Legato and the Arms Race

We’ve got to put a stop to the arm(s) race. Trombonists everywhere are flicking and jerking the slide faster and faster to avoid the dreaded glissando, thereby obliterating legato as we (and everyone else) know it. We have to stop apologizing for the fact that we can play smoother than any other instrument. My rule for legato is; as much sound between notes as possible without a smear. Trombonists around the world have an amazing array of techniques to avoid true legato. They go around it, jump over it, go under it, but rarely go through it. Of course I don’t like a sloppy slide either, but I also don’t advocate throwing the baby out with the bath water.

In my experience 95%+ of people I hear have a legato that is too hard. Less than 5% have a legato that is too smeary. Now what does that tell us? If 100% of players had a legato that was too hard, one would surmise that the trombone was incapable of anything but a hard legato. But those 5% tell us that somewhere between those extremes lurks the most beautiful legato slur in the world. What would that sound like? I try to tailor my legato slur to the sound of male voices singing Gregorian Chant, because to me that is the most beautiful legato sound. I haven’t gotten there yet but I’m still trying.

We as trombone players face a challenge in legato playing because of the different things we have to do to achieve a consistently smooth legato. Every slur requires a different combination of legato tongue and slide movement. The expedient way is to use one quick, jerk (I call it a flick) of the slide for everything and eliminate legato completely. You have then joined the slide flickers club. This club entitles you to never have to concern yourself with legato again and also to not have to worry about that supposed curse of every trombone player; the portamento. Since your slide arm will be lightening fast and therefore probably somewhat rigid, you won’t have to worry about sustaining that big fat resonant sound that comes with a relaxed slide arm and velvet smooth legato. You’ll further reduce the burden of a big sound by eliminating all sound between notes. You will then be in the mainstream of current trombone pedagogy. Are you sure this is what you want?

Now here’s my personal ideas on playing and teaching legato:

I never move the slide without the air moving with (or preferably ahead) of it. The slide moves through the notes rather than from note to note. Even though the slide stops in each position, imagine that it doesn’t. The air stream is continuous on and between notes. On a slur that crosses a partial try to get as much sound as possible before that partial so that it resembles a long legato slur. Imagine a rubber band (the air) that is pulled along with the slide to another position. The slide should move smoothly and silently so as not to disturb the air stream whatsoever, and not vice-versa. Avoid a “slide show” performance.

This begs the question; how fast or slow do you move the slide? Answer; move it whatever speed it takes to get the smoothest, most beautiful slur you can imagine. Whatever speed you move it, move it smoooothly. Push the legato as far as you need to to find out where the line between legato and glissando is.

Don’t worry, due to current budget cutbacks the glissando police are woefully understaffed at this time. When you have crossed that line between legato and glissando, don’t run in the other direction where the rest of the crowd retreated. Greatness requires risk taking.

If I were to visualize what a great legato looked like it would be something like this; imagine a few bowling balls on a rack. These are the notes. The bowling balls are inside of a large tube that is made of the same material found in drier vents. It resembles a slinky with a plastic coating over it. Depending on the type of slur you want, the amount of space between the notes is adjustable, but the bowling balls never touch each other and the tube that connects them is the same circumference as the bowling balls.

I like to think of the slide as a tire on a car. If the normal tire pressure is 32 psi, then I try to keep that psi as close to normal as possible while moving the slide. The slide should move silently and glide smoothly across the floor as if in stocking feet, so as not to disturb the steadiness of the air stream.

In order to get the same great slur in various registers and different types of slurs, different things must be done to get that one great slur. The end of the Bolero solo requires more legato tongue and a faster slide movement than the 1st half of that solo. The rule is; the closer the partials are together, (as in the high register) the more time is alloted (and less tongue) between notes to achieve that great slur. At first you will have to think about every slur and adjust accordingly, but after a while if you think musically (have the perfect slur in your head) it will happen automatically. The big challenge will be to get control of your slide arm, which will tend to be on auto-pilot flick mode. Imagine the worlds most beautiful slur and have your brain tell your body; “do what ever you have to to get that slur on every note.”

Remember, your arm is part of your body and must be as relaxed as the rest of your body. Move the slide as if it was the least important thing in making a sound, because it is. The slide is like a conductor, it can flail away to beat the band, but if there are no players (air) to make sound, it’s all for nothing. I try to feel like I’m blowing the slide from position to position. My arm follows the air stream in a passive role. I rarely get a blank because my air is usually waiting for the slide to arrive instead of the other way around. If I want to slur from middle Bb to Eb above the staff, I start bending my air up even before I move the slide. Then it will feel like I am pulling the slide to 3rd using the air. I won’t get any other notes in between because I went up and over that break with the air rather than from underneath, which would have been the result of the slide getting there before the air. A good exercise to try this is to gliss from middle Bb down to Ab and then slur to Eb. Now take that air you used for the gliss and send it up to the Eb. Make sure the slide moves with or behind the air. It should have the same feel that it had to the Ab. This concept will work on every other slur as well. It works great on something like the Schumann Rhenish excerpt.

You will know you have a great legato when no one can tell exactly when a note changed because one note will flow into another without any break in the continuity of the sound. Then a composer such as Wagner, with his beautiful legato writing for trombone, can rest easy once and for all.