Learning to play the trombone: French and Anglo-American teaching


A tradition of trombone teaching reaching back to the early days of the Paris Conservatory culminated in a method by André Lafosse (1921, revised 1946). At least two earlier methods have remained in constant use, not only in France, but throughout Europe. While other European countries developed distinctly different performance practice and ideals of playing the trombone, they did not produce a comparable body of teaching material. Within twenty years of Lafosse’s revised edition, American and British authors began to introduce an entirely new concept of how to play the trombone.

French methods

Cornette

An illustration from Cornette's method

For centuries, the trombone appeared only in books about musical instruments in general, if at all. Then, some time in the 1790s, André Braun published his trombone method. When the Paris Conservatory opened in  1795, Braun and two other trombonists were on the faculty. But before long, the Conservatory no longer offered instruction in how to play trombone. It reestablished a preliminary class in 1833, making trombone instruction permanent in 1836.

Returning the trombone to the Conservatory’s curriculum probably resulted from significant public pressure. Lots of people must have wanted to learn to play trombone. Victor Cornette published a trombone method in 1830. Félix Vobaron, the provisional teacher hired in 1833, published his method in 1834. When the Conservatory established the permanent class, it passed over Vobaron in favor of Antoine Dieppo. Although Dieppo had already issued a method book jointly written with Frédéric Berr, he repudiated it and wrote a new one for his classes.

Dieppo

An illustration from Dieppo's method

The texts of each of these books is better organized and more informative than the last. A modern edition of Cornette’s method is still widely used, with different text. Vobaron’s is likewise still available, though less used. I am not aware of any modern edition of Dieppo’s method. Many other trombone method books appeared over the course of the nineteenth century, but it is hard to find even good bibliographic information about them, let alone locate copies. On the other hand, the revised edition of Lafosse’s method is not only easily available, but published with French, English, German, and Spanish text in parallel columns.

Vobaron complains that when he wanted to learn to play trombone, he could find no one to show him the seven positions. All the early methods lay great stress on the positions and the notes available in them. They also aim to produce soloists, so the exercises culminate in various kinds of ornaments and embellishments. At best, they give perfunctory instruction on mouthpiece placement and articulation. Only Dieppo says anything at all about breathing. Only the other two touch on care and maintenance of the trombone.

Lafosse offers reasonably thorough explanation of everything his predecessors barely touched on. He actually says less about breathing than Dieppo did, but much more about mouthpiece selection, embouchure, and articulation than any of them. Much had happened in music in the more than a century that had passed since the appearance of Dieppo’s method, so Lafosse had to deal with the trigger (limited to brief remarks on the bass trombone), legato tonguing (he had a real struggle trying to describe it), mutes (he considered most of them vulgar for orchestral use), and new techniques like the glissando (he thoroughly disapproved).

Lafosse remained as trombone professor at the Conservatory until 1960. By that time, British and American orchestras had begun to lay aside small bore trombones in favor of the Conn 88H or its equivalents. Lafosse resisted basically all twentieth-century innovations and insisted  his students bring small bore trombones to lessons.

American and British recommendations

Kleinhammer

1963 cover

Philip Farkas issued The Art of Brass Playing in 1962. Other books about how to play trombone followed in quick succession, including: The Art of Trombone Playing by Edward Kleinhammer (1963), The Embouchure by Maurice Porter (1967), Trombone Technique by Denis Wick (1971), and The Encyclopedia of the Pivot System for All  Cupped Mouthpiece Brass Instruments by Donald S. Reinhardt. Other notable teachers who did not write books (Emory Remington and Arnold Jacobs, for example) also contributed greatly to a new approach to playing trombone.

These and other authors differ more radically from Lafosse, a near contemporary, than Lafosse differed from Cornette, or Braun for that matter. My readers may be less familiar with Porter’s book than the others. It touches on all  wind instruments, not just brass. But perhaps Porter himself shows the sea change in approaches to teaching how to play trombone more than any one thing I can mention: He was a British dentist, who based his entire book on his understanding of human dentition.

Beginning with Farkas, actually, all of these authors demonstrated a keen interest in physiology and science. Where the early French authors could only warn students not to puff their cheeks, and Lafosse added the recommendation to stretch the lips tight, the American and British approach could explain a proper embouchure in much  more detail. They don’t all agree. The recommendations of Farkas and Reinhard differ so much that they have caused controversy. But with even a  modicum of knowledge about facial muscles, by this time everyone knows (I hope) that Lafosse’s recommendation is harmful.

With the greater scientific sophistication came the recognition that the perfect embouchure for one person might not work at all for someone else. All of these authors, therefore, had to address that issue. They also stressed that musicians need to train like athletes. The entire concept of the daily warmup results from this realization. These authors also pay much more attention to posture.

Kleinhammer and Wick carefully explain how to hold a trombone, and details of slide technique far beyond finding the seven positions. They also have the vocabulary, as Lafosse did not, to describe the subtleties of articulation. They  supply much more detail about selecting a trombone and taking care of it.

Incidentally, there is a huge difference in format between the French and American/British books. The French books are complete method books with some illustrative text. They consist mostly of exercises, etudes, etc. Farkas et al. include few if any exercises. Theirs are strictly textbooks.

By the time Lafosse retired, all of his students were champing at the bit to adopt new American large bore tenor trombones with a trigger. His successors have all been much more open to innovation than he. It seems safe to say that the approach to teaching I have described as American and British is now accepted all over the world.

That has at least two consequences. The average trombonist of the last half century or so possesses a range and technique out of the reach of even many virtuoso players of previous generations. But we have lost the distinctiveness of a recognizable French, English, German, Russian, etc. style of playing the trombone. All our soloists, orchestras, and other ensembles sound pretty much alike. That might be a small price to pay for trombonists not only to play better, but know how to do so with so much less danger of injuring themselves.


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