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Out of the Case: Slide Technique - A Curiosly Neglected Topic

Sam Burtis  -
Freelance Artist; Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra
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I've been invited by Richard Human, Jr., the editor and publisher of the Online Trombone Journal, to write a monthly column. With more than just a little trepidation, I have accepted. A year ago I had never written, or even spoken to any great degree, about the various playing techniques I have worked out over my years as a free-lance lower brass player in New York City, but after I began posting some of my ideas to the trombone mailing list people began asking me for more. I complied, and now here I am one year later almost to the day writing a column for a scholarly publication. How does that old joke go? "Six months ago I couldn't even SPELL perfesser, and now I ARE one!." That pretty much sums up how I feel about this endeavor, but I'll certainly give it a try.

Looking over my last year's collection of saved trombone posts and assorted articles from the net, it seemed that one subject in which I'm really interested was completely missing...slide technique. No one ever seems to talk much about slide technique, yet good slide technique is among the most important aspects of playing the trombone, and indeed is the only aspect of playing the trombone that is not shared with any other horn. As a result, I have chosen that topic to start my series of columns for the OTJ.

What is "good" slide technique?

First, I suppose we should try to define just what "good" slide technique is. The answer has to be: a good slide technique is a technique that allows you to play what you want to play, the way you want to play it. Technique in general, any technique, must be subservient to the music in order to be valid. There's no sense in spending months and years developing an amazing register above double Bb if your avowed aim is to become an orchestral bass trombonist. Of course it can be done, but at what cost?

Another approach to the slide that would be very effective for a player who wanted to emulate Tommy Dorsey would not necessarily benefit someone interested in playing first trombone in the New York Philharmonic. If your interests, like mine, cover a wide range of styles, you have to develop a technique (or techniques) that will work in many idioms. a first task, let's see if we can define some of the variables involved here.

Common Mistakes

The first, most important, and most unbelievably common mistake I see trombonists make is the use of the fingers to touch or grip the bell in third position. This is a sign of insecurity, and I see it as often in professionals as I do in students. It is totally destructive to any sort of slide flow and it also serves to limit one of the greatest strengths of a trombonist; the ability to make minute pitch adjustments with the slide. It's also an unnecessary habit; the bell's not going anywhere; it'll be in the same place tomorrow it is today. You can find the other positions without a crutch, so why not just get rid of the habit? Stop it now. Today.

The next time you pick up the horn continue to remember not to do it and within a week or two the habit will be gone forever. You will have done more with this one simple change to help your slide technique, I guarantee, than any other approach I can possibly suggest to you.

What's Good for the Goose. . .

Now that we've got that one most common problem out of the way, let's examine the idea of slide technique and by extension musical technique in general. The first thing I want to say, and I'll repeat it over and over again in the coming months, is that no one technique ever works for everybody. Due both to physical differences and to differing musical demands, individual players have to find their own approaches to the horn. In this case, the slide techniques of a person 6 feet 7 inches tall with arms like a basketball forward and hands like automobile tires are liable to be radically different from those of someone who more closely resembles Danny DeVito.

Along the same lines, someone who rarely has to extend the slide past fourth position and plays with a great deal of slide vibrato on a lightweight tenor trombone is necessarily going to deal with the slide differently than a bass trombonist playing orchestral music on an old Conn bass trombone with slide tuning and a slide that weighs about as much as a 1939 Buick. You each have to experiment; try different methods of holding and moving the slide; observe players of your own general size and strength and style...see how they deal with the horn.

The Grip

Now for a more specific analysis. What are the discrete parts of any slide technique? The first, to my mind, is the grip, and there are a surprising number of approaches to the subject. They all seem, however, to break down into two types: the most common one, where the wrist is turned sideways in relation to the face, and a more rarely seen, but to my mind more effective position, where the bottom of the wrist FACES the player. There are many degrees of rotation between these two extremes, and all players have to decide what will work best for them.

The second, less common way, with the wrist facing the player, enables one to use the wrist joint and the fully extended hand and fingers as another series of flexibility points, another set of fulcrums, on a slide arm that can be profitably thought of as an extended set of interacting levers. Jimmy Knepper, who originally showed me this approach, is by far the best example of this way of playing that I have ever seen.

If you wish to experiment with different hand angles, first find some that seem promising, and then play and practice using them exclusively for a few days (as opposed to your normal angle), until one recommends itself over the others by dint of its superior comfort, speed, and security. Once found, use only that one position for about three weeks. You will probably find (and this pattern holds true for just about every change you make on the instrument: equipment, techniques, whatever), that the angle that at first felt comfortable begins to feel terribly uncomfortable after a fairly short period of time. Persevere. After three weeks or so if it still feels bad then it's probably never going to work and you should return to your original method. Usually, if an alteration of any kind initially feels good, after an uncomfortable period of adjustment it will once again begin to feel good, and eventually prove to be a profitable change.

