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.

The Road to the Classics: a 1928 point of view

The Road to the Classics: a 1928 point of view

Nearly 90 years ago, in 1928, the Theodore Presser Company published a book to teach how to play piano, Music Play for Every Day: The Gateway to Piano Playing. It is one of a legion of such books published in the last century. Perhaps you had piano lessons with the Thompson or Schuam method. Or even this book. They all make it sound so easy.

Many years ago, a friend gave me a photocopy of a page of this method, a drawing titled The Road to the Classics.  I’ve recently obtained an original copy of this book and the drawing is found below.

Hand in hand, the young boy and girl start on the path toward TRIUMPH. How do they get there? PRACTICE. KEEP AT IT. THE JOY OF WORKING. And CAREFUL STUDY. What are the pitfalls? VALLEY OF LAZINESS. FOREST OF POOR MUSIC. And the SWAMP OF JAZZ. Yes, it actually says “swamp of jazz.” Wow.  And who lives in the pantheon of TRIUMPH? BACH, BEETHOVEN, MOZART and their friends. Even MACDOWELL. MacDowell? Between Gounod and Schubert?

Take a few minutes to look at this. If you were making up a drawing to inspire beginners to take up the study of music, what would you include? How would YOU tell the story of musical inspiration?


And I Saw A New Heaven: An invitation to attend a choir concert

And I Saw A New Heaven: An invitation to attend a choir concert

My wife and I attend Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. One of the ways we serve our church is to sing in the choir, a superb group led by our Pastor of Worship and Music, Dr. Luke Lusted. It is such a blessing and privilege to serve in the choir with our  group of committed, talented members who love God. Our spring concert is on this coming Sunday, May 21, at 3:00 PM. The centerpiece of the program is John Rutter’s Requiem for choir, soloist and chamber orchestra, and the whole program is centered around the theme of “And I saw a new heaven,” taken from the Bible’s book of Revelation, Chapter 21, and Edgar Bainton’s classic anthem with that title.

Luke asked if I would be willing to write program notes for the concert to be included in the concert program and I was more than happy to do so. With his permission, my notes on the program appear below. If you are in the Phoenix area on Sunday, you are heartily invited to the concert. Directions to Camelback Bible Church may be found here on the church’s website. The concert is free and I hope to see you there. Even if you can’t attend the concert, I pray that my program notes provide food for thought, meditation, challenge and encouragement.

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SmallSpring Concert 2017 AD

Notes on the program

by Douglas Yeo

The three central events of the Christian faith are the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return. The first two are securely in the historical and Biblical record, but the third remains what Titus called, “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13, ESV). The expectation of life after death for those called to Christ is central to Jesus’ teaching:

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14: 2-3, ESV)

And so it is that the music performed at this concert reflects the great comfort of God’s promise to his children, and the encouragement that he gives us as we wait for that day and contend for Christ in a fallen, hurting world. Heaven is not “pie in the sky, bye and bye,” but rather something tangible and within sight. There is more to life than our time here on earth, “three score and ten [70 years]; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years [80 years]” (Psalm 90:10, KJV), and composers have often turned to scripture to present the great Truth of suffering on earth paired with the comfort of life after death.


Song of Exaltation by American composer John Ness Beck (1930-1987) takes its exuberant text from the book of I Chronicles 16:29-36, a joyful hymn of praise to God in gratitude for his sovereignty over the heavens, earth, and the sea. Talk of the life in the world to come starts now–today–by praising God for his mighty works as all creation shouts, “God reigneth!” Beck’s tribute to George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah is unmistakable, when he concludes Song of Exaltation with, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for ever, and ever, and ever, and ever.”


The Bible’s final chapters, Revelation 21 and 22, are full of images of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, which is made ready in the new heaven and new earth. The challenges of this present life lead all Christians to yearn for that day, and the New Testament’s penultimate verse concludes with Christ’s promise, “Surely I am coming soon,” to which his children reply, emphatically, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). Paul O. Manz (1919-2009) composed his most famous choral composition, E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come in 1954; it has become popular through its frequent use at the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Lessons and Carols at King’s College in Cambridge, England. Manz’s setting of the text is for unaccompanied choir, and it beautifully reflects the anticipation of a time when “night shall be no more . . . for Christ will be their All!”


