Interview with James Nova, Trombonist (En)

(10. 03. 2018, made by Ellen Moysan in Pittsburgh, PA, USA; transcribed and edited by Joel & Dana Boyer)

James Nova


EM: I looked at your soundcloud and it is a very successful one, congratulations!

JN: 750,000 listens!

That started cause I’m the second trombone player in the symphony, but I’m also the utility player, which is just a fancy way of saying I’m the Mr. Fix it of the section, when someone’s sick for example, I play the bass trombone sometimes, it depends on what the needs are. I used to play in the Utah symphony, where I was just the assistant principal trombone player, I didn’t do any of that switching around. When I got the job here I bought a bass trombone and learned how to play it and, even though it looks similar, it’s very different, bigger, more air, has another valve, the intonation and the valve are very different. It might be like a cellist playing double bass, the mechanics are similar but it’s very different.

EM: It requires more physical strength from you?

JN: It’s a little heavier, but I think the physical strength is probably the same, it’s the air, you use up much more air faster.

EM: How do you work on that, the air difference?

JN: When you practice, you have a sound in your head that you want and you work towards getting that sound, so you do exercises and routines to get stronger and realize how much air it takes to play, just simple things, the push-ups and sit-ups of playing the instrument: playing long tones and scales to realize how different it is to play.

EM: So you shape your sound more specifically with air. With cello it’s different, you work with your fingers.

JN: It’s the lips that vibrate, that make the sounds, the air causes the lips to vibrate against each other. Everybody’s teeth and mouths and jaws is different. You can have two people pick up the same trombone and sound completely different.

EM: Actually, one reason I started this research is that I realized that my cello sounded different when when someone else was playing, and I was wondering why. One of my questions had to do with the notion of touch and what makes my sound personal. With you it’s the way you are physically made?

JN: Yes, I mean, you can work to make those things better and change them. There are two kinds of equipment changes, when you change your equipment such as your mouthpiece, the different metals, yellow or gold brass, or the trombone maker. Some changes have a positive effect immediately. Right away you hear, ‘oh, that’s much better!’ On the other hand, other changes don’t sound better at first, but it’s going to make you go in a direction that you will eventually be better. For example: when I was a kid, I played a small bore trombone – the bore is the size of the tube – it was a student model instrument, very inexpensive, very rugged for a kid, and then when I got older, my teacher said, ‘he’s outgrown this instrument, he needs a real, professional instrument now.’ And I switched to this instrument which was bigger, the mouthpiece was bigger, and at first I couldn’t play as high, I couldn’t play as low, I couldn’t play as long, it was hard to get a good articulation, a good sound, but eventually it was much better than the previous instrument.

EM: I see.

Miles Davis, the famous trumpet player, has a saying, ‘Sometimes you have to play for a long time before you can sound like yourself.’

And I love that, because inside that phrase is the essence of what it means to be a musician, why we’re never happy, why we’re always trying to move forward, trying to get better, change things. You’re never done. When my old teacher at the Curtis Institute ( retired, everybody said, ‘oh, are you gonna stop playing cause you retired from the orchestra?’ He said, ‘The day I stop getting better, is the day I will stop playing.’

EM: A cellist once told me, “My instrument is just a piece of wood’ but I disagree with that. I have a very special relationship with my cello and I think it’s not only a tool. Actually, a musician told me, ‘I stopped playing because I stopped having this connection with my instrument.’  So when you say that it’s hard at the beginning and then you start getting better, does that mean you have to get used to the instrument and build this relationship?

JN: When I joined this orchestra, even though I’d won the audition, my whole first year I was switching mouthpieces, bells, to try to match the sound better that the orchestra makes and also be able to be comfortable with those changes. The Pittsburgh Orchestra is a very high-energy orchestra. I always tell people who come to hear the orchestra for the first time, you’re never gonna be bored at a Pittsburgh Symphony concert. You might be shocked, but never bored.

EM: So, does that mean that when you get into the orchestra you have to adjust your sound with the section sound, or with the whole orchestra?

JN: Both, actually. I’m not sure if everyone feels this way. The principal player sets the tone for the whole section, they are the trend setter. But I think everybody has an adjustment when they get here. When you make a change of equipment or your instrument of some kind, there’s that quick, short-term change that you feel right away, and also how you feel six months after you make that change. It’s an interesting relationship. To me, it’s not just a piece of metal. I still have all the instruments I’ve ever played.

