As a trombonist who floats freely between the musical worlds of jazz, funk, pop, and latin music, much of my thinking when it comes to technique revolves around finding an approach that will work for me in any of these diverse settings. I don’t consider myself a technical virtuoso by any means, but I have, through studying with many great brass educators, found and developed a brass routine that keeps me in shape and agile on the instrument, and better able to convey the ideas I hear, through the horn.
Much of my technical method comes directly from the great trumpet player and educator Laurie Frink, who left this world in 2013, in the summer after I graduated Manhattan School of Music, where I studied with her. She was a brilliant woman and all who had the privilege to work with her considered her a brass guru of the highest order. She helped me through getting back to playing when I had my wisdom teeth removed, which left me unable to play for about a month and gave me some lingering issues with the nerves in my mouth. Without her guidance and systematic instructions in beginning to play again, I honestly might have given up the trombone entirely. I had planned to continue studying with her after school, but when she passed away, I had to rely on the information she left me: memories and sayings that stuck with me as well as the binder of handwritten material she’d “prescribe me” in our lessons.
Laurie’s would often say that we practice technique with diligence and awareness of what is happening physically so that we can surrender to the flow of creativity when playing music, and be helped, not hindered, by our technique. When I warm up, I am taking the opportunity to get centered on the instrument, connect to my breathing with greater awareness, and focus on all the sensory details that make up the components of playing, avoiding any unnatural physical shifts or sudden manipulations in favor of maintaining connection from the very lowest note to the highest note in my range. The second component I myself find valuable, is to also find ways to keep the musical mind active and learning in the midst of calisthenic exercises. Why not kill two birds with one stone and combine an exercise in endurance or flexibility with something harmonic and more musical? Below are a few examples of my favorite components of my brass routine:
This seemingly rudimentary aspect of technique is something that I find completely essential to developing an even tone, consistent pitch, and breath control. It’s probably the first thing we learn to do on the horn, and I definitely see some of my students and even professionals lose sight of its importance in favor of getting right to playing scales, and more flashy exercises. I get it, it can be boring to focus on something so basic. Which is why I like to combine it with more intervallic thinking to keep my mind engaged at the same time.
I start on either F or Bb below middle C, holding out a long drone of at least 4 beats per note. But rather than the rather formulaic pattern of just going down from 1st to 7th position, I expand chromatically from the note in both directions. So after playing F, I go to F#. The next note in the sequence then is E. So, I have expanded the distance of a half step in both directions. The next note would be G, as I continue to expand on the upper track, before going to Eb, expanding on the lower track. At this point I have travelled one whole step in both directions from the starting place of F. And so on and so forth throughout the range of the trombone, till I get to my very lowest E.
I find students have a hard time in visualizing intervals, especially the wider the intervals get, and they are also somehow less fluent in thinking downward with intervals. So, this is a great exercise to start developing a relationship with the concept and memorizing the chromatic sequence on the instrument at an appropriate pace, having at least 4 counts to think about the next note in the sequence. It also introduces the concept of flexibility first thing in your brass routine, as we strive to keep a connection between the subsequently widening distance between the two points of the scale. The goal is to have an embouchure that is universal: where we can maintain one position and point of contact with the mouthpiece throughout our range.
I also like to strip everything down to the very vibration that is the start of the sound on the horn. I make a buzz using just my lips, which we call “free buzzing”, as we don’t have the horn or even the mouthpiece to center or amplify the vibration. This exercise comes straight from Laurie Frink: start by buzzing an F below middle C, and take two slow counts to bend, or glissando, down one half-step, then take two counts to bend back up to F. This is to be done as gradually as possible. Then repeat the same sequence down a half-step, and down a half-step again, for a total of 7 times (as if you are doing the sequence in positions 1-7). At first it might be hard to vibrate these notes without the help of the mouthpiece, but in a matter of days, one is able to develop control and foster a better sense of connection between the free buzzed F and subsequently lower notes.
Now, repeat the same thing on the mouthpiece alone. Already, you feel a great deal of the resistance melt away as the mouthpiece helps to center the pitch, but we still have to be specific and deliberate with controlling the pitch of each sequence and maintaining a gradual bend.
Lastly, we do the same thing on the full horn without moving the slide within the sequence. In other words, we are bending down from F to E using the lips alone, creating a “fake” E in first position, where the note doesn’t truly exist. This exercise is a great opportunity to distill our sound to the most essential center and to identify any parts of the horn where our embouchure might be a little out of balance. By bending away from the true note that exists on the horn, feeling the resonance leave the note and then return as we bend back up, we can find the purest and truest center of the pitch.
We mostly deal with staccato (“ta”) and legato (“da”) articulations on the trombone. Barring idiomatic stylings where we want the sound of the slide and to smear between notes, we articulate pretty much every note we play on the horn. I like to start with the mechanics of the tonguing itself before I bring slide coordination into the mix. The exercise below gives the tongue a “running start”, giving us 8 articulations on a single note to first finesse the articulation itself before adding the variable of the slide. At that point, the timing of the slide arriving at the desired note has to be perfectly in sync with the attack of the tongue. Back to my “killing two birds with one stone” strategy, this articulation exercise is also combined with practicing scales. In this case, I’ve done the most straightforward option, a Bb major scale, but this could be expanded to all 12 keys and any mode of any scale. This exercise should be practiced both staccato and legato, to make sure the player is equally adept at each type of articulation.
Another important thing to practice is alternating between staccato and legato. I’ve included an example of taking a scale and practicing all the possibilities of articulation combinations. At first some of them may be challenging, but with repetition we develop a greater connection to what we are doing physically and the resulting sound. The coordination develops rapidly and then when we go on to play a demanding piece of music, in any style, we have the tools we need to execute it.
Slurs & Lip Flexibility
This is possibly my favorite area of technical study, and one often overlooked by beginners especially. Maybe since we mostly articulate when we play tunes, it is easy to forget about practicing slurs, which entails moving between two notes with the absence of any articulation, using air alone. As you’ve seen in other sections of this article, a big part of warming up for me is isolating all the different components that come together and form our foundation of “technique”. So, making sure the air is moving the way we want it to that we aren’t relying on the tongue too heavily to hit the intended note, again reinforces the concept of us finding the truest center of each note, which will result in better tone, pitch, and agility overall.
I like to start exploring the mechanics of the slur, working between neighboring partials such as F and low Bb first. I focus on making sure to follow through with the momentum of the air and think of the slur between the two notes more as really one long note, as far as my air/breath is concerned. Here are some examples of some slur exercises, starting with the smaller distance of just 2 partials before expanding the range, and therefore calling upon us to play with greater flexibility. These are all meant to be done in 1st position, then 2nd, 3rd, etc, all the way through 7th.
Tip: In the more difficult examples, try starting in 7th if you are having trouble navigating the high notes, and then bring the sequence in, one position at a time. By starting in a lower part of the range but on the same partials as the notes that are challenging to play in 1st position, we can trick our chops to navigate the partials with greater ease by coming up gradually, one position at a time.
Then, I like to expand the intervals I am slurring, increasing the challenge and in a way making the target of each note a bit smaller. This is a cool one because it has us moving up in different triadic inversions, so there is that harmonic/theoretic component to keep our mind engaged. We start by slurring an open E triad in 7th position, then alternating with an F triad in 6th, and as the sequence progresses we are gradually moving up in these expanded inversions of the F and E triads. At first, it can be really challenging both to play this technically as well as to hear the chords contained within, but all we are doing is alternating between E and F triads in different parts of the range on the trombone. We then take this sequence and do it between 6th position (F triad) and 5th (F# triad), and so on, until we get to 2nd and 1st position.