In the wake of the Second Great Awakening, a wave of Christian revivalism that swept across America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, William Walker (1809-1875) published a collection of “Tunes, Hymns, Odes and Anthems” in 1835 that he titled The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. It featured well-known hymns and folk melodies, and among them were texts and tunes that Walker both composed and collected. By the 1845 edition, the exuberant song, Saints Bound for Heaven, with a tune by Walker and text by J. King, had been included. Its seven verses–four are included in the arrangement by Mack Wilberg that is sung today–speak of the longing for the breaking of the bondage of the suffering of this life and the crossing “over Jordan” to “the vaults of heaven.”


The theme of this program is taken from the famous choir anthem by London-born Edgar L. Bainton (1880-1956), And I Saw a New Heaven. Its text is taken from the opening verses of Revelation, Chapter 21, where John speaks of his awe at seeing the new heaven and new earth. The imagery of Revelation is exceptionally rich: the sea, that had been home to the Beast of Revelation (Revelation 13:1), is no more; there is no more death, no more pain, “for the old things are passed away.” Apart from the words of Jesus that are spoken from his throne, his words that proclaim, “Behold,” in the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “The tabernacle of God is with men,” Bainton’s setting of this memorable text is warm and contemplative. Written in 1928, And I Saw a New Heaven has achieved status as one of the most beloved and frequently performed of all choral anthems, both in England and the United States.

The earliest surviving musical settings for the church’s ancient mass for the dead, the Requiem–this Latin word means, literally, “rest”–date from around the tenth century. At that time, the text was sung in what is popularly referred to as Gregorian chant, a single, unison vocal line. Over time, composers have treated its many movements–with its traditional words of judgment, comfort and hope–in dramatic fashion as the Requiem has moved from being a piece performed at funerals to a work for the concert hall. Nineteenth century composers Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi scored their Requiems for huge forces. Berlioz called for a chorus of at least 200 and an orchestra with four brass bands with 38 trumpet, trombone, and tuba players. He famously complained that Wolfgang Mozart’s use of one trombone in the Tuba mirum movement of his Requiem (The dreadful trumpet of the Lord) was woefully inadequate when “not three, not thirty, not three hundred would be enough.” Johannes Brahms was one of the first composers to take a very different approach, fashioning his Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) from selected passages in the New Testament to comfort the living rather than to honor the dead. Benjamin Britten came from yet another direction in his War Requiem, a work that argued against the horror of World War II by combining some of the Requiem’s original Latin text with poems in English by British soldier Wilfred Owen who was killed in battle a week before the end of World War I.


John Rutter (born in London in 1945) has added his own take on the Requiem’s storied history. Rather than a complete setting of the full, ancient Requiem text, his 1985 Requiem includes selected movements from the Latin Requiem along with passages from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in English as, “a meditation of themes of life and death.” While those who have died in Christ leave this earth for their heavenly home, it is left for those who are still living to suffer until they are themselves called to their eternal rest.

Three movements, Requiem æternam (Grant them eternal rest), Pie Jesu (Blessed Jesu) and Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) are sung in Latin (you may follow the English translations in your program), Psalms 130 (Out of the deep) and 23 (The Lord is my shepherd) are in English, and two movements, Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) and Lux æterna (Eternal light) combine both Latin and English texts. The result is an integrated work that is intended for concert performance rather than as part of a church service. The mix of languages and varied texts as well as the Requiem’s arch–the opening and closing movements contain some of the same text, with the Sanctus, the great hymn to the Trinity, standing in the middle–very much speaks to our time.

Psalm 116:15 reminds us that, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (ESV). Throughout this afternoon’s concert, that theme has been present. Life here on earth is but a blink of time in God’s economy. We trust in his promise of the new heaven and new earth even as we work today to do his will in this imperfect world and, by doing so, share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13). That is both the blessing for and blessed hope of those who know Christ. E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

© 2017 by Douglas Yeo


What is “American Style” in music?

What is “American Style” in music?

Several months ago, my friend, Ronald Barron, with whom I shared 22 years as a member of the trombone section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, posed a question to me:

What is “American Style” in music?

Ron had been thinking about this himself and gave a presentation on the subject at the International Trombone Festival in Valencia, Spain, in 2015. Since then, I’ve continued to think about his question, and the answer that I gave to Ron at that time.

Earlier this week, I was in the radio studios of Central Sound at Arizona PBS, where I regularly go to be the voice of the radio program, Arizona Encore! that is broadcast locally on KBAQ (KBACH) 89.5 and can also be heard anywhere in the world on the KBAQ website at 7:00 pm on Tuesdays and on demand with the Central Sound at Arizona PBS mobile app. In addition to voicing programs, I also write scripts for Arizona Encore! and another program that Central Sound produces, ASU in Concert.

