Taking the Plunge

Jamie Kennedy shares a technical routine for playing with a plunger. This is one classical player’s quest to sound much cooler than he is.

Jamie KennedyI would like to share with you one of my latest projects: a warm-up/technique routine that exclusively uses the plunger mute. This is a tale of fear and desperation, and of pondering through the long, dark practice-break of the soul. Feel free to skip past this tragic list of excuses and go straight to the routine, and good luck to you. For you other folk afflicted by pity and morbid curiosity about my condition, read on.

My condition, it turns out, is that I am a middle-class white boy with a preference for the straight-laced and banal things in life. I eat the same cheese and ham sandwich for lunch every day, and I know all the Beethoven symphonies inside out. Despite these congenital failings, I was recently booked for a gig where I was required to sound like I knew what I was doing when improvising with a plunger.

It was a case of mistaken identity. I was under the impression I had been engaged for your usual, picket-fence chamber music festival, where I might be asked to play some Schubert. Instead, I was faced with Matthew Hindson’s Comin’ Right Atcha – a James Brown-inspired piece with some manky grooves and some nasty licks. Above all, in the middle of the piece I found this performance instruction:

With plunger: Improvise a short, tragi-comic cadenza, full of wit.

Trombone cadenza? Wit? Child, please!

In short, I had an order to fill for one James Brown/soul-inspired, improvised solo with plunger (out of comfort zone – check). It also happened that there was only one trombone in the piece (exposed – check), and that I would be sitting right next to my former university head-of-brass (pressure – check).

At the recent Sydney International Brass Festival, I attended a warm-up taken by the very able Adrian Mears, and I hadn’t played two notes before he had me pegged as a (too) serious classical player who really had to loosen up. Well, I was obviously in need of some guidance from someone much cooler than I, so I took my own advice and hit up YouTube. I didn’t have to go far before I found Wycliffe Gordon’s amazing plunger warm-up video:

It was simple: all I needed to do was become Wycliffe for a day. So… take a look at my picture (above). Now look at Wycliffe. Now look back at my picture. This was never going to be easy.

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