Trombonist, Lower Brass Player, Composer, Arranger, Educator
Education: Ithaca College, 1963-1965, majoring in tuba and composition.
Berklee School of Music, 1966-1968, trombone and composition major.
Moved in 1969 to New York, after short stints w/ Buddy Rich and Woody Herman, and has since been a busy freelance musician specializing in recording, jazz, and the musics of Latin America as a trombonist, bass trombonist, tubist, composer and arranger. He also studied with the renowned brass teacher Carmine Caruso for over 15 years.
Currently: Trombonist, soloist and composer/arranger w/the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, a band that has been appearing every Sunday night for fourteen years at Birdland in New York City .
Lead trombonist and soloist w/The Mambo Legends, a 21 piece ensemble that is dedicated to playing, further developing and preserving the authentic New York City styles of latin music that were established by such great bands as the Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriquez Orchestras.
Lead trombonist, soloist and arranger w/the Mike Longo New York City State Of The Art Big Band.
Trombonist and Transcriber/Arranger with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, directed by David Baker. Mr. Burtis has been a member of the orchestra since its inception in 1991 under the direction of both David Baker and Gunther Schuller. He plays bass trombone, valve trombone and tuba w/the orchestra as well as tenor trombone.
Work history: 1993-1995: The original Music Director (providing many of the arrangements and transcriptions and acting as conductor), lead trombonist and a featured soloist of the Charles Mingus Big Band.
1989-1996: Trombonist and arranger/composer for the Tito Puente Latin Jazz Ensemble and the Tito Puente Orchestra.
1975-1980: Bass trombone, tenor trombone, tuba and arranger/composer w/The Lee Konitz Nonet.
1973-1977: Lead trombone w/the Bill Watrous-led big band, Manhattan
A partial list of other well-known artists with whom he has worked since coming to New York would include:
The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Band /Vanguard Orchestra
The Duke Ellington Orchestra
Wynton Marsalis and The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
Larry Harlow/Latin Legends
The Alegre All Stars
The Fania All Stars
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra
The Count Basie Orchestra
He was also a featured soloist and member of the 36 piece orchestra that premiered Charles Mingus’s Epitaph at Lincoln Center and later toured Europe, Russia, and the United States under the direction of Gunther Schuller and was a first-call player during the busiest years of the commercial studio scene in NYC, including playing and soloing on literally hundreds of recordings for Fania Records during the booming salsa years.
Mr. Burtis has performed on innumerable commercials, records and in at least forty Broadway and off-Broadway shows during his time in New York, has been associated with both the New School and The Mannes School of Music in New York City, Prince Klaus Conservatory (Groningen, Holland), Lehigh University and the New Jersey Performance Arts Center/Jazz For Teens program as a brass and music theory/composition/American musical idioms teacher, has taught many private students both individually and in clinic situations, and has (most often under the web name of Sabutin) contributed hundreds of columns and posts on advanced techniques of playing the trombone to his own sites The Open Horn (a pan-brass discussion forum) and SamBurtis.Com, plus The Trombone Forum , The Online Trombone Journal and The British Trombone Society Forum. His first trombone method book, The American Trombone (published in 2002) was received with great enthusiasm by literally thousands of trombonists and his new book, Time, Balance And Connections-A Universal Theory Of Brass Relativity (Trombone Edition) which was published in 2009 can be ordered directly from him at his website. Further editions for valved instruments in treble and bass clefs will soon follow.
Sam plays S.E. Shires trombones exclusively, encouraged Steve Shires to start producing sub-.547 bore instruments, helped him when Steve started designing them and often appears at conventions and festivals at the Shires exhibit.
In view of his extraordinarily wide range of experience both as a performer and as a composer/arranger/music director in so many idioms, Mr. Burtis can teach trombone, lower brass, brass, Jazz and Latin ensembles, the history of Jazz and Latin music, theory, harmony, composition, studio and professional performance techniques and improvisation, as well as appearing with and writing for student ensembles in concert. For further information please call (718) 796-4413 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the second in a series of Letters From NY columns that I originally wrote for the Online Trombone Journal sometime around 2003.
