It’s time to tackle a problem that plagues almost every player of a middle to low tessitura instrument, such as the trombone, bass trombone and tuba. One of the most common faults today in low brass playing is the lack of a clear sound, and this results in a loss of resonance. What specifically can you do to alleviate this problem? One such solution is to rethink the way we approach legato passages. The biggest reason for loss of resonance in legato passages is the tendency to avoid using legato tongue to focus the sound. What takes the place of the legato tongue is the technique of dropping the air in between legato slurs, flicking the slide quickly and using body english to get to the next note. I call this sneaking around slurs rather than playing them. This is usually in an attempt to avoid a smear at any cost, but what it does, is take necessary focus out of the sound needed for resonance. The player must use a “ho, ho” articulation, and the use of that syllable causes a hole in the middle of the sound, because of the lack of a sufficiently focused aperture. Think of a funnel with a large open end; your lungs. If you want to take all that air and condense it into an extremely dense, concentrated air stream, which is the secret to a great sound, the small end of that funnel must be the size of the tube you are filling, or even smaller. The way to do this is to pronounce the syllable “daauuw, daauuw, when playing legato slurs. This allows you to blow through slurs rather than around them, and keep a narrower aperture, without worrying about a smear. It will give you a better, clearer, more resonant sound. It is important to remember that the legato tongue must be applied as soon as the slide starts moving to the next note, and be completed before the slide gets to the arrival note, so it is heard approximately in the middle of the slur, otherwise there will be an unwanted smear, as if no legato tongue was used at all. Everyone’s legato tongue is late to some degree, and the earlier it is applied, the better the slur, the clearer the sound, and the more reliable the connection.
The main reason for a hesitancy to use legato tongue in legato slurs, was a fear of over using the tongue, which is of course a negative concept. The advantage of the legato tongue concept is the amount of variety it affords, by that I mean from very light to very pronounced, as required for different registers. An important feature of the legato tongue is, it lets you keep the sound flowing between notes, giving you more sound, and a better sound because of the density of that sound. The secret to a great sound is to cram as much dense sound into a dynamic as possible, and the legato tongue lets you do that. Certain registers require the use of more legato tongue than others, especially the range between low Bb and middle F.
As we go higher the use of the degree of legato tongue decreases, until in the extreme upper register, practically none is necessary, because the sound is sufficiently focused due to the size of the aperture required for that register. As I’ve said before, I only use legato tongue on legato slurs, and not on natural slurs, which only requires a flexible embouchure and air stream, which is another skill that must be practiced and developed by learning to bend pitches in the practice room, to completely control the air stream.
I have in the past used analogies to convey a description of the technique of properly starting notes. I would like to give you another mental picture of that concept. Think of starting a note as if you were flicking a mosquito off of your arm. You build up energy in your middle finger by pressing against the back of your thumb and release the thumb, or actually pushing the thumb out of the way with the built up energy in the middle finger. If you can do this in one instant motion, that’s the way you should start notes. The air becomes the energy in the finger, the thumb is the seal in the embouchure, the air blows the tongue away, (and down,) and the air is sent flying forward, all in one instantaneous moment.
I have an experiment for low brass players, especially bass trombone and tuba players to make sure they are producing the best sound they are capable of getting. First, get access to a pipe organ. Sit at the console and play some single notes using only the foot pedals. When you can imitate exactly the timbre and response of those foot pedals, while remaining completely relaxed in your body, you have attained the best sound it is possible for you to produce. Talk about fundamentals!