It’s been a while since I’ve talked about the concept of legato. I’m always thinking about new ways to visualize a great legato on the trombone, which is a very individual brass player’s problem because of the slide component of our instrument. The horn throws different problems at us for legato. Some slurs are long and slow, and some are short and fast. The concept you want to aim for is: smooth and clear. Not just smooth and not just clear, but smooth and clear. If you are playing every slur hard, fast and clear you are leaving out 50% of the slur. If you are playing every slur smeary you are leaving out 50% of the slur.
First thing you need to decide is what do you want your legato to sound like? How about smooth and clear? What does that mean? I think it means sound between notes without a gliss. If there is no sound between notes then there is no legato. That is the classic definition of legato from the golden age of Bel Canto style singing. There are very few slurs on the trombone that naturally give you a great legato. Most are either too fast (hard) or too slow (smeary.) You must think (dream) of a slur that is both smooth and clear, with sound between notes without a gliss. The horn wants to give you slurs that are too hard, (quick) and too sloppy (smeary).
Lets say in your dream slur the time between notes looks like this: __. The horn gives you either slurs that look like this: _ or this: ____. Neither are your dream slur because of the variety of slide movements necessary to reach different notes or overtone series. Once you make a decision on what you want your slurs to sound like, meaning how much sound between notes you want, (don’t tell me you don’t want any because that’s not legato) it’s your job to match ’em up. If I had a slur that wanted to jump out of the horn fast and hard I’d move the slide smoother and fill that space with my decided amount of sound. If it is a long shift or jump and the horn wanted to make it slow and smeary I would move the slide (and air!!!) faster, always returning to my dream slur of __.
If there’s one thing that gets in the way of good legato playing, it’s moving the slide without the air! This results in no smoothness between notes and therefore no legato. If the arrival note is lucky enough to speak it is what I call a “lurch.” The slide bumped into the next note haphazardly without air or smoothness. I never move the slide (I hope) without the air and many times I will try to move the air ahead of the slide, so that that the air is waiting for the slide to arrive. When slurring up to a different partial I try to change partials in the middle of the shift so there is an equal amount of legato on either side of the slur. What most people do is wait until the slide gets to the next position to change partials, and this puts all the legato on one side of the slur and none on the other.
Another habit I see usually is the tendency to not use enough legato tongue on legato slurs. Again, like basic legato, we don’t want too much but we don’t want too little either. Just enough to match our dream slur concept. I always try to put the legato tongue in the middle of the slur, not when it’s almost over. Varying degrees of legato tongue must be used according to the register it’s used in. Generally speaking, the higher the register the less legato tongue is needed. The lower the register the more it is needed.
I’m going to give you two extremely valuable thoughts when playing legato. When going out from 1st or 2nd position think of blowing the slide out with the airstream. When bringing the slide in, think of the slide as a basket and bring the sound back with it, leaving nothing behind!