I have been taking part in various discussions on the Trombone listserve (Trombone-L), The Trombone Forum and my own brass discussion site The Open Horn over the past seven years or so, and I’ve saved the posts that made up a number of the threads that have developed during that time.
This month I’m going to include my answers to many questions regarding two techniques that are essential to my particular approach to the horn, mouthpiece buzzing and free buzzing. (That is, buzzing with just the lips.) As in my last column, I have edited and combined many of my responses, and condensed, combined and/or paraphrased the questions that elicited those responses.
My apologies to those people who wrote the questions. I can’t credit everyone because it gets much too complicated. Nevertheless, my heartfelt thanks to all those who take part in these discussions, those with questions, those with answers, and those with both as well.
The first and most commonly asked question I receive is: “Why buzz at all?” Here is a post I wrote which addresses the basic reasons why buzzing works.
Q-I’ve noticed a bunch of posts on the Trombone-L about mouthpiece size and difficult high range, with the 6 1/2 AL being mentioned as the culprit a few times. Although the 6 1/2 AL isn’t a particularly large mouthpiece in the orchestral field, it is at about this size, and at about .525 bore trombone sizes as well, that the particular problems I wish to address in this article begin to appear for many players.
A-The real reason many people find the 6 1/2 AL (and other, larger mouthpieces with fairly large throats and backbores) difficult to play in high registers (or loud, for any length of time), is that they haven’t developed their embouchures to the point where they’re providing enough resistance at the lips, but rather are accustomed to using the horn and mouthpiece to produce that required resistance. (Some resistance is necessary, of course, or else the entire contents of your lungs would whoosh out at one time. That’s why the call it an air stream.) Tighter, more resistant horns and mouthpieces don’t require the same strength and balance of embouchure as less resistant setups.
As a beneficial side effect of buzzing (and this is very important, maybe more so than the embouchure work per se) it will enable you to find the natural angle (or angles) at which you should hold the horn in different registers. Once you have a good, comfortable mouthpiece buzz, and for that matter whenever you insert the mouthpiece into the horn while buzzing, try to insert the shank so that its sides go into the receiver exactly parallel to the walls of the receiver. This often results in different horn angles on your face than the ones to which you’re accustomed. Learn to hold your horn at the angle your physiognomy requires, if at all possible. The arms and hands are much stronger and more adaptable than are the facial muscles, and a slightly new horn angle, although initially foreign feeling, often produces startlingly good results.
The trombone is an asymmetrical instrument that changes its fulcrum every time you move the slide. Try not to let this fact dictate your embouchure. The only things that can prevent you from holding the horn at the angles that most please your chops are either arm and shoulder weakness (light, high repetition weight training will solve that in three easy weeks) or the occasional large-necked player playing a horn with a narrow slide.
Some of this also addresses a couple of other recent posts. Someone suggested using a practice mute to play in the sub-pedal range, and someone else was talking about the relative dangers and benefits of buzzing without the mouthpiece. Both extremely low practice (long tones) and buzzing (with or without the mouthpiece) can be used to find and develop a strong point of resistance at the lips. Once this has been developed, one can play larger and less resistant equipment if so desired, without losing range or endurance. Using a mute to produce those sub-pedals is counter-productive to this end (as is mouthpiece buzzing with a finger partially stopping up the end, or using one of the artificial B.E.R.P. type resistance providers, in my view). It’s certainly easxier to do these things with artificial resistances, but the benefits are much less.
One way to look at almost all long tone/embouchure building/buzzing practice is to consider it an attempt to find and balance a strong and consistent resistance at the lips. Not before the lips, in the throat and oral cavity and not after the lips, in the mouthpiece and horn, but at the lips, where it can be controlled and used while still having the freest flow of air possible.
We brass players are lucky enough to have an infinitely adjustable sound producer/resistor (synonyms, really), made of flesh, a system only singers share with us. Reed players have to find a reed that suits their purposes that day; stringed instrument players must change their strings or bow to modify their sound. All we have to do is learn how to control our lips. The various buzzing techniques are particularly helpful in this process.
