First impressions about the trombone are often funny sounds, and the slide, which has to be moved while playing, but is it all a trombone can do? Definitely not.
There are many types, sizes and mechanics of trombones and they can be used for a wide scale of musical purposes from classical to pop music. Its sound can vary from soft melodic whispering to loud, energetic shouting. So how should one play the trombone? Let’s see the method below!
Before we start to discuss the details of how to play the trombone, it’s mandatory to know a bit of its history, since it helps us to understand the mechanics of the instrument and the specific characteristics of it.
First let’s start with a little etymology. The name trombone is originated from the Italian word tromba (trumpet) extended with ‘one’, which means big. So the name trombone originally means ‘big trumpet’. In England the trombone was called ‘sackbut’ from the 15th century, while in Germany they called it ‘Posaune’, which is still in use today.
The first prehistoric wind instruments were not specified as trombone or trumpet nor as woodwind and brasswind, they are generally called horns. The first forerunners of the trombone (around 17000 years ago) were shells, which were able to produce sound with the help of their player.
The other popular material for horns in the prehistoric times were animal horns, which resulted instruments such as the shofar from Israel, the keras from Greece, the kombu from India or the didjeridu from Australia.
These prehistoric horns were generally played as they are without any major modifications. However, the ancient horns were made of different materials and their production required experimenting and planning, which resulted instruments such as the sheneb from ancient Egypt. They are treated as the first horns (trumpets and trombones) made in the history.
First Trombones from Ancient Egypt (1326-1336 BC)
A similar horn as the sheneb appeared in ancient Greece, called the salpinx. The salpinx is remarkable, because the first horn notations were created for this instrument as it can be seen at the below picture.
In the ancient times brass instruments still couldn’t be divided to instruments such as trumpet or trombone, they didn’t really own the characteristics of any of them.
“After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, the trumpet disappeared from Europe for more than half a millennium.” (Costa, 2019)
Since in the ‘Dark Ages’ development was more relevant in the Middle East and Asia, trumpet evolution was also located in these areas instead of Europe. It is important to recognize, that the Saracens created their own natural trumpets based on the Roman tuba, which was brought back to Europe by crusading Christian armies around 1100.
In the Renaissance horn developments took a big step, when tube bending was discovered and the slide trumpet was created. Its mechanics is similar to today’s trombones, however due to its mouthpiece and bore size its register is much closer to the trumpet’s.
Although the bended slide trumpet could cover more harmonics of the harmonic series than the former straight trumpets, until Baroque it wasn’t treated as a virtuoso solo instrument, it usually played the cantus firmus.
Renaissance Slide Trumpet
This role hasn’t changed in the Baroque era neither, in a few works of Bach or Händel the trombone played the cantus firmus. Since trombones were used only in a few works occasionally, trombones and players often had to be imported from different regions or countries.
The Classical era was the breakthrough for the trombone, this is the time since when trombone is used as an independent instrument. (For example trombones are used in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
The trombone became very popular from the 19th century, when many composers used it in symphony orchestras such as Berlioz, Liszt, Rossini, Wagner, Verdi or Mahler. From this era the trombone often got a solo in orchestral pieces such as in Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.
We have to mention the importance of wind orchestras, military bands from the 19th century, which played a big role in the development of the instrument. In these orchestras trombones had strong roles and forced players to deploy their playing abilities as well.
In the 20th century wind orchestras, marching and military bands were used in many countries and they developed their unique style, so a German, a French or a British band can be differentiated by their sounds, played pieces and playing characteristics.
Newsboy Military Band Member with Trombone, Toledo, Ohio
Today trombone is still very popular in many styles, such as in jazz or pop music. It’s worth to listen to a trombone solo in De Phazz’ track or the trombone master Wycliffe Gordon.
If you want to learn to play the trombone, you should be aware of how many different types of this instrument exist, since the way of playing them may vary.
This is the best-known type of the trombones, where its slide is being pulled to change the notes. This type of mechanics is originated in the Renaissance and still used by most trombones.
However, the valve trombone looks very similar to a slide trombone, its slide cannot be moved by playing, but additional valves are added to it to change the notes.
The concept of these valves is the same as used by trumpets. If we are talking about valve trombones, we should mention, that two different types of valves can be built into a trombone: piston valves (used mainly in American trombones) and the rotary valves (used rather by German manufacturers).
