Some Thoughts for Low Brass Players Who Want to Major in Music…or Who Just Want to Get Better!

A high school band director in my state reached out to me recently and asked if I would contribute to a project compiling advice from university faculty members on what prospective music majors on their instruments should know and be able to do before beginning their degree programs. I think he mainly wanted lists of skills and competencies that such students should have, and I have included those as an appendix to this article, but even more important than these lists are broader ways of thinking about music and music making that lead to success, which I have organized into the following fifteen thoughts. I have written primarily with prospective low brass majors in mind, but many of these ideas are applicable to players of other instruments, as well as to students hoping to become serious amateurs or semi-professional players rather than music majors.

1. Your instrument is a musical instrument. Perhaps this is less of a problem for players of more traditionally melodic instruments, but I sometimes find that young low brass players do not think very musically at all about their playing. Such students approach playing from an entirely mechanical perspective, as if their instruments are simply noisemaking devices requiring neither artistry nor expression. Some students—amazingly, even some who are entirely capable of singing their parts (see below)—play with their ears somehow disengaged, playing entirely by feel and missing multiple partials as a result. Every student, even those whose instruments normally occupy background roles, should be reminded of the musical purpose of what we do, and given opportunities and assignments that engender that way of thinking.

2. If you can sing it, you can play it. Playing a brass instrument is much more similar to singing than is playing any other family of instruments. Just like singers, brass players vibrate a part of the body in order to make music, and the pitch at which that vibration occurs is determined by the signal sent from the ear/brain to the embouchure. The vibration simply occurs in the lips instead of the vocal folds, and then is amplified and colored by the instrument. Because brass instruments can produce multiple notes per fingering, accurate audiation is, if anything, more important for brass players than for other instrumentalists. Learning to sing well promotes this very necessary skill, as well as the musical way of thinking discussed previously.

3. Complete development as a musician requires finding and preparing more challenging music than your band or orchestra parts. I began writing this article between services of a weekend orchestra gig, and over lunch the other trombone and tuba players and I were discussing how simplistic our parts often are compared to those of the string and woodwind players, even in a professional orchestra. To some extent, this is necessary. Our instruments are not as easy to play quickly as some others and besides, too many fast-moving passages for the low brass can create muddiness in the overall sound of the ensemble, even when played well. Composers’ practice of writing comparably simple low brass parts begins even at the middle school level, and can lead to low brass players becoming lesser musicians than their colleagues if the large ensemble music is not supplemented by more challenging materials. Besides seeking out band and orchestra music that at least occasionally challenges their low brass players, directors should encourage their low brass players to find and prepare solo repertoire, advanced etudes, and chamber music, and direct them to find study and performance opportunities that will give them appropriate challenges.

4. Complete development as a musician requires daily and systematic practice of playing fundamentals. While musical objectives should be at the forefront of our thinking when practicing and performing, realization of these objectives does demand facility in the physical aspects of playing the instrument. Because we brass players produce sound by vibrating a part of the body, certain daily calisthenics are needed to ensure that the whole tone production apparatus—including not only the muscles and tissues of embouchure but also the physical structures related to breathing—is in optimal shape. A daily routine reviewing and extending one’s capabilities with long tones, articulation (single and multiple), flexibility (lip slurs), finger dexterity and/or handslide accuracy, and high and low range extension goes a long way toward ensuring optimal playing development and productivity in the remaining parts of one’s daily practice. There are published books of exercises and routines for this purpose, and many teachers have posted theirs online for free. Students should be encouraged to find, use, and even create routines that work for them.

5. Complete development as a musician requires thorough mastery of scale and arpeggio patterns. Most students are required to learn scales and/or arpeggios for auditions or pass-offs of various kinds, but few seem to truly understand their utility for improving reading and playing. For one thing, most “technical” passages encountered in music follow some common pattern or another, whether it be a scale, an arpeggio, or maybe some derivative like a scale in thirds or fourths. The more familiar one becomes with patterns like these, the more likely one is to recognize them when encountered in pieces of music and execute them almost automatically.

6. Practice beyond your comfort zone in every aspect of playing. One surefire way to fail to grow as a musician is to only practice things one already does well. Every day’s practice should have one playing higher and lower, faster and slower, louder and softer, longer and shorter, etc. than is comfortable, and both the daily routine and other practice materials can be used to promote this.I still do this on my own playing, and am therefore able to step on stage knowing that in performance I will come nowhere near the limits of my capabilities in any area. Practicing in a way that pushes the extremes thus ensures higher quality (and more enjoyable) playing in the short term and greater technical development in the long term. Do those extremes always sound great? No, but it’s okay to sound bad in the practice room, as long as those bad sounds are in the service of promoting growth as a player.

