What They Didn’t Teach Me in Music School

by Roger E. Bissell

version 2.0 (12/27/05)


I have been playing the trombone for nearly 50 years—and writing and arranging music for nearly 40 years—and I have learned a lot over the years. It has been my great fortune to have studied with two of the finest teachers there are. 

  • Rex Peer, my trombone teacher from 5th grade through high school, taught me a great deal about technique, musical interpretation, jazz, sight-reading, songwriting, and performance of legit and popular music pieces. He also helped me get started with my professional career, which enabled me to work my way through college—and he tried to present a cautious, balanced picture of what I might expect if I tried to become a full-time professional, while assuring me that he believed firmly that my ability could take me as far as I wanted to go. Rex was also the best role model, as a performer, that anyone could ask for. 
  • Gary White, a noted author of college texts on music theory and composition, was my teacher at Iowa State University (1967-69). He led me through formal music theory, orchestration, counterpoint, and calligraphy. We also spent numerous hours in friendly arguments about music aesthetics and other subjects. It was great fun and a real growing experience to be able to “agree to disagree” with someone who sought after the truth as vigorously as Dr. White did.

I have stayed in touch with both Rex and Gary over the years. Rex was my professional colleague for the 14 years I spent in Nashville; he and I played on numerous engagements together. Gary and I were collaborators on a writing project; he had me serve as co-writer of a chapter on arranging for the jazz band in his book, Instrumental Arranging (Little-Brown Co.). Over the years, I have discussed my various experiences and insights with them, and I have tried to convey especially to younger musicians what I think are the most important considerations they face as professionals.

The things I did learn in high school and college were very valuable in providing a foundation for my career in music. But there were gaps in what I learned in school, too, and only some of them were due to my own shortcomings. For instance, I was unable to understand the various explanations of certain techniques such as lip trilling and extreme upper register playing. I was unwilling to dig in to the study of symphonic orchestration. These gaps had to be filled in later, “on the go,” so to speak, while I was a working professional arranger and trombonist, and there were books and friends to consult in figuring out how to work through these gaps. (My deepest thanks go to friends and colleagues Wayne Musselwhite and Les Benedict for their help over the years in getting past some of my most perplexing embouchure problems; they are awesome teachers.)

But other problems were not so easily addressed. There is a whole cluster of issues surrounding the topic of “chops,” which is musician slang referring to one’s playing ability in general, including especially one’s embouchure and technique and one’s capabilities in jazz improvisation. These mechanical and technical issues are covered in volume 1 of this book, “The Care and Feeding of Chops.” The outline included below is a rough indication of the eventual contents of this volume. (This material was presented informally to a group of musicians and students at Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee in July of 2004. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, Christi Matuszak Bissell, for helping to arrange the session!)

As vital as these factors are, however, they aren’t the whole story either. Equally important, in my opinion, are the psychological issues and problems that face people who want to become professional musicians—issues and problems that were never discussed at all, or at least not in a systematic way, with a textbook or well-thought-out guidelines. By and large, these were problems that didn’t come up until I had actually started trying to earn a living as a musician. For instance, how do you deal with: 

  • Frustration in regard to your rate of progress or advancement in your career?
  • Envy in regard to those whose progress is faster than your own?
  • Resentment in regard to those whose progress is undeservedly faster than your own?
  • Nervousness that threatens to cut your performance level in half, or worse?
  • Panic that something isn’t working right during a crucial warm-up routine?

These and many other similar questions could be summarized under the broad topic heading of “The Psychology of Music-Making,” or “Keeping Your Head on Straight—in the Practice Room, in the Concert Hall, and in Your Career,” which will be the subject of volume 2 of this book. Until I write the book encompassing such concerns, the material appended below will have to suffice for a presentation of my thoughts on the matter.


Volume 1. The Care and Feeding of Chops

I. Dimensions of Embouchure—finding the "sweet spot" on your chops (extending principles of Rene Lamarte to various aspects of embouchure and tone-production). 

A.     compression/pressure (pucker/smile)—Rene Lemarte (e.g., low Aflat after hard playing: start with hard pressure, then back off, then attack note).

B.     direction of air stream—up vs. down

C.     aperture—large vs. small

D.     pitch—lipping up and down

E.      air quantity: air velocity, breath support, volume

F.      range

G.     tongue: up/down, forward/backward

H.     articulation: slur vs. detached

I.        start breath early, exposed entrances, high or low, any volume, esp. soft

J.       controlled breathing

II. New Perspectives on Improvisation 

A.     Modes of Improvisation—jazz and brain type functions (extending principles of Jungian and Myers-Briggs personality type theory, a la Niednagel’s application to sports), left brain J is more calculated, right brain P is more spontaneous; all 16 personality types have all of these abilities to some extent or other; the idea is to capitalize on your strongest abilities and to remedy skills in your weak areas.

1.      SF, sensing and feeling; gross motor, large muscles, sweeping passages, wide leaps: SFJ left brain – control (power?); SFP right brain – rhythm, grace, flow.

2.      ST, sensing and thinking; fine motor, hand-eye, hand-ear, rapid, accurate articulation: STJ left brain – dexterity, fluency; STP right brain – positioning, accuracy.

3.      NF, intuiting and feeling; verbal, expressiveness, emotionality: NFJ left brain – words, precise, phrases, meaning; NFP right brain – intonation, harmony, tone, nuance, color.

4.      NT, intuiting and thinking; intellectual, ingenuity, inventiveness: NTJ left brain – sequential, methodical processing; NFP right brain – planning, envisioning patterns and scenarios.

B.     Rhythmic and melodic techniques—these are based on the approach I adapted from Deryck Cooke’s The Language of Music for use in analyzing and interpreting popular songs and classical themes and the methodology discussed by Leonard B. Meyer and Grosvenor Cooper in The Rhythmic Structure of Music. (Eventually this material will be published as “Serious Schmaltz and Passionate Pop: Are There Objective Indicators of Emotion in Music?”) For now, the comments below will have to suffice as an indication of the emotional coloring possible to different kinds of melodies, including nuances when the tempo is more lively or more leisurely; similar considerations apply in regard to rhythm.

