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The Care and Feeding of

Young Trombonists
Brian Unverricht

eachers of beginning band know that students start their band

studies more or less on an equal footing, but over the next two to
three years some trombonists mysteriously seem to lose interest and/
or fall behind their peers in technical and musical expertise. How and
why does this happen? What are the hurdles to be conquered? What
can teachers do to enhance trombone playing in their groups?

Before Starting
Meaningful selection of beginners is crucial, as students need to be
matched to an instrument which will offer them a reasonable chance
to succeed. Having this process as part of instrument selection
before beginner band starts will already give trombone students
(and their director) a fighting chance. Some sort of musical aptitude
test is invaluable, and must be coupled with assessments of student
personality, intelligence, and previous musical experience, offered by
adults who already know the group of students. At the same time, care
is needed to create balanced instrumentation, and here the teacher's
opinion, based on information about the potential band students, can
be a very powerful influence in promoting the trombone.
Characteristics of future trombonists should include: an ear for
pitch, some basic piano knowledge so they can find their notes on
the keyboard and leam to match pitch, independence, the ability to
survive in the back row. reasonable arm length, and suitable lips and
teeth. Pre-testing should include the ability to create a sustainable
buzz both with and without the mouthpiece while not puffing out the

In the Beginning
As the students begin to create their first few "tender" notes, focus is
rightly on developing correct playing habits. Every trombonist must
have his/her own music stand, and the slide of the trombone should
be located approximately in the middle of the page of music, just to
the left of the stand. By stressing this slide position right from the
beginning, directors avoid the dull repetition of reminding students to
"hold up your bells."
Very young players will sometimes have trouble draining the
condensation from the slide, even resorting to using their feet. This
can easily lead to slide damage and/or breaking ot" the water key.
Insist from day one that students use only their fingers on the water
key. It's reachable if short-armed youngsters lift the trombone up
behind their left ear with their left hand, and create the correct angle
of slide so that the drain is at the very lowest point, then shake the
water out. Teacher guidance w ill be needed for this.
Because the slide is out in front of the student, it's easy for weak
readers to "cheat" and follow the slide positions of the person next
to them. Since most method books start off with unison playing, try


Spring/printemps 2008 Canadian Winds Vents canodiens

a mixed seating arrangement right from the beginning, alternating

neophyle trombonists with low woodwind instruments. This both
prevents slide watching and assists with pitch discrimination, forcing
the student to read the notation. Generally encourage young players
to find the notes by ear and muscle memory rather that using fingers/
thumb against the bell as a crutch.
To encourage proper care and maintenance, including slide lubrication,
reminders to students are not nearly as etrective as letters to parents
about "protecting their investment." Plan to include cleaning and slide
lubrication instructions, music advocacy thoughts, and future open
house and/or concert dates in your memos sent home. A few weeks
after band starts, invite the parents to either a rehearsal or an open
house, and have the students teach the basics (set-up, embouchure,
breathing, posture, holding position, and slide care) to their parents.
This is a wonderful tool for communicating with the family while
reinforcing basics and demonstrating to parents the learning curve
their child faces. You, the teacher, will then know that the trombonist's
parents will know what to expect, and can more etectively assist on
a daily basis.

What's that Buzz?

At the first few meetings of the beginning band class, enthusiasm
runs high. Students are keen to make any sort of sound in any way,
and even to play tunes right away. Of course, this doesn't happen
overnight, and great teachers know that beginners must focus on the
fundamentals first.
It's no different for trombone players, but the essential element at this
stage is producing, and repeating daily, a working mouthpiece buzz.
Students should hold the mouthpiece with thumb and two fingers only,
so that it's impossible to apply too much pressure. Practice various
"pitches" right from the beginning, along with slides up and down,
sirens, and other images. Include this as part of every class meeting
and all evaluation practices, and encourage students to make this
a part of their daily routine. Try pitch echoes, rhythm echoes, and
articulation echoes right from day one, where the woodwinds play the
unison notes of ihe method book while the brass buzz their pitches.
Alternating buzzing with playing will lead to a more successful
connection to pitch creation, and assist with finding the centre of the
pitch. Every student must play "solo" at this stage, and louder volumes
that can later be refined are preferable to barely audible tones. Simply
go up and down the row having each beginner play just one note at
first, then one measure, so they leam to be comfortable searching for
pitch and creating good tone from day one both on the instmment and
w ith the mouthpiece alone. Students should strive to match each other
in pitch, tone, and volume. Mouthpiece buzzing to find pitch greatly
assists students in using their ears to find pitch on the trombone.