7. Certain advanced techniques are easier to master when you are younger. Start now! I sometimes joke that I can teach a seventh-grader to multiple-tongue in two weeks, and I can teach a college freshman to do it in a semester. While the comment is tongue-in-cheek, it accurately reflects my experience as a teacher. Multiple-tonguing on brass instruments, to continue with the same example, is conceptually very simple. Instead of articulating each note with a t or d consonant, a k or g consonant is introduced every other syllable or every third syllable to facilitate faster playing. For whatever reason, very young students usually pick up on this easily, but older ones often struggle. Is the struggle physical or psychological? I am not always sure. Maybe it is easier to develop greater tonguing speed when the body is still developing than it is after one reaches adult size, or maybe it is easier to develop greater tonguing speed before one “decides” that this is difficult to do. Perhaps both of these are true on some level. In any case, students should be encouraged to pursue advanced techniques at the earliest moment it seems appropriate. They really can learn a lot before they start to develop hangups, whether physical or psychological.

8. The internet is a great resource…if you know how to use it. This statement is a truism that applies to more than just brass playing. Internet access first became widely available just as I was finishing high school, and for the past 25+ years I have marveled at the ready availability of so much information. The websites of various brass playing-related organizations, ensembles, teachers, libraries, retailers, and professional musicians offer an ever-growing collection of helpful and often free resources for players of all levels. The discussion groups that began as email listservs and rudimentary bulletin board services have evolved into highly developed discussion forums both within and outside of the usual social media services. The “democratization of publishing” that this has engendered demands discernment, though. Anybody can publish a website or blog, and not everything on the internet is true and reliable. Online forums can sometimes become downright toxic, so learning to navigate these wisely is a must.

9. Recordings of the world’s greatest musicians on your instrument (and not on your instrument) are at your fingertips. Use them! I still remember when a friend from the all-state band who went to another school in our county brought over a copy of Christian Lindberg’s recording Romantic Trombone Concertos. I was about sixteen at the time, and was completely mesmerized. I had no idea that trombone playing like that was possible, or that recordings of trombone players playing solos accompanied by full orchestra existed. That seems silly today, when both live and studio recordings of great musicians from all over the world are instantly available, usually for free or included with a modest subscription fee. Amazingly, seemingly few students take advantage of the opportunity they have to listen to professional recordings of their solo pieces and sometimes even etudes. Perhaps worse, students sometimes settle for the first “hit” on YouTube when looking for a reference recording, even when that video is of another student at the same level and with similar problems. The aforementioned “democratization of publishing” applies to recordings, as well, and the bit of extra effort needed to find a real professional recording is well worth the time.

10. Learning to read in different clefs is not that hard, and vastly expands the repertoire available to you. Serious trombonists should start learning to read in tenor clef while in high school. This is a standard expectation of composers once the music reaches a certain level, and besides, it just isn’t that difficult to master given the availability of quality study materials. Alto clef reading is also expected of trombonists, but with less frequency. Euphonium players should learn to read in both bass and treble clefs, as both types of parts are not available in every situation. Reading treble clef parts fluently also facilitates “stealing” great music from trumpet, cornet, clarinet, etc. possible. Tubists are rarely expected to read more than bass clef, though learning to do a bit of alternate clef reading opens new repertoire to them, as well.

11. The bass trombone is a great option for some students and can be studied in high school. The bass trombone is becoming increasingly common at the high school level, as it should. Having the larger instrument at the bottom of the section is a necessity for most jazz band and orchestra music and for an increasing number of advanced wind band pieces, but even when not absolutely required for range purposes the bass trombone provides an effective timbral “bridge” between the tenor trombones and euphoniums in the wind band. Students who develop an affinity for the lower register as they develop as players should be encouraged to cultivate this. They might find that this not only increases their development as musicians and enjoyment of playing, but of their scholarship potential, as well.

12. The euphonium is much more closely related to the tuba than to the trombone. This should inform your sound concept. I sometimes wish that we would collectively decide to abandon the term “euphonium” and instead use “tenor tuba.” This might just eliminate the general public’s confusion when hearing about this instrument, but even more importantly, it would communicate to students (and directors) just what kind of sound concept should be pursued. Creating this “tenor tuba” sound demands not only a right sound concept, but also right equipment. A good euphonium mouthpiece is going to be deeper and fuller than a comparable trombone mouthpiece; while the two share common shank sizes, the mouthpieces are not truly interchangeable.

13. The “which tuba should I play?” discussion is worth having. Professional tubists will usually play at least one contrabass tuba (BBb or CC) and one bass tuba (Eb or F). The bass tuba question can be left until well after students enter college, but the contrabass tuba question should be considered by prospective music majors while still in high school. In the United States, most professional tubists play the CC instrument as their large tuba, but practically all students in school bands start with the BBb instrument. The CC tuba does offer certain advantages over the BBb, but it is not unequivocally “better.” Nevertheless, students with professional playing ambitions beyond working as music educators and “playing a few gigs” might choose CC tuba simply to avoid being outliers in that way. Those who simply want to become great teachers or work in some other area of music might decide to avoid the challenge of learning new fingerings and simply develop their musicianship as highly as possible on the BBb. All that said, some college and university studios demand that their students play CC tuba, so consulting one’s likely teacher at the next level when making this decision is wise.