1.      Upward melodic motion = active striving process; downward melodic motion = aftermath of striving process; major tonality = optimistic outlook; minor tonality = pessimistic outlook.

2.      Upward motion + major tonality = exultant pursuit or quiet confidence.

3.      Upward motion + minor tonality = vigorous defiance or grim determination.

4.      Downward motion + major tonality = joyous celebration or serene happiness.

5.      Downward motion + minor tonality = bitter anguish or wistful mourning.

6.      End-accented rhythms (iamb and anapest) seem to connote a more purposeful melody.

7.      Beginning-accented rhythms (trochee and dactyl) seem to connote a more mechanical melody. 

III. Troubleshooting—playing hangups and coping strategies (extending principles of Timothy Gallwey's "Inner Game" books). More on Lamarte’s range-of-motion principle. Challenge spectrum, fight/flight and spoil/space (see diagram)

        A.     stiff chops

B.     exposed entrances

C.     nemesis notes

D.     anxiety (“performance jitters”)(see diagram below)

E.      boredom (see diagram below)


      The Challenge Spectrum and Passive-Aggressive Behavior:




          \  (force it, make it happen)                                                                            (trash it, sabotage it)  /

            \                                                                                                                                  /

             \                                                                                                                               /

         anxiety (high) |||||||||||||||||||| CHALLENGE |||||||||||||||||||||| boredom (low)

             /                                                                                                                               \

           /                                                                                                                                  \

         /  (be overly cautious, retreat to safe zone)                           (daydream, mentally abandon)   \




Volume 2. The Psychology of Music-Making: Keeping Your Head on Straight—in the Practice Room, in the Concert Hall, and in Your Career

In June 1979, Rex Peer and I did a master class for the International Trombone Association Workshop in Nashville, Tennessee, on the topic “Advice to Would-Be Professional Trombonists.” Both our extensive outline hand-out and the transcript of our taped remarks were published in the ITA Newsletter in December 1979, and that material follows.


Advice to Would-Be Professional Trombonists

by Rex Peer and Roger Bissell 

Note to the reader: The following is a transcript of our spoken presentation at the 1979 International Trombone Association Workshop in Nashville, Tennessee. Its contents are an elaboration on certain points contained in the written outline which was distributed to Workshop participants, and which is appended to the transcript. The transcript and outline are lightly edited from the version which appeared in the ITA Newsletter, Vol. VII, No. 1, December, 1979.] 

Roger: To begin with, we want to thank Henry Romersa for his great, last-minute job of seeing to it that these outlines were copied and available at Registration. Without further ado, let me tell you a little bit about my background and present situation. 

As near as anyone can tell, I was born about 31 years ago and grew up on a farm near a small town in Iowa. The aliens who brought me here entrusted my upbringing to a kindly farm couple, who proceeded to fill me full of meat and potatoes. That’s what we’re here to talk about today, as a matter of fact—the meat and potatoes of being a professional trombonist. 

As a third-grader in 1956, I began playing the trombone, and I studied with Rex from the 5th grade through high school. In the 10th grade, I began playing professionally, earning my way through college in the process. 

My bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition is from Iowa State University, which I attended from 1966 to 1969. The following two years were spent at the University of Iowa, where I received my master’s degree in performance and literature. During college, in addition to the orchestra, jazz band, and concert band, I spent two summers on the road with a group called the Mexicali Brass, and several other summers doing fair dates around the Midwest. 

Immediately after graduation in 1971, I moved to Nashville with the goal of becoming a studio recording musician. It took about four years until I really felt that I was “established.” Even now, as the second call studio player in town, session work is less than half of my income. 

In 1974, I managed to land some steady employment, when I became the staff trombonist on WSM-TV. Even so, I’ve had to take some short-term road jobs, one outstanding benefit of which was a month in Japan with Brenda Lee in 1976. In addition, I’ve had to supplement my income by arranging and copying. 

During the past year, I’ve been very fortunate in getting to do recordings of what I enjoy most—namely, jazz. I was on the Earwitness album last year, and Rex and I were both on a 5-trombone project completed just last week. Both of these were very exciting, challenging, and satisfying, and I hope to keep doing more of the same. 

In one of his classes last year, Bill Watrous commented that he’s still got a lot of music he wants to get under his belt. I feel the same way. Whether it’s here or in L.A., there’s a lot I want to learn and do and say with the trombone, and with the help of some outstanding, sensitive musicians like Rex, the Earwitness group, Nashville Jazz Productions, etc., I’ve gotten off to a pretty good start. 

Throughout all the hassles and uncertainties of the past 23 years, there’s one thing I’ve always been able to rely on for a sense of purpose and reward. Like the great Puerto Rican baseball player, Chico Arisquela, I can truthfully say, “Thee trombone ha’ been fairy goot to me!” 

Rex: Sometime early on—perhaps this has happened to a number of you already—you’re going to have to stare into the mirror and look at the figure that stares back at you and decide whether you can compete as a professional trombone player. It’s very difficult to answer that question, and answer it truthfully; but it’s necessary for you to do so and as soon as you possibly can. Can you compete? Do you have the potential—if not at that moment, at least later on—to compete? 

If the answer to this is “yes,” then the question comes up: how do you accomplish this? The best way to do this—to become a professional trombone player—is to become an all-around player. That is to say, handle anything that is set in front of you. 

Now, there will be some of you whose desire is to enter the classical field, and that’s all that you want to do. There will be some of you who are super jazz players and that’s all you want to do. Or there will be some of you who are great polka players, and to those of you, I wish a lot of luck! 

But I feel that your best shot is to become an all-around player. And this calls for a lot of experience—all styles of big band playing, small band playing, jazz, bebop, Dixieland, polkas, orchestral, ensemble, ad-libbing, reading chords, etc. 

That covers a “multitude of sins,” as it were; and you’re going to have to be well aware of them and be proficient in all of them. The criterion there is to play well anything that is set in front of you, with or without written music. It’s not easy, and I don’t say that it’s easy. If it were, everybody would be doing it. 