Hurdle No. 1: Harmony

Towards the end of the student's first year, the music moves from
single-line melody into basic harmony, which can make the music
sound more sophisticated but lead to possible pitch errors. It's an
exciting time in the student's development, but not without stimc
important considerations.
Imagine two elarinetists playing C and E. Each puts down the correct


fingers and plays with their developing tone and articulation skills.
Without using their ears at all, we should have close to a 100% chance
of harmonic success, a major third. Amazingly, two-part intervals
can easily be replicated by these two players throughout most of their
current playing range. This same simplification basically applies to
the complete woodwind family. How about the brass section?
Consider two trombonists who are required to play D and G. Unlike
our woodwind friends, the "fingerings" (slide positions) on the
trombone are identical: both notes are obtained in fourth position. In
addition, these pitches are one partial apart, requiring subtle changes
of embouchure tension, aperture size, and air speed. Unlike our pair of
clarinetists, the trombonists have about one chance in four of success:
they could play two Gs, two Ds, each on the wrong note, or (we hope)
each on the correct pitch. If the stars are truly unaligned, you might
also hear a B and one trombonist will drop his slide.
There are some possible solutions to the mathematical advantage
the woodwinds have at this developmental stage. Many band
arrangements at this level use a convertible bass line (where a large
group plays the same pitches), and this is certainly a good idea for a
short while. Low brass players can be taught to listen for their pitch
played by the low woodwinds and blend with them. Seat placement
can be alternated again (brass, woodwind, brass, woodwind) so they
have a better chance at hearing pitch accurately. Ultimately, of course,
we will need like-instrument groups for concert performances, but
this short-term seating arrangement has proven very useftil in training
young ears.
When the trombones (and other like-instrument brass) are required to
play harmony parts within the section (say D and G), start by having
the whole section play the lowest note, in this case third-line D, and
then the fourth-space G to establish that there are in fact two different
pitches. Then the group on D plays alone, followed by the G group
alone. Next, altemate the two pitch groups (D - G - D - G), then
finally put both notes together to create the harmony. Students need
to be given a chance to hear their pitch alone first, feel comfortable
finding it, and only then fit it into the harmonic structure. Although
time-consuming, especially in the beginning, this will pay future
dividends in confidence and accuracy.

Hurdle No. 2: Boring Parts

As novice trombonists work through the next few years of school
band, many are faced with music that is either way too easy or
much too complex. Directors need to analyze the skill level of the
trombne/lovt- brass section every September, and try to find a variety
of music suitable for the group they inherit. If the trombones have
weak listening skills, convertible bass lines are important, but if you
have selected players appropriately and their skills are developing
well, they will need to be challenged.
Remembering that nearly every one of us started into the world of
music primarily to play and perform music, young players are often
discouraged if they sense that their role is simply to cover the bass
note while everyone else gets the melody. How much interest will
a trombonist have in practicing his whole notes if s/he knows that
others always seem to get the tune. Avoid arrangements that place
the trombones consistently on only the root or fifth of chords,

or seem to give them mostly whole notes and half notes while the
upper woodwinds and trumpets have more interesting parts. For
each semester, select at least one tune that challenges your trombone
players, and give them a glissando every now and then, even if you
have to edit it into their part.
In addition to effective repertoire selection, this is a crucial time to
encourage independence in the developing trombonist by having the
student play lots of melodies with play-along books and CDs of all
styles, or sign up for SmartMusic^. As the trombonists skills expand,
so too should the available music. The director's suggestions at this
stage can make or break a player's future in band.

