the Arizona landscape and also the fun Gerry and I had in working together. The soundtrack to this video is one of the pieces we recorded for inclusion on our album, Tommy Pederson’s Below 10th Street, with rhythm and Hammond B-3 organ added by Mike (click below or see it on YouTube by clicking here):

Michael Lake has also posted the recording of his new piece, Devils & Angels, that he composed for our album. It’s a compositional tour de force that includes a sophisticated accompaniment to Gerry (left channel) and me (right channel), as well as Mike’s alto trombone improvisation, a section where the three of us are overdubbed in five parts, and some improvisation by me on serpent at the end. Have a listen by clicking here.

With all of this, we hope you are getting a picture of what we’ve been doing and why we’re so excited about getting this project released.

FRATRES. Friends – brothers – working together to make music to share with others. On behalf of Gerry and me, we thank you for your support.



[Drawing of Douglas Yeo by Lennie Peterson. Drawing of Gerry Pagano by an unknown waiter at a New York City restaurant.]

Three trips: music, friends, and faith

Three trips: music, friends, and faith

The last few months have been full of travel, as I’ve criss-crossed the United States several times to play and speak at a number of events. It is times like this that are very refreshing and invigorating to me, as I get to be with other fine musicians and make music at a high level. At the same time, my conversations with others are always very rich, and when I come home, I find myself energized and grateful for the blessing of a life lived with music.

The first of these three tripe was to the International Trombone Festival (June 27-July 1), which was held at University of Redlands, California. As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I played duets with three friends: Jim Markey (bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony), Megumi Kanda (principal trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony), and Gerry Pagano (bass trombonist of the Saint Louis Symphony). In addition, Megumi and I gave a class titled The One Hundred: Effective Strategies for Successful Audition Preparation.

[From top left, clockwise: Douglas Yeo with Megumi Kanda, Gerry Pagano, Bill Watrous, Jennifer Wharton]

Part of the fun of being at these kinds of events is meeting up with old friends. I ran into jazz great, Bill Watrous, while walking through the vendor area at the ITF. Bill was tremendously influential on me – and countless other players – when I first hear him on his Manhattan Wildlife Refuge recording in 1975; have a listen to his iconic and influential performance of Fourth Floor Walk-Up. Years later, we began a friendship that, interestingly enough, does not center around jazz. Rather, when we speak on the phone, Bill always wants to talk about classical music, especially Edward Elgar. Bill is expertly conversant in classical music, something that may come as a surprise to many who know him as a jazz trombone icon. I recall hearing him give a clinic at Lexington High School in Massachusetts (the town in which my wife and I lived from 1985-2012 when I was a member of the Boston Symphony) where he played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings on trombone using multiphonics. To say his performance was stunning is a profound understatement.

I also got to meet up with my former student, Jennifer Wharton, who was at the ITF to play in the XO All Stars jazz trombone quartet. Jen is a remarkable person and player, living in New York City with her husband, John Fedchock, playing a Broadway show, teaching, and freelancing. Jen is one of the most positive and engaging people I’ve ever met, and having time to meet up with her, have some conversation and a meal together, and play duets was a real joy.


While on my way to Redlands, I stopped off at Joshua Tree National Park in California to purchase my National Parks Lifetime Senior Pass. Getting older bring with it some challenges, for sure, but my first “senior discount” after turning 62 this past May was this Pass, a real deal for $10.00; I got mine just before the fee changed to $80.00. Going to National Parks is a real passion for my wife and me, and to hold this lifetime pass in my hand was a moment that made me smile. More on our recent trip to five National Parks in a future post on The Last Trombone.


[Scott Robinson, ophicleide; Douglas Yeo with serpent by Keith Rogers]

Just a few days after the ITF in California, I flew to New York City for the Third Historic Brass Symposium (July 12-14). This time I didn’t have a trombone in my hand. Rather, I brought along a serpent, for I was at the Symposium to premiere a new duet for serpent and ophicleide commissioned by the Historic Brass Society, Caduceus Mixtus, by Jaron Lanier. My partner for the duet was Scott Robinson, known mostly for his superb playing on saxophone, but he also plays ophicleide. The piece was difficult, interesting, and rewarding to play, and our performance at New York University happened to be in the same recital hall where I gave my two graduate recitals when I was a student at NYU for my master’s degree back in 1979. For this performance I used a serpent made by the late Keith Rogers that was entrusted to me by his wife, Kathryn, after Keith’s death in 2008. It is made of plum wood and covered with a (pre-ban) python skin. It seemed to be the right instrument to use for a piece that had as part of its inspiration, the caduceus, with its intertwined snakes.


In addition to hearing scholars present exceptionally interesting papers at the Symposium, we enjoyed a day of papers and concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Museum is one of my favorite places in the world, having grown up in and around New York City and then returning there after I graduated from Wheaton College, from 1976-1979. The musical instrument gallery of the Museum is closed for a complete renovation, but we were given a preview of the construction and also saw some of the Museum’s new acquisitions, including a Baudouin serpent and the Bellophone, a combination tuba and euphonium that was made for the legendary tuba player, Bill Bell, by the H.N. White company.

We also got an up close look at a stunning new installation on the balcony between the two rooms of musical instruments, Fanfare, that features about 60 brasswind instruments. It is an exceptional installation and to have the opportunity to be among the first to see it up close was a real privilege.


I also had time to view some of my favorite works of art at the Museum, including Rembrandt’s Aristotle With a Bust of Homer, a beautiful stained glass window, Autumn Landscape, by Tiffany Studios, and several sculptures by one of my favorite artists, Daniel Chester French. His Angel of Death and the Sculptor and Mourning Victory are displayed in the Museum as marble copies made by French of his bronze cemetery monuments that I discuss in my website resource, Daniel Chester French: Sculpture in Situ.

[From top, clockwise from left: Rembrandt, Aristotle With a Bust of Homer; Tiffany Studios Autumn Landscape; Daniel Chester French, Mourning Victory and The Angel of Death and the Sculptor]

While in New York, there was one thing I wanted to see that was not connected to the Symposium: the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Anyone alive on September 11, 2001, remembers that horrific, difficult day; the world has never been the same since. Having been up the World Trade Center tower many times, its destruction hit me, as it did many others, very hard. Going to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum was a very strong, powerful experience. To see wreckage of the Twin Towers and a crushed fire truck up close is something I will always carry with me, even as I admired the new building, 1 World Trade Center (originally nicknamed the “Freedom Tower”), that has arisen to the height of 1,776 feet and now is a new icon in the New York Skyline. The fountains that form the memorial, covering the original footprints of the World Trade Center towers, are a powerful and moving thing to behold.

But there was an unexpected surprise. As I came out of the subway to go to the Memorial and Museum, there was a new shopping center, Oculus, that featured a remarkable display of images from the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome. In nearly life size, enormous photographs of the ceiling and altar wall were on display. I found this to be serendipitous, since my wife and I will be soon be traveling to Rome and we will see the Sistine Chapel with our own eyes. To walk around this installation and see Michaelangelo’s  frescos of the ceiling of the Chapel up close was a delightful surprise.


On to the third trip.

Just last week, I was back on the east coast, at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, to perform at two programs that focused on theology and music (August 30-September 2).


These were led by Dr. Jeremy Begbie, professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. Last year, about a dozen musicians took part in the first of these kinds of events, sponsored by Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. After the success of that event, a much large scale offering was planned for this year, with over 30 musicians invited to take part in the events.

A concert at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art was in conjunction with a new exhibition, The Medici’s Painter: Carlo Dolci and 17th-Century Florence. The exhibition was revelatory, and at the evening’s program that included two fascinating lectures about Dolci and his work, our group of eight brass players performed two Italian Renaissance works while a chamber music group played as part of two lectures and also performed the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 2. If you find yourself in the Durham area soon, I urge you to visit this superb exhibit at the Nasher.

[Carlo Dolci, Virgin and Child, late 1640s. Collection of The Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery, Greenville, South Carolina, installed at The Nasher Museum, Duke University]

The players at these DITA events are all Christians and come from symphony orchestras and universities from around the United States. Working with these like-minded colleagues was pure joy, and our playing, meals together, and conversations were invigorating. After the program at the Nasher, we took a photo of current and former members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who were participating in the program. Here you can see me (I played bass trombone in the Baltimore Symphony from 1981-1985), Rebekah Edewards (now a violist with the Boston Symphony), and current principal trumpeter Andrew Ballio and second trumpeter, Nate Hepler.


