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

Subdivision

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

Glissando

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

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