Friday, February 18, 2011

New Mouthpieces!

This post is about my new trombone mouthpieces, so I understand that non-trombonists my not find this as interesting as some of my other posts. But this is something that has a huge impact on the job I do here, so I felt that it was worth writing about.

The mouthpiece is the part of a trombone (or any brass instrument) that is most tailored to an individual player. The size and shape of the rim, cup, and shank of a mouthpiece greatly affect the way it fits on the different sizes and shapes of a human face. This is especially critical to someone like me who frequently alternates between tenor trombone and bass trombone, which require noticeably different mouthpiece sizes. Many trombonists are always looking for the next development in mouthpiece design that will give them an "edge" on transforming the music-making process into something easier. (All too often, the most important factor is still the player, not the instrument.)

I've spent several years now playing the same two mouthpieces: a Greg Black/Joseph Alessi 2M for tenor, and a Yamaha Douglas Yeo for bass. (Both designed for established professionals: Alessi is the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, and Yeo is the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony.) I'd been doing well on both, but was starting to feel that I needed something a little different, especially with the Yeo, which is a very deep mouthpiece. I decided to get serious back in December when we played for the Slovakian President in very cold, windy weather. Playing on a metal mouthpiece in those conditions is quite uncomfortable so I decided to contact Doug Elliott, a freelance musician in the Washington, D.C. area who also makes his own line of low brass mouthpieces. Doug's designs include separate rims, cups, and shanks which can be screwed together, allowing for a huge variety in combinations and the ability to tailor a setup to one's preferences beyond what most other designs allow. One of the options he offers is the material that the rim is made of: silver-plated, which is the most common type, gold-plated, or Lexan (a type of clear plastic). I wanted to see about ordering tenor and bass mouthpieces similar to what I was using, but with Lexan rims to allow for more comfort playing in the sometimes extreme conditions in Afghanistan.

I contacted Doug through email, and over the course of a few messages we ironed out the combinations that would work best for what I was requesting. I finally placed my order shortly after I returned from FOB Lagman over Christmas. (For those who want to know, the parts I ordered were: TENOR: XTL105 rim, XTH cup, H8 shank; BASS: LBL113 rim, LBJ cup, J9 shank.) The rims for each match the size and feel of the mouthpieces I was used to, but both have slightly shallower cups. This makes it a bit easier to play in the upper register, but without compromising my flexibility in the lower register. And I can confirm, having had to play a few morning performances in ~40 degree F weather, that the Lexan rims make playing in the cold much, much easier. (I expect they will also prove advantageous when the summer heat comes along in a few months.) They arrived in the mail January 2. It took a few days to really get a good feel with the tenor mouthpiece; I liked the way it played immediately but there were a few things that took a while to "fit" with the way I was accustomed to playing. I'm happy to say that with some time to get acclimated with the new setup I feel very comfortable with just about all the material that I play regularly. The bass, however, didn't require the same adjustment--I loved the feel of it from the first note, and I have no reservations in saying it's the best bass mouthpiece I've ever used. (Note: this is in no way a criticism of the Alessi or Yeo mouthpieces; they are well-crafted and stood the test of time for several years; they just aren't as good a fit for me as the Elliott customized ones.) For those familiar with the bass trombone repertoire, I feel like I can easily switch between Das Rheingold's "spear motive" and Hary Janos's "Napoleon" section. (For those who don't know, one is REALLY low, and the other is REALLY high.) In fact, it's the first bass mouthpiece with which I feel I could play the tenor Bolero solo if I had to!

Some of you may be wondering, "doesn't the Army pay for your instruments?" Well, yes, and the trombones I use over here all belong to Uncle Sam; I didn't bring any of my own horns. And it's not uncommon for the unit to purchase new mouthpieces. However, purchasing anything through government channels in a combat deployment is not an easy process. (I know this because that's my office job with this unit.) I didn't want to order mouthpieces for winter playing and face the prospect that they might not arrive until July. So I felt no regret at purchasing them myself and having them in my possession within a week. I expect I'll be using them for years to come.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Funky Weather

Kandahar Air Field is located, for all intents and purposes, in a desert. The main city, a few miles away, is close to a river so there is water near the population center, but it's pretty dry at the Air Field most of the year. Not so much in February, though. We have entered what is called the monsoon season, and things have gotten a bit unpredictable. The cold temperatures have let up a little bit, but the shifting currents and fronts in the past several days have created some wild temperature swings at times. And there's the rain. For the past few weeks, we've had some sporadic rain, which changes the ground from being very dusty to very muddy. A couple of nights ago, we had steady rain all through the night but sun the next afternoon. KAF is covered in standing water, and we've all been notified that, due to the mud and water, vehicle use has been restricted to essential use only.

Last night (Saturday, 12 February) there was constant rain. This morning, I was surprised to discover that it was bright and sunny when I went to breakfast, and I had high hopes that some of the mud would dry up today. Right before I left for work, the floodgates opened and we had a downpour. With HAIL. And swirling winds. I was being pelted by small ice fragments all the way to our rehearsal tent. It did cross my mind that maybe I should have worn my helmet! I would have missed it all if I'd left ten minutes earlier, so that's another mark in the "reasons to not procrastinate" column. And about eight minutes after it started, the storm stopped. The sun came out. The Dixieland group ("Task Force Dixie") decided to go ahead with preparations for their afternoon concert at the boardwalk.