[Left to right: Douglas Yeo, Rebekah Edewards, Andrew Ballio, Nate Hepler]

As to the trombone section for the events, I was reunited with Megumi Kanda and Jim Kraft, who for many years played trombone in the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. A concert with what was named The New Caritas Orchestra was titled, Home, Away, & Home Again: The Rhythm of the Gospel in Music. Led by Jeremy Begbie – who made insightful and powerful comments throughout the evening and also was a superb piano soloist in works by Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich – the concert was a benefit for The Corner House in Durham, a house where disabled and non-disabled people live together in community. The House is supported by Reality Ministries, and it was truly beautiful to see residents of the house at the concert, and hear some of them speak and others play percussion instruments with us on the final piece on the program. It was a moving, joyful time.


[Left to right: Douglas Yeo, Megumi Kanda, Jim Kraft]

At the request of those of us who played the DITA event in 2016, a seminar was given for the orchestra members on Saturday morning, led by Jeremy Begbie (whose book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music is one of the finest I’ve ever read about the intersection of music with the Christian faith) and Alan Torrance. I confess that the three hours spent in this seminar were revelatory. Alan’s presentation on God’s covenant relationship with His people – especially his unpacking of Hebrew words and how they, over time, were poorly translated into Latin and then to English, something that has had an important effect on our understanding of God’s covenant-– and Jeremy’s discussion on the Holy Trinity have given me much to think about and meditate on. God was at work at Duke Divinity School last week and I left there refreshed and challenged.

Three trips in just a few weeks (and another, much longer trip in the middle of these trips about which I will write soon), back and forth over our great country, from sea to shining sea. Music, friends, and faith.

Trust. Risk. Reward.

Trust. Risk. Reward.

Gerry Pagano and I met in the summer of 1987, when I was Bass Trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he was a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center.  As Bass Trombonist of the Saint Louis Symphony since 1995 , he is a superb player and a quality person, and over the years, we’ve kept in contact and we’ve followed each other’s careers, although we didn’t have an opportunity to meet up again until 2014. At that time, Gerry came to Arizona to collaborate on a recording project with his friend, jazz trombonist – jazz alto trombonist, actually – Mike Lake, on an album that became Roads Less Traveled. Since he was going to be in the area, I invited Gerry to come to Arizona State University to give a masterclass – I was, at that time, ASU’s Trombone Professor. To start off the class, Gerry and I performed Tommy Pederson’s duet, The Crimson Collop, and later that day, returned to my office, made a video recording of that piece, and posted it on YouTube. It’s received over 21,000 views.

Such was the seed that led Gerry and me to come together earlier in this month to record a new album of duets for bass trombone. In light of the popularity of our The Crimson Collop video, we thought it might be fun to record all of the bass trombone duets written by Tommy Pederson. But as we continued talking about it, we decided a more diverse selection of repertoire might be more interesting; we then both started bringing other repertoire ideas to the table. Plenty of Pederson, of course, but also Renaissance duets, a canon by Telemann and some Bartok violin duets. Gerry suggested a movement from Bach’s Concerto for two violins in d minor, a piece I hadn’t played since I was an undergraduate at Wheaton College in the early 70s. But we needed more music.

It was at that point that Gerry began talking more about Mike Lake. Early in our conversations, Gerry suggested Mike as our recording engineer since Mike has a studio in Arizona. While I knew of Mike, I couldn’t say that I knew him, but I was happy to take Gerry’s suggestion to involve Mike in the project; we did, after all, need a recording engineer and if Gerry had already worked with Mike – in fact, they have known each other for many decades, having been roommates for a time – that was fine with me. As our conversations continued, Gerry began proposing more involvement for Mike, such as the possibility that Mike might play trombone on something on the album. Gerry also also talked about how Mike could “add things” to some tracks. I honestly didn’t know where this was going. Having made many solo recordings myself over the years, I had a very clear idea of the kinds of things I wanted this new album to be about, and I was used to being the one who put forth ideas and called the shots. What Gerry was proposing was uncharted territory for me. Gerry was asking me to trust him and Mike, and take some risks as ideas kept flowing.

And, so, I offered trust and embraced the risk. Then began new conversations of ideas from Mike. Overdubbing ourselves on some pieces, adding different sounds as background in some cases, both musical and non-musical textures and treatments. Acoustic, recorded, and computer generated things. Percussion, voices, Hammond organ, sound effects, synthesizer, harpsichord. Mike offered to compose a piece for Gerry and me, one that would feature him improvising for a chorus, and he asked if I also could improvise – on  serpent – on his tune. Things were moving at the speed of light and I felt caught up in a tsunami – a constant, relentless push – of ideas. Having given Mike my trust, I went with it to see what would happen.

Trust can lead to risk, and risk can bring unexpected rewards. And that is where I stand today. After three days of recording sessions – days that included filming a music video in the Sonoran Desert about this project with the help of Mike’s drone – we are in the process of evaluating Mike’s editing of the tracks and seeing where things lead. Last night, Mike sent along the first edit of Tommy Pederson’s duet, Rumble on 6th Street. It’s a dramatic piece that always seemed to me to be about a fight, like the rumble in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Prelude, call to arms, sizing up of each side with a tentative dance, conflict, pulling back, fighting again, and then finally retreating in ambiguity. Having trusted Mike’s judgment in several other things he had suggested, it was time for me to put an idea on the table: What about putting some street sounds at the beginning of the duet, sounds that would bring the listener in with anticipation to Gerry’s and my playing of the duet? Knowing Tommy Pederson (1920-1998) as I did from our many phone conversations and letters, I thought that if Tommy was alive, he would embrace something outside the box like this. I pitched the idea to Mike and he ran. He ran fast. His creativity exploded, and yesterday, he sent us the first edit of his enhanced track to Tommy’s great duet.

I was stunned by what I heard. Mike found some recordings of urban street sounds. He put them together: shouting, cars, sirens, frenzied screams, trucks. The sound of thunder, a man yelling, “Put that down! Put that down!” A faint, musical drone of voices emerged as Gerry and I began to play. And then the most shocking thing. As the duet ended, I became aware once again of the intensity of the street sound. Then, suddenly, more thunder and, finally a heavy rain, before everything faded away with a final sound of a police siren. It was shocking. It was like the rain came to wash everything away. Did the rumble happen? Did the police get there? Who won? Did we even play? Blood was washed away, footprints disappeared. Evidence was gone. Tommy’s ambiguous final cadence gave way to the strong, cleansing rain.

In this version of our recording of Rumble on 6th Street, which you can hear by clicking the play button above, Gerry is playing the top part (left channel) and I am playing the bottom part (right channel).

Trust. Risk. Reward. This is something I have been learning in a new way as I’ve been dealing in very close, intense ways with Mike’s creativity. Yes, he’s an excellent  recording engineer. Yes, he is a superb jazz trombonist (you will hear his improvisation skills on his own composition for our album, Devils and Angels). He’s also a great guy to talk with and be around. But there are not words in any language I know to describe what goes on in his mind as he thinks through ideas that bring new, different, interesting, challenging, provocative, or unusual things to a project for which I already thought I had the last musical word. When our album is released – its provisional title is Fratres, Latin for “brothers,” taken from the piece of that name by Arvo Pärt that we recorded – it will be something the likes of which the trombone world has never, ever heard. We are making a new kind of album for this unique moment in time, a recording with many new and unexpected kinds of things. Because of Mike, it is something very different than my mind originally conceived. Once I decided to offer trust and take risks, I then began to be rewarded in ways I had not been able to imagine. And I have a very fertile imagination.

We’re not done with this. There is much more work ahead before the album is released. But as each day brings new things to consider, evaluate, change, improve, and approve, my excitement is building for what Gerry, Mike, and I are doing together. Hold on. We’re all on a wild ride and there’s no net below. But I know my brothers – Gerry and Mike – are with me in this and we are there for each other, encouraging, provoking, and experimenting. Thanks to Mike Lake, each day dawns with new things on the plate, and this is turning out to be a very satisfying meal. We look forward to sharing it with you.

[This article originally appeared in a slightly modified format on September 1, 2017 as a guest article on Mike Lake’s Blog,; it may be seen by clicking here.]

Seeing the Unseen: Trombone Playing Through the Eye of a MRI Scanner with the MRI Brass Repository Project

Seeing the Unseen: Trombone Playing Through the Eye of a MRI Scanner with the MRI Brass Repository Project

While individuals have been playing musical instruments that require vibrating lips to produce sound since before the dawn of recorded time – we need only think of the shofar, didgeridoo, and conch shell to begin a list of lip-blown aerophones of ancient origin – there is much about playing such instruments that remains a mystery. Whether thousands of years old or made last week at a modern brass instrument factory, the fundamental changes to brasses over the millennia have been those of material, construction and ergonomics rather than actual tone production. As every school child that has ever picked up a trumpet, trombone, horn, euphonium or tuba knows, all that is needed to create a sound on a brass instrument is to place one’s lips on the mouthpiece, vibrate the lips by passing air through them, and, Voilá! Another brass player is born.

