Trombone Unlimited: A Review
This advanced tutor book will be useful for anyone interested in improving their trombone playing, from advanced school students to working professionals. It is especially interesting since it is the work of Megumi Kanda, a highly impressive musician who has been principal trombone of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra since 2002.
After some introductory material, the chapter headings in this book are as follows: breathing, buzzing, long tones, legato, playing angle, octaves, evenness in all registers, lip slurs and flexibility, high notes, low notes, breath attacks, multiple tonguing, alternate positions and glissando, extreme dynamics, articulation, scales and arpeggios in major keys, scales and arpeggios in minor keys, clefs, alto trombone, etudes for tenor trombone, and duets. This range of topics shows Kanda's approach as striving for what she calls the "constant honing of our fundamentals," which she sees as "the basic skills we must acquire and master to freely convey anything we wish in music."
Each section on technique contains informative text, introducing the issue under consideration with clear and usually concise instructions on what is required of the trombonist. These help to focus the player's attention on the special challenges of a topic - such as tuning, tone, relaxation, and breathing. The exercises which follow are often interspersed with short, detailed and helpful hints which firmly encourage the trombonist to aspire to high standards. For me, this approach provided a goldmine of useful advice which I intend to apply to my own playing. Of course, it does require the student to make a little effort to engage with the text.
Quite a few of the exercises given are quite short and focused. This is a big improvement upon some of the rather lengthy, rambling and fatiguing exercises in some of the brass literature. In my experience, knowledge, and skills are often more easily acquired in bite-sized pieces. Throughout the book, the author keeps in sight her view that technique is the servant of musical expression and communication. In many places, she avoids rather routine technical material and tries to provide melodious, expressive, and meaningful exercises and etudes wherever possible. To give two examples: the section on articulation involves playing a single theme with a variety of tonguing and slurring patterns. This simple structure allows the student to keep track of (and shape) what is going on musically while still having to engage fully with the various (and often challenging) articulation patterns provided. (Characteristically, the author states that "Your goal is for a listener to be able to correctly identify the articulations being played. Your articulations must be precise in order for the musical statement to be clear.")
Most students will appreciate Kanda's presentation of scales, which goes well beyond mindless repetition. While scales "...must be memorized," they must also "... be played in tune and with a beautiful, full tone in every register." The reader is instructed to "... maintain a musical flow and direction." at all times. Keeping musicality at the forefront, the author uses the following approach. Each of the major and minor scales has a page to itself, which begins with the scale and arpeggio for two octaves. (Even at this stage, the tonic of each is highlighted with tenuto marks, which signposts these notes' importance for intonation and tone.) These are followed by a variety of short studies in the key under consideration, featuring arpeggiated figures, intervals, articulation patterns, dotted rhythms, and short lyrical exercises. Some of the last categories have plenty of mileage in them as music and are rather fun to play.
Kanda maintains this approach of using short but quite musically interesting studies in the sections on clefs and the alto trombone. This material could be especially useful for sight-reading practice. The book includes a collection of thirteen more lengthy 'Etudes for Tenor Trombone.' These are generally melodious and cover a variety of styles. One or two of them (such as number 4, 'Fantasia') could possibly stand on their own in a recital or audition.
While this book definitely has a user-friendly dimension to it, there is plenty of challenging material in it. For example, the advanced flexibility exercises will push most players to the limit, although they do feel slightly more mathematical than other parts of the book. This is perhaps understandably so, given the subject.
There are also one or two sections in this book which are slightly unusual, but nevertheless very welcome. In particular, it is nice to see plenty of coverage of multiple tonguing while moving the slide, a sometimes neglected but important area, complete with some helpful remarks reminding us that this branch of technique requires lots and lots of air.
The book concludes with a variety of duets by Concone, East, and Telemann. All of these are useful and interesting, but it is especially worth highlighting both of the arrangements of fantasias for two viols by Michael East (1580-1648). These work particularly well and are worth studying; they present plenty of challenges of style, concentration, and balance. One minor quibble, it would help for the duets to be in a slightly larger typeface - though I appreciate that the publisher is trying to eliminate unnecessary page turns.
While very wide-ranging, this book does not cover absolutely everything. Its emphasis could be said to be 'classical,' but this is to be expected in a work by a distinguished orchestral principal trombonist. Some readers might wish for material on topics such as multiphonics, but this area is not really what most would consider a fundamental technique, which is the main focus of this work. In any case, Kanda's book remains a substantial opus and not only for its 167 pages. It is most important for providing a distillation of the wisdom of a leading professional trombonist about the basics of playing. It is also significant for its success in making difficult (and sometimes misunderstood) technical material enjoyable, manageable and musically satisfying. This is a significant achievement. Indeed, Megumi Kanda has produced a major addition to our repertoire, and I would recommend it to any serious teacher or player of our instrument.