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2016-17 TMEA All-State Etude tips: Bordognis!

I'm very excited that the Texas All-State Etudes this year are taken from the Rochut/Bordogni Melodious Etudes/Vocalises. Let's first clear up the nomenclature! These are actually vocalises, or vocal studies, written by the great Italian tenor Marco Bordogni. Bordogni was an incredibly accomplished singer, described by Hector Berlioz as the best "singing-master" of that period. He spent the majority of his adult years teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, and in addition to these vocalises, composed a very well-known singing method book.

So why do we, as trombonists, play his vocal studies? We have Mr. Rochut to thank for that. Joannes Rochut lived almost exactly 100 years after Mr. Bordogni, but recognized the utility of these studies in developing both trombone technique and, more importantly, MUSICALITY. (He may in fact have come across these etudes during his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, which he completed before becoming principal trombone of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. However he decided to transcribe them, we can be very glad that he did!)

So, then, since these are primarily vocal works that have been later transcribed and edited for the trombone, there are a few layers to digest here. First: these were not written with the technical challenges of the trombone in mind. You'll find some awkward grace notes or fast runs here and there, and they're not optional. Generations of trombonists have found a way to play grace notes, and so can you! Next, and not to be too repetitive, is that these were written for the voice! Try singing them! They'll make much more sense to you if you do. You don't have to worry about how to make a sound with your voice - most likely, you've been doing it since the doctor first slapped your butt. If you sing them, you'll discover that these are mostly SIMPLE melodic lines wrapped in a little decoration.

This is a basic musical concept that, once learned, colors everything you'll ever play, but it often takes a long time to sink in. As you study these etudes, look for places where grace notes, fast runs, arpeggiated figures, or other musical decorations just serve to pretty-up a simple scale fragment. If you recognize these, you can bring out that underlying fragment and match it up with others you might find. It's a lot easier to make musical sense (i.e. is it going TO or FROM?) of a simple line than one that seems to consist of a billion notes.

OK, enough of the college-level stuff. There's plenty of time for that when you get to college - but you're in high school and trying to kick butt on the All-State etudes, and you're just looking for some tips, darnit. Fine! Here's a big one:

START by learning the notes and rhythms. You're NOT DONE when you can play all the spots on the page; you've just begun! Get those notes and rhythms down. It's just a computer program telling pitch, duration, and style. You have to be able to run that basic program before you can put your artistic spin on it. For example: In etude #21 in measure 8 (and 47), the B natural CARRIES THROUGH THE BAR. I've heard a few high school students play this etude for me, and they all play that second B as a Bb. It doesn't matter what color sprinkles you put on the sundae if your bowl is broken... address the basics first!

Once you can play all the spots on the page, look at what all the Italian terms mean. Be sure you've gotten all the errata from the TMEA page - they've taken the time to give you many "extra" dynamics and markings. I've tried to remain pretty close to those on my reference recordings as well. If a piece is marked "Andante cantabile," for example, you will want to know what those words mean! You might think this means "kind of slow, but connected." It does sort of mean that, but more precisely, it means "walking and singing." Doesn't that impart a whole set of different ideas? Suddenly, instead of playing a series of notes, you're in the head of someone who would be walking around singing a song. Is it a happy song? Sad? #23 sounds pretty sad at first to me. Is this a guy walking away from watching his beloved marry someone else? Maybe. The point is, it's much easier to tell a story when you're in that head-space. That's the point of most songs, right? Tell a story!

I'd also like to briefly address a little technical challenge associated with these vocalises: keeping the line going. I could spend, in some cases, more than four years' worth of college-level lessons on these concepts alone, so I'll keep my suggestions brief and let you practice.

1) Don't stop the air. Try to sing a line, stopping the air after every note. Sounds choppy, right? So don't play that way. Keep the air moving as if you were playing a glissando, and use your articulation to make the notes come out, just like when you sing.

2) Natural slur whenever possible. Get good at natural slurs, and the little ornaments at the end of #21 are a piece of cake. You don't have to triple-tongue those - just lip slur and move the slide. It's that simple. Natural slurs develop your air consistency, embouchure suppleness and strength, and so much more. Just do them. The world's best players do - so should you.

3) Model your legato tongue on your natural slurs. If you can make your legato tongued slurs sound like your natural slurs, nobody needs to know which you are using. The fast scalar passage in #33? Easy as pie with a combination of natural slurs and a legato tongue that sounds like a natural slur.

4) It's ALL about the sound. Keep your air moving, generating that beautiful, rich tone, and shape it with judicious use of articulation, and you're a long way to sounding like a singer. Never sacrifice sound for technique. Slow it down, play it through "at full voice," then take it a bit faster.

I think that makes for a good start on these. Any questions? Send them to me at and I'll post them and answer them here!

Happy prac--- I mean singing!

P.S. - I've recorded all of this year's TMEA tenor etudes and they're available right here:

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