Yet while trombonist and Boston-based brass pedagogue John Coffey (1907-1981)  summarized his teaching with the pithy phrase, “Tongue and blow, kid,” successful brass instrument articulation and tone production actually requires a bit more understanding. Teachers and performers have written legions of books and articles about what players should do with their tongue and other members of the body’s oral cavity, but such descriptions have been hampered by an obvious problem: we cannot see inside the mouth or touch the tongue, glottis or soft palate while playing. One’s tongue cannot touch one’s tongue in order to feel one’s tongue when it is in use. It is clear that much of what has been said about the workings of the tongue during playing has been nothing more than well-meaning conjecture.

In 1897, Harold W. Atkinson summed up the difficulty that researchers faced when attempting to describe tongue’s position while speaking:

Their descriptions, accompanied or unaccompanied by diagrams, as the case may be, vary in those points of detail which are beyond the range of comparatively easy determination. This has been due, it would appear, to lack of suitable methods of measurement, more than to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of observers. Though equipped with the necessary anatomical and physical knowledge, they have lacked the power of designing appropriate methods or apparatus for making exact measurements.[1]


“Tongue measurer” by Harold W. Atkinson (1897)

Atkinson’s solution was to devise a “tongue measurer” made of silver, a delicate, movable wire with a “tooth stop” that slid up and down the wire. Inserted into a subject’s mouth – a reasonable person might immediately exclaim, “Not in my mouth!” – a syllable was spoken, the tooth stop moved, the wire was then applied to a plaster of Paris model of the mouth, and measurements taken. Professor Atkinson can be commended for his desire for understanding as well as his ingenuity, but his methodology was inexact at best.

For low brass players, we have long been accustomed to hearing wisdom about the use of the tongue and throat from some of the finest players and teachers of the twentieth century. Yet words and sentences often are used in murky ways that lead to misunderstanding and confusion. We are used to encountering phrases like:

“. . . The throat should be entirely free of resistance. . . the tongue should be loose and relaxed.”[2]

“Physical law provides that the embouchure is the determiner of pitch, so why should the tongue get so involved. . .?”[3]

“The throat should always be relaxed.”[4]

“It is important that the tongue remain as relaxed as possible at all times. . .”[5]

“Many brass players react in horror when I suggest using [the glottis] for purposes of playing our instruments.”[6]

“However, especially with the euphonium and tuba, the tongue is never positioned ‘high’ in the oral cavity, even in the upper register.”[7]

“Correct tonguing is an up-and-down motion. . .”[8]

But what exactly is “the throat”? What part of the tongue should be “loose and relaxed”? Is the glottis at work when doing a crescendo or diminuendo? Should it be at work? What is the glottis, anyway? Does the tongue have a role in determining pitch? Is correct tonguing an up-and-down or a back-and-forth motion?

Confusion continues when authors write suggested vocal syllables that players should keep in mind while playing. “Open” syllables are often spoken of as being preferred to “closed” sounds (there we go again, using words that we haven’t clearly defined), but when one reads the syllable “AY” in print, is that “AY” as in “hay” or “AY” as in “aye”? When one sees the word, “TOO,” is it to be thought of as “two” or “toe”? Should the tongue ever be allowed to rise up high in the oral cavity with the syllable “TEE” or should the tongue always be kept down and low in the mouth while using the open sounding syllable, “TOH”?

These authors quoted above – including this writer – can hardly be blamed for doing their best to describe a complex subject with limited actual understanding with which to work. X-ray vision is the stuff of Superman, not trombone teachers, and the intuitive description of the operation of the tongue by many writers has seemed to be reasonable, if unproven. Yet with the advances of modern medical diagnostic techniques, brass players, teachers, and scientists are coming together to show us what has hitherto been impossible to clearly see: the operation of the tongue and associated organs inside the mouth while playing a brass instrument in real time.[9]


Begun in 2013, the MRI Brass Repository Project (MBRP)[10] was conceived by Dr. Peter Iltis, Professor of Kinesiology at Gordon College, Massachusetts. Iltis’ interest in the physiology of the brass player’s embouchure and associated parts of the oral cavity led to his collaboration and partnership with Dr. Jens Frahm, Director of Biomedical NMR Research at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, and Dr. Eckart Altenmüller, Director of the Institute for Music Physiology and Musician’s Medicine in Hannover, Germany, to create the MBRP.[11] The Max Planck Institute has generously provided use of their magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, a non-invasive tool that allows subjects to be tested without time limitations or exposure to harmful radiation.


Left to right: Jens Frahm, Douglas Yeo, Eckart Altenmüller, Peter Iltis

The MBRP’s work started with testing of elite, college/conservatory, and embouchure dystonic horn players, using a horn bell made and donated by Rick Seraphinoff (Bloomington, Indiana). Those studies led Iltis and his team to report their preliminary findings in numerous articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals and music publications,[12] as well as in several web-based video interviews and podcasts.[13]

Normal playing of a brass instrument inside a MRI scanner is impossible; there is not enough clearance in the scanner to allow movement of a trombone slide or for the hands of a player to operate valves. Additionally, no ferrous metal can be in the scanner room because of the powerful magnets that are used to create the MRI images; therefore, non-ferrous brass bells must be constructed. A brass instrument bell is then connected to plastic tubing and a plastic mouthpiece, and a player inside the scanner can play notes in the overtone series while the playing is video recorded in sagittal (from the side of the head) and coronal (from the front of the head) views at 55 frames per second. Exercises involving double tonguing were recorded at 100 frames per second in sagittal views. In this way, the workings of the oral cavity during brass playing be observed in real time, and the movement and use of the tongue, soft palate, and glottis can be carefully examined.


Having tested a large cohort of horn players, Peter Iltis asked me to lead the study of trombone players. This involved my writing a protocol for trombone players to play inside the scanner, and also traveling to the Max Planck Institute in Germany to be the pilot subject in the trombone study. This I did in April 2017. My goal in writing the trombone protocol was to devise exercises that would help us to understand various aspects of trombone playing. In particular, these involved tonguing with various types of articulation, single and double tonguing, slurring, air attacks, and pitch bends. I was also interested to see how the tongue moved while whistling, since the action of the tongue while whistling is often used as a metaphor for tongue placement in various registers of brass playing.


Jens Frahm and Peter Iltis with specially made non-ferrous tenor and bass trombone bells, designed, manufactured and donated by YAMAHA Corporation (Hamatsu, Japan)

YAMAHA Corporation (Hamamatsu, Japan), designed, manufactured, and donated specially made non-ferrous tenor and bass trombone bells for the study, and Kelly Mouthpieces also donated several plastic trombone mouthpieces for use by players. I also experimented with several types of flexible rubber/plastic tubing (clear, reinforced, PVC, etc), which I had collected in a variety of bore sizes including reasonably standard trombone bore sizes of .500, .550, and .562 inches.

I was familiar with how an MRI scanner worked due to my having had several MRI exams over the years in preparation for various surgical procedures. Those exams involved the taking of still images, and the operation of the MRI scanner’s magnets created a loud, banging sound. However, the scanner used in Göttingen did not make this kind of sound. Rather, the machine made a loud, constant, high-pitched whirr over which I was able to hear myself play the trombone fairly well, despite my wearing earplugs. In addition, as I lay prone on my back in the scanner, my head was gently cradled inside a helmet to help keep my head from making unnecessary movements.

Those who have been inside a MRI scanner know that it can generate a feeling of claustrophobia. Once one is moved into the scanner, one’s nose is only a few inches from the top of the scanner tube. The Max Planck Institute developed an innovative solution to the claustrophobia problem. A double mirror was affixed to the helmet at eye level so when I looked up, I had the impression of looking into the room; this gave me the illusion that I was not in the scanner, but rather I was sitting in a chair looking at my surroundings.

In all, I was in the MRI scanner for two hours and I recorded 57 exercises. Here follows some of what we learned, drawn from 11 selected videos.

Video 1 – lip slurs


[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

A good place to start is a simple lip slur exercise. It should be said at the outset that during the time I was playing all exercises inside the scanner, I attempted to follow the advice I learned from Edward Kleinhammer[14] as a student: keep the tongue down and the throat open at all times, in all registers and in all dynamics. As he would simply say, “Yawn, don’t cough.” This was a core tenet of Kleinhammer’s teaching, expressed in his books The Art of Trombone Playing and Mastering the Trombone, and it is a central part of the pedagogy of many trombone teachers and players. My only regret associated with the MBRP is that Edward Kleinhammer did not live to see it come to pass. Knowing him as I did, I know that the process, its outcomes, and conclusions would have fascinated him.

As you view this video, you will first see me swallow several times. What happens when we swallow? The tongue arches upward in the oral cavity and presses both against the roof of the mouth as well as backwards. The larynx – what is popularly referred to as the “Adam’s apple” – is pulled upward to allow the easy passage of saliva into the esophagus. In addition, you will see a small flap of cartilage called the epiglottis move over the trachea (wind pipe) so saliva goes down the esophagus; this prevents a person from choking when saliva goes, as is often said, “down the wrong way.” Also, selected muscles of the oropharynx (what we typically refer to as “the back of the throat”) constrict to aid in pushing saliva – and food – downward.

