I’ve spent a lot of time with the plunger and the trombone. I think that’s the most important aspect of mastering any specific technique or style. Concentrated time spent honing, refining and exploring. I didn’t practice with the plunger, I explored, experimented, searched and researched.
With that said, here are the basics of plunger playing.
The Equipment: It takes time to find the best plunger. There was a period of years when if I passed a hardware store I would go in and check out their toilet plunger selection. If there was a plunger there, that I had not tried, then I would buy it. Not a big investment really, usually two to five dollars. It was always fun to buy the plunger and tell the clerk that I didn’t need the stick. I always got a kick out of their reaction to that. So consequently, I had a basket full of plungers at home in my studio. Had a basket full of trumpet mutes too. But we’ll get to that in a minute. I have one favorite plunger and one or two back-ups, but I’ve been playing with the same mute plunger combination for more than 20 years.
For my taste, the plunger should be relatively hard with no open holes and nothing shaved off the rim, which I know some players like to do. In my earlier plunger days, I had a soft plunger that I could squeeze, which feels good but doesn’t really affect the sound that much. The advantage of a plunger with hard rubber is that the sound is manipulated by bouncing off the inside of the plunger. With softer rubber the sound is more absorbed, therefore less bright. We want to be able to close the plunger completely so that we can produce that “buzz”, a very cool sound, so the plunger needs to be big enough to be able to close completely. Some guys will cut out the whole in the middle and put two pennies or dimes in there to get another kind of buzz. I had a mute like this for a while, but prefer the whole uncut plunger. With a good plunger the sound should change when the plunger is moved as little as half an inch (1 centimeter). This gives us many possibilities for different sounds, from tightly closed to completely open and everything in between.
Without Pixie Mute: The advantage of playing without a pixie mute is that we can play louder and if we are playing a solo in front of a loud big band riffing backgrounds behind us, then subtle sound variations won’t be heard, so playing without a pixie makes sense.
When playing the plunger without a pixie mute there are intonation issues that need attention. On certain partials the pitch is raised approximately a ¼ tone, sometimes as much as a flat ½ tone when the plunger is in the closed position. Therefore the player needs to learn the open and closed positions of all the notes in his/her playing range so that they are in control of the intonation. With some notes the intonation is not changed when the plunger is closed and with others the note changes drastically, and the player needs to know how the note will be affected so that the desired effect is performed rather than an “out of tune” note. Which, let’s face it, an “out of tune” note is not a very pleasing sound. Somehow, it seems that many plunger players just don’t take the time to learn these idiosyncrasies in order to be able to perform freely. But, when we do take the time to learn the basics and explore the possibilities the results are rewarding.
I usually prefer to play with a pixie mute when performing with the plunger because of all the sound possibilities. If the volume is loud and a good microphone is not available then I would consider playing plunger without pixie, or open horn entirely or maybe, if I have it, the trombone pixie (with the O ring popped out) with which one can also play relatively loud.
The Pixie Mute: As I said earlier, I have a basket of pixie mutes, but use primarily one mute, a Humes and Berg (Stoneline) trumpet straight mute, with the corks filed down so that the mute fits tight in the horn. I play a King Silver Sonic 3B and the throat or flare of the bell is relatively narrow in relation to many other horns. Many a friend has had my pixie mute stuck in their bell. Then, the only way to get it out is to drop a drumstick down from the other side, or to push it out with a cleaning rod or something similar. As the mute needs to be tight, I sometimes have trouble getting it out of the horn if I have sweaty and slippery fingers, one of the trials and tribulations of a plunger player.
I like this mute because it is in tune and playable the complete range of the trombone and is very expressive sonically. This mute allows many possibilities of producing different overtones.
The other mute that is generally in tune is the trombone pixie mute made by Humes and Berg. I also like the Shastock Trumpet Straight mute.
When I was exploring the possibilities of plunger playing, I would often go into music stores and see if they had some trumpet straight mutes for me to try. If I had my horn with me I’d try all the trumpet mutes. Many just didn’t work at all, but I would buy the ones that had potential and check them out at home, sometimes moving or shaving the corks so that they fit right. We should to do this with any mute. Any mute is fitting properly when we can play the entire register of the horn. The low register is tricky when muted. A mute fits properly when we can play chromatically down to low E, or below for the trigger guys, with all the notes sounding, more or less, in tune and with no “dead” notes. With all mutes, including the pixie, one should check the intonation with a tuner to see as well as hear where all the notes are. Note that with the pixie mute the tuning slide will probably need to be pushed out roughly 1 inch (2.5cm).