You must spend your entire career working at it, honing, because situations change. If it isn’t Dixieland, it goes to be-bop; it it’s not be-bop, it goes to rock; from rock it goes to disco. Things change. You must be totally aware and avail yourself of all these different styles and learn to play them well. 

Improvisation is a highly intangible, individualistic effort, but necessary in being a good all-around player. There are many books on the subject. There’s a series out called MMO—“Music Minus One”—and many other series. If you don’t have the opportunity to play some jazz or improvise with somebody, you can do it with records. But you need the experience. 

Earlier players didn’t have the experience. The way they learned was to go out and have jam sessions. During the Big Band era, a lot of that was going on. In Kansas City you could go out and jam from midnight to 8 a.m., seven nights a week. You can’t do that in Kansas City anymore. There are very few places where you can. 

So, you don’t have those opportunities now, and you have to supplement with records—or people of your own age group and interest, who want to do this sort of thing. Get together with them. From my experience with improvisational playing, you’ve got to get out and do it. There’s just no other way. 

Roger: The bass trombone/tenor trombone is probably the most important, certainly the most common, double. For the first 10 years, I played a small tenor. Then in college in order to learn the “legit” repertoire, I switched to a large-ore tenor with F-attachment.

When I came to Nashville, I tried to do everything on it—not only section work, but also big band lead and jazz. It was sort of like running with a 50 lb. weight on my back, and the sound concept that was possible on that trombone was simply not right. It didn’t feel right or sound right when I heard it back on recordings. So I changed to a small-bore tenor about two years ago. 

Even so, the large tenor has opened some doors to recording work that would have remained closed otherwise. There were no really good bass trombonists in Nashville when I came here eight years ago, so I had as good a shot at the work as anybody. At present I still do 50% or better of my recording session work playing bass trombone parts, so this double has paid off rather well. 

The main problem I’ve found is making the switch in equipment from one job to the next. Sometimes you even have to switch equipment on the same job. There’s no easy solution. I’ve consider screw-rim mouthpieces and so on; but what I ended up doing was to choose two rather different mouthpieces for the two trombones, which gave me roughly the same overall feeling. I’ve concentrated on my embouchure, trying to keep as consistent an approach between the two instruments as I could, s that there would be less change to have to cope with. 

The tuba and baritone horn doubles are also very useful. In particular, the baritone horn has been used here in town on several albums done by the National Geographic Society. Also, several trombonists are occasionally going out on road tours with a Nashville-based band called the Jack Daniels Silver Cornet Band, and they’re playing not trombone, but baritone. 

Several trombonists have been able to play tuba on sessions from time to time. A friend of mine who lived here for a couple of years recently moved to L.A., and he’s picking up the tuba double now, trying to bring that up to a competitive level. He could switch between tenor and bass, but he preferred to switch between bass trombone and tuba; that’s where his own interests and abilities lie. 

Another double you shouldn’t overlook is keyboard. In addition to being good background knowledge for arranging and playing chord changes in jazz, playing keyboard very well ay keep you eating for a while when the trombone jobs are scarce. There are four trombonists that I know of who are making their livelihood here in town as keyboard players.

Finally, I ought to mention the vocal double. If you like to sing and you’re taking the time to learn songs from the 20’s through the 70’s, you may as well take a little extra time and learn lyrics to the tunes, too. In addition to helping your playing by understanding the meaning of the tunes that you are playing, it’s also going to put you in line, perhaps, for doing some dance band singing, which can supplement dance band trombone playing. Plus there’s plenty of opportunity for backup vocal work here in Nashville, even if most of it is just “ooh’s and ah’s.” So, again, if you like to sing, don’t overlook this possibility.

Rex: I don’t think that you should overlook military and service bands as a career opportunity. There’s quite a bit that’s offered there, but rather than get into specifics on it…from the back page of the International Musician that just came out, I cut out some of the job opportunities that are currently available. 

Now I neither say that this is the thing for you to do, nor the thing for you not to do. I’m just going to call your attention to it and let you make your own decisions. 

(1)   Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, 1979-80 openings: there happens to be an opening for bass trombone, one-year vacancy…34-week season, 5 services (performances) per week, minimum salary $195/week. They should offer some food stamps along with that one!

(2)   Memphis Symphony Orchestra: vacancy happens to be for string players/teachers at this particular time…you must have a degree in music education from an accredited institution, possible combined earnings approximately $13,000.

(3)   U.S. Military Academy Band in West Point, N.Y.: there doesn’t happen to be a trombone opening, but I think from time to time that does happen…starting income $8000 to $10,000, with raises to current ceiling of $24,000, 52-week season, 4-week paid vacation, full medical and dental, 20-year retirement, 55 miles from New York, subsidized release time for education.

(4)   Syracuse Symphony Orchestra: minimum salary 1979, 41 weeks, $11,234; 1980, 42 weeks, $12,000; paid Blue Cross plus Major Medical.

One of the best doubles that I know of in the music business is teacher-by-day, player-by-night. If you have a calling for teaching, then get your teaching degree, by all means, and play if you like to on the side, on weekends. I know literally hundreds of teachers and players who do this; it’s a great double. 

So if you’ve looked in the mirror and said, “I don’t know whether I can compete,” get your teaching degree while you’re going through college. A good friend of mine in L.A. taught for four years, playing on the side, and finally decided, “I want to play,” so to L.A. he went. 

Not only teachers do this, but other folks as well. Just recently I worked on a Bob Hope show in Memphis, and the other trombone player wasn’t there during rehearsal. I asked why, and they said he couldn’t make it, but he would be there for the concert, he had done the show before. I found out that he was a stockbroker and that everybody at the office thought he was on his lunch break, while he was actually down at the Bob Hope show, picking up an extra $75. So that’s something not to be overlooked either. 

Roger: I realize that we’ve made a number of errors in our section on income prospects in various cities [see outline section, which follows transcript of talk]. Feel free to let us know your comments, suggestions, recommended readings, etc. 

