Derek James – formerly 1st trombone in the LPO, Royal Opera House and RPO. Sadly passed away last week at age 86 – a great hero to many of us.
Here are some thoughts about professional music making from one of the greatest trombone players ever to grace the concert stage…
“After being a professional musician in the London scene for more years than I care to remember, I have come to the conclusion that playing the trombone is just like driving a car during the rush hour. If you drive say ten miles into town every morning, each and every journey will be different, even though you use the same route. You will encounter many a hazard along the way.
The same applies when you play the same music over and over again with many different conductors. Each performance will be different;
you have to keep your radar switched on and be prepared for subtle changes in tempo and dynamics.
In the early days I used to drive high performance cars such as Mini Coopers, Racing lmps, Lotus Cortinas and E-type Jaguars, and with
youthful aggression I used to overtake everything in sight
because I got bored sitting in a queue of traffic and being one
of a crowd. Looking back to my younger days on the trombone, I
must have had the same mentality and desire of wanting to play
faster, higher, lower and certainly louder than anyone else. I
thrived on excitement and had to get rid of my aggression in one way or another, as I had done in the past on the rugby field.
I started playing the G bass trombone at the age of thirteen in the Ammanford Brass Band in South Wales, and when I eventually changed
over to the tenor trombone I was inspired by seeing and
listening to the late Tommy Dorsey on films and his recordings.
He was my idol, and it was my great ambition to meet him in
person, but sadly he died before I was ever able to visit the
USA and hear him play with his band. I found myself trying to
emulate him whenever I played solos in the band by avoiding the
usual ‘nanny goat’ vibrato practised by most players in those days.
Instead I tried to develop a Dorsey style slide vibrato which was
more pleasing to my ear, much to the surprise of the bandmaster
and the other bandsmen.
I eventually joined the band of the Welsh Guards in 1952 as solo
trombone, and enjoyed standing up in front and doing my own
thing, which gave me a great sense of freedom when playing my
solos, because the band had to follow me whenever I decided to
break loose and fly around the instrument causing chaos behind me. Major Statham, the Director of Music, often had an apprehensive look on his face, but we always somehow managed to start and finish together, much to everyone’s relief.
Whilst I was in the Guards, I attended the Royal College of Music and
had lessons with Maurice Smith, and played in the college orchestra. It gave me the opportunity to practise the orchestral repertoire and get familiar with the alto clef. At that time very few players ever played the alto trombone. I used to play all the high passages on my King 2B trombone and Bach 12C mouthpiece. I loved the challenge, and couldn’t wait for the next week to arrive so that I could have another go at those difficult high passages.
In 1955, 1 was invited to join the Royal Opera House Orchestra at
Covent Garden, and suddenly found myself sitting in the trombone section which included such wonderful players as Chris Devenport, Evan Watkin, Frank Stead and Haydn Trotman. I felt so very nervous, and soon realised I was so very inexperienced compared to the rest of them. I often felt too frightened to take my trombone out of its case. I had been used to playing on the beat in the brass and military bands, but here in the opera found myself coming in too early on my entries, almost a beat in front of everyone else, which took away all my confidence. All these wonderful players around me just smiled, and proceeded to teach me the business of playing in the orchestral style.
Evan Watkin would say: “Be careful in this bar; don’t come in on the beat, because it has to be delayed to have the desired effect, and when it comes off it will be a magical moment.” It meant that I had to almost ignore the conductor’s beat, and come in on my entry by ‘feel’ and ‘instinct’. I had to learn and develop a completely new style of trombone playing in order to fit in while playing all the various operas, especially Wagner.
I soon leamed that all of the practice I had done over the years on
sheer technique was a waste of time, because even if you find the
best trombonist in the world with the best high and low register, and a tongue like a rattlesnake, he’d be useless in a trombone section of this kind that specialised in using a delayed production in an orchestral style, which is so very different from solo playing. You have to learn to be part of a team, and listen carefully to those around you. ‘Be result can be a wonderful experience.