The next topic to be examined, once we have some idea why buzzing is valuable (there are plenty of other reasons, as well, but they’ll be mentioned as we go on), is how to buzz. (What approaches are valuable and safe, what approaches can be counterproductive.) Let’s deal with mouthpiece buzzing first.
Here’s a version of the most common mouthpiece buzzing question:
Q-I just can’t seem to play the horn the same way I buzz the mouthpiece. When I buzz the mouthpiece, buzzing seems free, easy and flexible. When I try to play exactly the way I buzz, my sound comes out thin and strained. Also, my embouchure is asymmetrical when I play the horn (right corner sags), but it is NOT so when I buzz. I buzz a half-hour each day with a B.E.R.P. in the car. Is there any help out there?
Please don’t buzz when you don’t have the horn handy for comparison (at least until you’ve become very proficient at matching how you buzz and how you play), and please don’t use B.E.R.P. or any other resistance aid. (Yes, I know it’s easier, it just isn’t better.)
Loosen the mouthpiece so it’s not stuck in the receiver and play an easy note on your horn. (Third partial F is usually a great place to start.) While playing the note, gradually remove the mouthpiece, sustaining the note (if possible). Note any changes in the angle of the mouthpiece to your face.
Without removing the mouthpiece from your embouchure, buzz the same note. (Breathe through your nose or the corners of your mouth for this exercise.) While sustaining the buzz, replace the mouthpiece in the receiver, being very careful that the angle of the mouthpiece to your face doesn’t change. It’s likely that this will result in a horn angle to which you are not accustomed. This is not only OK, it’s good.
Continued practice in this manner will probably change your horn angle to one that’s more natural to your face. Experiment, learn what your face needs. If the angle is initially uncomfortable, persevere. Your arm and shoulder muscles are much stronger than your face muscles, and can sustain changes in weight and angle much better.
DON’T use artificial resistance on the mouthpiece. Build your embouchure so that IT provides the resistance.
DON’T practice in the car, at least not at first. You need to find a compromise between your mouthpiece approach and your horn approach. (Also, it’s a terrible excuse if you have an accident or get a traffic ticket, plus it messes up the windshield.)
DON’T do it for one-half an hour a day…especially all at once. Start with only a few minutes a day, and work your way up gradually. Get a feeling for what’s happening, then transfer it to the horn. Use this approach, once it begins to work, for ALL the things you practice. Rochut, scales, flexibility, whatever, throughout whatever ranges in which you can buzz.
The last question on mouthpiece buzzing has to do more with the problems one encounters when the buzz doesn’t match the way you play.
Q-I read with great interest Sabutin’s erudite thesis on embouchure. I have one important question: Is the buzz on the mouthpiece always supposed to equal the note on the horn? This doesn’t happen for me. Am I doing something wrong? I can get a clear buzz but the buzz note doesn’t equal the note on the horn and vice-versa.
A-Yes, it is supposed to equal the note on the horn, and no, you’re not necessarily doing anything “wrong.”
If (A big “if” here…there are other ways to go that work very well for many people) you wish to use buzzing as a technique to improve your playing, you should learn how to buzz with just the mouthpiece (no extra resistance), and further, you should learn to be able to insert the mouthpiece into the horn while buzzing without having the note (or the feeling of playing the note) change at all.
Conversely, you should be able to play any note on the horn,and while continuing to play that note be able to withdraw the mouthpiece from the horn, again without any change of pitch or feeling. (These techniques involve some pretty fancy balancing tricks with the slide, as one hand has to hold the horn while the other holds the mouthpiece…I use a towel in my trombone case on which to balance the end of the slide.) I have gotten to the point where I can do this through five or six octaves, more or less.
Start with your simplest middle range notes and exercises, and progress to more difficult areas of endeavour. Always relate the mouthpiece setting immediately to your horn (by inserting the mouthpiece without removing it from your mouth, and, if possible, continuing to play while you insert it), being very careful when you insert the mouthpiece to put it into the horn in such a way that the shank goes in parallel to the receiver, thus ensuring that your horn is at its most natural angle to your face when you play.