As a subtopic of wrist angle, you should also consider how many fingers you put on the cross brace, and where you put them. Four fingers and the thumb all parallel on the brace; three fingers and the thumb on the brace, with the little finger hooked outside the brace, on the other side of the slide; two fingers and the thumb on the brace, the other fingers hanging loosely or curled around the slide; the brace caught between the first and second fingers; some other way I've not mentioned. Do you want to hold the slide loosely, so you can throw it rapidly back and forth between your thumb and fingers, or do you want to hold it more tightly, for better control? So many possibilities, so many variables, and I'll bet most of you have never even THOUGHT about much of this. You just picked up the horn, grabbed the slide however it was easiest at ten or twelve years of age, and that was it; that's how you still play however many years later. Check it out...

We've only scratched the surface here; the next things to consider are quite a bit more subtle, and have as much to do with idiom as they do with technique. To my mind, there are basically two approaches to the actual motion of the trombone slide, and I call them the marimba approach and the circular, or never-stopping method.

Slide Motion

The marimba approach is seen most often in Western European styles of playing, such as mainstream orchestral work and chamber music, brass quintets and the like. In this approach, the slide is seen to stop at every note in a rapid passage, and the motion is a series of short, rapid, discrete snaps, each followed by an equally short, abrupt halt at the place on the slide where the desired note is expected to be found. This method lends great accuracy and precision to the execution of the music, although often at the expense of any possibility of a vocal, melodic kind of flow.

With the circular, or never stopping method, the slide maintains a constant series of accelerations and decelerations, arriving at the proper place on the slide at just the instant the desired note is to be played, and then accelerating towards the next position, to arrive there (with any luck), just in time for the next note. The only time, in a rapid passage, that you will see the slide stop in this approach is when the slide direction itself changes, and if the player has a good command of alternate positions, that's not nearly as often as you would think. This technique produces extremely fast, smooth lines, sometimes at the expense of rhythmic accuracy and/or pitch, and is most often seen being used by players who spend a lot of time playing non-European styles of music such as jazz, latin, pop...whatever words you want to use to label the almost infinite varieties of idiom in North and South American music.

Very few players use one method to the total exclusion of the other. Each way has its strengths and weaknesses; very few players seem to have thought much about which way they use, or done any organized practice to cultivate either one of them. I am going to give you two basic exercises; one of them applies to both techniques, the other applies only to the more circular approach, which is the one I favor and know the best.

Slide Motion Exercises

Before I start, I'd like to give you a quick note on the pitch terminology I plan to use in these articles. I am going to speak exclusively in terms of a Bb tenor trombone (without a trigger), and I'm going to label notes according the partials in which they reside. For example, 4th partial A will be the A written on the top line of the bass clef and played in 2nd position; 5th partial A will be the same pitch played in sharp sixth position. The notes between 2nd partial E and pedal Bb I will refer to as fake notes (although we won't be dealing with those in this article), and notes below pedal E I will refer to as sub-pedals and sub-sub-pedals. This scheme greatly simplifies the communication of specific notes without resorting to notation or to imprecise terminology such as high, low, middle, double high, etc. Trigger and double trigger players can feel free to choose their fingerings as they wish.

A good exercise to speed up and define the various single slide moves from position to position is as follows: Choose a moderately slow tempo, about 60 beats/minute. Cock your wrist toward you like the trigger of a gun, and play any easy 1st position note, say 4th partial Bb, as an almost infinitely dotted eighth note; at the last possible instant, re-attack it, then snap the slide down to the second position A below it, so that your wrist is cocked in the opposite position, away from you. Repeat the same rhythm back up from A to Bb, again snapping your wrist back to its original position. This exercise should sound something like "Taaaah-tadaaaaah, taaaah-tadaaaah".

Do that without stopping several times, then do it from A to Ab and back several more times, each time being aware of cocking your wrist; then Ab to G, and so on down to 6th position F->7th position E. While you're doing this, try to not shake your horn or put any sideways or up and down stresses on your slide. The idea is to force yourself to wait until the last possible moment to pull the trigger, to move the slide to the next note, and to make that motion perfectly straight and true in both directions, putting no undue stresses on your left hand and/or your embouchure. Try it; it's harder than it sounds. After a couple of days (or weeks or months, depending on your own needs), change the interval to a major second, say 4th partial Bb->Ab->Bb, on down the slide again, still paying strict attention to your wrist. Later on, try Bb->G->Bb, on down; then Bb->Gb->Bb, etc. When you get to the point where you can effectively and smoothly do this from 1st position to 7th and back, give me a call...I'll be wanting a lesson or two myself!