Superbone is mixture of a valve and a slide trombone, it has both a slide to be pulled and 3 valves as well. Some prototypes of superbones were in use at the beginning of the 20 century made by C. G. Conn, however the best-known superbone was made by the Holton company for Maynard Ferguson’s request.
He used it in more of his albums and in several concerts. The issue with most superbones is that the player has to use his/her right hand for the valves and the slide as well, so they cannot be used at the same time. To solve this issue, the Schagerl company created a new version of superbone with the help of multi-instrumentalist James Morrison.
Their superbone’s valves were re-positioned, therefor can be played by left hand and in addition the instrument’s weight is more balanced. A perfect demonstration of how to play the superbone by James Morrison can be seen at the below video:
Trombones in Different Pitches
Trombones in different keys are used for different purposes, so when you would like to choose the right trombone for yourself, you should be aware of where and what to play.
The soprano trombone is very similar, but not the same as the valve trumpet. It has the same mouthpiece and bore size as a trumpet, it is in the key of Bb, but it is rarely used in bands or orchestras, it’s rather a solo instrument as it is implemented by the virtuoso Wycliffe Gordon.
The alto trombone is in the key of Eb and was in use from the 16th century in many orchestral works by Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz. A beautiful solo piece for the alto trombone is written by Leopold Mozart.
The tenor trombone is the most common trombone type. It reads in bass clef, it’s in the key of Bb and used in many styles such as classical, pop or jazz. Some tenor trombones have an extra valve attachment, which lowers its fundamental pitch from Bb to F.
There are two main types of the F valve: the traditional rotary valve and the axial flow valve invented in 1976. The axial flow valve provides a faster response and better tone while using it, but it requires a more complex maintenance than the rotary one.
So when you would like to buy your own instrument, it’s worth to dive deeper in the advantages and disadvantages of these valve types and decide based on your playing preferences.
Bass trombones are in use regularly, but they have their own roles in music. They play the lowest trombone part in symphony orchestras (usually the 3rd trombone part) and the lowest (4th part) in big bands.
The bass trombone is in the key on Bb such as the tenor trombone, however it has a larger bell and uses a larger mouthpiece as well. It has an extra slide additionally to the tenor’s F slide and therefor operates with two valve triggers.
The contrabass trombone has a longer tube length than the tenor or the bass trombone and it is in the key of F and contains the two additional slides such as the bass trombone.
The cimbasso is a very unique instrument, it doesn’t look like a regular trombone, but it has a bell size and a range of a bass trombone and the same size of mouthpieces is used, so it belongs to the trombone family.
Most cimbassos are in the key of F and contain six piston or rotary valves. However it is not among the commonly known instruments, it is used by many famous composers such as Verdi (in Aida), Puccini or Bellini.
Brass instruments offer a variety of timbres based on the type of brass (i.e. the ratio of copper and zinc) used for the bell.”
Some companies offer trombones made of plastic. They are very cheap and are valid substitutes for brass trombones for students or in amateur bands, however not applicable for professional use.
More and more manufacturers offer half brass-half carbon instruments. They have a special tone and contrary to plastic trombones they are quite expensive.
Basics – How to Create Sounds on the Trombone?
The trombone is a brasswind instrument, which nomenclature is naturally based on its material, however the instruments’ material is not the initial aspect when we group them.
An instrument is called a brasswind instrument, when its sound is produced by airstream-vibrated lips. That’s why a saxophone is not a brass instrument, since its sound is produced by the vibrating reed.
So as a first step you have to take a big breath, keep the mouth corners firm and blow the air through your mouth while a ‘buzzing sound’ is produced. This step is called the buzzing. The next step is to do the same with the mouthpiece.
This is called mouthpiece buzzing. Take care of the steady airstream, which must be supported by the diaphragm, but try not to overblow. The below video contains some basic mouthpiece buzzing exercises:
Good to Know: The Harmonic Series
Trombone development took giant steps in the 14th century and to better understand the development concepts and challenges, it is mandatory to get a taste of how brass instruments work.
The base structure of the trombone is the harmonic or overtone series. To understand it, we should start with tone attributes. A tone can be described by many physical characteristics such as frequency (the shorter the wavelength, and higher the frequency, the higher the note sounds), amplitude (loudness), or color.
The tone’s color is defined by its frequencies. If a tone has only one frequency, it sounds like a digital watch alarm of a whistle. Musical notes generally include more frequencies, so they are more colorful and provide a full sound. “…a very particular set of frequencies is heard.
