Close-knit brass section: '12 sweaters so far'
Jim Markey, trombonist: 'A great career'
(CNN) -- This is the ninth entry in an exclusive 10-part series at CNN Career, on the working lives of musicians who play with the New York Philharmonic, one of the world's premiere symphony orchestras.
This week's player: Jim Markey, associate principal trombone.
Like many of his Philharmonic colleagues, Jim Markey went to The Juilliard School -- but he didn't finish: At the end of his sophomore year, he won the position of principal trombone with the Pittsburgh Symphony. He was 20 years old.
Two years later, he joined the New York Philharmonic, as assistant principal trombone. For the past four years, he has been a member of the orchestra's renowned brass section. He practices religiously. He teaches promising young trombone players who are only a few years younger than he is. And when he's not practicing or teaching, or putting a new sheen of Trombotine on his trombone slide, he knits -- cable-knit sweaters with complex patterns. "I like to work with my hands," he says.
Did you choose trombone -- or were you "guided" to it by a band director who needed trombone players?
It was definitely an instrument that I chose. When I was in fourth grade, the elementary school students went up to the middle school, and we heard a trio of musicians demonstrate different instruments. The trio played the theme to "Star Wars" on the flute, saxophone, and trombone - that got me!
When I hit fifth grade, it was a big deal, because now I was allowed to choose an instrument, and play in fifth-grade band. I started playing trombone. I was fascinated with the trombone, the fact that it had this big slide -- I just thought it was neat. And I really liked the sound. There are times when I just love the sweetness - and other times when I love the heroism, so to speak, of the sound.
How hard was it to learn to play the trombone -- which doesn't have keys to press, or frets to indicate where the notes are?
Probably the most difficult aspect is working with the slide. Every other brass instrument has valves -- to play a note, you press down a valve. The trombone has the complexities of both a string instrument and a brass instrument. With a string instrument, you have four different strings, on which you can play many notes; the trombone has seven positions, and you have the ability to play numerous notes at each position.
It can be a challenge to play. When you move the slide, you have the possibility of getting what we call "smears" -- a slide into a note. You have to articulate certain notes and connections to avoid a smear.
But the mouthpiece is a nice size -- about an inch and a quarter (in diameter). The trumpet mouthpiece is really small, and the tuba's is really large -- it can cover a large area of your face. I know a tubist who actually has a little dent (under) his nose. Playing the tuba since fourth or fifth grade has dug up into his cartilage, and caused a permanent dent.
You have a red, half-moon mark over the center of your upper lip - is that permanent?
That goes away after I stop practicing, but that's what happens with this instrument -- you're constantly pressing flesh between bone and metal.
'To play at this level'
How did you get from fifth-grade band to the New York Philharmonic?
I grew up in Hopatcong, New Jersey, a fairly blue-collar town, where athletics were very important -- music wasn't necessarily important. There were approximately 700 students in my high school, and my first year, we had a high school band of 40. By my last year, we were down to 28. Marching band was worse. We had a little joke: we called it the Hopatcong High School Marching Flute Ensemble -- because there were 17 people in the marching band, and eight of them were flutists.
I began practicing seriously in the middle of my freshman year in high school. I enjoyed music so much that I just wanted to become better at the instrument. I began taking some music lessons with a local music teacher and a trombonist in the area -- they provided me with an excellent foundation for the basics of trombone playing.
I started to compete at area, regional and all-state levels -- and I happened to meet my mentor, Joseph Alessi, the principal trombonist of the (New York) Philharmonic. In a class, I got to play for him, and work with him. And his playing -- it was on an entirely different level than I thought was even possible on the instrument. It made me say, "you know, I'd really like to play at this level -- I'd like to at least pursue it."
When did you first play in an orchestra?
Our high school didn't have an orchestral program. My first really powerful orchestra experience was when I went to Interlochen (music camp in Michigan), at the end of my junior year in high school. It was a really top-drawer high school ensemble, a group of musicians who were all aspiring to play at a professional level. Those first rehearsals in the orchestra were just astounding! I always liked orchestral music because unlike band, it had only one person on a part. I liked that because I always felt like my part was a little more important -- I was the only one covering it.