On the far left edge of many of these videos, part of my thumb that was supporting the mouthpiece can be seen; keep in mind that the mouthpiece was plastic so it does not appear in the MRI images. As I inhale, observe that my soft palate is open at the top of my oral cavity. This closes as I transition from inhaling to playing so air from the oral cavity goes only into the mouthpiece and is not released through my nose. You will also see that my throat is “open.” That is, the several muscles that work to constrict the oropharynx relax, giving the sensation of an open throat.

As I begin playing, you will observe that as I slur higher, my tongue moves both up and back in my oral cavity. There is also movement below the base of my tongue, with my larynx and glottis – the opening between the vocal cords – moving slightly upward. When I was playing, I felt no sensation of this upward movement in my neck; I always felt that my throat was very relaxed and my tongue was “down.”

Here we see something very important. When we speak of the tongue, we are speaking of an extraordinarily large, strong, and flexible muscle. It does not move as a single muscle in a single direction, but various parts of the tongue can simultaneously move in various directions. There are muscles called extrinsic muscles that act on the body of the tongue to move it up, down, forward and back within the mouth. There are also muscles making up the body of the tongue itself (intrinsic muscles) that can alter the tongue’s shape. As you view these videos, observe the many varied shapes of the tongue as I play exercises with different articulations and in different registers.

As we look at this, we can see that the idea of an “open throat” is something of a misnomer. We can have the sensation and feeling that we are not changing the size of the oropharynx but in fact we are doing so, and doing so seems to be an essential part of pitch production. Size and shape changes of the oropharynx can also be completely independent of the movement of the tongue. Also, the pulsations of air with each note change may very well be playing some role in assisting with pitch changes. From what we have seen, it is already clear that the embouchure is not the sole determiner of pitch, but that the movement of the tongue and work of the oropharynx play an important role in this as well. As I was playing, I sensed that my tongue was low and down in my mouth at all times and that my throat was always “open.” But as we can see, that was not the case. I had to admit: “The tape don’t lie.”

All of these various processes are happening simultaneously and very quickly, and with virtually no thought on the part of the player. To think about all of this as we play would be an overwhelming exercise, resulting in what Arnold Jacobs[15] used to call, “paralysis by analysis.”[16] The reasonable question arises: How can we be unaware of all of these diverse processes despite our concentrating intently on our playing? When I consider this, I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist when expressed his awe of God as the sovereign creator of all things, “I will praise Thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14) Indeed.

Video 2 – intervals


[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

This exercise is a variation on the slur pattern heard earlier. Here, I articulated intervals of the overtone series rather than slur them. These increasingly wide intervals, particularly in the second half of the exercise when I start each group of two notes on a pedal B-flat, show very clearly the different position of the tongue in various registers. And here is something else to notice: observe how I start this exercise. Many players “flick” their tongue forward before playing, not to moisten their lips, but as an absent-minded gesture of which they are usually not aware. I have seen this on MRI videos of other players who are usually surprised to see it. I have always tried to inject as little extraneous motion into my embouchure’s set up as possible, something that, again, came from Edward Kleinhammer. You’ll also see that I have very little movement of my jaw while playing. When I play the pedal B-flats, I do not engage in an embouchure shift. The helmet that I wore in the MRI scanner did not prevent me from moving my jaw; this is the way I ordinarily play as well.

Which leads to these photos:


Left to right: pedal B-flat, low B-flat, tuning B-flat, high B-flat

These four images – still screen shots taken from the videos – show four different notes. From left to right, you see me playing and holding a pedal B-flat, low B-flat, tuning B-flat, and high B-flat. As I play successively higher notes, my tongue changes shape. By the high B-flat, my tongue takes up most of the available space in the oral cavity and the oropharynx has constricted as well. Yet the throat and neck remain relaxed. Apart from a slight firming of my chin, my profile is nearly identical on all four notes.

But . . .

There is virtually no change between the images for the pedal B-flat and the low B-flat. For both notes, the shape, size and position of the tongue is almost identical. The oropharynx is slightly more open for the pedal B-flat than for the low B-flat, but this is a very subtle difference. Both notes show a very open oral cavity. What does this mean? First, we see that my approach to playing is generally very stable. While in the scanner, I simply tried to play the way I normally play, despite the constraints imposed by an unfamiliar instrument and mouthpiece, and the need to play lying on my back. I don’t use an embouchure shift for pedal tones, and the pedal tone seems, as I look at these photos and videos, to simply be a lower sounding note than the note above, and one that does not require a radical change in how the note is made. Absent are any embouchure, chin or oral cavity gymnastics to produce the pedal tone. Second, this shows that tongue placement is not always an indicator of pitch production. While some teachers posit that the tongue has no role in pitch production and that embouchure alone determines pitch, that is clearly not true. On the other hand, the nearly identical tongue placement for my pedal B-flat and low B-flat shows that in the case of these two notes, my tongue was not a significant actor in pitch production. Clearly my embouchure had a greater role in determining the pitch of these two notes, and that is evident when you look at my lips. For the pedal B-flat, my lips are more relaxed, and that is the significant factor that allows me to produce and center that note.

Video 3 – articulated arpeggio


[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

Here is an articulated arpeggio that shows the slow, even movement of my tongue as I play notes from lower to higher and then from higher to lower. Again, note the fact that there is only a slight firming of my chin as I go higher, and the tongue evenly rises and falls depending on the range of each note. Observe, too, that when I take a quick breath, my oropharynx is open, allowing me to quickly get in as much air as possible.

Video 4 – slow double tongue


[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

Up to now, we have seen exercises that have been slurred or single tongued. Here is an exercise in slow double tonguing. With single tonguing, we have seen that the tongue’s motion is primarily from front to back. But with double tonguing, the “ka” syllable requires the tongue to touch the roof of the mouth in order to form a short, temporary seal that is opened quickly to give the impression of a tongued attack. I don’t ordinarily double tongue at this slow tempo, but it is useful to see how the tongue operates in this kind of slow double tongue action. In this video, we see this slow double-tonguing on both low B-flat and middle F. Even at this slow tempo, I exhibit no “chewing” motion when I am tonguing; I allow the tongue to do its work and the oropharynx is relaxed and open throughout. Many players get very tight when they double tongue. I suspect that is usually a product of insecurity – not feeling one can tongue well – rather than from a physical need of some kind to tighten the neck muscles.

Video 5 – fast double tongue (and slow motion video)

[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

Here is essentially the same exercise shown above with several important changes. First, this exercise was recorded at 100 frames per second. Second, I double tongue two different notes, low B-flat and middle F, as fast as possible. Then, after the video in which I tongue each note, part of the same video clip is played back at half speed. As you will see, the movement of my tongue is the same here as in the previous, slow double-tonguing exercise. You will also notice that the oropharynx – the back of my throat – remains open and relaxed. In addition, I perform this exercise in both soft and loud dynamics. I wanted to see if the tongue changed shape depending on the dynamic I used. As you can see, it did not. And even at the loud dynamic, you can see that I kept my oropharynx relaxed.

The previous video showed that the tongue did not change significantly when playing the same exercise softly or loudly. Clearly there are other things at play that affect dynamics. Most teachers and players control dynamic range through intensity of air. But in 1962, Philip Farkas[17] proposed a theory of dynamic control that created a stir among brass teachers. Farkas proposed that the glottis – the opening in the larynx between the vocal cords – could be used as a kind of “whisper valve” to assist in the playing of soft notes. Farkas wrote,

The glottis, being the opening between the vocal cords, is not a tangible thing, but simply the space between these cords, which is completely adjustable in size from wide-open to absolutely shut. Furthermore, although it is involved in the important adjustments used to vary the pitch and quality of the voice in singing, it is used quite naturally and correctly in everyday living to furnish resistance for many purposes, at which times the vocal cords do not sound. For instance, the glottis is completely closed during an act such as lifting a heavy weight. It is exploded open during a cough, or when clearing the throat. It is partially open for whispering, and wide-open for a rapid exhalation such as one would use for a “panting” effect. In this way, the glottis is used as a natural valve, and not for the purpose of vocalizing. I mention the fact that this is a perfectly, natural, everyday function of the glottis, because many brass players react in horror when I suggest using this valve for purposes of playing our instruments. They evidently feel that I am advocating the use of a “tight throat,” a condition all teachers have carefully avoided from the inception of brass playing. To me, the bad habit of playing with a “tight throat” means the forcible tightening of the neck muscles, or worse yet, the sounding of the vocal cords, resulting in a low moaning or groaning noise, heard while the instrument is played, and I have fought these bad habits just as diligently as any other brass teacher. The proper use of the glottis is natural and effective and is quite likely being used by most successful brass players, either consciously or subconsciously.[18]

Here, Farkas proposed something quite radical. While many teachers and players assume that when the glottis closes, the result is a palpable tightness in the throat, Farkas’ examples of how the glottis operates in normal, everyday use, argue against this. Peter Iltis was curious, having tested several horn players on a simple exercise of crescendo and diminuendo, to see if I as a trombone player would show the same tendency that horn players exhibited.[19] And that tendency? To use the glottis as a valve to aid in soft playing.