Each note that comes out of the instrument is actually a smooth mixture of many different pitches. These different pitches are called harmonics, and they are blended together so well that you do not hear them as separate notes.” (Earmaster, 2020)
The notes of the harmonic series are set of frequencies that are positive integer multiples of a common fundamental frequency as can be seen on the below image:
So, let’s translate physics into musical notes: if A is the fundamental, its frequency is 440 Hz, and an octave above (as the second harmonic) will have 880 Hz. The third harmonic will be a fifth above (E) with 1320 Hz and so on. As earlier said: the higher the frequency, the higher the note sounds. The below image shows the harmonics of the low C.
This harmonic series shows us which notes can be played on a natural trombone from the 14th century (or with one position on a slide/ventil trombone), while it also helps us to see which notes’ frequencies can be found in one musical note. The use of the harmonic series on today’s trombones will be described later.
The Mechanics of the Trombone
As described earlier, two main trombone mechanics exist: the slide and the valve one. However they seem to be very different, the seven button combinations for the valve trombone can be equated to the seven slide positions. However in practice, the valve and slide trombones require a different way of thinking.
A valve trombone has three buttons and valves, which allows us to have seven different combinations (such as the slide trombone’s seven positions, which can be equivalent with the trumpet’s seven finger combinations). We mark trombone buttons with numbers starting from the player’s perspective.
That’s how we get button 1, button 2 and button 3. The instrument has a central valve system, which can lead air to three additional slides (one slide per ventil). The three slides have different lengths, and they can change the tone with half (button 2), one (button 1), or one and a half (button 3) pitches and they can be combined.
So, let me list all positions and button combinations of the trombone and explain what notes can be played by them. This structure is also visualized at the above and bottom images.
The harmonic series of the Bb can be played without pressing any buttons or in the first position, it is marked with one (1). A half note lower with button 2 or in the second position we can play the harmonic series of low B and so on.
The order of the buttons can be determined by the length of their valves by building a chromatic (half-note step) scale. So coming down from Bb, let me show you the notes of the chromatic scale and fingerings:
- Bb: no buttons to press / first position
- A: press button 2 / second position (half note lower than Bb)
- Ab: press button 1 / third position (one note lower)
- G: press button 1+2 or 3 / fourth position (one and half notes lower)
- F#: press button 2+3 / fifth position (two notes lower)
- F: press button 1+3 / sixth position (two and a half notes lower)
- E: press button 1+2+3 / seventh position (three notes lower)
Since we can play the F with zero fingering / first position as well, we can start the fingering combinations from the beginning to step down by half pitches:
- F: no buttons to press / first position
- E: press button 2 / second position (half note lower than F)
- Eb: press button 1 / third position (one note lower)
- D: press button 1+2 or 3 / fourth position (one and a half note lower)
- Db: press button 2+3 / fifth position (2 notes lower)
- C: press button 1+3 / sixth (2 and a half note lower)
- B: press button 1+2+3 / seventh (3 notes lower)
Basic Exercises for Playing the Trombone
A thumb rule for trombone playing is to play the nicest sound with minimum effort. However, it sounds easy, we have to systematically build our muscles to be able for that behavior, so let me list a few fundamental exercises.
Proper breathing is essential for wind instruments especially for brass instruments, such as for the trombone. As mentioned earlier, sound is produced by the steady airstream making the lips vibrate. Since our body is originally not created for playing the trombone, we must train ourselves to breath more effectively.
The most common breathing concept is the so called ‘yoga breathing’, which divides our lungs for three parts. To feel these three parts, we can do the following exercise:
- Lie down on your back and start to breath softly, put your hand on your belly and let the air move your stomach. This will help you to feel the bottom part of your lungs.
- Sit down, stretch your gluteus muscles and start to breath without lifting your shoulders up. This will show you the middle part of your lungs.
- Stand up and while breathing in, lift your arms up. This will help you to feel the upper part of your lung.
With a little practice you’ll be able to combine these three steps and use a full breath. It’s important to mention, that there are a few detailed breathing methods such as Bobby Shew’s Wedge Breath, the Ricquier Method or Sandy Adam’s 21-day-long Super Lung Power.
These are systematic methods with daily exercises, which can really help the players to strengthen their breathing muscles progressively.
Buzzing or free buzzing is the activity, when we stretch the corners of our mouth and blow the air through them. This exercise can be the first step of a good warm-up, which helps to wake up our facial muscles used for playing the trombone.