We’d like to have you note Chart #1 of the Outline. An anonymous trombonist we call Joseph Blow has graciously consented to let us use his income figures as an example. Note that his income (Column A) started out very modestly and gradually increased until 1975, when it took a big leap. This happened at the same time that his session work picked up a great deal in one year, from 13 to 65, which is a considerable jump. 

At this point, however, he still has a way to go before he bumps up against this $40-50,000 per year ceiling that we suggest might be true of Nashville. We really don’t know what it is, we’re just guessing. Also, as to which city falls into which income category, we’re just going by our best knowledge, which is kind of sketchy in some cases. 

We also want to make special note of something which is called the “Record Manufacturer’s Special Payments Fund.” Every August a check comes from this fund to every session musician, and it’s based on a percentage of what he made during the preceding 5-year period on recording sessions. This fund is built up from contributions which the recording companies are required to make. 

Now note that Mr. Blow’s Special Payment was very modest at first, but it has gradually built p to where it’s almost 10% of his gross income. This is nothing to sneeze at, and it’s pure gravy. He doesn’t have to do anything to receive it except go out to his mailbox. 

Before you get the gravy—or even stand in the bread line!—you have to come to town and make your presence known to people who can get you work. When I came to Nashville eight years ago, I knew Rex and the fellows in the Nashville Brass, and that was it; but they helped me size up the work situation in town. Most importantly, Rex lined up an opportunity for me to sit in on a live Sunday night jazz radio program, where I was heard by two people who gave me my first session and dance work in town. 

The other important thing that I did upon coming to town, and I recommend that everyone do this, was to make the acquaintance of the Union officials. I met the business representative who at that time was playing on both WSM-TV and Radio. He heard me play and hired me to sub for him at the station, which led to more exposure and more work. Then when he had to quit the TV show in 1974, I was in line to step into his job, which led to even more regular exposure. 

This really only scratches the surface of the importance of contacts and exposure yourself, especially when you first come to town. Once the process starts, it can snowball gradually into a pretty good situation for you, if you stick with it. The most important tip is to always play your best, for you never know who may be listening or what opportunities you might lose out on, if you happen to slough off on a given job.

Rex: Coming to town with a reputation is one way to start. Years ago, you came to town with a reputation off of a band. There aren’t that many bands around now; it’s done but not very often. That’s one of the possibilities. 

Pick the location where you are going to pursue your career opportunities in terms of the friends that you may have there who can help you, like Roger described. Or, if your wife (or husband) is working, sometimes you pick the city that you go to for their career opportunities as well as your own. If your wife happens to be an X-ray technician and you come to a town that has great hospital facilities, it works out pretty well that way. She can work while you’re getting established. 

What’s going to make it a long wait is if you go to town and say, “Here I am! Where do I sit?” It just doesn’t happen that way! You’re going to have to wait, and one of the ways to wait is to be visible to the music community. Hang out with the players, introduce yourself, and go to the sessions. 

There are all sorts of manners and ways you can make yourself visible to the music community. When you’re called upon to play, obviously do the best you can, no matter what the situation is. Be happy to take all the non-paying gigs and to work in all the rehearsal bands, play duets and quartets with anybody and everybody that you can. 

If you’re still having problems getting started, start your own group. Frank Smith, who was a friend of mine when I worked with him on the Nashville Brass, had a physical problem with his embouchure. He had such a tremendous under-bite, he was unable to play in the high register. “F-above-the-staff” was very hard for Frank. 

As a consequence, he moved to bass trombone; but he was having trouble getting extra work around town, because of this physical limitation that he had. So what did Frank do? He started his own group. He got some guys together, went around to the different entertainment directors, country club managers, etc., started booking some gigs with his own group, and consequently got work that way. 

Roger Neuman, the teacher that I told you about who went to L.A., was scuffling and having a terrible time out there getting work and making ends meet. So he started his own rehearsal band, which is called “Roger Neuman and his Rather Large Band.” He’s done many, many Music Performance Trust Fund jobs, and he’s met a lot of people, and his income has picked up considerably. 

There’s one other way, if all of these fail, of making money with your horn—and that’s to sell it! 

Roger: Or build a lamp out of it, and sell it then! 

Rex stepped into two good jobs right away when he came to town, the Johnny Cash show (a weekly TV series) and the Nashville Brass job. I had the awful timing to arrive right at the beginning of what I call “The Great Lull of 1971-1975.” The Johnny Cash show was cancelled, and using brass and saxes on sessions just fell out of vogue for several years. During this time, I did lots of low-paying, unenjoyable jobs just in order to make ends meet. 

One big decision I faced came in 1974, when the bass trombone spot on the Nashville Brass opened up. My work in town had improved to the point where the income prospects of going out on the road with that group (which was a regular job, something I could count on), and staying in town and trying to be a free-lance player (with all those uncertainties) were just about the same. So I had to keep my priorities in mind; and knowing that my ultimate goal was to become an established session player, I chose not to go out on the road. 

But again, everybody’s situation is going to be individual, and you just have to decide where (at what stage) you are in the breaking-in process. The most important thing is to be available and visible, if you can possibly afford to stay in town. So you have to weight that carefully if you get a road job offer and you’re trying to settle into a town. 

The breaking-in period is sometimes very tough. You see people you think you’re better than, who are doing all the work while you look at the wallpaper. Lots of really good trombonists have come to town and gone again, because they simply couldn’t cope with the reality of who gets the work and why they get it, and they didn’t have the patience to stick it out long enough to get established. 

One of the ways in which the guys failed to keep their heads on straight was by misreading the first batch of recording work that they god. They invariably interpreted it as, “Oh boy, now I’m established, now I’ve got it made. I can just relax.” And then, when the work fell off again two or three weeks later, because it was just a temporary little flurry of work, they panicked. They thought, “Oh, what’s happened?! What did I do wrong?!” 

The chart on page 9 of the Outline illustrates this. (Mr. J. Blow’s quarterly session frequency statistics.) You can see that in 1972 he had a little temporary peak there in the 3rd quarter of the year (8 sessions); the next year it built up to three or four, then it slumped again; and then 7 sessions in the 2nd quarter of 1974. It just seesawed like this on a really low level. Finally in 1975, Bang! He started getting quite a bit more work, and it stayed on that level from then on. 

