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    Trombone playing for non-trombonists

    The aim of this article is to help non-specialists identify several common pirtalls experienced by young trombone players so that these errors can be corrected before bad playing habits develop.

    Introduction

    Holding the Trombone
    F Attachment
    The Glissando
    Bass Trombones
    Tonal Quality
    Slide Positions  


    Introduction

    TThe aim of this article is to give guidance to non-trombonist band directors and student conductors supervising beginning trombonists. It does not attempt to teach anyone how to play a trombone. There are plenty of excellent trombone teachers and method books on the market that can help you with that. Rather, the idea is to help non-specialists identify several common pitfalls experienced by young trombone players so that they can be corrected before bad playing habits develop.

    Trombones fall into the category of cylindrical brass instruments, although they also have some conical sections [see brass design issues].  Various types of trombones have been produced over the years, including alto trombones, soprano trombones and even valved trombones. The discussion here, however, focuses on the more common tenor and bass trombones found in secondary school and college wind bands.

     

    Holding the trombone

    Balancing a trombone when playing is often difficult for a beginner.  One of the most important things to remember is that the trombone should be held in such a way that mouthpiece pressure is distributed evenly between the upper and the lower lips.  The entire weight of the trombone is borne by the left hand and arm.  The left hand holds the brace of the slide and bell section, with the thumb around the brace of the bell section nearest the mouthpiece.   As in the case of the trumpet, the wrist must be straight or it will tire quickly.  The left index finger rests on the shank near the mouthpiece.   The role of the right hand is to manipulate the slide. 

    If beginning students share music stands they may develop poor posture.
    One common error is to tilt the head to one side so as to allow the weight of the bell to rest on the shoulders.  This should be discouraged as it can affect tone quality and flexibility.  Because of the initial difficulties faced by students in holding the instrument, it is important to ensure that beginners are not forced to play for long periods without rest.  They should also have arms that are long enough to reach out to sixth position on the slide without strain.  Students who find difficulty reaching this position often allow the mouthpiece to shift to the right.  If students share music stands in a beginning class they may also develop poor posture in order to see the music.

    Yet another problem that often besets beginners is the habit of adjusting the slide too slowly.  Rapid movement of the slide, even in slow passages, should be taught early.  Otherwise, the student will have a difficult time coping with faster passages later on.


    F attachment

    Some tenor trombones come with an extra length of tubing (called an F attachment) which is accessed by a trigger operated by the thumb.   A tenor trombone with an F attachment can be useful, particularly in providing alternative slide positions in otherwise awkward passages.  Such trombones are identical to bass trombones in terms of range, but the smaller bore of the tenor trombone means that the timbre is not the same.  Use of the F attachment also changes the quality of the sound on the tenor trombone because it alters the ratio between the conical and cylindrical lengths of tubing.   This can produce noticeable differences in tone colour, particularly in slow moving passages where the F attachment is used on only a few isolated notes.  This is the reason most trombonists generally restrict the use of the F attachment to the lower register and spend a great deal of time trying to equalize the sound.


    The glissando

    The trombone is also notable for the fact that it is the only brass or woodwind instrument capable of playing a true glissando.   Well-placed glissandos, which take full advantage of the slide, always seem to go down well with composers, band directors and the general public, particularly in humorous passages.   Unfortunately, many composers and conductors do not appear to be particularly well informed about the instrument’s limitations in this regard. A true glissando can only be played in a single motion of the slide.  Among other things, this implies that a glissando of more than an octave  is just not possible.


    Bass trombones

    The bass trombone has a larger bore and bell than the tenor trombone.  It therefore has a deeper tone and better low register.  Problems associated with the bass trombone are often the result of tenor trombone players switching over.  In an attempt to avoid the larger bass trombone mouthpiece, such players sometimes employ an adapter shank to help them play using a tenor trombone mouthpiece.   The reality, however, is that a larger cup and deeper throat really are needed to obtain the volume and richness of sound normally associated with the bass trombone.  Using a tenor trombone mouthpiece not only robs the instrument of its full potential, but also tends to make intonation somewhat unpredictable. 


    Tonal quality

    Unfortunately, many tenor and bass trombone players mistakenly copy the mellow sound of the euphonium rather than allow the trombone to speak with the dark, rich tone with which it is associated in the symphony orchestra.  To encourage the development of the latter sound among your students, ask them to play a long tone loudly on the instrument with enough breath support so that the tone cracks.  Then ask them to play notes that stop just short of this.  The resulting sound will be very close to the desired tonal quality.


