“Shifts” Pt. II

OK. Let’s talk about shifts.

You ask regarding shifts: “Yes, no, why, why not?”

This question is a little two-dimensional for my tastes.

The question demands that we must first somehow pin them down. Define them so we have a common ground on which we can continue the discussion.

Can they be defined in terms of the actual type of movement made by a brass player?

I believe not, myself. Not really. Too many possibilities, as I sketched out above.

One at a time here:

#1-“I can play legato from low pedal F up to high Bb and also C and D and down again. Without moving the mouthpiece on my lips.”

What do you mean by “not moving the m’pce”, savio? Do you play with a totally dry embouchure? (Etc., see above)

Can these shifts be defined in terms of aural results?

I think that they can, to some degree.

Let us examine the trombone from an operatic, bel canto style of analysis.

I have mentioned many times that we have the possibility of the equivalent of multiple head, chest and mixed voice sets on the trombone, but as I posited in my short article Carmine Caruso, Mandelbrot Sets and Me, the Sufi “As above, so below” idea applies here as well. We can think more broadly and consider a simpler lower, middle and upper range approach to the instrument.

Joe Jackson (A fine trombonist and current director of the Air Force’s great band, the Airmen Of Note) recently wrote in explanation of his own choice to use “shifts”:

“I consider the shift to be akin to moving between chest and head voice for singers. I don’t like the sound of those players muscling their low setup into the high register just as I don’t like the sound of high-set guys playing low. In most situations I consider both to be musically inappropriate.”

And as I wrote in the same thread:

“As I have stated so many times here…shifts are not the problem. We all use them. If they are too large and/or badly timed in, that’s a whole ‘nother can of embouchure problems. I would go so far as to say that in my experience even the finest “unshifted” embouchures…a relative term since something is changing in order for there to be a change in any given note…even the finest “unshifted” embouchures tend to be slightly less colorful, less dynamic in their timbral qualities than do those where the player has mastered a shift or two or three in order to access higher or lower registers. When you hear a really dominant bass trombonist or lead trumpet player sizzle out inhumanly strong notes, in my experience what you are hearing is either a “shift” or that player has made a conscious decision to specialize in one register at the inevitable expense of others. Now Phil Teele, whose playing and teaching I respect enormously, has devised a system the aim of which is to largely eliminate low range shifts through the current money ranges and volumes of the commercial bass trombone as practiced in the Hollywood studios. I have never worked with him nor heard him up close and personal, so I really have no idea of what he does to get up into the areas above say on the horn or even if he can do so with any subtlety, strength or endurance as could George Roberts and Paul Faulise, for instance. It is not a knock on his playing if he cannot do that, it just means that he is a specialist and a very successful one. More power to him. But when you watch and hear many players who have power and control throughout truly extraordinary ranges up and down on a brass instrument, you will see ‘shifts’.”

“Once again…Britt Woodman playing through about 3 1/2 octaves with a full sound on Duke Ellington’s ‘Hank Cinq’.”

The shifts are plain as day.

Of course they are not pedal shifts, but as I have written in my recent short article Carmine Caruso, Mandelbrot sets, and me:

“I have found that what works on say tenor trombone in the middle register also works in its highest and lower registers, and further that it works on higher and lower pitched instruments as well.”

As above, so below.

Or, to put it country simple…there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

There is always more than one way to do anything.

You want the ultimate in safety and control in your playing?

By all means strive to eliminate your shifts, but be prepared to pay the price in other aspects of your playing.

More of an outlaw or adventurer by nature?

Go whole hog plus postage. Go for it; devil take the hindmost and more power to you.

Or…like most of us…find some habitable middle ground and settle on in.

The Goldilocks choice.

Not too shifty, not too stable.

Juuuusssst right!!!



P.S. There is indeed more than one way to skin a cat, but the resultant pelt will differ with every style of cat-skinning, just as it will differ with every individual cat that is skinned.

Even Schrödinger’s l’il ol’ cat.

So here we are with a topic called “Shifts…. yes, no, why, why not ?”, yet there is no existent definition of a “shift” upon which we can all agree.

So…back to the Mandelbot set/fractal idea.

On one end of this spectrum, we have this concept as I have expressed in many times in many different places:

“There is no change in a note…not in terms of timbre, not in terms of volume nor in terms of pitch…without a change (a ‘shift’) of some sort.”