This is the kind of thing that happens a lot to trombone players that try to make it as session players here in town. They experience these ups and downs, and they count their chickens before they’re completely hatched. 

Another thing I’d like to point out in regard to J. Blow’s quarterly session frequency statistics, is the five figures which are at the bottom of the chart. All that means is that the work slacks off in January and June, and it seems to peak in the spring and fall and around mid-December. From conversations I’ve had with various L.A. and Nashville session players, this agrees fairly well with the experience of even the busier people, like string players and vocalists. So, if you’re going to get into this line of work, I think you should find something fairly constructive to do during January and June, so that you won’t be just sitting around getting real depressed. 

And again, realize that these are only generalizations, and they don’t cover every individual case. There are some people who might get a real big album project in January, and they’ll have 6 or 8 sessions in one week. So, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule; these are just tendencies or averages. 

Rex: Well, obviously if you can’t play under pressure, you have no career. A lot can be said on the subject. Roger and I are in the process of putting together some things for a possible book or pamphlet on the subject. 

Personally speaking, pre-performance jitters are my worst enemy. And how to overcome this is something I’ve spent 35 years trying to do, with some success at times and with absolutely none at other times. 

Working in New York City at the Roxy Theater under the pressure of bringing home money for the kids and the wife, I experienced heart palpitations in the pit. I’d never had them before; I didn’t know what the heck was going on. I turned to the other trombone player and I said, “My God, man, I think I’m having a heart attack,” which really tickled him. He was overjoyed with that. I sat there imagining what might happen, and I thought, “Oh, my left arm is getting numb and I’m dizzy,” and so forth. I didn’t know what it was, and it really honestly scared me to death. I stumbled back to the musicians’ room and lay down, and they called doctor immediately. When the show was over the rest of the orchestra members were coming by, they were all looking down with that look in their eye that said, “Nice fellow, wasn’t he.” 

The doctor examined me and asked me a couple of health questions, and when he was done, he said, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with your heart, blood pressure’s fine. I think you have that thing that all people in the entertainment industry who are under stress and strain experience at one time or another. Stress and strain, performance jitters, the pressures that work in on you. There’s nothing wrong with you.” It really irritated me to think that I would let this sort of thing get to me. The pre-performance jitters, the pressure that you are under, are sometimes astounding, if you happen to be a person, as I am, who lets that really get to you at times. 

When I’ve performed the best under pressure has been when I was well-prepared with what I was going to do. I try now, particularly after all these years, to do those things that I do well and not get myself in a situation where I don’t do very well. Being an all-around player (and I don’t mean to be inconsistent with what I’m saying), you should try to play everything as well as you can and be prepared as much as you can. But there are some times when I get into certain situations where I know that I don’t do well, and I have certain standards of playing that I like to maintain; so it’s very difficult for me to cope with those situations. [Rex used the analogy of Louis Armstrong and Rafael Mendez to illustrate the point that you shouldn’t get into areas that you don’t belong in.] 

Roger’s going to have some words to say about relaxation and some things you can do. I’ve had trouble with “dry mouth” when I’m playing. If you bite the end of your tongue, you’ll notice a lot of saliva will immediately come to your mouth. These are little gimmicks that can help you. 

The thing I try to develop is the “Popeye Syndrome.” I try to keep thinking that “I is what I is and that’s all what I is, is Popeye the Sailor Man.” This is all I can do, and if you don’t like what I do, don’t hire me. I’ll come and play for you, but if it’s not what you want, don’t hire me. And I’m not going to feel bad about it, I’m not going to get upset and nervous about it, because what I can do I know I can do, and that’s all that I do. 

Roger: Well, as Rex pointed out, the big key to confidence is preparation. The key is to eliminate as many of the unknowns as you can, leaving your mind free to cope with what you really have to deal with: the music. 

As a performer, the ideal state to be in is a state of relaxed concentration. You can describe this in different ways: letting it happen rather than making it happen, allowing your natural ability to express itself spontaneously rather than having your ego ride herd on your performance, giving you instructions, criticisms, congratulations, warnings, etc. Any distracting element in your performance is going to put just that much of a screen between you and the intimate contact you need with the music in order to do the best job you can. I’ve mentioned in the Outline that the single most useful technique for me is controlled breathing. 

My wife showed me an article from Redbook entitled “Be a Pro Next Time You Give a Speech,” which has several really good points. It talks about that “queasy stomach, wobbly knees feeling that results from being the focus of so many eyes, the kind of panic that could prevent you from doing a good job.” 

It lists some really good points which I can agree with quite well. One of them is: know your stuff, which we’ve just talked about. Know your material really well; be thoroughly prepared. You can even rehearse the speech imaginatively, imagining the audience in front of you. 

The second point: stay with the moment. One reason for being tense when you’re speaking or performing in public is that you can’t stop thinking about what will happen. “Will I do all right? Will the audience like me? What if I make a mistake? There goes my career!” Etc. Learn to focus on the present. Stay with the present. Stop thinking about the past or the future. Do your job. The article mentions that one way to do this is to concentrate on your breathing and get in touch with yourself. 

The third point is: use your panic positively. Try to use your natural nervousness and excitement in a positive way. Instead of just trying to hold yourself tense and keep control of yourself, try to be a little looser and freer in conducing yourself on the stage. I know one performer in particular here at the Workshop who is a very “let-it-all-hang-out” kind of a guy. And perhaps one reason why he’s able to express himself so well on the horn is that he has such an uninhibited approach to life in general. 

The fourth point is: try person-to-person contact. Isolate the audience into individual units; make eye contact with one person at a time and speak almost directly to that person. If you’re worried about the audience as a whole and what effect they’re going to have on you, one way of blocking that is to do just what they suggest. 

Two books in particular I would like to recommend before we open the floor to questions. There’s a book called The Disowned Self by Nathaniel Branden, which has some good discussions of suppressing your emotions vs. confronting them. There are a couple of really good illustrative examples, which could be adapted slightly for use in dealing with performance anxiety. 