    Slide positions

    Finding the correct slide positions can be quite a problem for beginners.  Since small variations occur between different makes of instrument, it is difficult to give exact measurements.  However, the following may prove useful as a rule of thumb:  Third position can usually be found by moving the slide outwards until the right hand index finger is opposite the bell.  Fourth position is generally located at the point where the end of the outer slide is just past the bell.  That said, the ear is the most accurate guide.  Students should therefore be encouraged to listen carefully and make the appropriate adjustments themselves.

    Alternate slide positions play a more important role in trombone technique than alternate fingerings do on other brass instruments.   Generally, they are used to avoid long slide shifts between notes.  The attraction of alternative slide positions for an experienced trombone player is enhanced by the knowledge that any differences in intonation between the usual and the altered position can be corrected by careful adjustment of the trombone slide itself. Unfortunately, many young players tend to cling to the familiar positions, even when a less awkward alternative is pointed out to them.

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    Many people believe that musicians are more moody and prone to suicide than other professionals, and that - as a result - a greater percentage of them end their lives in mental institutions or are fated to live emotionally tempestuous lives. Musicians are also commonly suspected of being over sensitive to criticism, having delusions of grandeur and other neurotic traits.

    The statistics fail to bear this out, although it is possible to find enough examples to make the case in front of those unfamiliar with Western musical history. Like actors, politicians and others obliged to face the public on a regular basis, musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. However, such problems do not constitute evidence of neuroticism.

     Musicians probably have their fair share of emotional problems. 

    Beethoven was known for his moodiness, but this was probably closely related to his growing frustration as he began to go deaf. Among the famous composers, only Schumann and MacDowell ended  up in mental institutions. Musicians probably have no more suicidal impulses than the rest of the population. But should a prominent musician decide to take his life, it is likely to get a good deal of publicity.

    Perhaps the most morbid suicide was planned by the pianist Alexander Kelberine, who arranged his last concert programme to consist only of works dealing with death. He then went home and took an overdose of sleeping pills. Schumann jumped into the Rhine, only to be rescued by a fisherman. Rezso Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, a work that was once banned in Europe because it triggered a wave of suicides by young people on Sundays. Seress himself committed suicide by jumping out of a window. The vast majority of musicians, however, die of causes that reflect the state of medical knowledge in the particular historical period in which they live.

    Some musicians certainly had sad lives. Mozart, perhaps the greatest of the composers in the Classical Period of music, died a pauper. The pianist Chopin, a Polish nationalist and tormented lover, was terrified of large audiences. He died of tuberculosis when he was 39. Bizet, a French composer who died when he was 36, was beset by crises of self-confidence and emotional upheaval. Unlike Chopin, his works only achieved widespread recognition after his death.

     Wagner had the emotional maturity of a spoilt child. 

    George Gershwin only had a short life, but it was a good one. He died of a brain tumor when he was 39 after a rags to riches story that made him one of the most well known composers of popular music in  the United States.

    Others lived long and had much success, despite treating others abominably, including many of their friends. Wagner considered himself a genius as a playwright, poet, stage director, and philosopher as well as a composer, and was not shy about letting others know it! Although not particularly handsome, his personal magnetism was such that he had numerous affairs, usually with married women, despite the fact that he was married himself. His biographers describe him as having the emotional maturity of a spoilt child, complete with tantrums if he could not get his way. He died at the age of 70, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest composers of his time.

    The pianist Franz Liszt's dashing good looks enabled him to have numerous affairs with many woman. He died of pneumonia at the age of 75. Contrast this with the fate of Schubert, who was short, fat, bespectacled and naturally shy. He died of syphilis at the age of 31 after his friends encouraged him to visit a brothel. Those who knew him well described him as having a warm and friendly nature. Somehow, it doesn't sound fair.

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    The majority of musicians now and in the past lead fairly quiet lives. Edward Elgar, a largely self-taught musician, rose from humble origins to become the first English composer in 200 years to gain international acclaim. He had a stable marriage, and was regarded by many as a typical English gentleman. He died at the age of 77. Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer, also had a good life despite being out of step with his country's politics and music. He died at the age of 70.

    The life of J.S. Bach must have been the most boring of all. He spent almost his entire life in the same small region of Germany where he was born. And nobody took much notice of him either. It was not until about 80 years after his death that his works attracted the attention they deserved.

     

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