But the weather wasn't done yet. A little before 1500 (3:00 pm), another dark cloud opened up and more rain and wind came down. I reconsidered going to the boardwalk to see TFD and decided to stay in the tent and continue practicing my trombone. The Dixie group eventually returned early, having only played two numbers in their set before the inclement weather forced them back to the tent with their gear. Sure enough, by the time I left to go check my email at the office, the sun was back out.

One thing about monsoon season at KAF: it does keep you guessing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Special Deliveries

Earlier this week, the 10th Mountain Division Band received some items we had been eagerly anticipating. The first happened on Tuesday, when the furniture arrived. A while back, we had placed an order for some office furniture--office chairs, folding chairs, shelves, desks. We had been relying on leftover or unclaimed chairs and derelict office furniture for a while. In fact, the carpentry shop had actually built some quick makeshift shelves and desks for us to tide us over for a while. The chair shortage was especially problematic, as people found themselves sitting on plastic crates and metal containers in lieu of functional chairs. (On occasion, I would use a substitute instead of an available chair because the chair would be more uncomfortable.) So we were happy to receive notice last week that our shipment was on its way.

It was my job to wait for the call that our furniture truck was at the gate so I could escort the driver into our office area, and that call came Tuesday afternoon. I was a bit dismayed to see that the boxes in the back of the truck looked a little beaten up, but that wasn't too surprising given that the bed of the truck had no top. (I am really glad that the delivery was made before the heavy rains we've had the last couple of days.) Some of the boxes had started to fall apart and we had to have people fish furniture parts out of the truck bed. In the end, though, we got all the boxes out and started assembling our furniture. In a matter of moments, our office went from looking like an office to looking like some kind of miniature mutant central-Asian IKEA store. The desks and shelves turned out to be a bit flimsy, mostly particle board, but functional. The office chairs, however, are surprisingly comfortable, a big improvement over what we had. The folding chairs are in good condition also, so we're happy that the seating issue has been resolved.

The other big delivery showed up at almost the same time. Last summer, we shipped most of our instruments and equipment to Afghanistan in large metal containers, which arrived before we did. We sent one additional container of stuff right before we left Ft. Drum. This container had a few more unit items, such as some additional guitars we had ordered for the rock band, a crate of toilet paper, a few folding chairs, and so on. It also had some personal items--clothing bags, personal guitars, video game get the idea. We anticipated it arriving in December, but it never showed up. We sent requests numerous times trying to locate where our container had vanished. But Tuesday, we got the word that it had been located and was on its way to KAF. Wednesday morning, it was delivered and place right next to our rehearsal tent. I was glad to see it there, as it contained one of my guitars, as well as my DVDs of season one of Bones seasons one and two of Chuck, plus a copy of Stephen King's The Gunslinger, the first book in his "Dark Tower" series which I've wanted to start reading for a while. It's so nice to have a few more comforts from home, especially now that I can unwind from a long day by pulling out my guitar and strumming for a bit. Whether or not my roommates find that relaxing is another matter....

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Proud To Be(come) An American

It's February now, and I realize that my posting frequency dropped a bit last month. Partly that's because things here are "routine" now and it's a bit difficult to come up with topics sometimes, and partly it's because there have been days when I just didn't feel like writing anything even though I could have. But I'll try to be a bit more consistent this month.

This past Saturday, January 29th, was a momentous day. It's a momentous day for me because it's my Dad's birthday, but it was also momentous for a whole lot of other people. Our brass quintet was assigned to provide music for a naturalization ceremony--numerous servicemembers serving in Afghanistan officially became citizens of the United States. On the surface that might seem a bit strange, but yes, one does not have to be a full citizen of the US to participate in the Armed Forces. (Though they must still pass the criminal background checks and other paperwork gymnastics that are required of US citizens, in addition to meeting physical requirements and passing the ASVAB test. They generally must also have a functional grasp of English, typically to include the words "yes Drill Sergeant!!!") I don't know the exact number who were there Saturday, but there were quite a lot, and from numerous backgrounds. I think I remember hearing that about thirty different countries could claim the origins of our new Americans. That didn't surprise me too much; during my time in the Army I've personally served with (or at least met) people born in China, Turkey, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, Italy, and Egypt. (I can't be certain they were all US citizens, and some may have gained citizenship prior to joining the Army. I know of two for certain who did gain citizenship during their service, however.)

I do have an admiration for those people--they have spent a good deal of time and effort to gain something I've had since the moment I was born. What I, and most of the people I know, have by accident, they have by choice. The magnitude of the event was marked by the presence of the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry (himself a military veteran), and several Congressional Representatives, particularly Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) who was a guest speaker along with the Ambassador. Mr. Issa commented on how unusual it was to have such a ceremony someplace other than the US, but that having it in Afghanistan was an example of the level of commitment that these people have made to the country. We were also treated to a pre-recorded address by President Obama, followed by a video presentation of Lee Greenwood's iconic "God Bless the USA." It's a good feeling to know that so many other people want to call your home their home. After all, even though the land is vast and magnificent, it's the people who make it America the Beautiful.