Shifting Gears

Once again I want to give you some additional thoughts about legato. (I’m going to keep doing this until I hear some change in the trombone world’s general approach to legato.) Many players have no idea what happens when they move the slide from one position to another in a legato phase. (The commonly used “lurch” is not an acceptable form of legato in my book.)

It’s kinda like my golf swing. From the top of the back swing to contact with the ball I black out and don’t remember a thing. I hear a lot of players doing that with the slide trying to avoid glissando. The ideal is, no matter how fast you move the slide, to keep track of the air stream so that you decide and control how you want the legato to sound. If you took a cruise from the US to Europe would you take a sleeping pill upon boarding and wake up when you got there? Of course not. You would enjoy all the things the ship has to offer. That is what I want you to do with the legato. Haven’t you heard the expression ” getting there is half the fun?”

Since I am in favor of the smoothest slur I can produce across the entire range, that entails some different techniques in different registers. My rule is; the lower the register the more legato tongue I use and the more definite the slide movement. Even with that I want the most amount of sound I can get between notes without a smear. As I go higher and the partials get closer together, the slide movement gets smoother and less definite. The legato tongue also gets less definite. When I reach something like F above the staff and higher, the slide flows smoothly from note to note with very little legato tongue. This is of tremendous value in developing a good high register, feeling as if each note was pulled from the next. This should closely match the legato (even though I had to do something different) down in what I call “no-mans land,” that register between low Bb and middle F that tenor trombone players usually have trouble with.

Speaking of no-mans land, I believe a lot of problems with the quality of sound in that register are a result of insufficient firmness in the corners of the embouchure, which causes the sound to spread and the air stream to go below the most resonant center of the note. The corners of the embouchure must stay especially firm in this register to avoid the sound getting muddy and unclear in timbre, pitch, and resulting in loss of resonance. I would usually play this register on an embouchure set no lower than that for a middle Bb. I would also concentrate on mentally by-passing the cup and aiming the air straight into the throat of the mouthpiece. This mental process really helps focus the sound in these difficult registers. Starting on low A (at least for me) I relax my corners and drop my bottom jaw. Everyone is a little different so these are only guidelines.

A lot of the time when playing a note like an F above the staff, it being sharp in 1st position, we play it slightly lower. A common mistake is to not sufficiently support that note with the air stream as well, which causes the note to be flat and dull in sound. For instance, I am thinking of the final note in the solo from the Mozart Requiem.

Another thing to remember is that there are about 300 facial muscles that affect the embouchure. The chance of all of them being in the same position for a particular note is remote. That is why if you rely on putting the slide in a particular spot for placing pitch, this alone is not nearly enough. It all depends on the register you’re coming from and the amount of flex or tension in the lips as you approach that note. That is the reason we must rely on our ears and not just how the slide looks to us. If you jump from a high note to a low note chances are that the note will be sharp if you put the slide in the same old place. The same is true in the reverse. A pitch will be flat going from low to high or even as small a skip as from below the staff to in the staff. Think of the last solo from the 1st movement of the Mahler 3rd Symphony. When coming from the low E half note triplet to the low A half and whole note, if you don’t sharpen the A it will be flat. The reason for this is because of the necessary relaxation of the embouchure to achieve a good sound on the low E. The moral of this is; trust your ears and not your eyes.

Knowing where to set the embouchure for certain notes or registers is one of the most important things a brass player must learn to achieve consistency. Sometimes it is necessary to play a whole passage in the upper middle register on a low embouchure in order to play one low note with a good sound. The reverse is also true. Many times we must make choices because there isn’t time to change embouchures, and that must be worked out before a passage is played.

I want to address a subject that has been tossed around for as long as I can remember, and that is the amount of mouthpiece pressure that is proper when playing. Of course, there is the old practice of hanging the horn from a string on the ceiling and playing with no hands to avoid any pressure at all. I have a hunch that a lot of people that lived by this method are no longer playing. Without a proper seal between mouthpiece and lips, the sound quality and range would be severely limited, and other even less desirable actions would occur. When you are playing a high Bb fortissimo you are going to have to use some pressure. I would rather see someone use moderate mouthpiece pressure than tighten up some other part of the body. Tense muscles in the body absolutely KILL sound.

That high Bb ff or such is going to require that some muscle flex, and I’d much rather see it happen in your corners than your gut. Sufficient mouthpiece pressure is usually no problem and necessary as long as it is balanced by an equal amount of air flow forward. The problem of too much mouthpiece pressure usually occurs when air flow is decreased or not increased enough as mouthpiece pressure is increased to play higher and/or louder.

A rule of thumb is; let everything happen from the chin up and don’t get other body parts involved.