Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How we test

When we test brass instrument tuning at W. Nirschl we play loud.
I have often heard the expression “Anyone can play loud. It takes talent to play soft.”
Not to deny that statement but having had the great fortune to perform as an extra with The Cleveland Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, let me say that one reason a professional orchestra sounds as soft as it does in a pianissimo is because it is so very loud in a fortissimo. And the fortissimo is played with a good quality sound. It is partly the contrast that makes a pianissimo sound so soft.
So one reason to test loud is because it is a legitimate dynamic.
Another reason to test loud is because it is much more difficult to bend a pitch at fortissimo. It is much easier to bend a pitch at pianissimo. If a player is going to play with dynamic contrast, he must tune his instrument where it centers in a fortissimo and train himself to maintain that pitch as he makes a diminuendo.
Another technique I use in testing is to slur up to a note; look at the tuner; and then slur down to the not; look at the tuner. If a note has a wide ‘slot’ or wiggle room, it is likely to be lower when approached from above ad higher when approached from below. The wider the approach, the larger the difference is likely to be.
It is important to test softly for valve or slide action, noise etc. But for finding the center of the pitch, nothing compares to loud.

We also test the instruments with a mechanical device to find leaks. If an instrument leaks it is likely to negatively impact the extremes of range. Our brass technicians are accomplished brass players with average range. Although I have not played professionally for over 25 years (due to what is often referred to as focal dystonia) I have been blessed with the ability to play extremely high and low on all the brass instruments. I occasionally get called to the brass room to confirm the playability of an instrument. Those that don’t play, don’t get shipped.

Trombone slides are tested in playing position. I know of no better test of a trombone slide than to put it in playing position and let the slide fall. Playing position is a downward tilt of the slide of 11 to 25 degrees and the upper tube leaning clockwise 30 to 60 degrees from vertical. I know that some people test slides in a vertical position, some measure and I’m sure there are other tests as well. We use playing position because it is the only test that tests the bearing surfaces that are actually used in performance. We test dry and occasionally spot check with cream and water. We sometimes use Trombotine, sometimes slide-o-mix, sometimes rapid comfort and sometimes Brylcream. We know of players that use Pledge furniture polish and others who use Cold Cream or Dry Skin Cream. We do not use slide oil. I know that student instruments are routinely lubricated with oil as a logistical compromise. It does not work well. Manufacturers of student trombones have tried for many years to find an alternative. Some have even packaged a mixture of cream and water as an oil substitute. That mixture proves to be an even bigger problem because students do not clean the mixture off daily leaving it to ‘cake’ as it dries out.

Trombone players divide into camps or preferences when it comes to slide lubrication. But it is universally accepted that a cream of one type or another, combined with water spray continues to be state-of-the-art. See our article(video) on slide cleaning and lubrication.

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