The other book I think is tremendous! Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Tennis: Playing the Game is the second and probably the most practically oriented of the three “Inner Game” books. The applications to trombone performance and practice just about leap out of the page at you! 

Like Rex said, we’re going to try to do a project over the next year or so on performance anxiety and other playing hangups. If you have any suggestions, please send them along to Roger Bissell, 4415 Lone Oak Rd., Nashville,TN, 37215. Phone (615) 385-3560. 

Outline of topics discussed 

Career and Income Opportunities 

  1. Why and in what ways to diversify—broaden your musical talents, abilities, and knowledge, in order to give yourself as good a shot at economic survival as possible (Otherwise, be prepared to work a “day-gig” for a while—or have a spouse who is willing to work—or be independently wealthy!) 
    • Stylistically—learn the characteristic features of classical, jazz, pop, rock, country, etc. (E.g., sound concept, articulation, vibrato, phrasing in relation to meter, etc.)
    • Repertoire—learn songs or orchestral passages. Get “fake books” or orchestral excerpt books.
    • Improvisation—learn how to fake solo and ensemble parts in Dixieland, be-bop, jazz-rock, disco, etc. Learn how to read chord changes. Get “Music Minus One” (and other) records, with written out lead and sample improvised solos. Sit in and listen as much as possible in live performance or rehearsal situations.
    • Other instruments and/or voice—especially try to double on bass/tenor trombone, bass trombone/tuba, baritone/trombone. Also, keyboard ability or competence on a rhythm instrument would help.
    • Arranging and/or copying.
    • Engineering and/or producing.
    • Composition, songwriting, and/or publishing.
    • Talent management and/or booking.
    • Advertising, especially related to “jingle” work.
    • Teaching (private, public college clinics).
    • Band leading and/or conducting.
    • Music store and/or instrument dealership.
    • Etc. (Have we forgotten something? 
  2. Types of playing opportunities—some require formal auditions, while others simply “happen by people knowing you are available.” 
    • Symphony orchestra, opera, ballet, Broadway musicals.
    • Amusement parks.
    • “Casuals”—dance, club, and trust-fund jobs.
    • Circuses, rodeos, ice shows, Las Vegas-type shows.
    • Traveling bands, road tours, fair dates.
    • Recording work—records, TV, movies, cartoons, etc.
    • Live TV and radio—local and national.
    • Military service bands (special case).
    • Vocation vs. avocation. 
  3. Income prospects in various cities—be sure to balance income prospects against cost-of-living, life-style, and other differences. 
    • Los Angeles is in a class by itself (AAA)—approximately $100,000/year maximum.
    • New York City, Nashville, London, Paris, Las Vegas, Dallas-Fort Worth, New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia, Detroit (AA)—approximately $40-50,000/year. (See chart #1.)
    • Minn.-St. Paul, Cleveland, Phoenix, Kansas City, Boston, Toronto, Honolulu, etc. (A)—probably $30,000/year or less.
    • Note: these groupings have changed over the years and there may be some errors. Let us know. Also, be aware that, in some respects, $40,000 in Nashville is better than $60,000 in L.A., for example.  
  4. Making the move to a specific city.  
    • You may have credentials already from being an in-demand session player   from another city, or from having traveled on the road with Rich, Herman, Kenton, etc. Regardless, you will need to establish contacts in advance to help you size up the work situation in town, line up opportunities for exposure, and find out who the main contractors and band leaders are.
    • Contact the Union officials to tell them what you can do. Have them be on the lookout for work you can do (especially if you are fresh out of school), find out work restrictions for new members (regarding TV, radio, sessions, sitting-in, etc.) and join the Union.
    • Contact local school and college music departments, amusement park entertainment directors, contractors and band leaders, etc. Professional calling cards are a big help and need not be very expensive to be effective.
    • Be reachable. Consider getting a Coda-phone or hiring an answering service, if someone is not going to be home most of the time.
    • Avoid unethical tactics in promoting yourself. Colleagues are alienated very quickly by someone who “comes on” to band leaders or contractors with some variant of: “Who are your regular players? Oh, really? Why don’t you hire me some time? I’m better than they are.” There may be short-run benefits from such a tactic, but it works against you in the long run.
    • Try to get some kind of steady playing job. This is very important for development and maturity as a professional.
    • Size up the attitude of the established players in town to newcomers and to their own craft. How well do they relate? Are they helpful? Defensive? Open? Hostile? Is there an overall atmosphere of enthusiasm and eagerness to explore new things, or do the players just want to make their money and go home? 
  5. If all else fails—SELL THE HORN!!! 

The Psychology of Waiting 

  1. Luck, Timing and Patience—you may be at the right place at the right time, when a good job opens up; probably, though, you will have to spend a good while “paying your dues,” establishing yourself and working your way up the pecking order of players in town. To put bread on the table and to gain exposure, you will probably have to work all kinds of jobs with lower levels of group musicianship and artistic merit than you approve of. Emphasize your excellence, availability, and reliability. Recognize that each city has a pecking order of musicians, and that often the seemingly ideal criterion, superior ability, is not the basis; instead, merely being there first and possessing adequate skill to do the job is quite likely to be the basis; loyalties and/or precedents are another big factor. Try to curb your tongue and keep whatever bitterness you may feel to yourself and your shrink! Realize that sometimes “politics” wins out over everything. For instance, if you are next inline on the pecking order for a job, others with strong inside connections may get the job instead. Loyalties are not absolute either. If the person you have spent several years with building a seemingly strong, fruitful, working relationship happens to be a crass opportunist you should expect the relationship to survive only until he finds someone he can gain more of an advantage from. Finally, try not to “fluff-off” the seemingly unimportant jobs; you can never tell who may be listening.  
  2. Respect, Money and Prestige—avoid making these your primary motivation, for they will break your heart when they are not forthcoming as soon as you think they should. If you conscientiously focus on relentlessly improving yourself, then the esteem of your colleagues, as well as session work and prestige jobs will probably result—not necessarily, but they are more likely to happen for you than if you are anxiously waiting for them, or eating your heart out because someone who is not as good as you is doing the jobs instead. Try to compete with others not in the sense of trying to beat them or “cut” them, but in the sense of using their ability as a stimulus to provoke you into becoming as good as you can become, into fully actualizing your potential. Realize that people will use non-musical, often irrational, criteria (e.g., prejudice) in hiring someone else other than you. Remember that in the long run, “talent will out.” You may have an initial flurry of session work shortly after coming into town; be wary of interpreting this is meaning that you are now established; it may just be a fluke, a temporary windfall. (See Chart #2.) Finally, ask yourself whether you are one of those persons who is in the music business for some other primary reason than the love of music and of the trombone, and what, if anything, you want to do about that realization. 