I graduated from Hopatcong High School in 1993, and I went to The Juilliard School for my undergraduate degree. I actually spent only two years there, from '93 to '95, and that ended my college. When I was a sophomore, I was offered the position as principal trombonist in the Pittsburgh Symphony. So I went out there and played for two years. And then I came to the Philharmonic in 1997, as assistant principal trombone.
Was it in any way difficult to move from your position as principal trombone to assistant principal?
The opportunity to play for the New York Philharmonic was a really big draw -- it's the oldest orchestra in the United States, and certainly one of the most well-known. Pittsburgh was a wonderful town, the orchestra is great, and they have a wonderful, appreciative audience. But the opportunity to come to New York and play in this brass section -- which is certainly one of the best brass sections in the world, and is arguably the best -- is like a ballplayer getting an opportunity to play with the New York Yankees. You take the opportunity -- even if it's in a back-up catcher, designated-hitter kind of role.
What makes the Philharmonic's brass section so superior?
First of all, we have a complement of very fine musicians, across the board. Second, there is tremendous cooperation between principal players and between sections: we all want each individual section to sound great, and we want the brass section as a whole to sound great -- and every person is willing to put in extra time to make that happen.
'Good relations with the neighbors'
How much time do you put in -- how much do you practice?
I practice daily -- I try not to miss a day. I've always found that it's better for me to stick with a regimen: at least two hours a day, if not three. When I'm preparing for a solo or for recitals, I up my practicing, increase the time I spend at each (practice) session, in order to get my muscles used to working hard for a longer period of time. Ordinarily, I practice in 45- to 60-minute sessions, but when I'm preparing for something like a recital, I may practice in 75- to 90-minute sessions.
I usually start no earlier than 10:30 a.m., and I usually end my practicing before 5 o'clock -- I try to limit the time I spend on my horn in my apartment, to keep good relations with the neighbors. I haven't had any complaints. I think the walls are pretty good -- I don't hear my neighbors much.
Do you have a set practice routine?
I really vary my routines. In a week when we're (rehearsing) a lot of loud playing, I have to spend a lot of time practicing soft playing -- because I'm playing loud in the orchestra, I don't need to practice loud. I need to balance what I'm doing.
I frequently play scales. Scales on the trombone are a great way to check intonation, and double-check and triple-check, because we can get into the habit of playing a certain note a little sharp or a little flat. One thing I do regularly is turn on a tape recorder and record myself. Tape recorders don't lie, especially about things like intonation and rhythm.
For a difficult or fast passage, what I do is break it down into the smallest components I can that are reasonable. For example, if I've got a measure full of 16 sixteenth notes, I'll break it down -- four sixteenth notes or five sixteenth notes at a time. And I'll practice those few notes until I get it clean, and then move on to the next four or five sixteenth-notes, and practice that until I get it clean. Just yesterday, I spent 30 minutes practicing a passage that'll go by in about two seconds.
You do need to be a perfectionist in the practice room. But in performance, mistakes are going to happen -- as much as we don't like it when they do. They are going to happen. It's part of live performance.
How easy is it to make a mistake on the trombone -- and how obvious is it when you do?
When I "cack" -- make a mistake -- it's definitely evident. It's one person on a part, so if one person makes a mistake, the entire part is wrong. There are also multiple notes played with one slide position, and that allows mistakes to happen easier -- it's not just one set note that you can play in that position.
How would you characterize the majority of the parts you play? What is the role of the trombone in most orchestral music?
It's usually to provide a good backdrop for the melody, which is played by other instruments. When you study trombone seriously, you realize its role in the orchestra: you're the back-up -- you know, going in, that your job is as support staff.
Do you think a certain kind of person -- a "team player" personality -- is drawn to the trombone?
If trombone doesn't draw a certain kind of person, then playing trombone draws certain characteristics out of a person: cooperation, a desire to work together. That's why there's such great camaraderie among trombonists, no matter where you go. There's a real effort to play together and make it sound right -- and there's not the feeling that one voice is more important than the other.
