Trombone slide positions
The handslide is both a great asset and an Achilles heel for the trombonist. In skilled hands it facilitates the achievement not only of near-perfect intonation but also great purity of tone, as the player is able to adjust his instrument to the precise length needed to resonate on the exact pitch being played without any need for bending or “lipping” of the pitch, which can limit the embouchure’s ability to vibrate freely. However, in unskilled hands the opposite effect is usually achieved, with dull sounds and poor pitch resulting from mismatches between ear, face, and hands. While deficiencies in the player’s ability to hear and match pitch must be addressed, even players with the best ears can experience difficulty when there is a misunderstanding of what “slide positions” truly are. This is a fault which is particularly found among tuba and euphonium players that take up doubling on one or more trombones.
Skilled tuba and euphonium players are accustomed to bending pitches with the lips in order to make intonation adjustments as needed. While some degree of adjustment by manually adjusting tuning slides is desirable when possible, in most cases of intonation difficulty some pitch adjustment with the lips will be necessary. This is appropriate on the conical low brass instruments; not only is there often no other choice, but these instruments are remarkably tolerant of efforts to adjust pitches in this way, yielding a more or less characteristic tone even when the player bends the pitch by a quarter-step or more.
The trombone, however, is not so forgiving; only a relatively small amount of “lipping” is needed before the tone quality becomes unsatisfactory. Happily, on the trombone you should never need to adjust the pitch using the lips. Think of the handslide as a “giant tuning slide,” and adjust it as needed to correct all pitch discrepancies. This is relatively easy to do and becomes quite natural over time, but players who conceptualize trombone slide positions in a rigid and inflexible way (a fault common among new doublers coming to the trombone from a valved instrument) will find it difficult to do at first. It is most helpful to think of the different slide placements on the trombone not so much as “positions” but as “areas.” After all, G3 is played in fourth position on the tenor trombone, but so are B3 and D3—and all of those “fourth positions” are in different places, with further adjustments sometimes needed depending upon the melodic and harmonic context. Thinking of each position as not a particular “spot” but rather a wider “area” where the slide might be placed helps the player to become more comfortable with deviating as needed from where he thinks each position “should” be. This particularly benefits those who play multiple trombones, as the proper placement for each note will vary somewhat from one instrument to the next. When one is not wedded to a certain “spot” for each position, making the changes needed for different playing situations and even different instruments becomes automatic very quickly.
I will conclude this series of blog posts with a word about tonal range. As a doubler myself and as a teacher of all low brasses, I have concluded that all low brass instruments, from the alto trombone through the contrabass tuba, have—or can have—the same basic tonal range. Of course, I do not mean to say that the lowest “tuba notes” sound good on the alto trombone (they are mostly false tones, after all) nor that the highest “alto trombone notes” sound good on the tuba (they are usually mere “squeaks”), nor am I suggesting that you might not be able to play a few more high notes on the alto trombone or a few more low notes on the tuba. However, the player’s buzz creates the note, and if you can buzz a pitch on one instrument you should be able to at least buzz it on another, if with a compromised tone quality in some cases. This understanding of range makes moving from one instrument to the other much easier, as you will not depend upon the instrument to enable you to produce a pitch, but only to provide the best and most characteristic sound when buzzing that pitch. This also lends a bit of credibility when teaching a low brass instrument that you do not play professionally—my tuba students are sometimes quite upset when I can play their low register exercises better on the euphonium than they can play them on the tuba!
When developing a playing career as a multiple low brass player, strive to cultivate your tonal range—and really all of these “universal” principles—in a way that transcends the strengths and limitations of the instrument you are playing at a given moment. If you can do this, the particular instrument becomes almost inconsequential compared to the responsibility and the joy of playing great music, and being able to play multiple instruments occupying multiple roles in multiple genres simply multiplies the pleasure—and the profitability—of being a musician.