How literature got me into music

As we look back on our lives we can all identify those pivotal moments – decisions or events – that led us in a completely new and often unexpected direction, and essentially changed our lives. For me, one of those moments is crystal clear, and occurred during my last year of high school. I had recently completed a project for an English course – a written report on a short story by the Canadian writer Silver Donald Cameron. Coincidentally, Cameron was a writer-in-residence at the University of Prince Edward Island that year (1985-86). When he was to give a public lecture at UPEI – a reading from one of his new works – my English teacher, Jean Ginn, suggested that I attend. The timing was good – I was free, and my younger brother Barrie was heading into town anyway because he had a rehearsal with the UPEI Jazz Band that night (he was only in grade 9 at the time!). After Cameron’s lecture I made my way to the Music Dept. to wait for Barrie. As I sat and listened to the end of his rehearsal, I was completely blown away by how good the band sounded. My exposure to good live music was pretty minimal at this point, so hearing something of this calibre was eye-opening and pretty darn exciting! I expressed as much afterwards to Barrie’s saxophone teacher, Rowan Fitzgerald, who also played in the band, and he took the opportunity to introduce me to the band leader, UPEI brass prof Jim Montgomery, and also to some of the trombone players (including one Bob Nicholson). As luck would have it, the band was short a trombone player, so Jim asked if I would be interested in joining. I thought that sounded awesome, so Jim suggested I sit in with the wind ensemble that week, which would give him a chance to hear me play. As a result of that ‘audition’, I became a member of the UPEI Jazz Band, and started taking private trombone lessons with Jim. It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life – one that steered me into music as a career, and to studying at UPEI. Incidentally, that trombone player Bob Nicholson, after introducing me to his sister Sandy, is now my brother-in-law!

According to my own memory, plus some journal entries among the few high school scribblers I’ve kept, I had been leaning towards a career as a Phys.Ed. teacher (following in my older brother Kerry’s footsteps), or possibly architecture. Music was perhaps my third choice. Looking back, that one night waiting for Barrie at UPEI changed everything, and I know that if I hadn’t come into town for Silver Donald Cameron’s lecture that my life may have turned out quite differently. I may not have gone into music, or even gone to UPEI; I would not have met Sandy…

I owe it all to Silver Donald Cameron!

31 years later I had another opportunity to meet Silver Don – and to finally thank him. He was in town on October 2nd for a screening of his documentary film Green Rights: The Human Right to a Healthy World. When I heard about the event I thought, “well, he changed my life once before – I can’t miss this!” Indeed, his work in the environmental rights movement continues to change lives, whether through his writing, his films, or his 100+ online interviews of environment leaders. A humble man, Cameron would downplay the significance of all the things he does, but just like he had no idea of the role he played in changing the direction of my life, he is probably unaware of how much of an impact his work has had on so many others. From all of us, Don, keep up the good work!

Dale and Silver Don

A photo of me with Silver Don, shortly after thanking him for the seemingly insignificant chance encounter that, 31 years previously, had such a significant effect on my life.

Posted in Crazy Coincidences, Game Changers, Life | Leave a comment

Serendipity in Sackville

Dave RockThis school year I am teaching part-time at Mount Allison University’s Music Dept. in Sackville, New Brunswick. Yesterday, as I was wandering around town, killing time before catching the bus back home to Charlottetown, I happened upon Dave’s Rock Emporium, a record store that opened just this summer, where I was greeted by the owner, Dave himself.

“What do you like?” Dave asks, “Classical? Jazz? Rock?”

“Well,” I say, “classical’s my main thing, but I listen to quite a bit of jazz and rock too.”

“OK, well that decides it then. I was thinking about putting on some Deep Purple, but I’ll play some classical instead.”

Thinking it’s probably going to be some lame classical pops crap, I say, “No, no, it’s OK, I’m fine with Deep Purple.”

But Dave insists, puts a record on the turntable, and from the speakers springs forth the glorious sound of some fine music for trombone and piano. I stop, and I look at Dave, and I say, “OK, either you somehow know I’m a trombone player, or this is an extraordinary coincidence.”

“Really? You’re a trombone player? This record just came in with a very mixed assortment of music, and I was just trying to figure out how to price it.”

