Published on Friday, 15 January 2010 23:37
Written by Bruce Gale
Holding the Trombone
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.