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.
Great story! I’ve found the transcending moments in my career, and there aren’t many of them, all said, have always come in those moments when either the ‘Damn the torpedoes, THIS is how it goes’ happens, or even more rarely when everything in the ensemble works perfectly and I lose my personal identity and become a part of the flow of the music. Those are the moments that make the hard work and poor pay insignificant. I’ve gotten to do that and I wouldn’t trade that for anything…
I was a ‘bone player in high school for a couple years. My instrument of choice, though, was the euphonium (baritone horn), which I played for many years in high school and college. Switching between the two was easy. In fact, I used the same mouthpiece.
I have always liked this particular passage. But for pure adrenalin, nothing beats the counter-melody in the trio of Stars and Stripes…
This is great. My brother plans to share it with Megumi Kanda, the Milwaukee Symphony’s principal trombone (a social acquaintance) … 🙂
Great story. Thanks for sharing, Tim.
Since you don’t have one listed on your recommended recordings list, what is your favorite recording of the Mahler 3 trombone solo? Doesn’t necessarily have to be your favorite Mahler 3 overall
Great question, CK. I was always very proud of my teacher Byron Peebles performance with the L.A. Phil (live). Ralph Sauer also did a great job with it. I don’t know about recordings, really. I always liked the Chicago Symphony brass section (any brass player does) … so Solti’s was the performance I used to listen to most. But I’m not the biggest Solti fan, not now at least.
There’s a second part to the trombone solo, btw. It comes back later in the movement.
Tim, Reading your story about difficult solos brought up my own thoughts of what is must be like sitting through the length of one or more of the movements in a Mahler symphony, and then to have to nail a particular exposed note or solo cold. (It seems to me that the solo french horns in the Mahler symphonies have the most terrifying moments of that sort.)
But the possibility is always there in classical music where every note can be examined by listeners who have heard that favorite piece of theirs many times.
I shall always remember watching a performance by the Boston Symphony of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra where, in one spot in the 2nd movement when all of those lovely duets appear, one of the oboists suddenly played an exposed note that sounded very much like a wounded duck. The “guilty” player finished the phrase, then sat for some seconds simply staring at that faulty oboe reed that had failed him at the worst possible time. I don’t know his name, but I’ll never forget his attitude. No place to hide. Talk about pressure. And not so much from the audience, but of one’s fellow musicians. It does keep one practicing… as you did, 8 hours a day. Thanks for sharing.
Gerry, I have a record of a live performance of “Petrushka” with the Concertgebouw. There’s a very difficult trumpet solo in the piece (as I’m sure you know) and it comes kind of out of the blue. The trumpet player eats it. It would be funny if I wasn’t cringing for him.
On YouTube someone has kindly posted a recording of the “Bolero” trombone solo … live, and TERRIBLE. Poor guy.
Interesting. My “performances” have not had the pressure of anything like an audition, mostly piano recitals with a bunch of 8 year-olds as fellow recitalists, but I’ve noticed the same phenomenon. When playing a recital, and tournament, my best always came when I didn’t particularly care what the outcome was.
A very similar kind of story appears in W. Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”–which a trumpet teacher recommended to me–in which a tennis pro had just broken up with his girlfriend. Not caring much whether he lived or died, much less whether he won a silly tennis match, he destroyed his opponent. “The Inner Game of Tennis,” which if it debuted nowadays, I fear, would be required to include the word “dummies” in the title, offers up the very lessons intimated by your own experience. Gallwey’s superb little volume is both literate and remarkably accessible (I read it in high school) and above all, immensely practical. It teaches you about getting yourself–i.e., your neurotic, gibbering conscious self–out of the way so you can gain entrance into the Zone. I would categorize it as “Zen lite,” a term I use not in belittlement, but to suggest that perhaps it is the sort of thing that could and should be taught in the schools, and as early as possible.