Jason Sulliman is a bass trombonist with a passion and a purpose. Original cast memebr for BLAST!, and now its conductor and manager, Jason has explored symphonic and commercial music with aplomb and sought to integrate his personal experiences as a performer with his passion for helping others through education. Along the way, kinesiology just sort of “happened”, and has become a growing area of fascination and expertise. Stretch out and relax, as Jason Sulliman works out all of “Seven Positions” tm. Enjoy!
1. What drew you to kinesiology (motor learning/motor control), and who have been your mentors?
I first learned about kinesiology after I re-joined with Blast in 2005. The job was very demanding physically and mentally, and I worked extremely hard to condition myself for the rigor. I was amazed at the effect this had on my playing (both mentally and physically) so when I returned to grad school at the University of New Mexico, I sought out people to learn more. I connected with Dr. Mary Virginia Wilmerding who is on faculty at UNM for exercise science and dance. She introduced me to kinesiology and I was hooked. I found myself running over to other buildings sitting in on biology classes, exercise physiology classes, and I enrolled in a few classes such as motor learning and kinesiology for dance majors (that Dr. Wilmerding taught herself). Every day was filled with new discoveries.
When I applied for doctoral studies, I applied at schools for both music (DM) and kinesiology (MS) (as if I was two separate people). I continued graduate studies at Indiana University in the master’s program for kinesiology.
2. If movements are like fingerprints, and each is different everytime; can there be any constants in trombone technique?
This is a difficult question to answer in that the product and the process to get there have different spins on the same answer, and to many this will sound like an academic quibble of semantics, but I disagree. I find the whole concept fascinating.
Technically I don’t think any two sounds made in the natural world are identical. Movements are all different (even if it is so slight that it is unperceivable to the human ear) and thus their fingerprints in sound are unique. Musicians will usually get to a point where for all practical purposes, a consistent sound is heard because the nuances are so minute that they aren’t significant in terms of job performance, etc. For that part of the conversation, I do think one can approach playing with a consistent mindset and achieve consistent results, but only if we use the terms loosely. I don’t think there’s any real harm in talking about a consistent product as long as we agree it is a matter of scaling.
I think the word ‘consistent’ can be dangerous though, when talking about the process. If we get so wrapped up in trying to manipulate our bodies the same exact way every time, we might actually be hindering our bodies’ natural ability to adapt to the current environmental parameters and take aim at that ‘consistent’ goal from a slightly different vantage point. Your body’s components must function from their current state, and to interfere with our natural ability to function might limit the freedom of adaptability. The only ‘consistent’ thing about my playing is I am constantly trying to be better than yesterday. I think the whole concept of ‘consistent’ sets limitations and throws our focus off of the real goal.
3. Who do consider the most influential brass pedagogues-both personally and globally?
As teachers, we have all experienced telling a student ‘exactly’ what they needed to hear, but for some reason they weren’t ready to really hear it in a meaningful way. The next thing you know they had a lesson with another teacher or attended a master class etc. and heard the same exact thing, and react as if it was something that they never heard before.
Names surface to the top of a short list: Arnold Jacobs, Emory Remington, Joe Alessi, and Carmine Caruso, but if the art matters more than the people that create it, than we have to remember that anyone can make a breakthrough happen for anyone else and it is those breakthroughs that matter most. Therefore the list of influential brass pedagogues is massive, as it should be.
My personal breakthroughs were with Darcy Davis, David Sporny, Karl Hinterbichler and
4. How do you view the re-affirmation of many of the teachings of Arnold Jacobs in light of cognitive theories?
In a word: accurate. The more I study, the more I find that Arnold Jacob’s work lines up with emergent cognitive theories of today. Sadly, it is not that he was so far ahead, it is that we are so far behind. He stayed with the curve.
5. What has Blast! meant to you?
In one way, Blast! Has meant the opportunity to ‘stay in the game’ of trying to improve and become a musician. I started significantly later than most ‘successful’ musicians and I spent most of my college years playing catch-up. I will probably always feel that way. I am forever grateful for the time, the experiences, the friendships etc. that I have gained from that chapter in my life. In a much larger way, Blast! Was an amazing opportunity to reach audiences in ways that ‘sit-down’ performance can’t. Blast! Is usually compared to marching band, but I think it was so much more than that, and I am thankful to be a part of it.
6. What do you look for in a horn?
I want something unique. I know many folks out there want ‘an orchestral’ sound and try to blend in with what is winning the jobs etc., but I want to bring something unique to the table. Frankly I don’t want to sound like everyone else. I want to sound like me. I think if I do that well enough, someone will want to buy that.
The two most common directions people go when deciding on equipment is either a horn that helps one’s weaknesses, or a horn and amplifies one’s strengths. I can see merit in either case. For me I want vibrancy in the sound. Like a complex Belgian Tripel, I want complexity in the sound. I feel like then I can do so many things with it. There was a time when I gravitated towards equipment that sounded louder or was easier in the high register, but I have since gravitated more towards what I call ‘home’. I recently purchased an M & W and it should be arriving soon. I am really excited about the possibilities.