File 2017-09-26, 10 59 53 PM

I ask who it is, he shows me the jacket, and my jaw drops to the floor. It’s an old recording from the 1970s that I have been trying to find for a LONG time: Henry Charles Smith Plays Trombone, Volume 2, one of three solo recordings Smith made during his tenure as principal trombonist with the great Philadelphia Orchestra (not to mention some classic albums with the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble). Smith was an excellent player whose beautiful, singing tone on these recordings served as an excellent model for me during my university years. In fact, these performances still compare favourably with anything else that’s been recorded since.

Many years ago I had acquired the other two LPs, but had never been able to find this one – until now! And yesterday’s experience fills me with wonder as I think about the synchronous set of coincidences that led to me finally finding this record. Being in the right place at the right time – serendipitous in Sackville.

HENRY-CHARLES-SMITH-croppedFor further interest:

Smith’s three solo recordings have been remastered and released on a 3-CD set over here at Potenza Music. These would be a great addition to any trombonist’s CD library.

Henry Charles Smith is the trombonist on the famous recording of Hindemith’s Brass Sonatas with Glenn Gould (Sony 52671). In an interview here, Smith recounts some details of his experience recording the Trombone Sonata with Gould in 1976. See the International Trombone Association Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 23-27 (2009) for even more details about the recording session – an essential, insightful read if you plan to perform this Sonata.

Smith would be around 86 years old now, and I believe is still active as a conductor in Minnesota.


Posted in Crazy Coincidences, Trombone | 1 Comment

From spare to spotlight

Years ago, while in junior high school, I graduated from a ‘pea-shooter’ trombone to a large-bore Conn 88H with an F-attachment, which I took with me to high school. I don’t know where my band teacher found it – probably army surplus – but it was a beautiful instrument (an old Elkhart), and I enjoyed playing it very much. When it was time to buy my own instrument for university, I got a Benge 190F which I played for 18 years until I replaced it with a Shires trombone. It was difficult to part with my Benge – indeed, I kept it as my spare trombone for many years, until it became the perfect instrument for a former student who is loving it as much as I did.


Me and my Benge, summer 1988

It may sound like an extravagance to keep a spare trombone, but it’s actually entirely practical – not once, not twice, but three times I have made the 30-minute trek from my home into Charlottetown to play Anne of Green Gables, only to open up my trunk and discover that I forgot to pack my trombone! Each time I was extremely lucky to find a student who could lend me an instrument on short notice, because otherwise I’d have been rather late for the show if I had to drive all the way home and back with my own. I now leave my main horn at work, and practice on my spare at home.

At least, that’s how it used to work…

Two summers ago I was asked to help a student buy his own instrument. The local Long & McQuade store brought in a few trombones for him to try, and we got together and played them for each other. The student made his choice, but in the process I had become charmed by one of his rejects – a Conn 88H-CL that somehow felt like ‘home’ to me. I returned to the store with my wife (a trombone appreciator) and then her brother (a trombonist himself) to have them listen to me play this instrument, and both of them agreed that there was a special quality to this Conn’s sound that seemed to suit me. So I bought it.


My new Conn 88H-CL

Not the least of its appeal is how different it is from my Shires. My previous spare trombone (a Yamaha YSL-882O) was a lovely instrument – really wonderful in many ways – but I couldn’t think of a performance situation where I might choose it over my Shires. In the case of my new Conn, although it won’t replace my Shires for most of my orchestral playing, I can imagine it being the perfect horn in many other situations: solo recitals, chamber music, brass quintet, maybe even some lighter orchestral works. Indeed, this coming Thursday my Conn will make its solo recital debut. I’ve found a mouthpiece (a Bousfield S4) that complements the instrument very well, and this combination is very different from my Shires setup – lighter, more nimble, with a high register that sparkles. It’s been a lot of fun to play. I look forward to our new life together as this instrument transitions from simply serving as a spare sliphorn to stepping into the spotlight as a starter in its own right.

