Being a member of a section is a whole different beast than playing by yourself.The thing is, when you’re on your own, you’re totally in control. You control the speed, you control the style, you control the musicality. When you’re in a section – say, in a community band -- all of a sudden you find yourself in the middle of six or seven other trombonists (if you’re lucky to have that many, like we are), plus someone far away with a stick telling you how fast to play.
In an ensemble, I’m always thinking about the dreaded L-word – listen. We, as trombonists, are used to hearing this word most often regarding intonation (“wait, where’s fifth position again?”); it was one of my coming-of-age moments when I realized:
playing the right note isn’t everything.Consider style, for example. When I’m sitting in the trombone section in the middle of these six other people, I find myself listening obsessively for stylistic considerations and trying to act like a diffuser so that we sound like a section. As an example, if all I see is an accent mark (>), is it separated, connected, heavy, or light? Bell tones, even? How hard am I supposed to smack these things that only give me “>” as an indicator? Theoretically, I could make my own decision and stick to my guns, but how does that help us sound like a coherent group?
The Jedi training here is to be the bigger man (or woman) and listen. Usually I listen to whatever Jon is doing (because he usually seems to know what’s going on), and I copy as fast as I can so that the guy sitting next to me can hear what I’m doing (and, theoretically, that Jon and I are doing it the same way) and copy me. And so on and so forth down the line until we all learn and remember how it’s supposed to be. Or until the conductor yells at us that we’re doing it wrong.
In an ideal band world, we’d all be completely familiar with every piece we play and have done our research and know exactly how all of the styles and dynamics are supposed to be. I don’t live in that world, though, so I do my best to at least make some improvement as I go along. In a band, it’s all about trying to match each other to create this solid, unified sound; to sound like a band instead of sounding like a bunch of sections thrown together -- or worse yet, a bunch of individual musicians sitting in a room playing their parts.