After that we can also buzz into the mouthpiece and play some intervals softly. Be careful to let the air do the job and not your embouchure! This exercise is to warm up your mouth, not to get tired!
If you are ready with your buzzing exercises, you can take your instrument now and start to play some long tones. The aim of long tones if to seek for the right feel and the nice sound and not to get tired. You should take a rest after every long tone. The regular use of long tones helps you to develop your endurance and tone quality.
Scales are essential for playing any instrument. The knowledge of scales helps you to better sight-read, to practice different keys, to develop technique and deploy sound quality.
Scales should be practiced slurred and tongued as well. There are many trombone scale exercises such as Kopprasch, Clarke or Arban’s method (originally written for trumpet) transposed for trombone.
By flexibility we mean the ease of playing slurred intervals from triads to octaves and further. This flexibility is essential for all brass players. By flexibility exercises we have to take care of playing them as easy as possible with minimum tension in the mouth but with high compression and a steady airstream.
There are some unique techniques, which are specialized for brass instruments or for the trombone. Some of them are used by other instruments as well, but in a much different way, so it’s worth to know them.
The glissando is used by many instruments, but the trombone’s glissando is quite unique. The trombone player has to start it in the furthest position (starting note of the glissando) and pull it constantly to a closer position (end note of the glissando), while processing a steady airstream.
There are three types of trills on the trombone. The most commonly used is the lip trill. It can be played in the higher registers, where – due to the harmonic series – notes played in the same position are closer to each other (at least 2 or three notes away).
So the player has to split the notes with his/her lips and tongue very fast with a huge air compression, which will result a trill.
The other way can be played on slide trombones with F valve extensions and trills can be played in higher registers such as lip trills. In this method the player has to pull the F valve trigger very fast, which will create the trill.
The third way of trills can be played on valve trombones with the valves.
It’s a little bit hard to explain how the flatter sounds, but it’s similar to an airplane’s sound. Normally, when we blow the trombone, we let the air flow freely, while when doing the flatter the player has to make an ‘r’ sound with his tongue while blowing.
Double and triple tonguing
Sometimes when we play very fast tongued parts, our tongue might be slow for them and that’s the case, when we can use the double and triple tonguing technique.
When we play with simple tonguing, we articulate ‘ta-ta’, or ‘da-da’, while when we would like to use double tonguing, we should pronounce ‘ta-ka’ or ‘da-ga’, this way we’ll use two different parts of our tongue for the two different notes, and that’s why it can be faster.
Triple tonguing is very similar to double, but it is mainly used by triplets, where we have to pronounce ‘ta-ta-ka’ or ‘da-da-ga’.
Answer: There are two main types of trombones: valve and slide trombones. On valve trombones you can press buttons to change the notes with the help of valves, which means, every note has a fix button combination.
On valve trombones the player has to learn the seven positions of the slide with its distances. There are no stops or signs for these positions, the player has to be aware of how far he/she must pull the slide for the desired note.
Answer: To play wind instruments generally require a lot of air. But to be more exact, the player needs a well-supported airstream to play, which desires the training of all muscles of the lungs, diaphragm and abdomen muscles.
Answer: Yes, absolutely, there are many types of trombones! Two main types are valve, slide trombones and a mixture of them, the superbone.
There are various types of trombones based on their pitches, such as soprano, alto, tenor, bass and contrabass trombone. These pitches are changed based on the length of the instrument’s slides. You can group trombones based on their materials as well such as brass or plastic.
Answer: Yes, definitely, there are many breathing exercises to train the lungs and special techniques as well. The most common technique is the full breath or yoga breath.
Answer: That sound is a combination of two techniques: the glissando and the flatter. The glissando is when the player starts from the seventh position to zero position with a steady speed, while the flatter is when the player says the noun ‘r’ while playing.
Answer: If you remove the trombone’s slide and you blow it, it will give you a sound similar to a cow’s moo.
Answer: Due to its length, the trombone is ideal for playing lower notes, however trombone players are able to play high notes as well, but they may be harder for them.
Answer: It depends. You can buy cheap plastic trombones (which are proper, useable instruments) for around $200, however the professional instruments by manufacturers can cost over $10 000.-.
Answer: You should have your permanent front teeth, when you start to play the trombone. So it’s generally from the age of 7.
Answer: It’s simple physics. When a trombone player blows warm air to the cold brass instrument, the air condensates and it has to be blown from the instrument with the help of special water keys. Trombone water key.
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