EM: Do you think that we find our sound once, and then it remains the same, or are we always making small changes and our personal sound is evolving?

JN: I think, especially early in our career, like when I was younger, for my undergraduate degree, everyone played a certain make of instrument, and when I got to graduate school, I thought the sound is a little too harsh, a little too bright, I wanted something darker, a richer sound, so I switched instruments, mouthpieces, and slowly I found a good fit and I stayed on that for a while, and then, when I got here, I realized how bright the sound is here, it’s a really brilliant sound and I thought, I’m having to work so hard to do that, that I need to change again. I remember coming to work with a new bell that was a lot brighter, and one of the trumpet players turned around and said “Oh, equipment changes! What took you so long?” Every brass player goes through a change here.

EM: Right. So, if coming here changed your sound, that means that it influenced the work you have outside of the orchestra, like in chamber music? You let yourself be shaped by the orchestra?

JN: Yeah, that’s your primary artistic output. Occasionally I’ll play with my old orchestra in Utah, I remember going back and forgetting how different they play from the Pittsburgh orchestra.

EM: What is the role of the conductor in shaping the sound of the orchestra? It’s interesting, the orchestra has its own sound, but then the conductor is also influencing it? How much does the conductor change the sound of the orchestra?

JN: Even if you have the most basic conductor, just a traffic cop, who’s not really very exciting, the orchestra will play up to a certain level on its own, but if you have a really dynamic conductor, they can get the orchestra to a certain level that it can’t by itself, they will unlock a certain excitement and unified idea about what they want. The conductor should be selfless, it should not be about them, it should be about the music being brought to life in the most exciting and interesting way? Here we are playing the same pieces year in, year out, but every performance sounds different. We just did the Shostakovitch 5th Symphony with Krzysztof Urbanski and the recording that won the Grammy this year was recorded five years ago, and when you listen to the recordings, they sound very different.

EM: It’s with the same conductor?

JN: No, different conductor. Same orchestra, different conductor.

EM: So how does it happen? It’s a very interesting idea that the conductor is unlocking something.

JN: Sometimes they will share their own story with what they know of the piece, or say, ‘I want this to sound this way because I want it to make this story, depict this scene.

EM: So they work with your imagination.

JN: Yes, I’ll show you an example. Urbanski and Honek have very different ideas about the last movement of the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. (plays recording 1)

EM: Yeah!

JN: Now, this is with Urbanski a few months ago, and he said, ‘I want the opening to sound like the secret police, the KGB, are at your door.’ So, it’s a completely different idea. (Plays recording) It’s slow.

EM: That’s very slow.

JN: See what I mean? Same orchestra, totally different ideas, and is one right or wrong? There’s a couple of things I didn’t like that he did style-wise, but I liked the fact that he had a very clear idea of what he wanted. And, you know, we are the car, he’s the driver. I had a lot of experience with the Boston Orchestra Symphony when I was a student there, and they are much more subdued and refined. The Boston Symphony now is like this beautiful Mercedes E class that is very refined and smooth, but the PSO is like a BMW M3 that has a Check Engine light on and you’re worried that the engine might blow up, but it’s going to make 700 horse power and that is just going to make you so thrilled and excited.

EM: What kind of adjectives would you use for the PSO?

JN: It’s very powerful, it goes to extremes. I’ve never played softer than I play in this orchestra and I’ve never played louder. But I’ve also never had so much fun, cause it’s so exciting and we get along so well.

EM: I think people can feel that. Probably more than other sections of the orchestra, your section is very much connected with the identity of the orchestra.

JN: There’s always a kind of unspoken conflict there, the string players think the brass players play too loud, but at the end of the day, we’re just going for the most exciting product, we’re not just trying to play loud.

EM: So, do you work specifically on the sound, like when you work at home and prepare something for the orchestra or for chamber music, how does the sound become fuller for brass instruments?

JN: Well, with brass it’s definitely about how you use your mouth and your embouchure and your air, how open your throat is when you’re playing and also how hard you’re pushing, cause if you’re pushing too hard against your teeth, it kind of makes the sound tighter.

EM: And breathing?

JN: The way you breathe sets up the sound. When I’m playing solo, I have a couple of different types of breaths. A lot of brass players will rely entirely on the rhythm breath to play in time and that is not always enough time to fill up completely. And if you watch someone like Bill Caballero, the principal horn player, he does something that he calls getting rid of stale air. Before a solo, he exhales, then inhales so it’s all fresh air that he just took in and gets rid of any stale air in his lungs. I combine those and I do three breaths when I have a big solo, I always get rid of the dead air (exhales) and then I slowly start (breathes) and then I do my rhythm breaths, 3 motions. That’s what I teach and that’s what I do.