Hurdle No. 3: Complex Parts

At the same time, much ofthe intermediate literature for school bands
takes a surprisingly large technical leap from simple to difficult. If
the director has not chosen repertoire carefully or followed method
books while watching for complete skill development specific to the
trombone, students can sometimes find themselves struggling. These
are watershed moments for the developing trombonist, and must
be conquered efl'ectively or youngsters will leam to "cheat" on the
instrument, strive to "hide" within the group sound, or give up because
they "just don't get it." Never tell students that it's hard music or
a tough new concept; simply find ways to guide them through the
process of more challenging music and advanced techniques.
This may just be the time to re-arrange your seating for rehearsals,
and consider bringing the trombonists right up to the front row.
While educational research points out the benefits of specific seating
arrangements in the regular classroom, we band directors, hoping to
create balanced sounds with great blend, sometimes become stuck in
the rut of traditional seating. Do you notice which players seem to pay
attention more and are advancing more quickly? Are some "goofing
around" more and/or suffering from "back-row syndrome?"
Try arranging the seating for your group into three approximately equal
rows. Each rehearsal, change the placement ofthe rows: e.g., for the
second rehearsal, the original back row comes up front; for the third
rehearsal, they move to the second row; and for the fourth rehearsal.
they retum to the back. As you work through this arrangement, the
trombones will be front and centre every third rehearsal, and you can
give them the special care and attention they need.

Hurdle No. 4: The Slur

Another key developmental point is the introduction ofthe slur. For
most instruments, it can be as simple as "don't tongue those two
notes," but there is an inherent problem for the trombonists in the
group. They must leam to soft-tongue and create the semblance of
a slur without making a glissando, so it's important that the director
spend extra time with this concept until each individual trombonist
grasps the physical sensation required, understands how to produce it,
and knows what it should sound like.
Start with a simple exercise such as F-E-F-E-F played slowly as half
notes. Have the trombonist(s) play the notes while moving the slide
as quickly as possible between notes with nonnal tonguing. The rule
is: slow tempo, quick slide movements. Repeat the exercise, but with
no tongue, creating short glissandos, as this will ensure a sustained

Vents canadiens Canadian Winds Spring/printemps 2008



tone. Finally go for the soft "doo" tongue (halfway between tenuto
and glissando), again with lighten ing-quick slide movements within
a slow tempo. After several tries, ask students which soft-tongue
example was the smoothest, and have them work to repeat that sound.
The director will need to assist with defining excellence. Extend this
exercise by using other pairs of notes one or two slide positions apart
(E-D-E-D-E), and iater to slide positions three or more positions apart
(F-D-F-D-F). Although some slurs will happen naturally because
of crossing partials. encourage young trombonists to soft-tongue all
Now, baek to the mouthpiece buzz. Have students staccato-tongue five
notes in a row on their mouthpiece, then play five tenuto notes, then
five soft-tongued notes, eaeh time paying attention to ( I ) the muscular
sensation of creating each articulation (was it less tongue motion or a
more subtle, quick tongue movement?), (2) the physical image (was
it more like too, roo, ho, thoo or i/oo?), and (3) the differences in
how the articulations sound. Being able to create the articulations
on the mouthpiece, then on single pitches with the instrument, then
with easy pitch changes (like F-E-F-E-F) must be learned first, before
transferring the new skill to slurs found in the music. Articulation will
only be successful when students understand what to look for in the
musie, how to produce the desired articulation, and how each should
sound. Mueh extra time will need to be spent on this one concept.

Hurdle No. 5: The Smooth Slide

Of course, lightening-quick slide movements will be impossible if the
slide is not in excellent working condition. Beginning and intermediate
trombonists need to have their slides checked every month, as most
will allow grunge, dents, and lack of lubricant to gradually slow down
slide movements. Poor slide condition directly atects every- aspect
of trombone playing from the embouchure to the slur, and must be
addressed regularly. Slide oil (not valve oil) may work for the first
years, but moving to Slide-0-Mix* early on seems to provide many
students with an easy and eftective way of keeping the slide in prime
operating condition. It comes with instructions and two bottles of
liquid, and could easily be kept in the band room.
With slides in optimum working condition, have the trombone section
show you various exercises and repertoire selections hy moving the
slide silently to a beat. This way. one can easily check for smooth
slides and. in many cases, the director will immediately "see" where
the musical probiem areas lie, as the students either do or do not move
Iheir slides in time or use quick, almost foreeflii movements. Rather
than too much arm stiffness, begin early to have the players add wrist
motions when the slide only moves through one position per note
(Ab to G). Silent playing can also be eftective for the whole band as
students work through complex rhythmic passages or "play along" to
a recording.

crescendo into the upper and lower ranges both on the instrument and
buzzing the mouthpiece (that keeps eoming back), then work to refine
the tone. By the high-school level, students will need specialty books
of exercises and festival repertoire. The director's assistance at this
stage will go a long way to encourage the developing musician to
pursue constant progress.