While writing a script for an Arizona Encore! show that included Antonin Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet, Op. 12 in F major, Op. 96, Ron’s question came to mind again. I pulled out the comments I wrote when he first posed the question and thought that this would be a good time to turn them into a short article to provoke thought and discussion. I think anyone who lives in the United States would answer this question in their own way. But here’s what I think.

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What is “American Style” in Music?

Douglas Yeo

The native people who settled and lived in what we call the United States of America have virtually no voice in today’s broad American cultural conversation. This is highly regrettable, because any discussion of an American Style – whether in music, painting, literature or any of those disciplines that we call “the arts” – has been influenced by them. When talking about American Style – and for the sake of this discussion, I am confining my comments to American Style in music – we must remember that their contributions were fundamental in shaping the great “melting pot” (to use the over-used word) of influences that came to shores to settle in the United States.

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The African American spiritual, “The Old Ship of Zion,” as published in Slave Songs of the United States, published in New York by A. Simpson & Co. in 1867.

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The Puritans (from Boston, England, by way of the Netherlands and Plymouth, England), Roman Catholics (from Spain and Portugal), and traders (from the Netherlands and France) who were among the first European explorers of America brought their religious influences to what we today call the mid-Atlantic and New England states. English Psalm tunes and Italian-influenced Spanish plainchant was heard mixed with the folk music of the motherlands and rhythms and chants of America’s native people. In time, the new colonies – occupied by England, Holland and Spain and, to some extent, France – developed their own form of folk song born out of a newly found freedom of expression. America was a vast place even before its West was discovered anew by Europeans, and the rural, agrarian life brought with it a sense of space, and distance from forces that dictated “proper” style. This mélange of ethnic groups was broadened even more with the introduction of the horrific slave trade. Denominational and non-conformist/free church musical traditions from Europe were influenced by African and West Indian rhythmical expressions, and rather than exploding into the musical equivalent of the destruction of the Tower of Babel, they coalesced around a word that I believe most defines the American musical style:


Whether the music of spirituals, folk music of Appalachia, shaped note music of the South, honky-tonk and saloon music of the West, cakewalk and ragtime of Louisiana, hymnody of the Mormon trail, gospel songs of white churches or what became jazz, it all had one theme: despite its considerable challenges and many problems, America was a good place to live, it was good to be here, and there was more good ahead.

So while the classical and popular music of young, immigrant America was influenced both by the people who had roamed the land for centuries and those who had just arrived, the American sense of optimism – of “can do,” of the foray into the great unknown, of the pioneer spirit, of a gold rush that could (but would not but to a few) make any man rich, of “Happy Days are Here Again,” of the race to the moon – imprinted this place with a musical expression that was positive and looking forward. Even a great composer like Antonin Dvořák, who came to New York in 1892 and wrote music that was infused with an intangible, bright and optimistic quality, realized that he could not have written his “New World” Symphony or “American” String Quartet, in his own words, “‘just so’ if I hadn’t seen America.”

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James Reese Europe leads the 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters Band in France, 1918.

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Of course, by the end of the long nineteenth century – roughly the time from 1776 (the writing of the American Declaration of Independence and all that it brought to the colonial powers who had conquered the land) to 1918 (the end of the First World War, the “war to end all wars” which, of course, it was not), the optimism began to ebb. Post-war ebullience was tempered by the loss of more than of a generation of young men from England, France, and Germany, and many from the United States. The Native people who had once roamed the land had been rounded up and confined to reservations. The promise of true emancipation for the descendants of slaves gave way to Jim Crow. The economic boom of the 1920s paved the way to the Great Depression of the 1930s. A second World War consumed western civilization for nearly another decade, and all of the good intentions of the League of Nations and United Nations could not tame the greedy and selfish appetites of forces that were political, national and religious, whether the Ku Klux Klan, communism or radical Islamic-facism. The optimism gave way to cynicism, to forms of rebellion. The work of the second Viennese School – with its abandonment of 18th century tonal harmony that led music to more and more reflect the chaos and ugliness of the times – even found its way into popular music. American composers like Aaron Copland, who in the middle of the 20th century seemed very much to define the American Style’s sense of space and optimism, traveled the road of the European serialists, not wanting to be out of step with the relentless rush of modernity, seeing if they could find a new voice that was both relevant and honest. Some succeeded better than others, yet there always seemed to be a pull back to the center of the American thought ethos, a desire not to be wholly desperate but rather hopeful even in the midst of what Paul Hindemith called, “confusion, rush and noise” (The Posthorn).