To show this, the MRI scanner was changed from the sagittal view – taking video of my head from the side – to the coronal view – taking video of my head from the front. With the coronal view, the scanner allowed us to capture images that revealed how the glottis was operating while playing.

Video 6 – glottis, crescendo/diminuendo


[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

In this coronal view video, my glottis is shown as a mostly symmetrical, bat-wing shaped black image in the center of the video. Before I take my breath, the glottis is mostly closed. When I take a breath, the glottis moves wide open. As I play the same note three times, each time doing a crescendo and diminuendo from piano to fortissimo and back down to piano, you can see the glottis slowly get larger, and then slowly get smaller again. While playing, I was consciously aware to keep my throat relaxed. While my glottis opened while playing loudly and closed while playing softly, I never felt like I had a “tight throat.” In this, Farkas’ radical idea that the glottis can have a role as a “whisper valve” in soft playing was verified. Fifty-five years after his idea was proposed, Farkas’ “most controversial stand”[20] has been verified as being accurate by the MRI Brass Repository Project.

Air attacks


Air attack exercise written by Edward Kleinhammer (1975)

The subject of air attacks is poorly understood. Air attacks were central to Edward Kleinhammer’s pedagogy, and he often wrote out an arpeggio exercise for students to work on – such as the image above, that he wrote for me during a lesson I had with him in 1975 – before finally codifying the exercise in Mastering the Trombone.[21] For him, the practice of air attacks to start notes helped to remove the tongue from the articulation equation, and develop better breath control. Some players use air attacks to start notes if they have a hesitation in articulation when they are under stress. They feel that taking the tongue away from the start of the note allows the note to speak without a stutter. I have rarely used air attacks to start notes at the beginning of phrases but I do use air attacks from time to time in the midst of phrases, especially in legato but also in articulated passages.

Over the years, I have suggested the use of air attacks to many students but most have difficulty understanding the concept beyond using an air attack to start a single note. But thanks to the MBRP, I can now show visually what I previously could only explain in words.

Video 7 – air attacks 1


[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

In this exercise, I play notes in two ways: first, a measure of notes is played with a traditional tongued attack. I chose the syllable TOH (as in “toe”) as opposed to TAH (as in “blah”) as a softly articulated syllable with which to start the tongued notes. Each tongued measure is followed by the same measure played with no tongue at all using the syllable HOH; I only used air to start each note. In the musical example above, tongued notes are indicated with a letter T and air attacks are indicated with a letter A.

As you view this video, you can see that when I used an air attack, the tongue was not engaged in articulation. The slight movement of the tongue that occurs during air attacks is caused by the pulsing of the air through the glottis and up the oropharynx. The tongue movement in air attacks is incidental, not causal. The size and shape of the oral cavity is essentially identical for both tongued and air attacked notes. The attack appears to be achieved by “huffing,” or pulsing the air with my diaphragm; whether the glottis is also involved in this cannot be seen in the angle of this video.

Video 8 – air attacks 2 – Finlandia – tongued/double tongued/air attack


[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

To show the difference between single tonguing, double tonguing and air attacks, I decided to record an exercise that uses a rhythm from a passage of music in which I use rapid air attacks, Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia. This piece requires the bass trombonist to articulate low E-flats at a rapid tempo in a loud dynamic. While I could not play low E-flats on the trombone I played in the MRI scanner, I compromised by playing Sibelius’ rhythm on both low B-flat and pedal B-flat.

The exercise I played is slightly different than the one printed above; I modified it when I was in the scanner to reflect Sibelius’ exact rhythm. You will hear me play two measures of each note tongued, then two measures double tongued, then two measures with air attacks.

As you will see, single tonguing resulted in a clear articulation. Double tonguing was not as clean as my single tonguing at this tempo and dynamic, and the air attacks come across like a machine gun rat-a-tat-tat. I have used this type of air attack when performing Finlandia, and with this video, a new visual tool is now available to help players understand how this kind of attack works.

These fundamental exercises and the resulting videos summarize a few of the important things I learned as a result of taking part in the MRI Brass Repository Project. But there were a few more esoteric phenomena related to trombone performance that I was able to explore in Göttingen. My friend, John Ericson, who is Associate Professor of Horn at Arizona State University, has long been curious about how the tongue performs while bending the pitch on a note. Trombone players don’t use the skill of bending pitch very often because we can correct pitch with our slide. But I do bend pitches when I play serpent and ophicleide, and sometimes when I play a trombone without an F-attachment and I need to play a note that is not on the instrument, such as a low E-flat or low-D.

Video 9 – pitch bends

[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

I decided to record an exercise where I would play several notes and bend them down to the lowest possible note before the note “broke” and then bend it back up to the original note. Lower notes would bend more easily than higher notes, owing to the flexibility of the embouchure in the low register.

Intuitively, I expected that as I bent a note lower, my tongue would flatten and move lower in my oral cavity, and as the note bent higher, my tongue would rise higher. But as you can see in the video above, the exact opposite occurred. Except for the pedal B-flat, which had the greatest bending ability because of lip flexibility in that extreme low register, my tongue raised up higher as I bent the pitch lower. This was a great surprise, especially since the feeling I had in my throat was that my tongue was moving lower. How to account for this? Because the pitch was being bent by the movement of my embouchure, perhaps the tongue rises to narrow the oral air channel to keep the note from breaking to the next lower partial. Clearly there is more study to do to understand this phenomenon. Still, this is a fascinating example of the value of the MBRP in  helping to understand something that in reality was at odds with how it felt.

Video 10 – whistling

[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

I also wanted to do an experiment in the MRI scanner related to whistling. Teachers often use whistling as a way to describe the movement of the tongue when we play notes in the upper register. With whistling, the embouchure does not, in the main, determine pitch. If you pucker your lips and whistle a low note and slowly glissando to your highest possible note, you will see that your lips move very little or none at all, and you have the feeling that your tongue is raising higher in your oral cavity as the pitch goes higher. I wanted to test this metaphor for brass playing in the MRI scanner and see if it was true. It was. Mostly.

As you can see in this video, the sound of the whistle is not only determined by the pucker of one’s lips. The tongue must be high in the oral cavity in order to modify the airflow to a point where the vibration of air past the lips can create the whistle. However, as the pitch of my whistle got higher, my tongue had no room to move higher; it had to move forward in order to further close the oral cavity.

As a result of these findings, the whistle is shown to be a less than ideal metaphor for the movement of the tongue through various registers in brass playing. In whistling, higher pitch is created, in part, by the tongue going forward; in brass playing, it is created, in part, by the tongue going higher. However, in MBRP studies with other subjects, it has been found that when a person engages in “hollow whistling” – making the sound of air speed rising and falling through relaxed and slightly open lips without making an actual whistling sound – the tongue does mimic the movements the tongue makes while playing. Actual whistling might intuitively seem to be a good model for explaining the use of the tongue in brass playing, but in fact, we would be better to use “hollow whistling” as a more accurate model.

Video 11 – bugle call (Reveille)

[This video may be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.]

Finally, I wanted to play some music and see how my oral cavity looked in real-life operation while playing the trombone. Constrained by only being able to play the overtone series, I chose to play the bugle call, Reveille, known to every young person who has been to summer camp and to the men and women of the American Armed Forces as the call to wake up each morning. In this performance, I used a combination of single and double tonguing. The position of my tongue is always clearly visible: going back and forth during single tonguing and then up and down while double tonguing.


Left to right: Jens Frahm (standing, rear), Eckart Altenmüller (standing, middle), Arun Joseph (seated, rear), Douglas Yeo (seated, front)

After my two hours in the MRI scanner – the time passed very quickly and I actually had no idea I had been in the scanner for so long – I emerged energized and excited to see what I had done. I sat with members of the MRI project team to gain some understanding of what had just happened. In the photo above, I am seated in front of a computer monitor that shows one of my videos. Eckart Altenmüller is seen looking over my left shoulder, holding a plastic model of the tongue, while Jens Frahm (standing) and Arun Joseph (seated) looked on. The resulting conversation opened my eyes to workings of my tongue and other organs in my oral cavity in a new way.  Also, our discussion revealed that in my videos, the tip of my tongue was not always imaged as clearly as it is with some other players when it moves to the most anterior (frontal) position. The reason for this is the fact that I have a titanium dental implant in one of my eye teeth that created what is called a susceptibility artifact that led to some signal intensity alterations at that place in my mouth. This is sometime seen as quick flashes of light that some may mistake for spit/saliva. This metal implant did not, however, affect the clarity of the imaging in any other part of my oral cavity, and ongoing study with other trombonists who do not have such a dental implant will result in additional video with greater clarity of the tongue in its most frontal position.


