Student Q & A session


Tom Varner, 2010:
This "Q & A" page is from 2000, but it still applies today. Since that time, I have learned as a teacher to emphasize to jazz horn students--work on your time! Practice with the metronome on "2 and 4," and just "one," and also "1 and 3"--feel comfortable with grooving with that metronome, whether you are doing scales, patterns, learning the underpinnings of a standard, or improvising freely. Vary the articulation! Listen to tenor sax players like Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons and Hank Mobley, as to how they place their notes over the "4/4 grid." And listen to trumpet players like Kenny Dorham, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Clifford Brown, as to how they do the same, and how they are mixing up accents, slurs, and staccato notes. And have fun playing along with them!

Tom Varner, 2000:

I've gotten quite a few email questions from hornists of all ages about playing jazz on our instrument.  Here is a composite of several exchanges over the past year.  Hope this info can be of some use to all aspiring jazz hornists.

Q: I am a 14 year-old horn player that wants to play jazz.  How did you start?  What did you do?  What should I do?  You must get a lot of these questions.

A:  Thanks for the email.  Actually, I am starting to get more and more emails like yours — sometimes from "grownups" asking the same questions, and also from 14 year-olds.  Good for you for asking.  First of all, you're in a better position than I was at 14, 'cause I didn't know that is was possible at all to be a jazz player on our horn.   You know that it is, so that's a big help right there.  I didn't really try till about age 16.  I did take private (classical) lessons starting at age 14, (had played in band since age 10) and tried to play as much as possible in community orchestras, school bands, etc.  I was fortunate to have a "stage band" (jazz big band) director that let me play with the trombones.  I usually played 2nd 'bone, and transposed the parts by sight — it's pretty easy, you just have to know bass clef, and go up one fifth.  If you practice that, your school jazz band director should let you in as a "trombone."  If you really want to play in the jazz band and it's too hard to transpose, write out the parts in F by hand at first.   Try to play in small groups or duos with piano or guitar as well.

Also, try to learn as much piano as possible — theory, harmony, basic jazz chords — it helps a lot for jazz on any instrument.  You can easily apply this training to the horn.

In addition, listen to jazz.  Get any Miles Davis (especially from the 50's and early 60's), Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, or Sonny Rollins CDs — see what you like and go deeper from there.   Another option that can be helpful is the "play-along" beginner CDs — the Jamie Aebersold series are good — they're often at the music store, or on the web.

Above all, be persistent!  Practice hard, and keep bugging your band director, who has no right to say "no horns in jazz."   Tell him/her I said they should let you in the jazz band, and promise to transpose those trombone parts.  Good luck!  —TV 

Q:  I'm a professional hornist in my 20's.  I love jazz and want to explore it more.  How relevant is classical technique to jazz technique?  Can a horn player be really good at both classical and jazz?  And what are those weird high sounds you sometimes make?

A:  I can only speak for myself, but when I was 18 (now 42), I realized that it would be so hard to become a really good jazz improviser on the horn, that I had better work full-time on it.  Now, mind you, I was very romantic, headstrong, a little crazy, and in retrospect, a bit overwhelmed by so many talented classical players all around me — so that I naturally gravitated to what was in my heart in any case — i.e., thinking "this is what I really want to do anyway, so I might as well go for it all the way."  I also knew at that age that there was more to life than just playing in an orchestra.

Still, during those years of age 18-22, I tried to get good lessons for basic technique, practiced Kopprach, Kling, Maxime-Alphonse, etc., and Bach cello suites (straight from the cello music, transposing from C), and the basics of jazz improvisation — all major/minor/diminished/whole tone scales in all kinds of permutations with metronome on the "2 and 4" and transcriptions of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, etc.  That left no time for the "traditional repertoire," although I did practice the Mozart concertos for fun.   So I never, from age 18 on (as I had somewhat at age 14-17) played Mahler/Bruckner/Wagner/Strauss etc. ever, in orchestra or small groups.  I was more like a jazz saxophone student/beginning pro that happened to play the horn and do the best that I could.

So I think that if one is really focused and a workhorse one could do both well, even very well, but not be really great at both.  I'm now finding out that over the years I have often played in ways that enabled jazz expression, but wouldn't necessarily help with traditional classical technique.  I'm still working on a wide sound vocabulary that might at times include a more "classical" sound, and I still get out the Kopprach, Kling and Bach suites from time to time for a "tune-up" or to kick myself back into shape if I've been a little lazy.

Those funny high sounds are mostly half-valving — playing with all 4 valves half-valved at once, and experimenting to get a wide range of sounds and tones.  On some horns the 1st valve alone, half-valved, on the c above middle C gets a beautiful eerie split-tone.

Good luck and start swinging! —TV