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“The Moravian Easter at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXXII, No. 1632, March 31, 1888, pages 228-229.

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For the trombone, the staid harmonies of Moravian chorales – by which the trombone was introduced to American shores – gave way to ragtime and jazz. The world found Arthur Pryor’s eye-popping trombone virtuosity to be nothing short of stunning, while Henry Fillmore’s toe-tapping “Trombone Family” of trombone smears – with their roots in minstrelsy and blackface – were found on band programs around the country. As jazz found its legs and kept growing out of the clothes of its African, West Indian, and European roots, styles like be-bop brought the joyful exuberance of Frank Rosolino and J.J. Johnson, whose creative and enthusiastic music and music making belied the dark demons that ultimately led them to point a barrel of a gun at their heads. And pull the trigger. For every trombone concerto by someone like Christopher Rouse – dark, brooding, introspective, even hopeless – there were two or three by composers like Eric Ewazen, who forsook his long exploration down the tunnel of serialism only to come out wholly embracing 18th century tonality and a new Romanticism with a renewed sense of joie de vivre, with a relentlessly syncopated, rhythmic drive, and expansive melodies that seemed to point one to the high peaks and majestic canyons of the great American west.

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Sierra Estrella (Komatk Doag), Arizona. View from Gila Crossing, the birthplace of Russell Moore. Photo by Douglas Yeo.

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As an American who celebrates his 62nd year of life and 53rd year of playing the trombone in 2017, I find myself more and more attracted to – Hindemith, again – “the lasting, calm and meaningful.” Having grown up and worked in the great population centers of the East and Midwest – childhood in New York City, college in Chicago, more college in New York City, and orchestral careers in Baltimore and Boston – I have returned to the west. Having been born in California in the final days of my father’s service in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict – a still unresolved war that became emblematic of the conflicts of the second half of the 20th century and beyond – I now live in Arizona, where the natural beauty and sense of space has affected my artistic temperament in significant ways. From my front porch where at night it is so dark I can see the Milky Way with my naked eye – in the foothills of the Estrella Mountains (that is their Spanish name; the Native Americans who were here long before them called them Komatk Doag), with silhouettes of saguaro cacti on the horizon in every direction – I very much feel like the 19th century American explorers Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery. Like them, I no longer know what to expect around every turn as I did while in my comfort zone in the East. Now, my artistic personality is informed by influences overlooked, forgotten, abandoned and tamped down in the mad rush to settle the continent – the voices of the Native peoples. Their pottery and basketry informs the artistic ethos of our home. I’ve recently been involved in a major research project on Russell “Big Chief” Moore, a member of the Akimel O’odham tribe who in 1912 – the year Arizona became the 48th state in the Union – was born just over the mountains from my home, and went on to be one of America’s great jazz trombonists. A bison skull, a reminder of what the clash of old and new societies nearly brought to extinction, overlooks our patio. Two racks of shed elk antlers on display in my living room and music studio remind me that contrary to the dominant thought that I found so easy to embrace in the fast-paced East, I am not the biggest and strongest thing around. Most of all, though, I am in a place where quiet is easy to find, where I can, within minutes, be where I cannot see another indication of modernity as far as my eyes can see.

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“Tribute to “Big Chief” Russell Moore,” The Mississippi Rag, Vo. XI, No. 3. Photo by Kathy Gardner

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This, for me, is America: bold, beautiful, ever changing, positive, optimistic, peaceful. These American values are ever before me, and remind me that even though these noble aspirations are not always to be found  easily – there is much work to do in this imperfect, fallen world – the challenges faced in desiring them cannot keep me from pursuing them relentlessly. It is these qualities, in a season of life where I no longer need to play any music I do not wish to play, where I choose to put aside the music that tries to reflect the confusion of our present age in favor of music that celebrates the purity of what I wish it to be. I stand with James Reese Europe and his 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters Band, Russell Moore and his Pima people, with Aaron Copland and his vision of  Appalachian Spring, Eric Ewazen and his Pastorale, and even Dvořák, whose “American” string quartet, composed in Iowa, reflects his understanding that American Style had to reflect something of the history and greatness of the land, its people, and their struggle.
In this, I am an American musician who embraces what I believe is the greatest informer of American Style in music: Optimism.


© 2017 Douglas Yeo. All rights reserved.