  1. Knowing how and when to uphold your professional and musical standards and preferences is a very challenging problem. Knowing why you are in the business and what you hope to achieve will help you reconcile the issues of practicality and professional ethics. 
  2. “The Rules”—fellow players and employers will sometimes use intimidation, veiled threats, etc., in order to get you to go along with bending or breaking the Union rules. You can capitulate and continue working (“sharing the stealth,” so to speak), or you can express “moral indignation” and lose work. Very few people follow the rules 100%. Where do you draw the line? There is often a problem of disagreement over this. Some go by the standard of inconsiderate or callous exploitation by the employer. [In other words, go along with anything that doesn’t fall to that level of treatment.] Many feel that too strict an application of the Union rules defeats their purpose by discouraging employment. Examples: unpaid overtime, playing past break-time or quitting time, below-scale pay, doubling and stacking on record sessions for no extra pay. 
  3. Diplomacy—learn how to check on pitch, articulation, etc., with the lead player without stepping on his toes. Keep your comments on the quality of the arrangement, conducting, copy work, etc., to a minimum during the session. Button your lip, smile (keeping the corners down, of course), and let your playing do all the talking. 
  4. Musicianship—assuming that you want to be a good all-around player, you must be sensitive and experienced enough to adapt or conform to the requirements of a particular job situation. Realize the difference between permanently selling out your individuality of style and approach, your musical ideals, and temporarily adjusting your playing characteristics for a given job or performance. Cultivate your musical common sense. Examples: people who insist on playing be-bop on a Dixieland job, on tuning where they feel like instead of with the rest of the group (assuming that tuning is possible!), on playing with a symphonic sound in a dance or circus band, on playing full blast when everyone else is playing at a mezzo-forte level, on playing (rhythmically) on the beat when the style requires “laying back” or playing “on top of” the beat, or on playing lead from the 2nd, 3rd, or 5th chair! 

Acoustical Problems 

  1. Once the sound leaves your trombone, it is then totally at the mercy of a number of physical and human factors. These factors even affect the way in which you produce the sound, because of good or bad auditory feedback through monitors, headphones, or sound reflection. At best, you may only be able to suggest (or complain). 
  2. Learn not to over blow in stuffy rooms or similar outdoor situations where your sound does not come back at you in some suitable fashion. Remember, they probably are hearing you out front, even though you may be flying blind (i.e., deaf) for your own purposes. Force yourself to play more softly than it seems you should, and rely as best you can on tactile feedback. 
  3. Learn to “work” the microphone. Find out how the mike you’re working on handles extreme ranges of sound (if applicable), when it distorts, etc. (i.e., its limitations). Use the mike to conserve air supply on long sustained notes (gradually approaching as air supply runs out). Use different distances from the mike for variations in emotional content (especially in solo playing). 
  4. If you want to hear yourself better in the monitor or the headphones, do not make the mistake of asking for more “highs”! (Or letting the sound man give you more highs.) With the exception of L.A., all too often sound men do not know what they are doing when they record trombones and they succeed only in gutting and flaying your tone, instead of enhancing it. Suggest to the sound man that he not sacrifice the mid-range of your sound to the highs or lows. Beyond that, good luck!  
  5. If there are certain distracting elements in the headphones, especially on overdub sessions, try to get some agreement in the section as to what to have the engineer turn down in the “mix.” Also, remember that headphone pressure may cause some problems in pitch or blend in the section, so play with one earpiece off the ear, if possible.  

The Psychology of Performance 

  1. Probably the most widespread, debilitating ailment of performers is anxiety, whether it comes in the form of stage fright, pre-performance jitters or “butterflies,” hangups over given notes, phrases, pieces, etc., or whatever. The first and foremost thing to do to cope with anxiety is to be as totally prepared as possible, in order to raise the confidence factor as high as you can. Beyond this, there are some practical techniques you can use.  
  2. Pre-performance jitters—a certain amount of nervousness, fear, or anxiety before a stressful situation is natural and beneficial. Any time you are in a situation where success is not automatically guaranteed, the uncertainty factor generates some nervous tension, excitement, etc., which activates you to cope with the task at hand. But there is often a large additional component of fear/anxiety which is not beneficial, and which you need to minimize or eliminate in order to maximize your performance quality and enjoyment. These two types of fear can be distinguished by the fact that in the former case, one’s mind is clear and calm and ready to deal with the crisis, whereas in the latter case, one is panicked and cannot think clearly. The positive aspect of fear is generated by awareness of the present situation’s action requirements, while the negative aspect of fear is generated by past failures, embarrassments, etc., and future possible error, rejection by others, etc., imposing themselves upon one’s present state of mind, i.e., by allowing one’s mind to dwell upon these emotionally charged factors, which are irrelevant to the matter at hand. Obviously a state of relaxed concentration will help diminish or eliminate the latter kind of fear. Perhaps the most useful single technique is controlled breathing, which helps concentration and tension-reduction. (Inhale 6 counts through pursed lips, “poised hold” 6 counts, exhale 12 counts through pursed lips—then lengthen each step gradually in proportion.) In general, something to help you concentrate on the here-and-now facts of reality is what’s crucial to dealing successfully with the “butterflies.”  
  3. Suppression vs. Confrontation—short of a sojourn on the psychiatrist’s couch, there are two methods for coping with these negative emotions: you can suppress your fears, as most people do; shrug them off, eject them from your conscious awareness and concentrate on the job at hand. Or, especially if you have the time and courage, and the hang-up is particularly relevant to your doing a good job here and now, you can confront the fears, try to understand them and look them square in the face, identify to yourself (and to others, if possible) why you are afraid. Varying combinations of the two techniques may be necessary over a period of months or years, before you eliminate or minimize the negative effect of fear on your performance. For the short-term, suppression is probably more practical than confrontation. Certain techniques ay be used to aid in relaxation and concentration in order to (1) drain away the muscular tension, and (2) focus one’s attention away from the anxiety-generating thoughts which clutter up your mind, toward the details of the task at hand. Over an extended period of time, suppression may become a habit, however, resulting in a general buildup of tension level in the body. This excess muscular tension adversely affects one’s flexibility, stamina, and breathing; so periodic confrontation will help to prevent this from happening.  
  4. Warm-up routine problems—a common problem is the unresponsive embouchure, following a brutal job the night before. This is a special case of the general problem of inadequate flexibility, and its solution follows the same general principle. There is always some flexibility, some sound that can be generated. The task is to work with what is, not what “should be,” to practice observantly, but non-judgmentally, noting carefully how much flexibility you have in which registers and between which registers, how it feels, etc. Simple, focused, non-critical awareness will automatically cure the problem. Reinhardt has a “stuffy mute routine,” for use with “totally unresponsive chops,” which makes use of these insights; the authors have both tried it with success in “emergency situations.” (Naturally, warming-down properly after the job is a better solution; however, preventive medicine is not always as convenient or practical as curative medicine. Nor is it foolproof. Also, if you are one of the few people who is playing 6 to 8 hours every day the problem is not going to arise.)  
  5. Nemesis notes, phrases, etc.—like in tennis, a ball coming to your weak backhand is usually flubbed, if you take your full attention off the ball itself and turn it to thoughts of “uh-oh, here comes another flubbed backhand shot,” the same problem occurs in musical performance, too, and for the same reasons. The solution again is focal awareness, non-judgmental, of the nemesis, the musical reality.


Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem.

_______. The Disowned Self.

Deryck Cooke. The Language of Music.

Herbert Fensterheim and Jean Baer, Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No.

_______. Stop Running Scared!

W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis (Random House)

_______. Inner Tennis: Playing the Game (Random House)

_______. Inner Skiing (Random House)

_______. The Inner Game of Golf (Random House)

_______. The Inner Game of Work (Random House)

David Keirsey, Please Understand Me (Prometheus Nemesis Book Co.)

Leonard B. Meyer and Grosvenor Cooper, The Rhythmic Structure of Music.

Jonathan P. Niednagel, How to Choose Your Best Sport and Play It (Laguna Press)

Spencer A. Rauthus and Jeffrey S. Nevid, Behavior Therapy.

Manuel K. Smith, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty.

_______. Kicking the Fear Habit.

George Weinberg, The Action Approach.

_______. Self Creation.

Chart #1: Income Statistics for Joseph Blow (formerly of Kokomo, Indiana) 

Year    A: Music-Related          Increase         #Sessions          B: Record Manuf.             B/A

                Gross Income                                                             Spec. Payment             x 100%

1971             $3,400                   -----              14                     -----                     -----

1972             $5,800              $2,400 (70%)      13                     $50                      0.9

1973             $8,200              $2,400 (41%)      10                    $175                     2.1

1974            $10,600             $2,400 (29%)      13                    $225                     2.1

1975            $17,000             $6,400 (60%)      65                    $375                     2.2

1976            $22,400             $5,400 (32%)      63                    $850                     3.8

1977            $27,700             $5,300 (24%)      98                   $1350                    4.9

1978            $29,300             $1,600 (5%)       118                  $2400                    8.2 

Note: The biggest jump in income (1974-1975) is also reflected in Chart #2, which shows the big increase in session work after the first half of 1975. Further note: the Record Manufacturers’ Special Payment, while negligible at first, has grown to nearly 10% of gross income. Final note: the smaller increase from 1977 to 1978 is due to the drop-off of non-session work during 1978. 

Chart #2: Session Frequency Statistics for J. Blow 

Part I: Quarterly: 

Year                        I                         II                       III                         IV

1971                    --                    --                    3                        4

1972                    2                     2                    8                        1

1973                    1                     2                    3                        4

1974                    1                     7                    3                        2

1975                    4                     4                  15                      32

1976                   14                   12                 17                      20

1977                   27                   24                 23                      24

1978                   13                   31                 41                      33

1979                   28                   27                 ---                      ---

Av. (8 yr.)            11                      13                     14                          15

Av. (75-79)         20                      22                     24                          27 

Part II: Four-weekly: 

Year    I     II    III   IV    V     VI    VII   VIII   IX    X    XI    XII    XIII

1971    -     -     -      -      -     0      0      0      1    2     4      0       0

1972    0    0     2     0      2     0      0      1      4    3     1      0       0

1973    1    0     0      0     2     0      0      1      1    1     2      2       0

1974    0    0     1      0     2     2      3      1      2    0     1      1       0

1975    2    2     0      1     3     0      1      6      4    8    12     7       9

1976    4    7     3      4     5     0      6      7      2    7     5      7       6

1977    4    6     5      7     6    10     6      7      7    8     4      9       9

1978    6    5     2      8     7    15     3      8     18  19    11     3      13

1979    5    4    14    16   12

 Av.    4.7  5.5  6.0    8.7  6.5  6.2   4.0  7.0   7.7  10.5    8.0  6.5    9.2 

Note: January and June are a good time to schedule your vacation! There are peaks around April 1 and October 1 and December 20. Also note: J. Blow became an established session player in August, 1975 (3rd quarter, 10th four-week period.) Big increase for 3rd quarter was due to big increase beginning in August; new level sustained since then. 

[Final note: readers are encouraged to send their questions, comments, suggestions, criticisms, etc., to the author at REBissell@aol.com. Recommendations for books, articles, CDs, DVDs, as well as online URLs and links are particularly welcome! If we may quote you and/or acknowledge your help in the published version of this material, please let us know; otherwise, we will assume that you prefer to remain anonymous.]