This approach has the triple advantages of:
1-Taking the responsibility of focusing the note away from your hardware and putting it directly on your musculature and mind.
2-Helping you to use an angle between your face and your horn that is more natural to your own particular physiognomy, less dictated by the weight of the horn.
3-Putting the responsibility of producing the proper resistance on your physical set-up, your lips and air cavity, rather than on the mouthpiece and horn. YOU dictate what’s happening, not your equipment.
(I have to emphasize here that if on the other hand, you don’t< wish to approach the horn this way, it doesn’t make a bit of difference whether you can or can’t buzz, nor whether or not your buzz changes pitch in or out of the horn. Many very fine players absolutely cannot buzz a note, and I’ve known a few people who were virtuoso buzzers but lousy brass players. This is just one approach among many, and the one that I have most successfully used and taught. “Y’pays yer money and y’takes yer chances” as the carnival barkers used to say.)
Q-Are you closing off part of the shank to simulate the resistance from the instrument?
That defeats one of the purposes of buzzing. This makes it easier, it’s true, but with a bit of patient practice one can learn to play the mouthpiece without stopping the bottom at all. Closing off part of the shank simulates the resistance of the horn, which can be thought of in one approach to the horn (again, not the only or even necessarily the most correct approach), as a crutch, used because the embouchure hasn’t developed enough strength to provide that resistance for itself.
Now we come to the third (and most problematic) part of working on the horn/mouthpiece buzzing/free buzzing triumvirate, free buzzing (buzzing without the mouthpiece).
Free buzzing can be VERY destructive if done incorrectly, and equally constructive if done correctly. It should be approached with the utmost caution because a wrong approach or initial overuse can really screw up an embouchure.
I speak from direct experience here. Free buzzing always seemed like such an elegant idea to me that I kept on trying to use it for over 15 years, but every time I’d start I’d have to stop after a couple of days because my playing would begin to suffer. Eventually I believe I began to get the concept sorted out, and now I use it regularly to great advantage.
Here are some questions and answers regarding this topic.
Q-Regarding free buzzing, some people have recommended buzzing my lips without a mouthpiece as a way of warming up, making my pitch more centered, etc., but others have claimed this will make my lips “too loose.” The latter advice came after about a year of practicing and becoming rather accurate in buzzing pitches in tune and in a wider range, so I would question it.
A-You would do well to question advice like that.
If it works, use it.
If you alwayys relate your buzz to your mouthpiece and/or rim in increments of only a few seconds, you will neither stiffen nor loosen your lips any more than they need to be stiffened or loosened. Buzz off the mouthpiece (which can either be in or out of the horn, I use both), then, while continuing the buzz, place the mouthpiece on your embouchure. Next, without taking the mouthpiece off your lips, do the opposite: buzz a note on the mouthpiece (and/or on the horn) and then, while continuing the note, take the mouthpiece off your lips. You can then progress to simple exercises or etudes using the same approach, and ultimately to studies that travel through all the technical demands of making music.
These exercises will be much more difficult in some ranges than in others, and free buzzing in some registers (different ones for different people) will often result in extremely unfamiliar and seemingly “wrong” lip settings.
These “wrong” settings are in fact a direction toward which your “normal” setting could probably profitably travel, and the ultimate playing settings that will result from continued pursuit of these techniques will be compromises between the way(s) your lips most naturally play different registers without the mouthpiece and the demands put upon you by the mouthpiece, the horn, and real performance.
There are myriad ways to buzz your lips. Many are radically different from anything you’d want to do to play a brass instrument, so your first task is to be sure that what you’re doing functions with the mouthpiece and with the horn.
Regarding free buzzing, you can most simply envision the rim as a fence, beyond which the aperture should not extend. If you buzz a note with an aperture of 3/4″, but your rim is only 1/2″ wide, that embouchure, no matter HOW strong the buzz, won’t function when placed in that mouthpiece. The rim will stop the vibration, just like a finger will stop a vibrating string.