That said, do you ever find yourself wishing you had more solos, or that the trombones had the melody more often?
Sometimes. It would be great to get some of these beautiful violin themes, or the solos that come up for winds. But there are certain composers who do an exceptional job of drawing out some of the beautiful characteristics of the trombone: Brahms writes beautiful trombone chorales. Bruckner writes some beautifully spaced chords that really sit well with the instrument -- his brass lines are some of the most wonderful. And of course, somebody like Wagner brings out the most heroic aspects of the instrument.
Tell me about the instrument you play -- do you own only one trombone, or several?
I own three trombones. The one I use pretty much all the time -- for rehearsal, performance and solos -- is an Edwards (by Getzen), which I bought new in September of 1997, just before I started with the orchestra full time. Generally, (trombonists) find it preferable to buy new instruments. Buying the Edwards was a very good experience: You go out to the factory in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and you try out all that they have, and then you come home with something that you like.
Mine is a professional-line instrument, which is different from a student instrument in its assembly. When you buy less expensive instruments, they're thrown together on an assembly line; they're less individual. The professional-line instrument is much more meticulously assembled -- they're designed to be more consistent. Generally speaking, professional-quality trombones start with a list price of a little under $2,000, to maybe $3,000. Instruments made in the United States tend to be cheaper than foreign-made instruments -- the ones from Germany, for example, can go for as much as $6,000 or $7,000.
What do you have to do to maintain your trombone?
You have to regularly oil it, grease the slide. You grease it with a mixture called Trombotine -- it's very much like cold cream.
The biggest thing is the main slide: you have to be very careful about dents. It's not hard to dent -- it's a fairly soft metal. If you happen to whack it against the side of a (music) stand, it's very easy to have just a little dent -- and that's large enough to impede your slide: The inner tube at its widest point might only be a few thousandths smaller than the outer tube.
You have to be meticulous about getting dents out when they happen -- you take it to the trombone repairmen, and they hammer them out. There are a couple of people in New York you can go to, and there's a gentleman in Atlanta who's very well known for his trombone repair. People will package up their slides and send them down to him. It happens. With me, it tends to happen in spells: I won't do any nicks for a few months or a year and, all of a sudden, I'll have this spell of a month where I nick it three or four times.
What about the spit valve?
You have to empty the spit valve regularly. I've just gotten into the habit: before I play any passage, I empty it. Actually, we usually call it a "water key" -- what comes out is mostly condensation that comes from the instrument heating up when you play, and then cooling down when you're not playing. I left my horn out in the living room last night, and I always empty my water key before I set my horn down. I came back this morning, and I had to empty it - and it was amazing how much came out, just because of the condensation that formed as the instrument got down to room temperature after it had been at near my body temperature.
What do you have to do to maintain yourself to play at peak level?
I do two sets of 50 sit-ups and two sets of 50 push-ups each day, primarily to keep the abdominal muscles in shape for when we have a heavy week. And my family has a history of joint problems, so I do extensive walking. I haven't had joint problems yet, although occasionally, if I'm practicing very fast passages that require me to move the slide a lot, I'll get a little bit of elbow irritation -- Trombone Elbow.
Do you do anything in particular to keep your mouth and lips in good condition?
Chapped lips are a very nasty problem. When your lips crack, it makes them very sore, and it's hard to play. And as brass players, we lick our lips more frequently -- the nature of playing our instruments is, have our lips wet, then dry; wet, then dry. That can exacerbate chapped lips.
Do you have any special pre-performance rituals?
No. I used to try to do different things the night before a performance, especially before auditions -- get to bed earlier, or really watch what I eat, or practice less. I think the more you change what you're used to, the easier it is to be uncomfortable -- and ultimately, what's most important in performance is that you're comfortable and relaxed. So I keep to my schedule, my routine. That makes me more comfortable when I go out on stage, because I haven't had all this time beforehand to think "Oh, goodness, my recital's today. I wonder how it's going to go?"
