“THE CRAFTSMAN’S BENCH” follows “Seven Positions” and “The Arranger’s Chair” as the third regularly recurring series on davidbrubeck.com The legendary Slide Doctor, John Upchurch, has consented to respond to a wide ranging field of questions. Who better to launch a promising series on the trombone from an oft neglected vantage point of the craftsman?
1. How did you become involved in music?
Dad was an operatic tenor and turned down a full ride to Curtis Institute of Music to attend Purdue University. So the gene was present. I started piano at age 6, bassoon at 4th grade and tuba at 5th grade. Was a member of the famed West End Elementary Band in Atlanta, GA. Actually went to Stetson University as a Music Education Major with a concentration in tuba. Luck and fate led me to buy a Conn 6H after my freshman year and I took lessons from Bill Hill that summer. When I arrived back at Stetson in the fall, there was a shortage of trombonists and a plethora of tuba players. Don Yaxley convinced me to become a trombone player and the door for a new career was opened.
2. What are your most memorable moments?
Coming from humble beginnings, I still find it difficult to imagine that I performed (as an extra) with the Philadelphia Orchestra and backed up entertainers like Glen Campbell and Liberace. The Potsdam Brass Quintet performances (there were many) were so important to me. I kept looking around during our performance in The Kennedy Center and wondering who sat here before me! The Crane Trombone Ensemble, which I founded and conducted, performed the opening night concert at the ITW in Nashville in 1975 and was unique in that the program featured premiers of works by Washburn, Del Borgo and Frackenpohl, (all Crane faculty members.)
3. When did you get into the repair business?
In Potsdam, there were about 21 trombone majors and I had an additional seven or eight at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Out of necessity, I checked out every book in the Crane School of Music Library about instrument repair and quickly became frustrated by the lack of available information. So I ordered a Ferrees Catalogue, purchased the tools and essentially became self-taught. I always had another gig, from studio teacher to Dean of Fine Arts, to Dean of Admissions to Vice-President for Enrichment Programs. Fixing slides was a hobby until 2000, when we put up the initial “Slide Dr. Web Site.” In a few short years, there were so many slides coming in that I no longer had time to be a Vice-President and retired from Brenau University.
4. When and how did you become the slide doctor?
Beginning in the 1970’s, I fixed a few slides out of necessity. During this time, I attended the ITW’s in Nashville and worked the display for a “new” instrument company called Yamaha. I set up all the slides on the display and players were introduced to a new level of slide function. Henry Romersa invited me to do a clinic at the ITW on Thursday at 8 a.m. As everyone knows, this is not a really good hour for trombonists to be alert. So I enlisted Tom Senff to offer a slide for repair to start the clinic. Tom told the gathered players that the slide belonged to his dad, who had played it in the Goldman Band. He added that he was reluctant to have anyone work on it, as it was such a treasure! I looked carefully at the slide and then slammed it over the edge of a table bending it into an “L.” The collective gasp sucked all the air from the room. Then it took several minutes for the laughter to subside, as players realized they had been victims of an elaborate hoax. To add to the laughter, I asked, “Does anyone else have a slide they would like for me to fix?”
Buddy Baker is credited with giving me the title “The Slide Dr.”, partly due to the fact that I had an earned Doctorate from Indiana University with concentrations in both trombone and tuba, which was not that common in the 1970’s. With several more ITW and Eastern Trombone Workshop clinics and about 50 university clinics, we had established a reputation that became the business plan many years later. The business plan had but three statements: 1) Honesty is not just the best policy: it is the only policy. 2) It takes as long as it takes. (Translated: No slide goes home until it is as good as the components will allow us to make it.)
3) The customers are always “right,” even when they are dead wrong.
4. Which trombones have you most enjoyed playing?
Candidly, I have loved all my instruments. Perhaps the most notable was a gold plated Earl Williams, Model 6, named appropriately, “Goldilocks,” with an arrowhead for a balance weight. Not being a terrific jazz player, I elected to sell it to someone who is a terrific jazz musician, so that it could be properly utilized.
