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Brian Kay


Top Ten Tips for Teaching Trombone

These tips are designed for educators of beginning trombonists, although most apply to older trombonists and other brass instruments as well. The tips are carefully prioritized in order of importance.

1) Put a great sound in their mind. Play a recording if necessary. Show students the difference between a pure supported sound and a pinched/forced sound--demonstrate by playing or singing. Sometimes have them play a note or passage, hear it in their head, then play it again. When a student knows and focuses on a great sound, many other details will take care of themselves subconsciously.

2) Insist on great breathing. Take a full, relaxed, quiet breath through the mouth and immediately exhale without holding the breath before playing. The following two bad habits are well worth correcting at the earliest stage:

Nose breathing: Some students breathe through the nose alone because they are afraid a mouth breath will disturb their embouchure set and make them miss the note. Unfortunately they will not get enough air to play a tune smoothly with anything but the feeblest sound and the habit is harder to fix the longer it is allowed.

Mouth breathing is harder at first, but the student will soon develop the skill of breathing and quickly resealing the embouchure.

Holding the breath: The breath should always be in motion. Students who hold the breath will inevitably develop extra tension in their playing. Students who turn the air right around will gradually develop a far more relaxed and beautiful sound with a smoother working embouchure.

Practice breathing separately--make a game out of blowing objects, or make up rhythmic breathing exercises. Starting with supported, relaxed breathing will prevent most bad habits and playing problems from ever occurring.

3) Keep slide clean and well lubricated. Trombonists need all the help they can get to keep up with the valved and keyed instruments. A sticky slide robs concentration, builds physical tension, and can destabilize the mouthpiece on the embouchure.

Have students rinse slide by sloshing a cup of water through the slide and carefully wiping slide clean, then applying lube. Hold the inner slide up to show students how thin and easily dented the tube is. Build slide inspection into any motivation/reward system you have established.

4) Positions are crucial. Trombonists need the time between notes to move the slide, so they must recognize instantly what position the note is in. Use position drills often to build instant note recognition and make sure students don't need to follow the positions of the person next to them. Also do position drills where you call out position numbers for the student to move the slide to as quickly and accurately as possible (horn should be in playing position and mouthpiece shouldn't shake on lips when slide is moved). Work on your ability to show students exact position locations--within 6/16 inch if possible. Teach 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions by sight as the slide relates to the bell. Know that the slide location appears slightly different from the players perspective than from the side view and different brands have slightly different positions. Finally, remind students to have the slide in place before they start a note.

5) Emphasize and encourage consistency of playing. Do all you can to encourage daily playing and/or practice. Spend about 60% of lesson time playing.

6) Ask for long notes. Students who play with too much space between notes usually fill up that space with bad habits. Playing tenuto style leads naturally to good habits.

7) Do lip slurs daily. Learning the sound and feel of the different lip settings is one of the primary challenges on all brass instruments. Slurs are usually not popular with students, but indispensable to build embouchure strength, range, and breath control. Start with easier downward slurs, then introduce upward slurs, assuring the student that slurs take time to master. The student's goals while slurring should be:

  1. don't use tongue or other "cheating"
  2. change notes smoothly
  3. great sound on every note starting with the first one.

While lips are resting, challenge students to name the notes that can be played in a certain position.

8) Don't demand legato playing too early. This requires near perfect synchronization of tongue and slide. Methods ask for slurs early on which is fine for trumpet players, but too early for trombones. Excuse trombonists from producing slurred passages if they are not comfortable with the technique--especially if they should still be concentrating on good sound, breathing, note reading, or slide technique.

9) Do work tonguing little by little. Make up drills with repeated tonguing on a single note (tah-tah-tah-tah-taaah). This is the place to start legato tonguing (lah-lah-lah-lah-laaah) (or dah). When doing this drill, make sure students are using tongue, not just breath attacks.

10) Use mouthpiece buzzing and ear training daily. Have students "buzz" a little, especially in the early lessons. Buzz single notes, rising and falling "siren" pitch, and easy tunes. The goals are: mouth breath, steady resonant sound (not buzzy), medium soft (not forced), and smooth connection between notes. Ear training drills are especially beneficial for trombonists--and help give the lips a rest when needed. Sing tunes from the book singing position numbers instead of "la-la-la" for synergy of tips three and ten.


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