The Art of Wa Goes Digital



THE ART OF WA is intended to aid trombone students in the rendering of the comic effects required in cartoon playing. An ability to practically disregard all proper tone production and articulation techniques is necessary in order to achieve these desired effects. It is absolutely essential when playing this music to free one’s mind and get in touch with the pure essence of “WA.” I have found that meditation before sessions often helps one achieve this state. This preparation is commonly known as premeditation. One may use the mantra of his choice, however “WA” seems to be most effective for me. If a person is able to reach this state and become totally disencumbered by the habit of playing with a good sound, time feel, or intonation, the trombonist can indeed become “One” with the plunger.


At the beginning of any cartoon session it is a vital practice to align one’s mutes in a fashion which allows for the quickest and easiest insertion and removal. As changing from one mute to another is quite common in this line of work, a player mustdiscover the best way for himself to position the mutes for fast changes. Using the trombone stand for a holder for the cup mute and plunger simultaneously is very beneficial. The lap is also a useful resting place for harmon, straight, or solotone mutes. When rapid mute changing is required it is best to hold the mute loosely in the bell with the left hand to allow expedient removal. Yhis helps avoid a most embarrassing occurrence which is, of course, the dropping of the mute. The harmon mute is the most prone for this accident so the lap is the best place for it most of the time.


There are several ways a composer,or his copyist, may notate the simple effect we refer to as “WA.” Many use what I refer to as the digital notation. This language uses a “+” to indicate closed and conversely a “o” for open. This is a rather technical approach and assumes that the player has a basic understanding of mathematics. This approach does allow for the most precise interpretation provided the copying has been carefully proof-read. I can’t tell you how often these little symbols are misplaced. A simpler yet effective notation is the use of syllables above the notes such as “OO–AH” or “WA.” This affords more freedom to the player and understanding it does not require a degree in cryptography. Most importantly I must stress that these indications are to be used as a guide but not strictly adhered to all the time. The limitations of the instrument and the player’s own musicality, or lack thereof, will often take precedence. A person’s sense of “WA” must never be imposed on from without.


The split-finger Wa was developed by Wally Fingers, the principal trombonist and consort to the Emperor Pu Yi. Up until that time trombonists were faced with a challenging dilemma—how to Wa on an ascending glissando without the compression of the slide movement stifling the production of the tone. Fingers discovered that by separating the fingers oh-so slightly when closing the mute, the tone compression problem was eliminated. The Wa effect is a bit diminshed this way but by using the air as a volume aid the effect can be produced sufficiently. It is recommended that extreme caution be exercised when performing this dangerous manuever.


The staccato Wa is possibly the most recognizable cartoon effect performed on the trombone. It is of tantamount importance to exaggerate the shortness of the note by stopping it with the tongue. it is also vital to anticipate the Wa so the opening of the plunger or hand occurs at the right instant. There is nothing more embarrassing than a premature Wa. The legato wa is entirely different. The joining together of several Wa’d notes is most effective when the tongue is not used. The closing of the bell provides just the right amount of separation between notes. This however is a matter of personal taste ( if any at all).The legato Wa is a trombonist’s most identifiable effect so great care must be used in its rendering.


Vibrato only became necessary when bands stopped marching and started playing while sitting still. The effect would have been redundant while bouncing up and down in parades. Since slide vibrato is most naturally done on the slide trombone, lip vibrato becomes comedic in itself. A somewhat over-wide lip vibrato is a natural sounding pulse to accompany a mute or plunger during a melodic line. There are occasions when a slide vibrato can be extremely effective. This is most notably the vibrato used for drunk effects (see chapter 6).


What would a cartoon be without some character having a sixteen ton weight dropped on him, or a package blowing up in his arms? When one thinks of this pain and degradation, only the trombone comes to mind. This is where the trombonist can be completely free to express himself in a most primal way. Besides moving the slide in a sloppy way, this drunken effect can be embellished with extra pinching or relaxing of the lips for tone color. Disregarding the bar lines, tempo, and pitch center also greatly enhances the mood of the solo. Bear in mind in this venue there is no mistake except trying to avoid one.


The gobble is a more subtle alternative to the intoxicato phrased solo. It is done whenever a character shakes off an injury or does a double-take. It is most effective with a plunger but can also be done with a harmon mute. It is quite simply multiple tonguing as quickly as possible while opening and closing the plunger or harmon with the hand. I have found it most effective to move the plunger considerably slower than the tongue. Otherwise the two actions can cancel each other out and a most dreadful sound can occur. This procedure is not recommended for trombonists under the age of eighteen.


This sound unique to the trombone is known by many names eg: The Snerd; Nerd; Doink; Golden Tone; or as I like to call it, The Spike Jones Note. It is best described as a musical raspberry–a sort of thumbing one’s nose with a trombone. As scary as this thought is, it is equally scary listening to someone practicing these sounds. The best of tese sounds are produced unintentionally. However, when it is required on demand it can be accomplished by stretching the corners of one’s embouchure. If the trombonist pronouncers the syllable “Dwee”—or “D’oui” in French on a low note, the sound should ooze right out. I have found that the notes between low B flat and low E are the best for this effect. A single blat is the best use for this exquisite articulation, however a low glissando can be very inspiring. The surgeon-general does warn against habitual use of this technique.


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