Whenever Frank Stead heard me flying around on the instrument back-stage before the performance, he’d come up to me and say:
“It’s no good playing all that rubbish lad. You need to get in a quiet corner and practise some quiet long notes, and work on your production; and when you have to play Wagner’s Parsifal, you shouldn’t do any light or jazz session in the afternoon before the show. Instead you should spend a couple of hours at the Golders Green Crematorium where you will experience the sombre atmosphere to put you in the right frame of mind, in order to have the proper mental approach to do justice to this music.”
I used to laugh because I thought he was kidding me, but now when I think back to those days, I realise more than ever how right he was. I will always think of those wonderful friends with gratitude and with great love and affection for taking good care of me, and giving me a free lesson every day.
I remember an occasion when we played a ballet season at Covent Garden,and a very fine player called Bill Lover played 1st trombone,
and was on 2nd. We played the Firebird, and during the first few bars in 12 time, the two tenor trombones have play a quiet passage which is quite difficult. The 1st trombone starts on low Cb (7th position), and has to quick move to the low Bb (1st position). Meanwhile I had to play at the same time a low Ab (3rd position) moving up to a D natural (third line of the bass clef). Bill Lover said to me, “Now listen lad: whatever you do, don’t you play that D natural until you see my slide reach 1st position. You have to synchronise by playing your D natural at the same
time as I play my Bb, and not before!” Now that was another free lesson that I have never forgotten.
Another thing I learned was that whenever you have to join in during a running passage of quavers, try and imagine mentally that you are playing the whole passage yourself, so that you can join in at the right moment; not too soon, or too late, thus avoiding a
To play in a symphony orchestra trombone section, you have to think as a team and develop a form of telepathy and sixth sense in order
to come in on your entry together. It can be a disaster if someone tries to lead from the middle of the section and play his note before everyone else. The moment is ruined, especially in Brahms symphonies. The same applies if one of you always comes in too late, half a beat after the other two players. The ensemble can sound very bad, and it takes away one’s confidence in each other.
There are occasions when you are on tour abroad and you have to perform in different concert balls every day with different acoustics
to cope with. Many times you’ll find there’s hardly any room for the trombone section, and you’ll find yourselves pushed too far back on stage to feel in contact with the rest of the orchestra, with the result that the conductor might well say: “Trombones, you seem to be playing well behind my beat, and you are coming over rather late”.
To counteract this you will have to anticipate his beat and play slightly ahead of everyone else, which is something I hate, but you just have to do it this way in order to have a good ensemble with the rest of the orchestra. There are also occasions when you have to do maybe three recording sessions a day in a studio, recording over and over again, with the result that you end the day with bruised and swollen lips. The next morning you can hardly get a soft note out of the instrument, and you have to struggle to try and play some very high soft passages.
It’s essential that you have an experienced 2nd and bass trombone at your side who will by instinct play a little louder to give you more support, because if they play too softly they can leave you high and dry, with the result that there will be many cracked notes and you will all have to record the passage over and over again.
It is also very important when you play your entry perfectly together that you all come off the note at the same time, because some players have a tendency to play too tenuto and hang onto the note too long. You have to develop a clean attack and a clean release.
There are times when you engage an extra player as a bumper to assist
you in some of the heavier major symphonic works. If he plays along with you, and plays too loud, you will end up with two players playing 1st trombone, one on 2nd and one on bass. The section will sound out of balance, with too much top end, so you have to be very discreet and careful if ever you are called upon to play bumper in a section, and never get in the way.
To be a professional trombonist you will find that there is no substitute for experience. So accept any advice from older players with gratitude and never be too proud to listen to any helpful suggestions C, I myself feel so very proud and grateful to all the great trombonists I have played with, who have helped me along the way. So to you young trombonists just starting on a musical career, my advice is to have a good sense of humour, don’t take yourself too seriously, and accept the fact that you will make mistakes and probably play a ‘domino’ here and there, as we
all do from time to time, which we put down to experience.”
Best wishes, Derek James.