EM: So the second one gives the impulse?

JN: The third one actually gives the impulse. The first one is clear out the dead air. Now you breathe slowly in to fill up. And then number three. And you do them all together. Doesn’t that make your whole body feel kind of relaxed? And then that translates to the sound, makes the sound much more easy and warm. But I only do that when I have something high stress, a solo, or exposed or a concert. But in a normal concert or passage I don’t necessarily do it that way.

EM: So is there a rhythm breath that is always there?

JN: Yeah, everyone does that most of the time. But I feel that you don’t always get a good breath that way.

EM:  Actually it’s interesting, I usually start the interview by asking, what do you understand by inner song, and Philip Pandolfi and he says that it’s the small breath that you take before playing. So I guess for him the sound in my mind is this moment of connection with the instrument. Would you agree with that? It’s the way I describe the music inside of me, but maybe that’s not the best expression, it’s just the one I use because I never found a better one.

JN: Well, when you boil it down, musicians are storytellers but we’re using our sound to tell a story. Composers usually have something they want to say through that music. Maybe there are times when those pieces don’t have any specific story, like an opera has a specific story.

EM: And before, Romanticism.

JN: Yeah, some of those pieces are purely music, but there is some story there is some excitement or urgency or sadness, you know, there’s something there beyond just, oh, I’m writing cool sounding music. I teach this system I learned from Norman Bolter called the overlay system and it’s the idea that music and art can be seen through three layers which connect: the first is the technique, the mechanics: good breathing, good sound, can I play these notes, what is my range; the second is intellect: your choice making: OK, I see a forte in Mozart, that’s different from a forte in Mahler, basically reading the script, the text; many musicians stop here. The last layer is the overlay, that is integration and art, and that’s when all those techniques and everything blends together, and now you tell the story of the piece, and that’s hard to get to, express with words. I think it was Mendelsohn who said that music is a much more specific language than words. People can misunderstand words but music is kind of hard to misunderstand, it’s a much more precise language. And many times I will find a third overlay solution for a first overlay problem. If I want this piece to sound this way, the technique will follow. I find a musical solution for technical problems.

EM: Interesting. When you listen to recitals with different students for the same piece of music, some sound musical and some are playing very well, but it doesn’t move you, so that would probably be the lack of the third layer, right?

JN: Yeah, and they don’t have a real connection. You’ll see some players who have incredible technique but are not really doing much with it. And I would much rather listen to someone who is maybe not technically perfect but is more exciting. But there has to be a basic level of ability and a certain level of quality.

EM: The way people approach talent here is very different than in France. I think people tend to think more of inner music as something that you can build, like you can ‘become’ a good musician, whereas in France I feel you either are or you aren’t. So if you see someone who had a very good technique and doesn’t move you, cannot express a lot, how would you work with this person?

JN: Well, first I’ll ask them what are they are they thinking about while they play. Do you have a story for this piece? If the music doesn’t mean anything to you, how is it going to mean anything to anyone else? It’s just notes for you, it’s just math. Geometry, you’re just fitting the notes into the right patterns. You can take something like a Bach fugue that has no overt story, but you can give it a story.

You can say, I want this to have more urgency, more excitement, to sound more noble, or like a parade or something. The best part about that is that when you have a story of the piece that you want to play, a lot of times you forget about the difficulties of the technique. I find that really fascinating, that your mind can work on that level. I think our minds are much more complex and capable of doing things on a high level than we let it.

EM: Actually, I also think that’s something that you have to unlock and it’s not only by images because sometimes you have so much to say but you don’t know how to say it. Sometimes you don’t have the tools to say it, sometimes you’re fighting against your instrument. I think that a lot of your music skill is built with you, your instrument and your teacher, so your teacher’s impact is huge and sometimes it can block you. I think there’s also something to do with the instrument and your fear of expressing something. So, maybe in this way, the story is not everything.

JN: Oh, yeah, those layers, I always encourage my students, and I do it as well, to practice separately and actually spend time on each layer. When I practice every day I have an exercise routine that helps me not worry if I have the strength to play this high or the range to play this passage, can I play this faster, do I have the endurance to play a whole concert, that exercise routine is my daily practice. It’s also my chance to take a thermometer of what’s happening: I can say, this part of my playing is strong today, this part is not, I need to be careful if I play anything in this range because when I was doing my routine it didn’t feel so good. I do my routine first thing, before rehearsal.

