Learning to play the trombone, as it is with learning to play any musical instrument, is an amazing experience. Without a doubt, the process to mastery is tedious and requires great commitment. However, with hard work comes great reward and the ability to express oneself through the performance of music is one of the great experiences of life.
Each of us were once beginners, learning how to play the trombone and striving to get better. In this post, I want to take a moment to share a few tips for beginning trombonists that I feel will help you in your musical journey.
Practice Scales Daily
Practicing scales is probably the single most important activity for the beginning trombone player. Some of the benefits of practicing scales include slide coordination, ear training, and range development (chromatic scales). I am certain there are others but these three I feel are of the great benefit.
Practicing scales is the musician’s method of practicing hand/eye (or rather hand/eye/mouth) coordination. There is almost no better way to internalize correct slide position than by practicing scales. As you repetitively play scales, you consciously internalize the positions of each note included in that scale. As you play the repetitive scale patterns, you will notice that the coordination in slide movement, by your hand and arm, begin to sync more tightly with the articulation of the note and there is less glissandi between articulated notes as you change positions.
Next, practicing scales helps you develop your ear. Every piece of music ever created has a foundation in a scale. That’s why we have a key signature! It is our familiarity with the scale, its notes and its modes, that we cringe when we hear and note played that does not fall within the scale (or chord) and thus clashes with what is being played. This is because, through practicing scales, our ears have become accustomed to how the scale and its modes should sound.
Finally, practicing scales are a method by which you may build your range. Building up your ability to play two, or three octave scales helps but the real winner is the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale helps incrementally build your range. This is because the chromatic scale moves incrementally up and down by half steps. Technically, it has no high register limit or low register limit and as your range increases in both directions so does the range of your chromatic scale.
Because the chromatic scale is moving up or down in half steps, you are essentially working to build your range in half step increments instead of trying to take big leaps. An added benefit is also a finer tuning of slide coordination and positioning, as the chromatic scale does not skip any note in the range of the trombone or position on the slide. Try practicing the chromatic scale every day for a few weeks. I guarantee you that your range, on both ends, will drastically improve. An alternate technique that many trombonists use for range building are glissandi up and down, which is essentially playing the chromatic scale without articulating the notes.
Practice Proper Breathing
Proper breathing is the single most important aspect of playing the trombone, or any wind instrument. Air flow is what supports the continuous buzzing of the lips, and inadequate air results in an inadequate buzz which results in an inadequate tone. Therefore, I implore you to make time to practice proper breathing. Some good breathing exercises can be found here. For a deeper dive into the world of breathing check out the book The Breathing Gym by Sam Pilifian and Patrick Sheridan.
Work on Technique Daily
Focus on playing techniques should be a part of your everyday practice routine. There are literally hundreds of trombone method books that provide routines that will help you sharpen your technique. If you are a pure beginner, start with a good beginner’s book (when I first started this was the Standard of Excellence Method Book series). If you’re not a pure beginner, go ahead and ramp it up a bit with a good intermediate method book or etude book. If you’ve been playing for a while, I recommend picking up either the Arban’s Famous Method for Trombone, or the Schlossberg Daily Drills and Technical Studies for Trombone.
No matter what level player you are, choose a technique book that will challenge you but not be overwhelming. Growth comes from being challenged, but the challenge should be surmountable. Once you are no longer challenged by the exercises of one book, move on to another more challenging book. This is how you become a better technical player, through incremental growth. Attempting to play something that far beyond your ability only works to discourage you and stop your progress. You wouldn’t go to the gym for the first time and try to bench 225 lbs., right? The same is true with music, start small, make steady growth, and prosper.