5. Are there any brands or models of slides that, in your experience, seem sturdier than others?
Most of the major brands made in the states have excellent designs in respect to being “sturdy.” However, the cases that are provided with them have not always been player friendly. Cases with the slide located on the bottom (when carried) often result in severe sideways bowing, attributed directly to the case design. We call players who use gig bags “consistent customers.”
5. More delicate?
The Selmer Bolero has always been a very popular small bore instrument because it is light, responds easily and the tone quality is wonderful. These qualities were the result of small thin tubing braces and softer brass than is found in other models. Careful players have no problems, but allowing it to slide around in car trunks could be fatal. Just standing the horn once on the slide could bend the slide tubes.
6. Any slides that are easier to repair?
This is an interesting question. Why? Most slides are assembled the same way and are fixed the same way. The tubes need to be round, straight and parallel. Simple enough? So what constitutes “easier to repair.” Availability of uniform parts in a timely fashion! The manufacturers who provide repair parts that fit, are quickly delivered and do not require a bank robbery to finance make the repair easier. Shires and Edwards/Getzen have superlative customer service to repair types!
7. More difficult?
Because most manufacturers use proprietary designs, parts from instrument “A” may not work on instrument “B” even if they are the same bore size. Recently, there has been a move to reduce the number of parts by combining several components into one piece. In the past, the taper that went into the bell, the ring and lug assembly just below it and the cork barrel were separate units. Today, some manufacturers have combined these into one easy to install component. Slides with many small parts in the inner slide are quite difficult to assemble without the proper devices to keep the components aligned while soldering. The small parts are so close together that the solder melts on all the joints at the same time.
Our real “forte’” has been aligning slides with tuning in the slide. We developed a method to use the crook width as a starting point and add components to assemble the outer slide with dead-solid-perfect geometry. We then assembled the tuning slide over the completed outside slide so that it moved correctly. Then it was easy to adjust the width of the inside slide to match the geometry on the outer slide.
8. Can you share some of your favorite stories regarding your prominent clients?
I hardly know where to start to answer this one. There have been so many memorable events. In brief:
A terrific bass trombonist from Japan, on first testing his slide after a setup remarked, “Ah so, you have the hands of a god.”
Probably the best-known current jazz performer dropped the outer slide a few minutes after the setup was complete and we had to start over.
A good friend, known for performing “General Speech” in full McArthur costume, was accustomed to holding the slide parallel to the ground and using his right hand to turn the page. Just the air pressure resulted in the 4th position getting flatter and he had to grab the slide.
A friend, who later became President of the ITA, was on the road in New Orleans. He called, frantic, because the soundman had knocked his horn over and dented the slide. The next gig was in Little Rock. How do we fix this slide in such a short time frame? I was Chair of Fine Arts in Brevard at the time, so I suggested that he take the slide to the airport and send it on Delta and call me with the flight arrival time in Asheville. I picked up the slide, did a quick, albeit careful repair and took it back to the airport…shipping it that afternoon to Little Rock. He was able to pick up the slide and make the gig on time.
As we all know, some players live by a different time clock. At 11:30 P. M. we received a call from a player in New York. “Can you fix my slide?” Groggily, I explained the process and a few days later a poorly assembled slide arrived at my door. Took it apart and straightened the components and rounded the tubes and assembled it correctly. Flash forward about a week. It is 11:30 again and the phone rings. “Hey the slide is great!. It was assembled at the factory from left over parts in the parts bin and never worked right. I decided if you could fix it I would send you my good slides.” And he did.
9. Do you recall the slide that was in the worst shape?
Easy answer: Bach 50 slide that was in a wreck in an open top Jeep. (And in a gig bag to boot!) All four tubes were bent about 15 degrees sideways about 5 inches above the crook. The creases were severe enough that we had to start with the smallest mandrel in the shop to even be able to insert one up the inside of the inside tube. It became a celebrated challenge. Eight hours of labor later, the owner said the slide functioned even better than before the wreck and had all the original components.