Another thing to think about is that at the upper and lower extremes of range, volume, and endurance, the embouchure, no matter HOW strong, NEEDS the rim as a surrogate ring of muscle for definition and restraint. You can EXTEND the upper and lower limits of where that need will begin to occur, but inevitably, at any and all extremes of playing, it will appear.
You can very profitably discover new approaches to playing, and develop muscles that you never would have known existed, by buzzing without the mouthpiece, but you can also destabilize your embouchure to the point where you can create serious playing problems as well.
Only do this buzzing outside the rim or mouthpiece for a few minutes a day at first, constantly checking back to see if your buzz will function in the mouthpiece, and if over a few days or weeks you begin to see detrimental results in your playing, STOP, at least until you’ve regained your normal balance.
Q-I can buzz with the mouthpiece alone, but not without the mouthpiece, and if I do succeed in buzzing without the mouthpiece, it has nothing to do with how I play. Is it the free buzzing technique that’s at fault, or am I doing something wrong?
Buzzing without the mouthpiece is not the problem.
Buzzing incorrectly without the mouthpiece is the problem.
If you buzz for long periods of time…and by a “long” time I mean over about 30 seconds…without relating what your lips are doing to the limitations necessarily produced by the rim, your lips will assume positions that are not effective on the mouthpiece. Usually the embouchure will spread beyond the confines of the rim, or one (or both) lips will roll under too much, the equivalent of a woodwind player playing on too thin or light a reed. Both of these tendencies can be highly counterproductive.
If, however, you constantly relate what you’re doing to the mouthpiece, everything will eventually sort itself out. Play a note on the mouthpiece (or a cutoff rim, or on your horn), then, while continuing the note, take the rim away. Free buzz a note, then add the mouthpiece while still buzzing. If it doesn’t work both ways, figure out why, and experiment with it until it does. It can do nothing but help. It will produce great balance and strength, and help you to understand what’s happening when you play a note.
Q-I’ve been practicing free buzzing (buzzing the lips without the mouthpiece or horn) in an attempt to supplement my daily mouthpiece exercises. I have found that I can free buzz up to a high B natural (in the octave above middle C), but can’t even approach that using my mouthpiece or my horn. Do you have any ideas about why this is happening?
A-I know I’ve said this earlier in this article, but I’m going to reiterate it because it is so important when using these approaches.
Whether you’re buzzing on the mouthpiece or free buzzing…always relate what you’re doing to the horn. Do it every 5 or 10 seconds…every few minutes at the most.
The idea is that the embouchure is a compromise between what your body (lips, mouth, teeth, oral cavity, facial musculature), mouthpiece, and horn want to do naturally. Most people just play the horn, and never explore what the other compromising systems really tend to need.
Some people overpractice one or the other form of buzzing, and can’t bring it back to the horn. Free buzzing can inform your trombone playing. If you patiently and consistently relate it to real playing, eventually your embouchure on the horn will change to include some part of that approach – whatever really works.
This takes time. It took me several years (once I discovered how to do it well) to integrate free buzzing into my playing and practice/maintenance routine, but the rewards were more than worth the time and effort, in my opinion.
As always, feel free to E-mail me at email@example.com with any questions or comments about this or any other articles you read on this website. My available E-mail answering time is increasingly limited, but I try to get back to everyone who writes with an interesting question.
OK…hot off the press, hot out of the practice room/laboratory on this matter. (8/6/09 + counting)
Those of you who have had lessons w/me or attended one of my clinics know that I deal with the idea of hearing, identifying, isolating and controlling “formants”…the overtones that are more (or less) emphasized above a brass player’s sound…as a way to practice long tones. I have been studying and practicing vocal techniques for isolating those formants above my voice for many years. Check out http://www.harmonicworld.com David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir for more on this idea. There are other approaches, other techniques that are used to do this vocally but I took a lesson w/Mr. Hykes 20+ years ago and have used his approach to do certain meditational exercises on a regular basis ever since that time.