EM: So what is the routine? How long does it take?

JN: It takes about 30-40 minutes. But if I do it really carefully, it can take over an hour. With the students, I give them drones that I recorded, sustained sound that they can tune against, and it’s every key, open fifths, major, minor, so 36 drones. And you can put them in any order you want. And the routine is about 5 pages and if you do it carefully it takes about an hour.

EM: One musician said to me once, ‘I knew that a friend of mine passed away and I had to play something very happy on stage and I had this conflict between the mood of the piece and my own mood. So, is this something you have to manage? And the second thing I want to ask you is about pitch, the way you hear, which is something that looks like talent, right? Some people have good pitch, some people have bad pitch, they don’t understand, they’re not in tune, and the trombone is an extreme instrument, you have to be very good at that.

JN: You have ultimate control of the pitch, yeah. Intonation, some people have it and others don’t. The expression ‘tone deaf’ is not really true, no one’s tone deaf, it’s just that some people are not as good at picking up those things. But if someone was tone deaf, if they were to answer the phone and their father or mother was on the phone, they would not know who that is, unless they said, you know? Some people are quicker and better at being able to adjust pitch and then some people have perfect pitch. Which is always kind of strange to me, because that was very flexible in the Baroque era. What was considered an A in one region, could be 460 and then you take a horse cart to the next village and it’s 430, that’s the way they tuned. So, to me, perfect pitch is kind of strange, I don’t have perfect pitch but I know that’s an A, and that’s because I’ve just sort of memorized it.

EM: Perfect pitch is about memory, I think. You memorize the name with the frequency.

JN: I say to my students that intonation is not a destination, it’s a lifestyle, it’s not an arrival. You don’t practice until, ‘Now I’m in tune, I don’t have to work on it anymore.’ Intonation is a constant adjustment.

EM: Especially for the brass section. In the orchestra, if you play out of tune, and you play very loud and you have a solo, everybody knows.

JN: You know, a string section, if it doesn’t play in tune, the sound doesn’t project. In-tune sound projects much quicker. Out of tune sound disrupts itself, the energy waves kind of bump against each other and they distort each other. If you were to hear two players play something out of tune with each other, and then have it tune it, it becomes stronger because it’s in tune.

EM: The sound is brighter.

JN: Or just more uniform, more connected, stronger. And that’s what I always struggle with when I’m doing my recordings, I’m always going for that kind of intonation, because you have total control of the slide.

EM: And do you help yourself with your voice, do you sing, in general when you are working, studying a piece?

JN: Sometimes.

EM: What would be the relationship between your own voice and the voice of your instrument?

JN: My singing voice is very short ranged. We did 3 years of solfege at Curtis for undergrad. There were days when I would practice more my solfege than I did my instrument.

EM: Actually, I think these solfege exercises have a huge influence on the inner song, how I hear music.  Do you hear the name of the notes when you play, or not at all?

JN: No, for me, I don’t need to know the name of the notes, but I do hear the function of the note really well. When I’m playing in the orchestra, I don’t need to write above ‘I have the third of a chord’, I can hear I have the third of the chord. I know I have to bring it down slightly and play a little softer than everyone else in order for it to ring properly.

EM: So, you hear the harmony, instead of just the melody?

JN: Yeah, I try to hear that way, especially when I’m playing in the orchestra.

EM: Do you learn music by A, B, C, D, or La, Si, Do, Re, Mi?

JN: At Curtis, we used fixed Do, C is always Do, whereas I think here they teach movable Do, where Do is the tonic of the key. I think it’s weird to have Do not be a C. That means, when you look at F major, that an F is a Do, that’s to teach a function, that Do is the root of the chord. I see the value in it, and I think they’re getting to the same goal, but I don’t like it.

EM: So, if you had to describe what you picture in your mind when you play, it’s the story that you’re telling, and what else?

JN: When I’m performing I try to only think about what I want this to say, what do I want the listener to experience? What am I trying to communicate?  It’s why I like the movie music so much, because it’s very clear what the expression is.

EM: So you’re oriented towards the public?

JN: But I also enjoy it for myself, I enjoy expressing the story to myself, it’s like reading a good book. If I’m playing a piece, I don’t necessarily have to have an audience to enjoy it. But when I play concerts, I think, wow, what must the audience be experiencing!