10. What were your major innovations in cleaning, repairing and treating slides?
When we first started cleaning the inside of outer tubes, the industry standard was either “bright dip” or diluted Muriatic Acid. We discovered that Wright’s Brass Polish worked just as well and was water based and posed no biohazards.
Earlier, I mentioned that repairing slides required that the tubes be uniformly round, straight and parallel. As far as I know, we were the first to look for ways to reduce or eliminate “friction” with methods other than using different lubrication.
Quite by chance, I discovered that polymer products sealed the inside of outer tubes, greatly slowed the process of oxidation and provided a much slicker, smoother surface adjacent to the inside tubes. We recently introduced a new, highly effective polymer treatment called Great Slide. You can learn about how it is used and see how effective it is at www.greatslide.com.
11. What are your thoughts on the following slide lubricants?
Pledge: In the 1970’s it was quite popular with some players. When we flushed the outside slide with the diluted Muriatic Acid, large gobs of old wax, we labeled “Slide Fish,” swam out. Enough said?
Pond’s Cold Cream: Still popular with some players. Works unless you need to have slide technique faster than a “quarter note at 120.”
Slide Oil: Just can’t say enough nice about it!
Superslick and Plus Treatment: Still our mainstay after over 40 years.
Formula 3 (cream) and Formula 3 silicone: See Superslick
Slide-O-Mix: In our PowerPoint presentation, we have a video that shows what happens when players use these products and DO NOT ever remove any, let alone remove as much as they apply each time. The video isn’t pretty! The high-tech products are not easily removed using just soap and water and require more effort. However, if used properly and cleaned out diligently, they function well.
Rapid Comfort: See Slide-O-Mix
Trombotine: This product has been around for well over 50 years. It is a vegetable-based product and can grow cultures in your slide if not cleaned on a regular basis. Again, if used properly, it works quite well.
Are there any others that should be mentioned?
We are currently working to perfect a formula for a detergent base lubricant that (if we are successful) will lubricate the slide and clean it at the same time. We would like for it to be a companion product for Great Slide Polymer Treatment. Stay tuned for further developments.
Which of the lubricants is your favorite?
The advent of Great Slide Polymer Treatment makes the use of lubricants very close to unnecessary. The slides (with all else equal) are lightning fast without using any lube. So just a tiny amount of Superslick cream on the INSIDE of the outer tubes and a dime size drop of Plus Treatment spread all over the inside tubes works wonderfully well and is very popular with many of our customers.
12. Rotor oil?
Clean the rotor with graphite oil and then lubricate it with Al Cass “Fast.”
Once the rotor spins freely, 360 degrees, the light oil will keep it from getting dry. Oil the axles on a regular basis. If the rotor gets dry and sticks, run water up the slide receiver to free it up. The mistake that some players make (we believe) is squirting oil down the tuning slide into the rotor. Oil works as a solvent, breaks the crud inside the tube loose and then flushes the mess into the rotor. Be sure to oil the axle on the trigger.
13. Axial valve lubricant?
See rotor oil. It is the same process, different component shape.
14. Tuning crook lubricant?
Waterproof bicycle ball bearing grease!
Cheap! Easily located, does not dry out and can be removed easily with soap and water. There is just enough “sticky” quality to allow the slide to move when you want to move it, but not move any other time.
15. Do you have any thoughts on the recent developments in valve options?
Alas, this is a tough one! Love the straight through valve that is found on the Christian Lindberg, Yamaha 682B and is also available from Shires. However, with weight issues trumping the improved valve response on the newer designs, the old fashioned rotor, with porting done like Larry Minick did, is attractive to some of us older players.
