James Markey is an inspiring and insightful respondent for the second installment of Seven Positions. Though still very much a young man, Markey has made a significant signature on the solo bass trombone with the releases of his recordings “On Base” and “Offroad”. Sterling flexibility and sensitive musicianship are hallmarks of these virtuosic recordings, which are highlights of a remarkable career that includes notable positions and performances on bass and tenor trombones with The Boston Symphony, The New York Philharmonic, and The Pittsburgh Symphony.
What do you look for in an instrument?
No instrument can make you do what you ordinarily can’t. An instrument can, however, make you unable to do something you ordinarily can! When I look for an instrument, I’m looking for one that will have the fewest encumbrances and hindrances to my playing – the one that will get in the way the least.
How do you conceive of an ideal tone quality?
Good question. I like to think of tone as not born in a vacuum! We need to listen to recordings of people, brass players and non-brass players alike, and listen for some of the characteristics of sound that make them sound beautiful. Every instrument/player at the highest level has both breadth of sound AND clarity of sound. The mix changes among instrumental groups and families, but there’s still a mix. The more we hear others play, the better idea we have in our head of what a beautiful sound is.
What is your secret to a beautiful legato?
One word – coordination. Most players move the slide much too early. Remember, the slide just moves in and out. The tongue however goes up first to stop the air, then down to release it. If you move the slide at the same time you start to move the tongue, you’ll get a smear – plain and simple. You need to STOP the air with the tongue first, and THEN move the slide. This means the tongue starts to move before the slide does. A good way to practice this is to try “reverse smears”. Move the slide WAY too late – almost with the tongue on the beat and the slide a sixteenth note too late. Gradually move the slide earlier by small degrees until the slur is clean. In some cases, it’s mind blowing how much later you can move your slide and still get a good legato!
What helps you achieve musical expression?
Once again, the key here is listening. Music is a language. If you want to learn how to speak French beautifully, you have to live in France. Sure, recording yourself speaking French can be a great tool, but if you don’t actually know what French should sound like, you’re not going to get very far! And you mustn’t take it for granted that you understand good phrasing and musicianship. We ALWAYS have much to learn about things one COULD do to sound beautiful. Once you have this vocabulary, you can put it together to form “musical sentences”. But if you don’t know the words, or decide that you like the word “dinosaur” instead of “sandwich”, you’re going to confuse a lot of people when you start talking about lunch!
Name two inspirations. One musical and one non-musical.
Musical: conductors with great energy. Dudamel and Haitink come to mind specifically, although there are many others. Alan Gilbert’s ability to singlehandedly rescue a performance that could have gone disastrously awry or stopped completely! Non-musical has to be the sacrifices that so many people made on my behalf when I was an aspiring musician. Joe Alessi refusing to accept payment for my lessons because he knew our family’s background, my high school band and chorus director paying for me to attend the party following HS graduation, the time and energy numerous colleagues have spent with me when I’ve gone through difficult times both playing and otherwise. I’ll never forget these kindnesses and sacrifices, and they reflect for me, even in small ways, the greatest sacrifice ever made–in Jesus.
What’s the best part about playing each different chair in an orchestral trombone section?
It’s always incredibly interesting to have different parts going around. When you’re first, you’re sitting on the top of the section as the highest voice, riding the foundation laid by the lower voices. In the second chair, you’re filling out the section between the bookends, the meat of the sandwich, and as the bass, well, you’re the foundation of the trombones! Especially in bass, sometimes you’re the third trombone, sometimes you work in conjunction with the tuba as the bass line, and it always makes life interesting when you see how your part fits in and what kind of role you need to play.
What additional perspectives have you gained as an organist, and how has it helped you?
Playing organ has done a couple of things for me. First, it has taught me to be able to think of three things at one time (LH, RH, and Pedals). This is useful when you’re trying to play with good attacks, AND good energy, AND watch the E’s above the staff because they’re sharp. 🙂 When you’re used to thinking of three lines, it makes thinking of one line in three different ways so much easier. Secondly, it’s really emphasized the importance of harmony to the melody. Having an understanding of where the stresses are in the melody, based on the harmony, really helps to form phrase shape, etc.
Best trombone playing you’ve ever heard?
On a consistent basis: my lessons with Joe. I remember things he said well, but I remember his playing so much better. Talk about an invaluable resource! Just trying to sound like him helped hone my attacks and articulations, energy of sound, shape of phrasing, etc.
Best trombone playing you’ve ever done?
I have to honestly say probably the last two auditions I’ve taken – for the bass trombone positions in the Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony. But that’s probably because, unlike recitals, I don’t have a live recording to go back to listen to!
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