Trombone + Tech: Christopher Bill’s Viral Videos Come to Life in the Schools

Mike Lawson • • October 1, 2018

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Q: How many trombone players does it take to play The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”?

A: Just one, if the player is Christopher Bill. Bill uses loops and effects to create complex all-trombone versions of pop songs.

For the past several years, he has used his recordings as a platform to teach school kids about the function of arrangements, and to expand their musical imaginations.

Bill studied classical trombone performance in the conservatory at SUNY, Purchase, but he was always pushing the boundaries of orchestral work. He composed original music, played in jazz and pop ensembles, and arranged music he liked for all-trombone ensembles. A desire to realize his trombone arrangements all on his own terms prompted him to try cutting all of the parts himself, one by one.

“I had free Audacity software. I had a $100 mic that I got for Christmas, and a little interface,” Bill recalls. “In the beginning, I would arrange a tune, and just record it—no effects, no editing. At the end of my freshman year, I recorded an arrangement of ‘Penny Lane.’ I put it on YouTube with a picture of me as a video, and that was the start.”

Later, Bill wanted to give Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” the same treatment. “I realized that all the parts besides the melody were a four-bar loop,” Bill recalls. “At that time, I was using Ableton Live [for recording]. I didn’t want to play those parts over and over, so I created loops in Live.”

By the time Bill finished his degree, his trombone videos had gained notoriety, and that brought him some cool opportunities: He had to decide whether to pursue his master’s degree from CalArts; or to take his trombone show on the road, with a sponsorship from instrument maker Conn-Selmer. He chose the latter and turned his passions for trombone and technology into an educational platform that’s engaging music students all over the world.

What age did you begin studying trombone?

I started in fifth grade. My brother played trombone in his high school jazz band, and I wanted to be like him. I started taking private lessons in sixth grade.

By eighth grade, I was taking my lessons from someone who had been my band director’s private teacher when he was in school, Robin Linaberry. He was one of the greatest music educators I’ve ever worked with and he took me from eighth grade to the conservatory. In lessons, he never scolded me if I didn’t practice. He just said, “OK, we’ll pick up where we left off last time.” He left it up to me to do the work.

Which professors and experiences in college were influential?

Purchase was recommended by the jazz teacher at my high school; the second trombonist in the Metropolitan Opera, Weston Sprott, was the trombone teacher there. So, I visited the school and got a private lesson with Weston before auditions, and he completely kicked my butt. He had me playing things in tenor clef and alto clef, and tenor clef up an octave, and all these etudes, and he was like, “You should really have these things memorized.”

I thought, this seems like a lot! But I went home and practiced. Then in my audition, Weston asked for the exact things that he’d had me do six months before. I realized later, he didn’t care that much if I was good; he wanted me to take him seriously as an instructor and put in the work.

I never did meld with that teacher actually, but there was another trombone professor there named Tim Albright, who played in the Atlantic brass quintet. He was in the West Side Story Broadway revival. He played in jazz combos. My very first lesson with him, I knew this was where I should be.

Tim gave me more say over what I was playing. He might think I should work on my tone, but he would just say, “What do you want to play?” And through the process of playing that piece of music, we’d work on my tone. I attribute most of my success to him because of his openness and encouragement. I brought in my looper and started doing some multimedia stuff in lessons with him, and I did jazz improv with him, and I started playing lead trombone in the Latin jazz band.

I’m grateful that I studied classical trombone as a foundation for how to play and make a great sound and read music, and then I was just as happy to expand on that with some jazz concepts.

Meanwhile, you were creating those videos. How did you choose the songs?

Once I started this project, every song I heard was through the filter of, I wonder what this would sound like if I arranged it for trombone? I would keep tabs on the Billboard charts and listen for whether a song seemed like it would work as chamber music.

Sometimes what appealed to me was the way a song builds. I did “Royals” by Lorde about 2 months before it hit Number One, because it builds from one to two to three to four parts. The harmonies come in and out and the chord structure is cool, and that kind of thing speaks to me.

Can you describe what was exciting to you about making the videos in those early days?

For one thing, the whole time, I was getting better—better at playing, at recording, arranging, editing—because every time I recorded a tune, I was practicing for six hours by myself, and it was that kind of hyper-focused playing that you otherwise only do when you’re preparing for recitals. This was a different animal, but it was still preparation for a performance. I got almost addicted to that feeling of finishing a project, too. In music school you’re normally never done. It’s never “OK, I’m finished. I learned the trombone!” So, it was nice to finish something and have a product I could show people.

Was there one video that marked a turning point for you, in terms of gaining an audience?

I did Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” during March of my senior year, and that went crazy viral. I started getting calls to do a sponsorship deal, so fresh out of college I was doing performances for Conn-Selmer. Then that turned into a contract, and they would fly me all over to do performances. That’s when I got the hardware that lets me do live performances with looping. The other turning point was, Conn-Selmer sent me to the Midwest Clinic in Chicago. I was put on a stage that wasn’t really close to anything, but because of that viral video, 250 people showed up along with the CEO of Conn-Selmer. It turned out to be one of my best performances, and I still get gigs today from band directors who were there that day. They call me to come play at their schools.

Other than your trombone, what do you bring along now when you visit schools?

I don’t like to use my computer onstage because it could crash and take time to reboot, so I bring my looper, which is an Electro-Harmonix 45000 with an SD card. So, to play one of my quartet arrangements, I just load three of the four parts onto the SD and play the fourth part live. I can do live loops, too, and I have a Harmonizer. Having all that tech working is freeing and it makes me less nervous to be onstage alone for an hour-and-a-half.

What are your presentations to students like?

Sometimes I go in during their school day and talk to the band classes, or sometimes I’ll go in and work with students after school and then do an evening concert with them where I’m a featured guest. There are a lot of different things that happen, and it’s all pretty freeform.

But usually, I set up all the technology and I’ll play something for them. The performance becomes a framework to explain how it all happens. I can isolate different elements and talk about them.

Lately I’ve been playing the song “Havana” [by Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug]. It’s popular especially with younger kids. So, if I’m at an elementary school, for example, after I play I will ask them what elements they hear when they listen to a song on the radio.

Someone might say, “percussion,” so I build a percussion loop. Then someone will say, “guitar.” And I’ll say, “OK, let’s make a guitar part. Guitars have many strings, so they can play more notes at once. I can only play one note at once.” And then I’ll play one note at a time and build a chord, and they’ll see how that happens. Of course, the punch line is, there’s still no melody, so we sing it. Who knows what they’ll take away? An elementary school kid might just learn that a trombone can only play one note at a time. Or if they’re older they might learn some things about the technology that they can use. It’s really fun to work with any age group; it’s a matter of using whatever knowledge they have to start—meeting them where they are now—and then building on that.

Journalist Barbara Schultz has been writing about music production and performance for 25 years.

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