On the other we have the “one embouchure” approach as expressed by the fine trombonist, teacher and m’pce maker/designer Doug Elliott who studied with Donald Reinhardt for a number of years:

“I have always used the term ‘one embouchure’ as Reinhardt did, meaning one placement on the lips without shifting, but with the necessary motion against the teeth to play the range. Also staying within one ‘embouchure type’ without reversing motion or air direction.”

“Many players DO reverse motion or air direction, but I consider consistency of those factors to be of primary importance in my own playing and in my teaching. Consistency of mechanics leads to consistency of results.”


As is evidenced with the Schrödinger’s cat/indeterminacy principle, there really are no hard and fast answers here as far as I can see.

Is the cat dead or alive?

Does the player use “shifts” and if so in what manner?

Same question; same difficulty, same answer.


Again, Wikipedia.

“To further illustrate the putative incompleteness of quantum mechanics, Schrödinger applied quantum mechanics to a living entity that may or may not be conscious. In Schrödinger’s original thought experiment he describes how one could, in principle, transform a superposition inside an atom to a large-scale superposition of a live and dead cat by coupling cat and atom with the help of a ‘diabolical mechanism.’ He proposed a scenario with a cat in a sealed box, where the cat’s life or death was dependent on the state of a subatomic particle. According to Schrödinger, the Copenhagen interpretation implies that the cat remains both alive and dead until the box is opened.”

The problem here lies in the opening of the box, because as soon as you try to observe what is going on the experiment is at an end. Instead of remaining an ongoing process, you have pinned it to a specimen board like a butterfly.

The cat is suddenly either alive or dead.

The embouchure is suddenly either one that shifts or one that does not shift.

The butterfly is either a fluttering, stutter-stepping, hard-to-catch entity or it is a dead duck kind of butterfly, and if you have a sensitive enough nose you will also find that it is beginning to smell bad as well. A problem shared by all two-dimensional thinking once your mental nose gets sensitive enough to deal with the true indeterminacy of it all.

And I do mean “of it all”.

Which brings us…me, anyway…right back to Carmine Caruso’s approach.

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“Just do this exercise. please. In good time.”


From an article that I wrote called Carmine Caruso-A Brief Overview. (Part of my Out Of The Case/Letters From New York/ series which I am gradually putting up here on my website.):


To illustrate [Carmine’s] consistent refusal to put words on things pertaining to playing, here, as an example, is a reconstructed (and slightly formalized) dialogue gleaned from my many lessons w/Carmine. (C=Carmine, S=student. Or “Sam” if you want to be precise about it in this instance.):

S-”I think I need more support.”

C-”Support? What IS support?”

S-”Well, EVERYBODY knows what ’support’ is. Support is what you do w/your diaphragm when you’re playing.”

C-”Diaphragm? Where IS your diaphragm? Can you see it? Feel it? Separate it from all the OTHER muscles down there?”

S-”The diaphragm is the muscle you use when you’re breathing ‘correctly’.”

C-”Correctly? Do you mean you can breathe ‘incorrectly’? If you were to breathe ‘incorrectly’, you’d asphyxiate.”

And so on…this would continue around any number of subjects until the student tired of “thinking about playing”, at which point Carmine would give him an exercise or metaphor that would indeed help him do whatever it is he wanted to do “correctly”. Regarding breathing, for example, I remember him saying that if you wanted to know what “correct” breathing LOOKED like, observe an infant breathing in the crib. If you wanted to know what a full breath FELT like, yawn. If you wanted to know what good support felt like, you had to observe your own body when certain of his exercises were going well.

I can’t say enough about this reversal from common practice teaching. ALL the common teaching words…”SUPPORT” “EMBOUCHURE”, “CORNERS” “CORRECT”, “GOOD”, “TONGUE”, “DIAPHRAGM”, “OPEN”, “DARK”, “BRIGHT”, etc….are merely metaphors, code words for what we really experience. I’m not saying words are unimportant, but I am saying that the experience of playing in a certain way and the description, the map of that particular concept, are radically different, and that further, any given “experience” is different for every human being, and can even be “different” for any one human being from one day (or minute) to the next.

One of Schrödinger’s smarter cats, it seems to me.

Carmine Caruso.

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Bet on it.

Later…gotta run.

I’m on the early “shift” today, myself.

Have fun…


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