The trombone solo in the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony is one of the best there is for the instrument in the symphonic repertoire. It’s lonely and fierce, sad and exposed. It’s also pretty difficult to play. It may sound simple, but you have to get the maximum sound out out of the horn while still maintaining a rich tone, which is one of the hardest things to do. As a trombonist myself, I feel chills whenever I hear the solo. The fellow in the video above does a dandy job of it.
I wasn’t always so lucky. I never had the good fortune of playing this solo with a full orchestra in performance, but back when I was at USC, we trombonists practiced it incessantly as an orchestral excerpt. These excerpts are played by every instrument — violinists practice the first movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, for instance, or the opening of “Don Juan” — in preparation for orchestral auditions, where you are invariably called upon to play them.
Trombonists play things like the storm sequence in the Overture to “William Tell,” the fourth movement of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, the “Bolero” solo (the most difficult of any solo in the piece, by the way) and the solo in Mahler’s Third. At USC, the members of the trombone class would practice them and our teacher, Terry Cravens, would set up “mock auditions,” during which we’d each play through them in turn. Cravens and a couple of other volunteer musicians would serve as jury, with their backs turned toward us, just as in the blind auditions for orchestras. They’d score each trombonist’s performance and at the end we’d find out our ranking. Needless to say, competitive feelings ran high.
Most of us got nervous during these mock auditions; I certainly did. But then that was the idea. You have to learn to play when you’re nervous, or you’ll never win an audition. You have to learn to control your nerves, if you can.
The interesting thing about nerves is that they affect the muscles or body parts that you intend to use in whatever you’re trying to do. A cellist doesn’t suffer from dry mouth, a singer does. I don’t imagine a harmonica player worries much about wobbly knees. My problem was with my lips, or embouchure. They (or it) quivered, making it difficult to hold a steady tone. The challenge was to remain calm, to fool yourself into thinking it didn’t matter that much, so the lips wouldn’t shake.
The trombone solo in Mahler’s Third begins with two long tones on A, played loudly, with a breath in between. In the mock audition in question, probably in my junior year, I nailed the first one. On the second one, however, my lips shook and I couldn’t focus my embouchure on the tone and I ended up blasting a huge splat. Really ugly and blatant. With all the other trombonists sitting around, and the jury with their backs to me, it was embarrassing. My immediate response was anger, hot, livid and adrenaline-pumping anger. “Shit!” I said to myself, or something like it, and I lost all composure, or what little of it I had had.
What happened afterward I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I laid into that solo in pure rage — not meaning to, but tapping into my volcanic anger to the utmost. I didn’t care what happened, I didn’t think I was even playing well. I blasted my way through the solo with what I felt at the time was an inappropriate vehemence, expending my rage into the music. I knew I had already failed, so it didn’t matter.
The jury loved it. The splatted second A didn’t bother them, given what followed, which fairly blew the roof off the joint. I was surprised. The exact outcome is foggy in my memory, but I think I received the highest score of all the trombonists on the Mahler excerpt and came in second overall to an awesome, older trombonist we all envied and admired. It was, for me, a moment of arrival.
I’m not sure what lesson there is here. Perhaps that calm and poise are overrated when it comes to performing music, though I admire those attributes in a musician. For that brief span, though, when I was playing that Mahler Third excerpt, I lacked those qualities utterly, and it came across to the audience vividly. Give it your all, don’t be careful, might be the moral. I’m suspicious of morals, though. Might not it have been better had I hit that second A? Well, I wouldn’t have a story.