EM: When it comes time for you to judge what you have done, and especially when you record things and have this capacity to change the past, what makes the difference, is it the energy that you gave, that you think maybe this one was too flat, or too upbeat?

JN: It has to be a certain minimum level. I don’t mind when I’m recording, if something’s not perfectly exactly together, or not perfectly in tune, because you can chase those things forever and never get it right. There’s a certain amount of intonation and rhythm accuracy I will allow, but I will not allow boring playing. That’s why in the album I released of trombone ensemble recordings of Star Wars music, I chose those tracks because of the story they tell, how this character goes from being a little boy to being the most famous villain in the universe. And how John Williams tells that story through the music, I just find it fascinating.

EM: And do those stories meet your own story? Because I remember reading an interview with a young French pianist saying. ‘When I play a piece of music, I remember something from my childhood or something from my own history and this memory is what I’m playing.’ For you, is it more imagining a new story, or is it connected with your own memory?

JN: I definitely hit pieces of it, where it overlaps a little bit, and then the empathy takes care of the rest, empathizing with the character, the story. It doesn’t mean that I have to have had those experiences, but I can imagine what it would be like to have those experiences. Take something like the Wagner Ring Cycle operas, I don’t have to have a ring of power to empathize with what it would be like if I did. But when I play certain pieces, I definitely reflect on personal experiences in order to activate a certain passion. It doesn’t mean that that’s what the composer was writing about, they could have been writing about something very different.

But this is why I love music so much, because it can be so universal and personal, at the same time. The same performance can mean something different to two different people. When I was a kid, my father used to put records on and play the music and tell me the story of the piece, so music became very visual for me.

EM: So you learned music from your father? How did you get in touch with music?

JN: At a very young age classical music was playing in the house, and he would tell the story of the piece, so music became about stories, about visual things. My father plays the accordion and writes music.

EM: So he’s the one who taught you how to visualize music.

JN: And he’s the one who said, you have to play an instrument when you’re in school, you don’t have to play it after high school but I think it’s important that you play an instrument, it teaches you many disciplines that will be useful for you. And then, by chance, I picked the trombone. The school needed trombone players and there were only a few, and I picked the trombone, I don’t even know why.

EM: You don’t have anything specific? Like the sound?

JN: I don’t remember anything like that. It could be, but I don’t remember anything. But I just remember enjoying it and I also had talent right away, I could play it right away. I started when I was 9. In this country, that’s about when people play band instruments. String and piano earlier. But he never pushed piano on me at all, but when you’re 9, that’s when you pick a band instrument, a wind ensemble actually, woodwinds and brass. So I played it and I found that I was pretty good. I started taking lessons when I got to high school and I quickly started to improve, I was good at this, I really liked it. My freshman year of high school my mother died, and it was right after she’d bought me my first real trombone, and that changed everything, music stopped being something that I did, I was just good at, it became something I am. I stopped being a trombone player and I became a musician. I realized how much I could express with music and how much I could feel through that music. And then it became something totally different. That’s when I decided I wanted to go into music and my dad was very scared because he’d had a tough time trying to make a living and he was worried I would. But then I got into Curtis, which is a really prestigious school, full scholarship. But it was still very difficult.

EM: Do you think the linguistic history of your family has an impact on your music talent? Because I think it’s easier for a musician to learn languages because you can get the sounds and intonation and I wonder if it’s the same the other way, if being bilingual helps you because you develop your hearing.

JN: With Greek, I never went to school, I only learned it by hearing it. I refused to go to Greek school, so my grammar is terrible, I can’t write it. I speak backwards, because I think in English and then I translate it in my head. But my pronunciation is perfect. I can speak it and understand it.

EM: But it probably gives color to your music. When we play music, we have this piece of music with a story and song. But, like with everything, we have landscape, background, it’s a whole world.

JN: Right! And it’s shot through the lens of that composer. A Russian composer writing an elegy is going to have a different sound than a French composer writing an elegy, or a German one, they have their different backgrounds and experiences.

EM: Yes, so there’s your background and there’s the composer’s background.

JN: Right. Which is why it’s interesting when you hear auditions for an instrument, you hear the same pieces being played by different people, they all sound different.  They take different things with them in those pieces.

EM: I understand. Well, thank you for the very rich discussion we had today and see you very soon in Heinz Hall !