7. How do your studies movement influence your approach to slide motion?
My slide movement needs a ton of work, mainly because I am still searching for the best set-up in the left hand to hold the horn. I think this matters with bass in particular. It is a heavier horn, and if your left hand doesn’t feel comfortable supporting the instrument for long periods of time, then it will start shifting in a way that eases the discomfort. When that happens the right hand will naturally make compensating adjustments with how it helps to support the weight of the instrument, which will change the slide technique.
Having said that, I try to hold the slide with my fingertips. After that, I really try to ignore the physical characteristics and focus solely on the sound that is created when changing notes. If you are really listening, you can hear a difference between effective slide technique and ineffective slide technique on all sorts of levels. This goes back to ‘no two movements are alike’. I challenge you to find two trombonists that do it the same exact way. I guarantee if we hook them up to measurement equipment (like EEG), we will find differences.
I remember watching the National Brass Ensemble concert in Chicago last year. Some of the Gabrieli pieces were set up with two choirs, so their angles were such that I got a great look at slide work. There were times where I saw some of the most accomplished trombonists playing unison lines right next to each other. Slightly different hand positions, different speeds, but wonderful results. I could only tell a difference visually.
8. How do you foresee the future of the trombone in drum corps?
I really haven’t thought about it.
9. What is your secret to legato?
Legato is my default warm-up articulation of choice these days, as it has been for several years, because the longer and more-connected two sounds are, the less you can hide “junk” in-between them. I spend a disproportionate amount of time on legato, and would say the other big factor is I have recorded myself and others a ton. I have developed some skills with audio-editing over the years, and I would go into the sound files and cut-out transitional space between the notes of my playing and others. I would then create call-and-response tracks with this “super-connected’ version of playing and I would use it as the model for my current playing.
I never could get rid of the transitional sound completely, but I realized that shouldn’t be the goal. Rather than thinking about continuous air, I try to think about continuous sound, and the transitional moments in between notes has its own sound. I let that sound thrive now (albeit in a very short time-span). So the ‘continuous sound’ is really three different sounds (first note, transitional sound, next note). All three need to be beautiful.
Obviously there are two issues with legato- first the tonguing thing, and then the sliding thing. But I feel like I touched on the slide already.
10. How do you teach performance blocking and movement in order to least disrupt or provide a deleterious effect on brass technique?
There will be a trade-off. We will always sound better when not simultaneously engaged in gross motor movements (like marching for example). I say it that way because we are in constant motion on a fine motor level, and I encourage that type of movement. I play on a wobble board almost exclusively in the practice room so my body is free to move as it needs. But for things like marching, there will be trade-offs.
That being said, certain aspects of movement technique will sound better while others will look better. In many ways it is a game of ‘slight-of-hand’ that we play with the audience. I think many marching bands spend way too much time refining the engagement of the knee vs. straight-leg for example. I just find it funny when the same band will then have kids rolling their shoulders forward and taking small breaths, not rolling their toes to smooth out their landing, etc. Their feet will be out of time anyways, who cares how their knees are!?!?!
Let’s get everyone’s feet in time and on the downbeats. Let’s get everyone standing with an elongated spine so they can take a good breath, etc. I try to put my eggs in the basket of sounding good, looking good, and being efficient with our time. I think it is impressive when a band has a real level of detail to their uniformity, but most high school bands spend too much resource focusing on aspects of marching technique that are too expensive (too much time to clean it, not enough pay-off). I think 30 minutes of good stretching and body movement followed by 30 minutes of marching technique is far better than 5 minutes of poor stretching and 55 minutes of marching technique. Sadly, the latter is what most programs do.
11. What are your musical inspirations?
I will always have a soft spot for the work of the Tallis Scholars, the Chicago Symphony, the German Brass, Fleetwood Mac, the Cleveland Orchestra, Bela Fleck (both solo and with the Flecktones), Bruce Hornsby, the Vanguard Orchestra, J.J. Johnson, the Kings Singers, Louis Armstrong, Eminem, Tim O’Brien, David Wilcox. Specific to bass trombone I would say Randy Hawes, Jim Markey, and Stefan Schulz.
I am a sucker for so many stories of people overcoming adversity. Underdogs. I think we can all relate in some way to an underdog. When you are one person out of a hundred auditioning for a job, it is simple math. The odds are not in our favor if you just look at the simple math.
I have found quite a bit of inspiration from many movies based on a true story such as “Rudy”, “The King’s Speech”, “The Imitation Game”, “Invictus”, as well as other amazing life accounts of people such as Mother Teresa and Gandhi. I think they all share the theme in that at one point there was an overwhelming impression that their ideas and actions made them a ‘minority of one’ and yet they pressed on if for no other reason than they felt it was right- it was what they believed. It was the only way to be true to themselves. I am constantly inspired by others and they fuel me to just keep moving in a direction that is right for me.
c. 2016 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved www.davidbrubeck.com
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