And in case you’re wondering whatever happened to the old Elkhart Conn 88H that I grew up with: a few years ago I returned to my old school to teach at a summer band camp. On the first day, a young trombonist entered the room, carrying a case that I immediately recognized. I couldn’t wait for him to open it up so I could see my old horn again. When he did, I almost cried. My old instrument had not been treated well in the two decades since I’d loved it. The slide was beat up, the bell all dented and twisted, the valve corroded and practically useless. What a shame, what a waste. But, if there’s a bright side to be found, perhaps that instrument served its purpose by being in the right place at the right time to help me fall in love with the trombone enough to make it my career. And now I have my very own Conn 88H – a homecoming of sorts; a reminder of my musical coming-of-age.

Posted in Life, Trombone | 2 Comments

Brass Instrument Repairs

While most musical instrument mishaps can be prevented with a little care and maintenance, occasionally things happen. Luckily, many minor repairs can be performed very successfully by the school music teacher. In this post I have compiled several useful articles and ‘how-to’ videos that I hope will help any teacher to quickly and easily find good instructions (or a refresher) for most common brass instrument repairs.

Rule #1: Neither student nor ‘handy’ parent should ever try to do any repairs themselves. Teach the student how to keep their instrument well adjusted, and periodically check all screws and other moving parts. Make sure students keep all slides and/or valves well lubricated, and generally treat their instrument carefully.

Rule #2: Don’t try to be a hero. If you are uncomfortable performing any repair, enlist the services of a qualified repair technician.

Vibrations or rattling sounds

  • Tighten all screws (3rd valve slide, lyre holder, water key, etc.) and valve parts (caps, buttons, etc.).
  • Check for loose braces or other soldered joints (these will require a repair technician).


Stuck mouthpiece

  • Do not use pliers. Do not try to twist the mouthpiece out forcefully. Pull out straight using a mouthpiece puller.
  • Instructional video

Dented mouthpiece shank

Water Key (Spit Valve)

Missing or worn-out water key cork and/or spring

  • Symptom: often the cause of an airy sound.
  • Tools: precision screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutter (optional: glue, lighter)
  • Instructional video
  • Optional: How to make your own cork in a pinch


Loosening stuck valve caps, stuck slides and seized valves

  • Tools: Plastic hammer or rawhide mallet; penetrating oil. Do not use pliers.
  • Put a few drops of penetrating oil into the joints and let sit. If necessary, a few very light glancing blows with a plastic/rawhide hammer will help break up any mineral deposits.
  • Instructional videos:

Piston valves misaligned or mixed up

  • Symptoms: the instrument is stuffy, or air won’t pass through at all.
  • Instructional videos:
  • Vertical alignment: replace worn-out felts with proper thickness. Port alignment can be checked with a valve piston/port inspection mirror.
  • Spring tension: If a valve feels ‘soft’ and doesn’t spring back quickly after being released, the spring may be worn out and need to be replaced. It is possible to get a little more life out of a spring by adjusting its tension.

Replacing strings on rotary valves

  • Tools: precision screwdrivers, scissors, 50-lb test fishing line.
  • Instructional video
  • Instructional diagram 1 (includes port alignment diagram)
  • Instructional diagram 2

Rotary valve port alignment

  • Replace worn bumpers (stops) on rotary valves if:
    • valves are noisy because bumpers have hardened; or
    • notch marks inside valve cap are misaligned.
  • Tools: Screwdriver; X-Acto knife or razor (to trim bumper to correct thickness).
  • Instructional video and additional information

Removing rotary valves

  • Rotary valves may need to be disassembled if:
    • they need to be cleaned well, especially if they sound scratchy or gritty; or
    • the valve action is slow and sluggish even when well-oiled; or
    • they need to be realigned, and simply adjusting the bumpers isn’t enough.
  • Instructional videos: part 1 and part 2

Repairs best left for a repair technician

  • Any of the above procedures if having trouble
  • Loosening stubborn stuck slides and seized valves
  • Removing dents
  • Soldering loose joints or braces
  • Trombone slide is misaligned or ‘sprung’

I hope you find this post helpful. If any of the above links are outdated and no longer work, please let me know, and I’ll update them.