What about an F Attachment? Or Larger Bore? Or Mutes?

There is some debate about the value of an F-attachment for the tenor
trombone. For a few students, it's little more than a status symbol; for
others, it's of little real value, espeeially if they want to develop the
upper register more, but the advantage is that it both extends the range
lower (connecting low E to pedal B-fiat) and eases the performance
of technical passages around low B and C. Learning the positions
connected to the F-attachnient opens the way to creating future bass
trombonists for the high-school band, as most trombones with ihe
attachment are a larger bore, and some students just might become
interested in the glory of being the lowest sounding trombone in the
As a student grows in physical stature and musieal sophistication,
a larger-bore instrument should definitely be considered. Along
with this change should come one of choosing a new, matching
mouthpiece. Many students advance from their beginner instrument
to a larger-bore trombone with F-attaehment. Consult with experts for
current model trends and prices, but do otTcr the choice to your serious
students. Remember to explain the reasons for the change to parents,
reminding them ofthe limited depreciation on musical instruments,
and letting them know that this next trombone could well be a lifelong
Coneert-band music beyond the early levels often calls for mutes and,
unless otherwise indicated, the first choice should be a straight mute.
Metal mutes usually last longer, but they also cost more and do have
a significant timbrai dilTerenee. Advanced jazz band will eall for
several difterent kinds of mutes, but the basics can be covered with a
metal straight mute, a stonelined cup mute, and a rubber plunger from
the hardware store. Consider an all-purpose combined straight and
cup mute for school purchase.

How About Creativity?

At every step along the learning route, students can be their own best
teachers. Beginners can compose three-note pieces using the first three
notes they learn, and at each developmental stage creativity can be
encouraged by having trombonists write short passages based on the
skill or concept being studied. Young musicians are also surprisingiy
adept at writing short passages that reflect mood or atmosphere, and
can ieam much about harmonic structure if they are simply asked to
write a four-measure duet based on a weli-known nursery song, and
perform it with a fellow student.

Hurdle No. 6: Range

As young musicians advance to more complex repertoire, more
sophisticated rhythms and articulations, and a wider variety of styles
of music, the pitch ranges need to be extended. Regular attention to a
variety ofunison scales in the whole band (not jus! B-flat concert) will
greatly assist developing trombonists to push themselves gradually
higher and lower. Watch that students don't use too much mouthpieee
pressure or distort the embouchure at the extremes. At first, they should


Spring/printemps 2008 Canadian Winds Vents canadiens

As students progress into jazz, composition can take on a whoie new

meaning as the advancing musician iearns to deal with chord tones
and styles. A small amount of preparation along the everyday path of
learning makes each advancing phase so mueh easier to conquer.

The Trombone's Role in the Band

Your trombonists can be frustrating or inspirational. They can heip the


Brian Unverricht taught band,

whole band understand tuning at a very early stage by easily sliding in

and out of tune on a unison to demonstrate intonation beats, yet they
can have difficulty locating an individual note. They can annoy you
with their antics during long rests in the back row, yet they can inspire
audiences with fun pieces and the excitement of the big ending. They
have the potential to become an effective, unique timbre in the group,
adding powerful rich chords and great jazz harmonies, or they can
destroy a mood with sloppy entries on the wrong note at the wrong
time with poor tone. To enjoy the benefits a mature trombone section
can provide, directors need to get the basics in place before the student
starts, cover every aspect of the ftindamentals, and search out ways to
overcome each hurdle along the way. The rewards are well worth the
extra time and eifort.

choir, guitar, and jazz band for many

years with the Saskatoon Public
Board of Education and DND schools
in Germany. He is currently a term
assistant professor of music education
at the University of Saskatchewan,
where he conducts the concert band
and supervises student teachers.
He also plays trombone with the
Saskatoon Symphony and other
performing groups in Saskatoon.

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