Fellow trombonists please note

This post is for the benefit of fellow trombonists, especially those who are middle-aged and older. It concerns a problem that many players experience.

For some time I’d been suffering from a pain in the neck and the back of my head. It turns out I have spondylitis but the important thing to realize is that it isn’t necessarily caused by bad posture, in fact professional players get it more than most others. It’s worth looking at a fellow blogger’s information on this topic at:


The 50,000+ miles I used to drive didn’t help, either. Racing drivers do neck strengthening exercises.

When the slide goes in and out a trombonist has to ensure the instrument doesn’t wobble around all over the place, which disturbs the embouchure. Achieving this ideal means ‘freezing’ the neck position, during performances and rehearsals, for two hours or more.

Obviously, whether or not one practises the so-called pivot system the instrument has to pivot up or down a little as the player ascends or descends in order to project the air stream towards the rim or towards the throat of the mouthpiece, depending on the register. This isn’t a post about brass technique and I’m sure most players are aware of the dangers of over-pivoting or, for that matter, of being too consciously aware of any physical aspect of playing. I know this from bitter experience but, to be fair, part of my problem was irregular teeth, which I got fixed, aged almost 30. The difference it made was worth the money. As a matter of interest, the most significant part of my dental treatment involved grinding off the tip of a badly rotated tooth which occurred right where the rim of the mouthpiece rested. This can’t be done on younger people but the inner, soft core of teeth shrinks as we get older. Try this too early in life and the result would be a lot of pain. An x-ray determines the feasibility.

Because neck pain is sometimes an indication of more sinister goings-on an MRI scan of both neck and head was called for. My brain scan was normal but an amount of degeneration in the neck portion of the spine was identified.

Here in the UK we get all this ‘free’ via the NHS (i.e. we pay via our taxes). I know there’s opposition to the British system from some quarters but, over here, we believe that people who find themselves in financial trouble are not always to blame for their own predicament but we all experience the same pain. Fit employees are more efficient, too, and are less likely to end up on benefits, so the argument (like most arguments) is not as straightforward as it appears to be. Having said that, there’s little doubt that in the majority of cases privately-funded health care is much better, if you can afford it. You get the same specialists but a lot quicker. Results also come back within a week instead of a month.

The bottom line here is that I was out of action for around three months and faced a slow process getting back to my former self, whatever that was: ten minutes, then a rest, then another ten minutes… etc. gradually building up to avoid strain. Two band rehearsals later, I’m almost there. The amazing thing is that the mental aspects of playing had deteriorated almost as much. I need to sharpen up.

Overcoming the difficulties of playing on straightened teeth many years ago also involved the mental aspect of playing. I once discussed this with the late high note trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, who had recently experienced the trauma of a drunk smashing a beer bottle into the bell of his horn while he was blowing. When the dentist enquired whether or not he would like an exact copy of his old teeth he just asked for ‘new teeth’. ‘Just pick up the horn and hock with it’ was his approach. This mind set came in useful when I resumed playing after my lay-off. With experience, players develop a store of ‘tricks’ (for lack of a better word) that enables them to get the job done. Dropping the volume a touch enabled me to last out during the two hour rehearsal. Fortunately, this first rehearsal wasn’t too strenuous.


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