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Brass Teaching Materials

Over the years I’ve created a few handouts on brass instrument techniques: warm-ups, drills, exercises, etc. Some of these are geared towards younger students (beginner & intermediate), which school music teachers have found useful; and some are for more advanced players, which I’ve used with university students. All of the beginner/intermediate exercises are also applicable to advanced students; the basic concepts can simply be expanded or adapted.

One of my goals was to fit the content for each topic into one page only; as a result, there is a lot of information packed into some of these. The student will benefit the most from:

  • reading the instructions;
  • learning and understanding the concepts;
  • being creative in applying these concepts to:
    • develop their own exercises/patterns;
    • develop a daily routine that progresses in a logical sequence.

I’m making these PDFs available here as a free resource; please help yourself and photocopy as needed for your students. Let me know in the comments what you find useful, or if there is anything else in particular that you would like to see added. I will periodically add new materials as they are created, so feel free to bookmark this page and visit again!

Printing tip: These PDFs are formatted in US Letter size (8.5 X 11). For best printing results, make sure scaling is set to 100%. Do NOT choose your printer’s “Scale to fit” option.




Information for Teachers:

Fingering Charts:

Without question, chromatic fingering (or slide position) charts are the best for beginners, in terms of being able to find notes (and the most common fingerings) quickly and easily. However, fingering charts that show the notes in the harmonic series (i.e., all the notes for a particular fingering), are useful as well; they help students understand the construction of the instrument, and also show any alternate fingerings available. Mine are set up vertically – each column shows all the notes in the harmonic series for each fingering – with the low notes at the bottom, which is visually intuitive.

Scale Sheets:

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Discovering Takashi Yoshimatsu

I have a friend who, when he played percussion in the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, sent me a CD (Chandos 9960) of works by the Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu. It contains his Symphony No. 4, Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1, and Trombone Concerto ‘Orion Machine’ (performed by Ian Bousfield). I already had a different recording of the Trombone Concerto (Camerata 30CM-354), excellently played by Yoshiki Hakoyama, so it was nice to compare the two performances. And I just love the Symphony No. 4. Yoshimatsu’s works are tonal, neo-romantic, and inspired by elements of nature, both earthly and celestial. He is also influenced by jazz and popular music, which are often juxtaposed with more traditional classical influences. His Atom Hearts Club Suite is a good example of this:

The suite combines elements from four sources: The Beatles’ masterpiece Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which draws on all kinds of music, from classic to rock; Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, a great progressive-rock work of the 1970s; Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother; and Fragile by Yes. These have then been shaken using the 100,000 horsepower of Osamu Tezuka’s comic-book hero Mighty Atom (a.k.a. Astro Boy). There are four movements: the first is a progressive-rock-style Allegro molto in irregular time, the second a mysterious Andante in ballad style, the third a paramour’s Scherzo, while the fourth rounds the suite off in slapstick boogie-woogie style. – Takashi Yoshimatsu

Not every composer who tries this is successful – it can sound contrived and, well, cheesy. Although Yoshimatsu’s works aren’t completely dairy-free, there are many moments where his stylistic amalgamations work quite well, and the Symphony No. 4 is one very tasteful example – I absolutely love it.

If you haven’t heard Yoshimatsu’s music, I encourage you to check it out.

CHAN 9960


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Blow-air-o: Practice Strategies for the trombone solo in Ravel’s Bolero

The trombone solo from Ravel’s Bolero is one of the most challenging excerpts in the entire orchestral repertoire, and one of the few excerpts that is required on every single orchestral trombone audition. This solo passage, lasting just 17 measures (see Figure 1), is notable for its high tessitura, especially the repeated high D-flat in measures 5 and 6. More than just being able to hit the notes, the trombonist must be able to play this passage with precision, delicacy and style.

Figure 1. The solo trombone passage from Ravel’s Bolero:

Bolero Complete

The practice and successful performance of this excerpt requires the efficient use of breath and physical gestures, and mental quietness. Because this passage begins well into the piece (after about 7 minutes of waiting) and starts on a high B-flat, the trombonist can be susceptible to an undesirable degree of physical tension that accompanies mental uncertainty or anxiety. This can be mitigated by effective preparation. To this end, I suggest several methods for practicing this excerpt that allow the performer to target different sections in a variety of ways that focus on specfic technical and musical elements.