However, this is a brass/trombone site, so I will limit my comments here to what I have found recently…over the last several weeks, actually…regarding the use of this idea coupled with freebuzzing to essentially “break the embouchure code”. I use that term advisedly, by the way. On the evidence of what has happening with my chop over the last few weeks I believe that I have indeed found the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the secret of relatively effortless brass playing through any and all reachable octaves.
Let me begin by saying this:
The use of vowels…as in “A E I O U”, as they have been taught by any number of brass teachers…is too unfocused and too artificial to be of much use to a brass player who wants to be able to play in a truly expressive manner.
When are you going to use a particular vowel sound?
Where does one vowel sound end and another begin? Long A? Short A? Which long or short A? French, German, English, Japanese, Fiji Island, North Carolina, Manchester England, Maine? Ridiculous on the face of it. On which note of which phrase of which melody or accompanying harmonic pad? If that’s the way you that are going to approach this idea…which is simplistic beyond belief, actually…then you are much, much better off with the Arnold Jacobs “Song and Wind” idea. If you are musically gifted, play the horn well and understand the idiom in which you are playing, then the proper vowel sounds will automatically happen as you play a given phrase of music. See the vid of this Clark Terry clinic for a fine illustration of how a real artist approaches this idea in a musical sense.
However on a purely physical level I have found that combining the study of my own vocal breaks…head, chest, mixed range etc. in the bel canto sense of the terms…with an experiential knowledge of:
1- How to isolate overtones vocally through about 16 partials using the David Hykes approach.
2- How to identify the overtones that make a given trombone or tuba sound “good” according to my own definitions of that word.
3- Freebuzzing techniques and the application of those techniques directly to
playing the horn without large or unacceptable compromises between the
has provided an unexpected breakthrough in my whole embouchure study.
Long story short? (Remember…I am only a couple of weeks into this idea.)
As a way to set up my own inner resonance system…chest, throat, back of tongue, soft palate, the rest of the tongue, jaw position, lips etc…so that when I freebuzz any given note the setting(s) for that note are the most efficient ones that are possible for me to achieve, all I have to do is to sing the note while my lips are in some sort of ready-to-buzz position and isolate the overtones which would be most desirable to me if I was playing the note on the trombone (The 5th and 6th partials, mostly. The 3rd and 5th of the “trombone” chord.), then w/out appreciable change of that system transfer said “buzz” from my vocal cords to my lips, then place the m’pce on my chops (again w/out serious compromises) and start playing.
The results have been truly amazing to me. Almost effortless playing and much-improved connections throughout ranges…up down and middle…where previously there had been required much more effort. Physical effort and/or attention effort.
I have been sneaking up on this idea for several years in terms of freebuzzing, but this seems to have capped it off. In the previous week or so, besides a great deal of practice I played a strenuous two set lead/solo gig w/the Chico O’Farrill Band, a three hour rehearsal followed by a two set gig with the Mike Longo Band on the same day (!!!) and a two rehearsals with an amplified rhythm section and three horns playing hard parts and long solos for a gig this week. (Mike Longo’s “Funk Band”. Dizzy Gillespie-style funk. Funk with deep harmonic changes. Beautiful stuff.) During all of that time I played my smallest equipment…a gold-plated Shires .500 bore w/a Minick 11C-ish m’pce…and I swear to you it now sounds and feels almost as big as my favorite .525 Shires/Clarke L setup only with about one quarter of the effort that I have had to make in the past on the same equipment. Double Bbs, good low range, singing mid-range, good connections (Until fatigue sets in, anyway. ..which has happened much later than has been usual for me.)…the works.
Now…please…I am not trying to blow my own horn or brag here. After 40 years of trying to learn how to play, it’s about damned time that I figured something out.
And there is much more to learn.
But there it is.
Use it if you can.
Expand upon it if you can…I would love to get some feedback.
You know that I’ll be on it like white on rice.
P.S. For an ongoing discussion of this still-developing idea, Please go to this thread on my discussion site, The Open Horn. As I stated above, I would appreciate any and all feedback on this matter. Subscription to the site is easy, and there is a great deal of other information available there as well.