Left to right: Dirk Voit, Peter Iltis, Jens Frahm, Arun Joseph, Sonke Hellwig

Of course, a project like this needs a great deal of help to make it happen. The support staff at the Max Planck Institute was tremendously helpful in myriad ways. The photo above shows the five people who were involved with me during my time in the scanner. They gave me instructions and encouragement, ran the computers and equipment, ensured my safety, and sent me home with data and information that I am still processing. To (from left to right) Dirk Voit, Peter Iltis, Jens Frahm, Arun Joseph and Sonke Hellwig, I owe a great deal of thanks. They, along with Eckart Altenmüller, are helping to change our knowledge about brass playing and are giving concrete answers to long held questions. To YAMAHA Corporation (bell construction coordinated by Naoki Suzuki) and Kelly Mouthpieces (Jim Kelly), I once again express my thanks for providing us with the needed instruments and mouthpieces to conduct the trombone testing.

The MRI Brass Repository Project continues. In the coming months, more elite trombone players will be tested along with players who have experienced embouchure dystonia. While the project is of immeasurable help as we work to understand the why of the how of trombone playing, it is hoped that the project will also provide keys to unlock some of the mysteries of embouchure dystonia. In time, all of the videos from the study will be made available for study by educators and players so future researchers can add new insights to the work done inside the MRI scanner room at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. We are in their debt.

© 2017 Douglas Yeo. All rights reserved.

Douglas Yeo ( and was bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1985-2012 and Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University from 2012-2016. He has given performances and held teaching residencies on five continents, and in 2014, he was the recipient of the International Trombone Association’s highest honor, the ITA Award. His newest book is The One Hundred: Essential Works for the Symphonic Bass Trombonist (Encore Music Publishers), and he is currently at work on books for Oxford University Press, Rowman and Littlefield, and University of Illinois Press. He lives in Arizona in the foothills of the Estrella Mountains.


[1] Harold W. Atkinson, “Tongue Positions of Vowel-Sounds,” The Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, July 1897, 13.

[2] Edward Kleinhammer, The Art of Trombone Playing. Evanston: Summy-Birchard Company, 1963, 63.

[3] Edward Kleinhammer and Douglas Yeo, Mastering the Trombone. Ithaca: Ensemble Publications, 2012 (Fourth Edition), 15.

[4] ed. Bruce Nelson, Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs: A Developmental Guide for Brass Wind Musicians. Mindelheim, Germany: Polymnia Press, 2006, 55.

[5] Arnold Jacobs, “Special Studies for the Tuba,” Hal Leonard Advanced Band Method (Basses/Tuba). Winona, Minnesota: Hal Leonard Music, 1963, 56.

[6] Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing. Bloomington: Brass Publications, 1962, 62

[7] Harvey Phillips and William Winkle, The Art of Tuba and Euphonium. Secaucus: Summy-Birchard Inc., 1992, 34.

[8] Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing, 47.

[9] Joseph (Jody) C. Hall used x-ray photographs of nine trumpet players as a basis for his his 1954 study of vowel sounds but he did not employ video. See: Joseph (Jody) C. Hall, A Radiographic, Spectrographic, and Photographic Study of Non-labial Physical Changes Which Occur in the Transition from Middle to Low and Middle to High Registers During Trumpet Performance (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1954). In 1967, Joseph A. Meidt led a study of 10 brass players (five horn and five trumpet), in which the subjects performed several short musical excerpts while being filmed with a Rotalix x-ray (cineflourography) machine. However, the x-ray film showed the tongue only faintly and did not show the operation of the glottis and soft palate at all. See: Joseph A. Meidt, A Cineflorougraphic Investigation of Oral Adjustments for Various Aspects of Brass Instrument Performance (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa, 1967). Also: Lyle C. Merriman and Joseph A. Meidt, “A Cineflourographic Investigation of Brass Instrument Performance.” Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1968), 31-38. Also: In 2013, C. Schumacher led a team that became the first to use real-time MRI video in a limited study of trumpet players. The MRI Brass Repository Project has expanded on that work by broadening their study to include horn and trombone players, employing the fastest MRI video film speeds ever published of up to 100 frames/second, and using both elite and embouchure dystonic subjects. See: M. Schumacher, et. al, “Motor Functions in Trumpet Playing: A Real-time MRI Analysis.” Neuroradiology, 2013; 55 (9), 1171-81.

[10] See, The project was originally titled the International MRI Horn Repository Project; its name was changed to MRI Brass Repository Project in 2017.

[11] From 1995-2016, Peter Iltis also taught horn at Gordon College until embouchure dystonia ended his playing career.

[12] Peter W. Iltis, et. al., “Real-time MRI comparisons of brass players: A methodological pilot study.” Human Movement Science, Vol. 42 (2015), 132-145. Peter W. Iltis, et. al., “High-speed real-time magnetic resonance imaging of fast tongue movements in elite horn players.” Quantative Imaging in Medicine and Surgery, 2015; 5 (3), 374-381. Peter W. Iltis, et. al., “Divergent oral cavity motor strategies between healthy elite and dystonic horn players.” Journal of Clinical Movement Disorders, 2015, 2:15. Peter W. Iltis, et. al., “Inefficencies in Motor Strategies of Horn Players with Embouchure Dystonia.” Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 2016. Peter W. Iltis, et. al., “Movement of the Glottis During Horn Performance: A Pilot Study.” Medical Problems of Performing Artists, Vol. 32, No. 1, March 2017, 33. Peter W. Iltis, “When Science Meets Brass.” The Instrumentalist, Vol. 72, No. 1, August 2017, 36-39.

[13] See: Sarah Willis, Sarah’s Music – Music and Science, ; Peter Iltis and Eli Epstein, MRI Horn Videos: Pedagogy Informed by Science, ; John Ericson, Horn Notes Video Podcast 12: MRI horn insights, part 1, with Peter Iltis,; John Ericson, Horn Notes Video Podcast 13: MRI horn insights, part 2, with Peter Iltis,; John Ericson, Horn Notes Video Podcast 14: MRI horn insights, part 3, with Peter Iltis,

[14] Edward Kleinhammer (1919-2013) was bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1940-1985. See: Douglas Yeo, “Edward Kleinhammer: A Life and Legacy Remembered.” International Trombone Association Journal, Vol. 42, No. 2, April 2014, 24-31.

[15] Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998) was tubist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1944-1988.

[16] Brian Frederickson and John Taylor, Arnold Jacobs: Song and Wind. Gurnee, Illinois: WindSong Press, 1996, 93, 141-143.

[17] Philip Farkas (1914-1992) played horn in many American symphony orchestras including the Chicago Symphony (1936-1941; principal from 1947-1960), Boston Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra. He was Professor of Horn at Indiana University from 1960-1984.

[18] Philip Farkas, The Art of Brass Playing, 62.

[19] Peter W. Iltis, Sarah L. Gillespie, Jens Frahm, Dirk Voit, Arun Joseph, and Eckart Altenmüller, “Movement of the Glottis During Horn Performance: A Pilot Study.” Medical Problems of Performing Artists, Vol. 32, No. 1, March 2017.

[20] William Carter, “The Role of the Glottis in Brass Playing.” The Instrumentalist, Vol. 21, No 5, December 1966, 75.

[21] Edward Kleinhammer and Douglas Yeo. Mastering the Trombone, 14.

Climbing the mountain of life: some thoughts on the pursuit of excellence

Climbing the mountain of life: some thoughts on the pursuit of excellence

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to be great at something. I mean, how many people do you know who have, as their goal in life, to be mediocre? I don’t know anyone like that. We all want to excel, to be great at something – or some things – and the pursuit of excellence is high on just about everyone’s life list.

When I was at the International Trombone Festival at University of Redlands, California, a few weeks ago, I presented a class along with my friend, Megumi Kanda. Megumi is principal trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony, and we have each authored books to help trombone players prepare better for auditions and concerts. In short, we are trying to help trombonists climb the mountain of life and achieve success through the pursuit of excellence.


Megumi’s book is The One Hundred: Essential Works for the Symphonic Tenor Trombonist, and my book is The One Hundred: Essential Works for the Symphonic Bass Trombonist. Our class at the International Trombone Festival was titled:

The One Hundred: Effective Strategies for Successful Audition Preparation

Here are the points that I emphasized in my part of the class along with a little commentary. Perhaps there is something here that might resonate with and help you.

Questions to ask yourself:

How good is good enough?