Octave Transfer

To begin the passage with confidence, first establish good tone production on an easy note, such as the B-flat one octave lower. Play the most beautiful middle B-flat ever heard, striving for a tone colour appropriate for the character of the work. Then, while keeping the embouchure set for a middle B-flat – indeed, without changing anything other than the tongue level – play the high B-flat just as beautifully (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Exercise to establish good tone production on beginning note:

Bb repeated

This concept can be applied to the first 8 measures in sections. To begin, try the first measure alone, followed by the first phrase up to the E in measure 4 (see Figure 3). Then isolate the next section, measures 4-8, and finally measures 1-8 together. It is important that all practiced elements, including the lower octave, be played with the same character and style that one would use in performance.

Figure 3. Measures 1-4 one octave lower:

Ms 1-4 8vb

Chunking and Looping

There is benefit to isolating certain figures and repeating them, for the purpose of reinforcing the technical and musical gestures. For example, create a pattern by playing the opening four beats and repeating back to the beginning (see Figure 4). This type of pattern repetition (or looping) will help the performer work on the first measure without always having to begin “cold”, and allows some repetition of the glissando between beats 4 and 5. It may be helpful to conceive of this particular pattern in 4/4.

Figure 4. Isolating and looping the first 4 beats:

opening bar repeated


It is very important to play this excerpt with rhythmic accuracy. There are several instances where a note is tied into the downbeat, and the next articulated note comes on the 2nd sixteenth-note or the 2nd eighth-note of the beat (see measures 1, 3, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 16 in Figure 1). This type of figure can be problematic; many performers are often late coming off of the tied note, especially on a sixteenth note. Practicing the passages with 16th note subdivisions is a very useful tool for ensuring their rhythmic accuracy, and provides a good foundation for the eventual mental subdivision required in performance (see Figure 5). This strategy can be applied equally well to measures 9-17 (leaving the single triplet figure in measure 10 intact – see Figure 6). Remember to keep the tongue light, and the slide arm relaxed and efficient.

Figure 5. Measures 1-4 subdivided:

Ms 1-4 subdivided

Figure 6. Measures 9-17 subdivided:

Ms 9-16 subdivided


While trombonists normally strive to avoid glissandi when they play, the technique can be used as a practice tool to establish good air flow, to open up the sound, and to work on smooth connections between notes. Play measures 9-17, for example, tonguing only the first note after each breath, allowing glissandi to occur (along with natural slurs), with the goal of keeping the air flowing continuously, without pulsation, through the phrase. This air pattern becomes a model which is then applied to the passage, played again using normal tonguing. The performer should find that the passage has become easier after having established a more efficient air flow when using the glissando.

This method can also be used to improve slide technique. Again, without tonguing, allow the glissandi to occur, but with the goal of minimizing its effect through fast slide action. This establishes a more rhythmic impulse to the slide arm by shifting the responsibility for rhythmic integrity away from the tongue. After having reinforced the importance of a rhythmic slide, the passage should be noticeably cleaner when repeated with normal tonguing.

Expanding the limits

As previously mentioned, the high tessitura of this passage is one of the biggest challenges for the trombonist. A very effective technique for mastering any skill is to expand one’s limits. If a performer has practiced skills that go beyond what is normally required, than the required skills become much easier. With this in mind, try playing the opening 8 measures one semitone higher, one wholetone higher, etc. (see Figure 7). Regardless of the outcome, returning to the actual pitches is guaranteed to seem easier!

Figure 7. Measures 1-8 one tone higher:

Ms 1-8 tone higher

The practice techniques described above will help the trombonist better prepare the Bolero solo for performance or audition. With imagination, these (and many other) techniques can be applied to the practice of any other piece of music. Effective practicing is intelligent practicing. Haphazard or non-directed practicing reinforces undesirable habits. By devising thoughtful practice methods that target specific concepts or techniques, the performer can make efficient use of practice time, establish good habits, and derive great satisfaction from making music!

Recommended Reading

de Alcantara, Pedro. 1997. Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Copyright © 2016 Dale Sorensen

Posted in Music, Pedagogy, Tip Jar, Trombone | 2 Comments