14. Start exploring improvisation now. Although I have done some jazz and commercial playing throughout my career, I was well into my thirties before I began to feel truly comfortable with improvisation. These days the line between “jazz players” and “legit players” is becoming increasingly permeable, and while one might feel more “at home” in one realm or the other, versatility is very much in demand. Besides, learning to improvise well fosters thinking about music on a structural level that improves sight reading, score reading, and overall creativity, thus yielding benefits well beyond the immediate context. Think of it being a little like songwriting, beginning with variations on the head and then expanding to new melodic material over the changes. Thorough familiarity with scale and arpeggio patterns (remember those?) gives one lots of material with which to work. Online backing tracks and apps like iRealPro make improvisation practice easier than ever these days, giving ample freedom to experiment with new ideas in the privacy of your practice room. This is not just for trombone players, either. Tubas and euphoniums are perfectly capable of playing jazz and commercial music, and learning to create walking bass lines when reading from a lead sheet is a great skill for tubists.

15. Have fun! Playing music should be enjoyable, not stressful or painful. All of us go into music because it brings joy to ourselves and others, yet we ironically find ourselves stressing about performances and other responsibilities. While playing our instruments should be a physically simple and enjoyable experience, we often adopt approaches that are laborious, tense, and inefficient. Remember that the simplest way to physically execute a given playing task is usually the right way, and strive for utmost efficiency. Regarding emotional stress and anxiety, I once heard one of the greatest trombonists in the world remind his audience, “it’s just a trombone.” Is music important? Of course. Is it “life-and-death-important?” Not usually. Relax and allow yourself to enjoy the process, to learn, to succeed, to fail, and to grow. In so doing, you’ll bring greater joy to your audiences, your students, and yourself. Have fun!

APPENDIX: Desired Competencies and Representative Repertoire for Entering Freshman Low Brass Majors.

Tenor Trombone

Has a thorough routine for daily and systematic fundamentals practice.

Thorough knowledge of major scales, major arpeggios, and chromatic scale. At least some familiarity with minor scales and arpeggios preferred.

Tonal range G1-C5.

Fluent reading ability in both bass and tenor clefs; some experience with alto clef.

Representative solo repertoire: Rimsky-Korsakov Concerto, Barat Andante et Allegro, Guilmant Morceau Symphonique, Galliard Six Sonatas, Marcello Six Sonatas, Dubois Cortège, Saint-Saëns Cavatine, Pryor Thoughts of Love.

Representative method books: Gower-Voxman Rubank Advanced Method (2 vols.), Arban Complete Method, Bordogni Melodious Etudes, Edwards Trombone Craft, Fink Introducing the Tenor Clef, Introducing the Alto Clef.

Bass Trombone

Has a thorough routine for daily and systematic fundamentals practice.

Thorough knowledge of major scales, major arpeggios, and chromatic scale. At least some familiarity with minor scales and arpeggios preferred.

Tonal range Eb1-G4.

Fluency throughout the low register both in terms of reading and familiarity with the F/Gb/D valves.

Representative solo repertoire: Hoffman Trigger Treat, Hindemith Three Easy Pieces, Lieb Concertino Basso, Jacob Cameos, McCarty Sonata, Galliard/Everett Six Sonatas, Marcello/Everett Six Sonatas, Langford Proclamation.

Representative method books: Gower-Voxman Rubank Advanced Method (2 vols.), Arban Complete Method, Bordogni Melodious Etudes, Fink Introducing the Tenor Clef, Edwards Bass Trombone Craft.


Has a thorough routine for daily and systematic fundamentals practice.

Thorough knowledge of major scales, major arpeggios, and chromatic scale. At least some familiarity with minor scales and arpeggios preferred.

Tonal range G1-C5.

For bass clef players, fluency in both bass and tenor clefs, as well as understanding of using tenor clef as a “transposition tool” for reading transposing treble clef euphonium parts.

For treble clef players, developing fluency in bass clef.

Representative solo repertoire: Curnow Rhapsody, Capuzzi/Catelinet Andante and Rondo, Schumann/Droste Five Pieces in Folk Style, Falcone Mazurka, Galliard Six Sonatas, Marcello Six Sonatas, Clarke The Bride of the Waves, Ropartz Andante et Allegro.

Representative method books: Gower-Voxman Rubank Advanced Method (2 vols.), Arban Complete Method, Bordogni Melodious Etudes, Mead New Concert Studies, Fink Introducing the Tenor Clef, From Treble Clef to Bass Clef Baritone.


Thorough knowledge of major scales, major arpeggios, and chromatic scale. At least some familiarity with minor scales and arpeggios preferred.

Tonal range Bb0-Eb4.

Fluency throughout the low register both in terms of reading and familiarity with the low fourth valve (and fifth valve, if available) fingerings.

Some consideration of the relative merits of moving to CC tuba or remaining on BBb tuba as one’s contrabass tuba should have taken place.

Representative solo repertoire: Barat Introduction and Dance, Haddad Suite, Bach/Bell Air and Bourree, Tcherepnin Andante, Capuzzi/Catelinet Andante and Rondo, Hartley Suite for Solo Tuba, Marcello/Little Sonatas, Curnow Concertino.

Representative method books: Gower-Voxman Rubank Advanced Method (2 vols.), Arban Complete Method, Bordogni Melodious Etudes, Jacobs Low Register Studies, Blazhevich/King 70 Studies.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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