If you begin to find this boring, you can vary it in an endless number of ways. Start on the lower position and go up, A->Bb->A; start in other positions and work in both directions on the horn; practice the same exercise over and through other partials, 4th partial Bb->5th partial Db->4th partial Bb; or 4th partial Bb->5th partial Db->6th partial F. Once you understand the concept, make up your own variations. By all means, don't let yourself get bored and mechanical. I generally refuse to let my students write down most of my exercises (although I know some of them cheat), because once they're written down, the studies are already just one step away from being dead. Keep them alive, in your head; keep them growing and evolving. I've been practicing this general exercise and the next one since I first learned them from the wonderful trombone teacher Jack Nowinski about 25 years ago, and I'm not bored with them yet, primarily because I never play them the same way twice.

This next exercise is going to be a little more difficult to convey than the previous really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated, but I'm going to give it a try. Again, choose an easy mid-range note, say 4th partial Bb, and a moderately slow tempo, about 60 beats per minute. You're going to be playing Bb->A->Ab->A as fairly gentle, short 8th notes, over and over again without stopping, which sounds pretty straightforward, tah tah tah tah, tah tah tah tah, tah tah tah tah, tah tah tah tah, etc. The catch is, you're going to try to not let your slide STOP on the A. Instead, try to move your slide in such a manner that it arrives at the correct position at the exact instant the A is supposed to sound, and then continues at the proper speed, without stopping (that's the kicker), to get to the Ab at the proper time also, then back past the A to the Bb again. Try it.

Typically at first the Bb and the Ab are in tune, but the A is sharp going down, flat coming up. Slow the passage down, way, down if necessary, down past 30 beats per minute if you have to until, without stopping the motion of the slide, the A occurs exactly when the slide is in the proper position to play it in tune, both going down and coming up. The slide will most probably be moving excruciatingly slowly by this time, almost like a T'ai Chi exercise. Good, let it. Have you got it? Now very gradually increase the speed. Once you've got the tempo up to as fast as you're going to be able to play the exercise accurately, start on the Ab, play Ab->A->Bb->A, and work it again. Try A->Bb->A->Ab. Try A->Ab->A-Bb. Now bring the whole series down a position, A->Ab->G->Ab, in all four directional variations; and then down another position, and another, until you're playing the whole series around Gb->F->E->Gb. (Don't worry if your arms aren't long enough to maneuver gracefully around 7th position...this kind of motion is almost never required down there; don't sweat it.)

After a sufficient period of time...hours, weeks, months, whatever it takes to get it right...start the same series, only now do Bb->A->G->A. This is much harder, the acceleration of the slide from Bb->A is much less rapid than from A->G, the accurate pitching of the middle note is that much harder...this exercise stands to the previous one as calculus stands to algebra. Work it in all four variations down the length of the slide once again, at whatever slow tempos you find necessary to get the middle note in tune without stopping the slide. Then, however many weeks later, do Bb-Ab-G->Ab in all variations, then Bb->Ab->Gb->Ab, etc., etc., etc. By the time you've practiced to this point (at least a couple of months), if you're going to get this at all, you can create your OWN variations on these general principles. Feel free to do so. Remember, don't allow yourself to play by rote; don't permit yourself to get do so is certain death to any music you might have in you.

Once you master this approach, and combine it with a thorough knowledge and understanding of alternate positions, a well educated tongue, and a flexible, well timed embouchure, you'll be able to play technical passages you can only dream of now. And as a further benefit it does wonders for legato and general smoothness of execution even in the least challenging of music.

Next month, unless I change my mind, I'm going to examine various ways to combine these ideas with untongued flexibilities, as the beginning of the task of assembling a concerted technique of tongue, slide and embouchure which will hopefully enable you to get around the horn much more rapidly and smoothly than you do now.

Until then, have fun playing.

About the Author...
Sam Burtis attended Ithaca College and The Berklee School of Music. He has been a working musician in New York City since 1969, playing tenor trombone, bass trombone, tuba, valve trombone and euphonium in just about every idiom and situation available to a professional musician in New York during that time. He is also a composer and arranger, writing and transcribing for such musicians and organizations as The Lee Konitz Nonet, The Charles Mingus Band, The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Tito Puente, and the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra.He is currently forming his own ensemble to play his compositions. He is also a free-lance musician, playing studio, theater, concert, and jazz club work regularly in and around New York City and throughout the world.