I have played almost all of the trumpet straight mutes available including the Nonpareil, which the Ellington guys used. The problem with this and many other mutes is that the note choices and range is very limited. I heard that Trickey Sam Nanton only had 13 good notes with the pixie and plunger. Of course Duke knew what those 13 notes were and put them to good use. I’ve never bothered counting his notes to see if this is true. Makes a good story though. The sound(s) of the Nonpareil and other mutes are cool, but I want the sounds and the complete range of the horn. The trombone pixie gives me the range, intonation and some volume, but not the variety of sounds. It’s the Humes and Berg (Stoneline) trumpet straight mute that gives me the sound(s) and full range of the horn. The lowest 3 or 4 notes are a little wolfy, but with some work can be controlled.
Posture: It’s important that we don’t put our body into any contortions in order to hold the plunger and the horn. Try to use good posture when playing with the plunger, just like you would when playing normal open horn. I like to balance the bell in the heal of the hand, above the wrist (when holding the hand up), that way the horn can be supported by the hand and the hand is flexible enough to manipulate the plunger from closed tight to open which is about 45 degrees.
The Basics: We have from “as open as possible” to “tightly closed” and everything in between. Every note has unique overtone possibilities when combined with the different positions of the plunger. Often there is a sweet spot for a note with the plunger a specific distance from the bell. Al Grey said he used 6 plunger positions. I don’t think about it that way, I’m using feel and sound to guide me. Sometimes a very small movement will create interesting overtone variations.
The plunger articulations are Wa Wa or Ja Ja and the opposite Open-Close or Open-tight closed.
We can color the articulation by adding the tongue with a light legato, or brief flutter. The flutter can be used as an articulation or by continuing to flutter one can sound as if growling.
We can help accentuate the Wa Wa or Ja Ja by shaping those syllables with the tongue in the mouth.
Many people have asked me how I do the Ja Ja. And the answer I usually give is “I don’t know”. I just play and that is what comes out. Lucky I guess. With that said, I use a combination of notes, plunger positions, articulations, vowel sounds and sometimes singing or growling to produce the desired affect. Important to note that what I am hearing when I am playing is not exactly what the audience or the microphone is hearing. It’s only on playback that I hear what the audience was hearing. I don’t hear Ja Ja nearly as clearly as the audience hears it. So if you think that you can’t Ja Ja, you better record yourself and listen to the playback. Maybe you can? But don’t be troubled if you don’t produce the Ja Ja clearly. I’ve known some excellent plunger players who just couldn’t Ja Ja. Wa Wa is it for them. One can still make a lot of music with Wa Wa.
OK, back to the basics. In order to get that buzz from the closed plunger, the plunger needs to be tight against the bell, therefore in order to play a buzzing note at mf we need to play that note ff or fff so that it sounds mf. This takes some practice to be able to color the note of a line with the tight buzz by playing fff while playing the other more open notes mf or even mp.
The voice: The voice as singing or growling can be added for interesting and varied effects. One can sing above the note being played or sing or “growl” below the note being played. I would suggest beginning to work on this technique, sometimes called multi-phonics with the open horn, then when you are able to control your voice and the trombone you can apply this to plunger playing to good affect.
Explore: This is the most important aspect of playing the plunger freely. Just like most things in life, when you spend concentrated time studying and exploring, you get better at whatever you are working on. Plunger technique is no exception. I spent many hours working with the plunger, mostly with the pixie, exploring all the possibilities that I could think of and hopefully discovering some possibilities that I didn’t think of, discovering them through exploration and experimentation.
I’ve made it a point to play at least one solo piece with pixie and plunger at my quartet and even big band concerts. It’s a great expressive tool. And, the audience always enjoys the vocal qualities.
OK? Are you ready to explore? Hope so. “Music” is a wonderful vocation when we can “play”, explore and experiment in order to come up with “cool” lines, rhythms, harmonies and colors etc,.
One more point: Have Fun!!
Keep in touch,
You can see/hear many examples of me playing the plunger. On YouTube, my “Solo Improvisation for Trombone, Voice & Plunger” has received more than 180,000 hits. This piece is more of a sound sculpture with some vocal sounds and singing together with the trombone plunger sounds. There are also examples of more tonal plunger playing on all my CDs and in the CD that accompanies my book Trombone Technique: through music.
And, there are several examples on my latest lecture demonstration Video:
Creative Practicing – Practice Creatively.
All available at: www.EdNeumeister.com
I also offer lessons via video conference
Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments etc,.