16. Best tenor trombone you have ever played?
At the time, I was sure that the trombone I had was the best one I ever played. Then along would come another that was a little different and maybe I thought that is was better, so I changed. I picked out a Conn 88H at the factory in the late 1960’s and it was (so I thought) the best horn I ever played. Ed Garbett, the Educational Director of Yamaha, sent me a Yamaha YSL643, in 1971. It was one from the first shipment of six sent to the United States and the slide was amazing! Played this all over the country. There were other trombones in “the stable,” but for one reason or another, they were passed on to others to be used more often.
17. Best bass?
When Don Yaxley passed on, I was able to buy his Bach 50, with the Minick in-line conversion. Played that one until I got a Yamaha 613H, which I still have and still play. Not only does it meet my musical requirements, but the Yamaha 613H, with a balance weight, is neutral from front to back. The result is considerably less left hand pain on long sessions. I owned and played two different Edwards bells with dual Thayer valves, that were outstanding in tone, response and clarity, but the pain in the left hand was a deal breaker for me.
18. Which client was roughest on his horns?
I can answer this with a little story: Perhaps the most talented trombonist I know, major symphony player et al, has a unique solution to the slide dilemma. He has a house full of slides. When things got bad, he would send six or eight to have them set up. He plays maybe eight or ten hours a day, so I cut him a great deal of slack and was happy for the work!
19. What does the slide bring to musical expression?
Please forgive me for getting on my “soapbox.” Please pay attention. I feel that these are highly important.
First the pros:
It is our firm belief that the trombone is the EASIEST instrument to apply the musicians’ creed to “BE ON-TIME and IN-TUNE!”
The trombone has many voices and can be sweet or growl, as the music requires. (See the book, “God’s TROMBONES.”) The slide enhances the space between these effects, both lyrically and obnoxiously. It can even be humorous!
From a technical standpoint, I dislike the term “alternate positions.” The truth is that, properly used, they become “easier positions.” In the 1970’s and 80’s, Bill Watrous taught us the amazing value of “easier positions.” Valve instruments, excepting the few that come with continuously variable tuning slides, can have severe intonation issues, requiring the use of different valve combinations to attempt to get the note in tune. No so with the slide!
Now the cons:
Sadly, many players have never experienced a slide that functions properly. They started their career with a student line slide that didn’t function properly and graduated to more expensive slides that still were less-than-stellar! You would be shocked to know how many fine players handed their slides to me, to proudly show how well they worked and it was all I could do not to change facial expressions. I learned quickly, to say something like, “If you are willing, I believe I can make this slide both faster and smoother.” What I really would like to have asked was, “How can you play so well with such a handicap caused by this slide?”
Next to playing out-of-tune and around the beat, sloppy legato has to be the most grating issue I hear. We developed a series of exercises designed to fix this. Starting in 1st position, quickly move the slide to 4th and play a top space ”G.” Do you glissando into the note or does the note speak on time? Reverse the process, going from “G” back to “F” in first. Gradually shorten the no sound, time gap, between first to fourth position. When you can eliminate the no sound gap and connect the two notes cleanly, try the same process using first, second and then fourth positions. Not first, second and a half and then fourth.
Players who stand the horn on the slide almost always have slide tubes that are not straight. Players who do this will likely never attain the technique displayed by Rick Simerly playing “Giant Steps,”
Finally, the trombone is the only instrument that I know about that changes internal volume when changing from one note to another. Moving the slide from first to six, rapidly, can open a weak embouchure resulting in no tone: just another reason to anchor the lower lip to the lower teeth, ala’ Dudley Doright, of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show fame.
I never would have imagined, the day I purchased that used Conn 6H, that my life and career would take so many crazy turns. So many people were instrumental in my success. I look at what we are attempting to do as “payback” for the assistance given me along the way. The clinics we do are designed to help players to understand the many issues that are related to the use of the slide. We call the clinic, “Seven Simple Secrets Simplify Slide Success.”
Please visit slidedr.com for more information on the Slide Doctor and his repairs
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