If you are in pursuit of a goal, you need to know what the standard is. You need to know how good you actually have to be in order to attain it. If you don’t know the answer to this question, then you’re not being serious about actually achieving a goal. I wrote an article on my website about this subject; you can read it by clicking here.

Where do you stack up locally? Can you read the signs?

Let’s suppose you want to win a position in the trombone section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. You would not be alone; that would be a highly coveted job for many people in the world. If you want this job, look around. Where do you stack up in your local universe of trombone players. In your college, in your local freelance area. If you’re not one of the best players in your local area, how is it that you think that you are really good enough to win a position that will be sought after by the top players in many areas, as well as people who already have jobs in other orchestras? If you’ve taken 50 auditions and you have never advanced past the first round, that is telling you something. Can you look around and read what the signs in your life are telling you?

Does your desire line up with your talent and work ethic?

Desire is important. But desire alone will not lead to success. You need desire, talent and a solid work ethic. I know many people who have a great desire to succeed but they’re lazy. I know highly motivated people who don’t have talent. I know talented people who don’t have desire. If you have a goal in mind, you need to be sure that your desire lines up with the your talent AND your work ethic. As my friend, Gene Pokorny, tubist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, says, :

No one can legislate curiosity, and “hope” is not a strategy for success.

Is your goal attainable?

When I was a young boy growing up in the early 1960s, I wanted to be an astronaut. All of my friends wanted to be one, too. But as I grew older, I realized that my goal of wanting to be an astronaut was not attainable. I got glasses in the second grade. End of story. I turned my sights to other goals. Be sure you are pursuing goals that are attainable.

The essentials:

Here are the things that are important for success in a symphony orchestra audition. I’ve developed this list after being on an audition committee for over 20 auditions at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and hundreds and hundreds of auditions and jury exams at Peabody Conservatory of Music, New England Conservatory of Music and Arizona State University. These are the essentials you must possess if you are going to have a chance of succeeding at a symphony orchestra audition:

A beautiful sound. Without this, nothing else matters.

This speaks for itself.

Impeccable intonation.

Note that I did not say good intonation. Or great intonation. You need to have impeccable intonation. Playing in tune is fundamental to being able to work in a section of other players. Impeccable intonation is noticed very quickly. If you don’t have it, that’s noticed quickly, too.

Exceptional musicality, including a wide dynamic range, appropriate vibrato, seamless legato, and a clear differentiation between various kinds of articulations.

Does your playing exhibit all of these qualities? How wide is your dynamic range? Is it truly from ppppp to fffff? Tchaikovsky requires that in his Symphony No. 6. Do you know how to make every possible kind of articulation? Here’s an example, a short excerpt from the bass trombone part to the second movement, Scherzo, from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1:


Look at all of the different kind of articulations required on a single note, G-natural. You see sfp, then fp with a marcato, sf with a marcato, f with a marcato, and the note simply with marcato. That’s five different kinds of instructions about playing the same note. Can you make a difference? This matters.

An informed sense of style.

Style is different than musicality, mentioned above. Style is the “why” of music; musicality is the “what” of music. To learn the style of a piece, you have to know it inside and out, and understand what it means and why. Mahler is different than Mozart. Informed style comes through in a person’s playing.

A superb sense of rhythm, including exhibiting what Edward Kleinhammer often referred to as “the unwritten laws of rhythmic pulse.”

Edward Kleinhammer was bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra form 1940-1985; he was my trombone teacher when I was a student at Wheaton College. One of the things he emphasized was getting rhythmic pulse right. Composers can’t write everything that you need to do. There are “unwritten rules” about rhythmic pulse. Some people make this into a complex system, assigning syllables, letters or numbers to each note to show which notes have different weight or emphasis. Mr. Kleinhammer took a very simple approach. In every meter, there is generally an unwritten sense of pulse. For instance, in 4/4 time, the first beat is usually the strongest, the second beat is usually the weakest, the third beat is the second strongest beat, and the fourth beat usually leads to the subsequent first beat. This is true for 99.9% of all music in 4/4 time. Find the pulse and then demonstrate it with musicality and style. It is not complicated. It just needs to be done.

A confident, comfortable physical demeanor devoid of nervous, obsessive gestures or habits. You must pass “the weirdo test.”

When you are at an audition or a job interview, people on the audition committee are trying to decide if you will be a good fit in the group. You must make others around you feel comfortable. If you are obsessive about spraying your trombone slide with your water bottle, or you fidget while a colleague is playing the solo from Ravel’s Bolero, or you need to sit quietly for a few minutes to collect yourself before you play something, you’re probably not going to win the job. Your job – every colleague’s job – is to make the job of the people around you as easy and comfortable as possible. As to the weirdo test? Take a shower regularly. Use deodorant. Comb your hair. Think twice about tattoos and piercings. None of these things speak to who you ARE. But others will draw their own conclusions – fair or not – about what you PROJECT about yourself. Remember: the person hiring you might be your father’s age. Think about how you come across to others. All others.

Strategies to employ:

Question your assumptions.

By this I mean that you should always ask yourself if what you’re doing is the best way of doing it right now. For instance, if you’ve always taken a breath in a certain phrase at the same place, ask yourself, “Is this still the best place to take a breath?” Do the same with every aspect of playing: volume, slide position, type of articulation, tempo, etc. If you don’t ask yourself if the way you’re doing something is still the best way for you to do it, you will never allow for the fact that you are a different – and hopefully better – player today than you were yesterday. Or last week. Or last year when you first put that breath mark in your part. 95% of the time, you will probably answer, “Yup, that was a good idea when I first did it and it’s still a good idea.” But for that other 5% of the time, you just might make a change that is a result of your improvement as a player. You might not need that breath at all, and that new way of phrasing might just be what the audition committee is waiting to here. Don’t be fossilized doing things, “The way I’ve always done them.” Keep asking yourself questions and make changes based on the improvements you’ve made.

Try everything.

This is related to the point above. Try every possible way of solving every possible problem you are faced with. Sometimes you have two or three or four different slide positions where you could play a particular note. Try them all. Don’t be allergic to sixth and seventh positions. If you think you’re playing softly enough, try to the passage softer. Don’t assume you can’t do something. Don’t assume some way of solving a problem is too unconventional and therefore won’t work. Try everything. Only if you try every possible way to approach music will you know that you’ve found the best way for you to successfully play any passage.

Pay attention, ask questions, read, study the sources, leave no stone unturned.

Don’t just sit in a practice room and practice music. Learn more about what you’re playing in order to give your playing context. Study the orchestral score, find out if there are variant editions of a piece, read biographies of composers, read books about pieces you play, learn more about your instrument. Have an insatiable curiosity.

I have a lot of books. Hundreds. And a lot of full scores to music that I’ve played. Hundreds. Here’s a snapshot of two shelves of my books. Take a look at what you see:

FullSizeRender 32.jpg

There are six books about Haydn, 14 books about Gustav Mahler, eight books about Mozart, 15 books about Richard Wagner. I’ve read all of them. Multiple times. These books have been invaluable to me as I have prepared for auditions and concerts. They are also extremely helpful in my research as I write articles and books. Everything you read, everything you experience, brings something added to your performance. Talk to people around you – even if they’re not trombone players. Learn from every experience in life. If you pay attention, you will bring special qualities to your playing.

Every player’s lament: But I can do it in the practice room.

OK, then bring the practice room to the stage.

If you can do things just the way you want to in the practice room but can’t replicate that success on stage at an audition or performance, you need to ask yourself, “Why is this happening?” Nobody practices so they can play great in a practice room. We practice so we can play great on stage. But many people set up systems and routines for performance that have nothing at all to do with practicing. Some people need to eat a banana before going on stage, or eat a rare steak 90 minutes before, or be sure Jupiter is aligned with Mars, or any number of things. Why? Do you need to do those things in order to play great in the practice room? Of course not. Then why do you add this layer of process to performance so the performance becomes something completely different than the situation – practicing – where you had success? Bring the practice room to the stage. The reason you play a musical instrument is so you can play it in public in performance. So recreate on stage what you do in the practice room; don’t separate your playing into different kinds of routines for different environments.


Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent.

If you practice, you will get better at what you’re practicing. But if you’re practicing something the wrong way, or without understanding, you will get better at doing it wrong. Practice in and of itself will not lead to your playing your best. Practice makes permanent what it is that you’re practicing. So be sure you are practicing correctly. It is not HOW LONG you practice but HOW WELL you practice.

Do not believe the lie of 10,000 hours.

There is a popular school of thought that goes something like this: If you spend 10,000 hours working to develop a skill and are doing so with good guidance, you can do anything. This is nonsense. I could spend 10,000 hours in a gym in order to attain the goal of being a linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals football team but it will not happen. Because I need more than 10,000 hours to succeed in that quest. I need talent, and a particular body type. While people often say, “You can be anything you want to be,” that is not true. See above, my story about my wanting to be an astronaut. You need the right combination of talent, hard work and destiny. That’s the God card; it must be meant to be. That’s another subject all together, and a very important one. That’s a subject for another post. But keep this in mind: hard work – 10,000 hours – is not enough.

