State of Grace | Playbill

Classic Arts Features State of Grace
St. Louis Symphony principal trombonist Tim Myers describes the performance mindset.

Tim Myers joined the orchestra in 1983 and it's safe to say that it has become a central part of his life since then. He met his wife, first violin Dana Edson Myers, here; they had their first conversation on an SLSO tour. The Myerses now have two sons who are both cellists: Peter attends the Colburn School in Los Angeles and Henry goes to a local middle school where he is also involved in the theater.

Tim Myers is an avid rock climber who spends his summers assaulting peaks in Colorado. And, interestingly enough, he's an asthmatic, which makes all of his accomplishments — especially being principal trombone of a major symphony orchestra — even more impressive and inspiring.

Recently, Playbill caught up with Myers to discuss the musician's experience — becoming one with an orchestral performance, the advantages of not being aware, and the nuts and bolts of playing Bolero.

Playbill: Describe what it feels like, as a musician onstage, when all the elements of a performance come together.

Tim Myers: There is a kind of a mental state — I would even say a physical state or a complete-being state — when you're not asking questions, you're making statements. You're just doing it. The fall Carnegie Hall concert last season was one performance where that happened.

Playbill: Do you get that feeling from the very start?

Myers: Pretty much. It has to start with "I'm ready to go." Then after a certain moment I realize I haven't been analyzing, I haven't been thinking about whether I'm together with the trumpets. I've just been doing it. It's actually pretty cool.

In general, composers use the trombones as a coloristic thing or as a special statement. We're very rarely the focus. There's a Schumann symphony, the Third, which has five movements, and in the first three we don't play anything. Then at the beginning of the fourth movement there's suddenly this big focus on the trombones: a musical picture of the cathedral in Cologne. It goes really high and we're really exposed. It requires a lot of concentration and a lot of not panicking before it comes in. You're sitting for 25 minutes and then you come in for the big event.

I find for a piece like that especially, I have to be part of the entire performance. When the downbeat comes I have to be there, participating in the music even though I don't have any notes to play, so when it comes time to play I've been with it the whole time. Most of the time that really works.

Playbill: It was once said of the great jazz trombonist J. J. Johnson that he knew everything there was to know about the trombone, and when he played, he forgot everything he knew.

Myers: If I graph my performance life, from my earliest days of performing there wasn't that much self-awareness. I just did it. It must have been okay. But then I figured out there were things I needed to work on and I became very self-aware. And sometimes that mental state of being aware would affect my confidence. Then I would have to return to the just-doing-it state by assimilating the skills and issues — most of which were psychological — to the point where it was reflexive enough.

That's not to say there's no thoughtfulness or awareness. For example, Bolero is one of those career-busters for a first trombonist. If you can't do it, you probably shouldn't be there. I've talked to people about measuring my career in Boleros: How many more Boleros can I do? When I play Bolero I have to do it a certain way. I have to start blowing air through my horn when the tenor sax is playing to get my horn warmed up. Then, ten bars before I play, I start getting the instrument ready. Two measures before — with the snare-drum interlude — I have to start taking the breath — a very long, slow breath. I slowly form the embouchure so I'm really set. I have to make it a habit. At this point it's almost a ritual. And, once I start, it's like a really good batter — when he sees the ball coming it's this big. I have to look at all those notes as if they're whole notes and I'm going right at the middle of them. I can even miss a little bit and still have a good grip on it.

Playbill: What is the feeling when it's over?

Myers: It's hard to let go of the state. The piece is done, but it continues. It doesn't dissipate immediately. The best performances happen once all the verbal stuff goes away. The most simple instructions — "count," "watch" — are all that matter. There's no analyzing. If I'm trying to describe it then I'm not in the right place. It's a non-verbal place. And sometimes if it's really good the feeling is that I'm stunned. It's a very long diminuendo from the end of the performance to an everyday state.

Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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