I still get nervous -- it's totally natural for musicians to get nervous. Once I learned that I will be nervous, I've really learned to deal with it in a positive way. I find my nerves help me far more frequently than they hinder me. They help me focus.
Yes, folks, he knits
Do you do anything else to relax -- do you have any pastimes or hobbies?
Yes -- I knit. I started knitting when I first got into the Philharmonic, as a way to kill time. My wife was still in Pittsburgh, finishing up her undergraduate degree, and we were separated for eight or nine months.
My wife gave me the idea: She'd said she was going to knit me a sweater, and she gave me a picture of the sweater she was going to knit. I decided to beat her to the punch and make a sweater for her. I went to a yarn shop in New York City and told them I wanted to make a sweater, and they said, "Your first project is going to be a sweater? Why don't you start with a scarf or something?" But I didn't want to make a scarf -- I wanted a sweater. I had a book, "Vogue Knitting," that was pretty good, and I learned to knit that way. That first year I made five sweaters. I've probably made a total of 12 sweaters so far, most of them made when the orchestra goes on tour.
I don't know if there's a connection between my knitting and my trombone playing. I guess I approach them the same way: when I go for something, I go for broke. I did that with knitting and I did that with trombone. I like turning a pattern into a sweater, and turning music from the page into sound. And I like to work with my hands -- that's something else I do with both my music and with my knitting. If I lived somewhere other than a New York City apartment, I'd take up woodworking -- I just don't have the space for a workbench.
What's your average work week like?
Our schedule is so unique -- it's not 9-to-5. We have concerts at night, so we're usually working when others are out doing their social functions, or are with their families. When people are going to movies on a Saturday night, we're playing Bruckner or Brahms or Mozart.
In addition to rehearsals and concerts, I teach in The Juilliard School pre-college program. I feel it's an obligation. I think it's important, when you achieve something like the Philharmonic, to give back to students. And I think I have something to impart to young musicians. First of all, I've been there. I mean, I just graduated from high school seven years ago. I'm able to say, "I'm very much like you are; I was in the same shoes you are, seven years ago." It's an incentive for them, I think -- they can look at you and think, "if success can happen to one person, it can happen again."
Is your wife also a musician - and does that matter?
Elizabeth is a harpist - she just got her master's degree in harp performance from Juilliard. I think musicians gravitate to musicians, partly because musicians understand each other. It's very difficult to get someone who's not a musician to fully understand the dedication that it takes -- for example, how easy it is to get out of shape if I don't practice. And how hard it is to take a vacation.
Other people might be able to put their work in the desk for a week; come back, and still be able to do it -- you know, an attorney is not going to forget contract law. But musicians are kind of like athletes: the best athletes don't take breaks. They continue working, and trying to get stronger, faster. Same way with us.
Do you ever take a vacation from the trombone?
Sometimes I will take a week off, but I'll more often take it with me. I took it on a trip to a friend's wedding -- we drove 30 hours straight, from New York to Houston. And whenever we pulled into a rest area on the highway, I just went into the park area and pulled out my horn and played. I don't think very many people heard me -- when you're outdoors and there aren't any reflective surfaces, the sound doesn't carry very far.
What's the reaction of most people when you tell them what you do?
It usually goes along the lines of: "What do you do?" And I say, "I'm a musician." And then it's, "Oh, well, what do you do for money?" -- like I couldn't possibly make a living at this. When I mention that I play for the New York Philharmonic, some people say "Wow!" -- and some people say, "New York Philharmonic? Is that an orchestra?" It depends on where I am.
What are your career goals? Do you hope to be principal trombone with the Philharmonic someday?
I think my ultimate aspirations are to get a principal position in one of the Big Five orchestras -- New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, or Boston. But I'm enjoying what I'm doing now. If I was in this position as associate principal for 30 years, that would be a great career. It's a fantastic experience to be a musician -- there are so many rewards. But ultimately, I get to be a part of what I think is one of God's greatest gifts to us -- and that is music.
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