Your best may get you to the top. But it might not.

After all of your work, all of your study, all of your practice, you just might get to the top. See my first question: How good is good enough? When you put together all of the aspects of your performing person and persona, you just might get to the top. You just might win that job in the Chicago Symphony. And if you do, congratulations!

But you might not. Everyone has a ceiling. Everyone does not have an equal chance to succeed in a goal that has one winner. Your best might not be good enough to get you to the top of the mountain. That does not make you a failure or a bad person. It’s just the realization that the best you bring to the table might not be good enough to get you to a particular goal. But. . .

The top is not the only place where you may have a rewarding musical life.

Yes, we all want to be reach the top of the mountain. And we should always feel great when we know that we have produced the very best that we can at any task. But if you don’t reach the top, there is still a great view from wherever you are. The Chicago Symphony, for instance, is not the only place where you can have a very satisfying, rewarding musical life. I know freelance players who are very satisfied. I know players in second, or third, or tenth tier orchestras who have fulfilling musical lives. Wherever your combination of talent, hard work and destiny takes you, you can have an exceptionally rewarding life. Do not forget this!

If you would like to view or download a copy of the PDF handout that accompanied my presentation at the International Trombone Festival – it contains the bullet points on which this article is based – click HERE.


I am the duet man, goo goo g’joob

I am the duet man, goo goo g’joob

I’m sure many readers of The Last Trombone remember John Lennon’s nonsense song, I Am The Walrus, and its iconic line, “They are the egg man, I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.”

Well, I feel a little bit like a revised version of that song title, because this week, I won’t be the egg man, but I’ll be the DUET MAN. I’m heading to University of Redlands in Redlands, California, for the 46th International Trombone Festival. The Festival is an annual event and I’ve been very happy to have been asked to perform and teach at many of these events.


This week, I’ll be doing several things, including playing duets on recitals with three of the leading trombonists of our time. For those who may be attending, I thought I’d give you a heads up of my activities. You can also download the ITF program (free) and see the full lineup of events and performers (and if you turn to the next to last page, you’ll see me smiling at you).

Wednesday, 5:00 PM, University of Redlands Memorial Chapel – James Markey Recital

This is a late addition to my schedule. My good friend Jim Markey, who succeeded me in 2012 as bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is giving a recital and had planned to play a duet with another player. At the last minute, that fell through, so on Friday, he called me and asked if I’d be willing to play Steven Verhelst’s duet for bass trombones, Devil’s Waltz, with him. How could I refuse even on short notice?; this is such a nice opportunity for me to play together with Jim. Below is a photo of Jim and me in the basement of Symphony Hall in Boston in April 2012, shortly before my retirement from the BSO.


Here’s a video of Verhelst’s piece played by my friend, Ben van Dijk, in a version that he did by overdubbing himself. This is a superb composition in which the two players parts are creatively intertwined. Playing it will Jim will be great fun.


Thursday, 5:00 PM, University of Redlands Memorial Chapel – Megumi Kanda recital

Megumi Kanda, who is principal trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony, has been a good friend for many years, and she is playing a recital at the ITF that will end with our performing an arrangement of Twila Paris’ Lamb of God. We performed this duet a few years ago at a masterclass I gave in Indiana as part of the Masterworks Festival. Here is a video of that performance, and a photo of Megumi and me taken last year when the two of us performed at a seminar at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. We will be playing together again at Duke Divinity School this fall; more on that to come later.


Friday, 4:00 PM, Loewe Recital Hall, University of Redlands – class with Megumi Kanda. The One Hundred: Effective Strategies for Successful Audition Preparation.

Megumi and I are both authors of books titled The One Hundred. These books – hers for tenor trombone and mine for bass trombone – are published by Encore Music Publishers and include orchestral excerpts and commentary for 100 symphonic works. Our class will focus on strategies that players can employ to help them have better success at auditions. It will be a fast moving session, and as part of the class, we will be working with the winners of the International Trombone Association’s Louis Van Haney Tenor Trombone Orchestral Excerpt Competition and the Edward Kleinhammer Bass Trombone Orchestral Excerpt Competition.



Saturday, 2:30 PM, University of Redlands Memorial Chapel – Gerry Pagano recital

Gerry Pagano is bass trombonist of the St. Louis Symphony, and we’ve known each other since he was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center in the late-1980s. We are good friends and are planning to record a CD of duets for bass trombone later this summer. More on that later. Gerry asked if I would be willing to play a duet with him on his recital at the ITF and, of course – Yes! We’ll be playing Two Songs from Three Emily Dickinson Songs by Michael Hennagin. I don’t have a video of Gerry and me playing this piece although a few years ago, I played these songs with my friend Randy Hawes, bass trombonist of the Detroit Symphony (who I also first met when he was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center in the mid-1980s). So here is a video of Randy and me playing the first of these songs, “Heart We Will Forget Him”, at a masterclass Randy gave at Arizona State University a few years ago. Beautiful music. I loved playing this duet with Randy and I know I will love playing it with Gerry.

And if you’d like to hear Gerry and me play together, here’s a video of the two of us playing Tommy Pederson’s The Crimson Collup, recorded in my office at Arizona State University. It’s one of the pieces we’ll be recording for this summer for our new CD.

So there you have it – three duets on recitals with my good friends and colleagues,  Jim Markey, Megumi Kanda and Gerry Pagano, and a shared class with Megumi. If you’re a trombone player, consider heading out to Redlands for the Festival. There’s still time to get there!

It is still Grand.

It is still Grand.

The Last Trombone has been quiet for a few weeks, with my being very busy with a number of things. But I’m back on the grid to share a few things with readers.

I love the Grand Canyon. Arizona’s nickname is The Grand Canyon State. And why not? The Grand Canyon is one of the natural wonders of the world, the product of the extraordinary artistic hand of our Sovereign God. It is there, in all of its vast, quiet majesty, for our pleasure, for our wonder, for our imaginations.

My wife and I had a chance to get away from the Phoenix area’s summer heat last week and spend a few days at the Grand Canyon where it was about 20 degrees cooler. I cannot count how many times we’ve been there. No matter: each time it is new.


We didn’t have time to go down in the Canyon on this trip so we spent our time with a leisurely hike along the South Rim’s trail, from the El Tovar hotel out to Hermit’s Rest. With every step we were aware of the sense of awe that Charles Higgins felt when he penned these words that appear over an entrance to the El Tovar hotel:

Dreams of mountains, as in their sleep they brood on things eternal.

Indeed. Things eternal. That is what we think of as we gaze over the landscape. The Grand Canyon has shaped us.

A few years ago, when I was Arizona State University’s trombone professor, The ASU Desert Bones Trombone Choir recorded its first CD, Of Grandeur, Grace, and Glory. I chose as the cover image a photo I took of the Grand Canyon. Is there a better subject in the world to illustrate the idea of grandeur?


And in 2014, when the International Trombone Association conferred on my its highest honor, the ITA AWARD, the ITA Journal wanted to run a story about me. The editor asked me for some photos and I chose the one below for the cover. It had to be the Grand Canyon.


I’ve taken thousands of photos of the Grand Canyon. I can’t restrain myself. Yet not one can adequately capture the majesty of this remarkable place. But I keep trying.


I also enjoy seeing how artists have looked at the Grand Canyon through their own, unique eyes. One of my favorite paintings of the Grand Canyon is by Charles H. Pabst. Titled Mystic River, it hangs in the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel. Its Art Deco style, the dramatic use of the yellow/orange color palate, and the stillness of the water gives much to think on.


Of course, the most important thing about the Grand Canyon is summarized by a plaque at on the Lookout Studio that overhangs the South Rim, a reminder of what all that my eyes see is all about:


It’s always difficult to get a good photo of this important reminder; the light never seems to be right when I’m there. So here is the text with its important Truths:

O Lord, how manifold are thy works!

In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches.

  • Psalm 104:24

And below, a prayer:

Father almighty, wonderful Lord, Wondrous Creator, be ever adored;

Wonders of nature sing praises to You, Wonder of wonders –

I may praise, too!

Another of these plaques, types of which I have seen all around the world in England, Greece, Israel and throughout the United States, is found at Hermit’s Rest, with a mighty hymn of praise:


Sing to God, sing praises to His name;

Lift up a song to Him who rides upon the clouds;

His name is the Lord, exult before Him.

  • Psalm 68:4

Back home in Phoenix, my attention has turned to other tasks, but the memory of this short trip to the Grand Canyon remains with me. If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, I hope you will come someday. I’m sure it will change you, too.