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  • Writer's pictureIlan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

As Berio Would Say: Why??!! ...did I switch to bass

It’s travel season again, and so I finally have some forced downtime to do a little writing here, and so I’m finally getting to something I wanted to do for a very long time: Share why I switched to the bass trombone.

But first a little background. I studied with some of the finest bass trombone teachers, namely Eli Aharoni and Micha Davis, and alongside Tovy Meshulam (the great Ido Meshulam’s father) and Mitchell Ross, I had a team of teachers most can only envy - I certainly didn’t realize how good I had it!

My high range was always an issue in my playing: a combination of a terrible sound concept and just some basic mistakes in my approach to the instrument. As such I was often given the advice to switch to bass trombone, and I considered it for a long time, but there were three main reasons I decided to postpone that transition over and over. First, we were certainly not poor, but I did feel a sense of guilt asking my parents to buy another instrument just a year or two after getting my brand new 42. Second, I was hesitant to try and resolve my high register issues on an even bigger and heavier instrument. And third, I didn't really want to admit failure, that I just wasn't good enough to make it as a tenor player, that the path to the unemployment office, or truck driving school, or food service was somehow the only way forward. Add to that that the idea of specializing in such a limited field was just plain scary to me. I guess I should add that i just wasn't a very strong player: my limited talent was painfully obvious, and I had not yet really spent time thinking and refining my approach to practicing the instrument and learning music.

This all started to change around my second year of my undergraduate studies. I was starting to figure things out physically and was getting to a point where I felt more confident playing the instrument in public. The world was also giving me new information that wasn't lining up with the story i was telling myself in my head: I was doing pretty well in my classes, I passed my juries with honors every year, I was both admiring my school colleagues but their playing started to seem a little less scary with time. But still, I just couldn't play high, and so the bass trombone was always in the background.

Right around the end of my second year I was able to seek out instruction that pointed me in the direction of a few books about playing. The ones that stood out to me were the Kleinhammer and the Farkas. Those alongside studies with the incredible members of the Cincinnati Symphony trombone section, and some careful observations of the brilliant players around me in school, lead to some discoveries that aided me in my journey. I took that summer as an opportunity to focus on my chops and start making changes. It certainly wasn't easy but I learned a lot about the instrument and myself.

The third year of my undergraduate degree i found myself in the semis for the ETW solo competition. The piece was the Crespo Improvisation and I was starting to get comfortable with playing that piece, if there really ever is such a thing. I didn't do as well as i wanted in that competition, but that was ok: the world was again giving me information, and for the first time I was in a place where I was able to stop and listen. Switching to bass trombone didn't seem like as much of a failure. I was able to get over the financial hump of moving to another country and getting situated (with a fair bit of help from my family!), and that guilt associated with potentially disappointing my family who invested in me, or with asking for a bit extra for another horn started to subside. The fear of specializing in our limited field didn't go away, and it hasn't since, but I've learned to cope with it better.

Between the third and fourth year of college I finally decided to make the change: I was in my mid twenties already but could finally control the instrument at a basic level. I was a working musician, playing in the house band at a German restaurant with lots of chop time for getting strong, performing at the Ohio renaissance fair, and even playing bass trombone with the Kentucky Symphony, a job i won by mistake a year earlier. So I told my university teacher, David Vining, that I was intending to switch instruments. David for his part seemed encouraging.

Now with some perspective I understand why David was positive, but a bit hesitant; his job was to recruit players to staff school ensembles, and he had enough bass trombone players to go around. Additionally, David was facing his tenure review, a stressful time for any college teacher, and I had requested to transfer out of his studio to study with Pete Norton who is not only an incredibly impressive bass trombone player, but also world-class tenor player. Pete did what I wanted to do, but my request was extremely inconvenient to David, especially given his review process.

I was fortunate to do well in the ensemble auditions that year on both tenor and bass trombone. In order to make room for a graduate student who didn't do as well, but was in his second year and didn't yet have upper ensemble experience, David had called me with an offer: in return for my agreeing to forgo the bass trombone spots in the upper school ensembles, David was going to give me my choice of ensemble assignments on tenor. I took advantage of his offer and chose a rotation that included Till, Metamorphosis, Hensel and Greek, and Rhenish, with some band work and a musical (Crazy for You) thrown in there, alongside my polka gigs, my little orchestra job in Kentucky, and of course my academic studies. I was extremely fortunate to have these opportunities, but it did mean I would have to wait a year before switching to bass trombone.

Nevertheless I started learning the instrument: the school had a Bach with axial valves that I could borrow from time to time, and I started playing some of the rep on tenor (Micha Davis insisted I learn how to play with an E pull, and so I was able to get by ok on one valve for most everything I got my hands on).

When grad school auditions were over I started preparing for the ITA competitions. I worked very hard on the tenor competitions, but with little luck; just an honorable mention for my work on excerpts. The bass competitions were a different story. I checked out the school horn and borrowed a mouthpiece (a Lackey 93D that seemed just HUGE at the time) and recorded my tape that same afternoon. It seemed to work OK bc I found myself as an alternate for the Van Haney competition, and when the great Michael Brown chose to not fly to the UK for the live round in Birmingham, I found myself buying a plane ticket with the sinking feeling that I'd better start practicing!

Switching to bass meant also switching horns: from the school's 50/Thayer horn, I had first bought a 50B2 on ebay, then after realizing my limitations in navigating that instrument I bought an Edwards. That instrument took some time to settle in: it certainly was a departure from anything I had played previously.

On the mouthpiece front I wasn't as adventurous. I played a Yeo for a short period then landed on a Greg Black 1G that I got from a friend who owed me money. That was the first time I had a horn and mouthpiece that gave me a sound that I thought was somewhat acceptable, but to be perfectly honest, it took another 12-18 months after that before I started sounding like a bass trombone player.

In retrospect everything worked out one way or another. I still think the logic of resolving some of my many technical shortcomings on tenor made sense, but what I do recognize the more I think about this, is that there was an important emotional component to my decision to switch to bass, the manner in which I made it, and the timing of my choice. With all that said, if I had to boil a complex process into a single parameter, I'd say this: The leap of faith was still incredibly daunting, and the need to face the sense of failure, real or perceived I'm still not sure, was scary and humbling, but the world spoke to me loud and clear, and more importantly, I finally started listening.


As I'm sitting here on a redeye writing this all out I realize this is only part of the story. The why. The how is just as important, so I guess I'd better start thinking about writing that next!

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