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Out of the Case: Slide Technique and Flexibility

Sam Burtis  - sabutin@mindspring.com
Freelance Artist; Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra
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  My first articles for the OTJ covered several approaches to slide technique as well as short flexibilities as they combine with slide motion. Mastery of both these areas of trombone playing is essential to a smooth, accurate style of playing. This month I will present an approach to rapid tonguing specifically designed for trombone players.

Introduction: Tonguing for Trombonists

Tonguing is more important to the trombonist than it is to any other instrumentalist. Simply put, if your tonguing techniques aren't highly developed and well integrated into your whole approach to the horn, your playing is going to be severely limited. I have performed with many fairly good players of other brass and reed instruments who really had mediocre tongues, but since their instruments' valve and key mechanisms provided most of their articulation for them, they managed to sound good in most situations.

I've also played with many trombonists who had tonguing problems, and they seem to line up as follows:

Tongue? What Tongue?

Some players just haven't developed their tongue at all and often can't play more than three rapid notes in a row without sounding sloppy and disoriented. This article is not aimed at them. The actual tonguing techniques, the various physical approaches to single, double, triple, doodle tongue, etc., have been covered extensively in literally hundreds of books and by every good teacher.

If you can't tongue fairly rapidly, choose several tonguing styles, practice them at tempos at which you CAN perform them, and then gradually increase the tempo until you can perform them faster. This sort of tongue development is just a matter of time and effort.

Too much!

Some players have OVERDEVELOPED tongues. This may seem a contradiction, but what I mean is this: You can concentrate on the tongue and the techniques of tonguing at the expense of the music. I have sometimes played with players who tongue TOO well, or at least too hard, too heavily, and too often. This can have a deleterious effect on attacks, legato playing, tone production, the relative openness of the oral cavity and throat, breath support, embouchure--the whole range of trombone playing.

Again, I am not going to go into the actual techniques of tonguing in this article. Instead I'm going to concentrate on integrating tongue technique with slide technique and flexibility. If you feel you tongue too hard, that in some way you're closing up your air stream or playing in too percussive or jerky a manner, practice making music more, technique less; refuse to play ANYTHING "unmusically"--whatever that means to you.

Have we met?

The most common tonguing problem that I hear is one where a trombonist has practiced rapid tonguing in a static or confined situation--tonguing on single notes or short scales or apreggios--and cannot accurately coordinate the slide, embouchure, and tongue into one smoothly functioning system. This usually results in the hesitant, jerky effect we all know and love called "trombone player (or worse, trombone section) trying to play fast and almost making it." You know the sound: The phrase starts at the right place and time, and generally ends somewhere near the right place and time, but in between is a mess!!! The trombonist(s) could be playing almost ANY pitches.

If you examined the notes under an aural microscope, you would find them unevenly spaced and attacked, played at different volumes and uncertain pitches, fudged, faked, and forgotten--played with the best of intentions, but lacking the technical ability to get make those good intentions into equally good notes.

Meanwhile the strings are soaring (or is it sawing?) away, the trumpets are playing Flight of the Bumblebee up two octaves and a quarter step, the woodwinds are in permanent sprint mode, even the TUBAS are making the phrase, while we (the mastodons and offensive lineman of the ensemble) labor along pushing and pulling our slides and tongues around, barely able to manage ten eighth notes in a row. Trombones: The Tools of Ignorance, also known as primitive blowsticks. (Forget the french horns; they have their own problems. By the way, why on earth are they still fingering with their left hands?)

Do I exaggerate? Yes. By how much? Well....not THAT much.

Combining Tonguing, Slide Technique, and Flexibility

Much of what I am going to say here is predicated on information presented in my February and March "Out Of The Case" articles. If you haven't read them, or aren't really sure about their contents, familiarize yourself with them before you continue much further here.

In those articles, I presented some general approaches to slide technique, and then tried to show several ways to combine those approaches with a smooth, flexible embouchure approach. Here now are some ways to combine the tongue with those previously covered techniques.

As always, I am going to discuss these things in relation to a particular scale, derived in the way I sketched out last month. This month, I will use the scale A, A#, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A--the key of D major, with an added chromatic note A#, starting on A natural.

This particular scale, like most formed by raising the fifth of a major scale, has strong tendencies to go toward the relative minor of the original major scale from which it was derived--in this case, B minor. It also acts strongly as a dominant scale in the key of D major. There are an infinite number of OTHER ways this scale can be approached; don't limit your thinking to just these two possibilities. I only mention them to you to show that none of these scales exist in a tonal vacuum. Use your own knowledge and your own ears to examine each scale using this method; find out what the scale means to YOU, both harmonically and melodically.

This scale presents a number of interesting alternate position choices (my probable topic for next month, which I won't cover at the moment).For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will choose these positions for this scale, ascending from fourth partial: A (second pos.), A#(fifth pos.), B (fourth pos.), C# (second pos.), D (first pos.), E (second pos.), F# (third pos.), G (second pos.), A (second pos.) As with last month's exercises, I will start on notes in these positions, and go to ALL notes in the same and adjacent partials that are feasible given the limitations of the slide. I did not include whether the positions should be raised or lowered. You should know that already. If you don't, listen. If the note's out of tune where you're playing it on the slide, move the slide until you find a place where it IS in tune.

Playing on the Same Partial

First the simpler approach--rapid playing within the same partial. Play a 4th harmonic A and, using no tongue, play rapid 16th notes down to G below it, in a glissando or portamento. Accelerate until you've found the fastest speed at which you can execute that glissando. Now choose a tonguing technique. These exercises work equally well with any tonguing approach--single, double, doodle. If you're working on triplet techniques, play the original untongued slurs in a 16th note triplet pattern.

Then add the chosen technique to the rapid glissando at a slow enough tempo that it sounds good. Now accelerate until you're doing it as fast as possible while still sounding good. Stop and identify which of your techniques is the limiting factor as far as speed and/or smoothness is concerned: tongue or slide motion. Practice that technique until it reaches its fastest point, and then try to combine the two again. Do the same from G up to A, A to F#, F# to A, G to F#, F# to G.

Then try combinations of three notes--in this partial, and this scale, A to G to F# to G to A, and all the possible variations of those three notes, using the same approach. You will notice that this is merely an extension of the slide techniques I discussed in February, adding the tongue. This can be done in any partial, and after a period of time results in a much finer coordination of slide and tongue than any other non-musical exercise I have ever used. It can also be extended THROUGH partials, but I am going to cover that in an article on scales later on in this series.

Playing Across Partials

Now on to the harder stuff--tonguing rapidly and evenly across partials. This adds a third variable: flexibility/accuracy of embouchure change.

Let's start with just two partials at a time. Play a 4th partial A and (using no tongue at all) slur to the C# above and back in sixteenth notes, accelerating until you reach the fastest tempo you can play those sixteenth notes smoothly and well.

Now try tonguing rapidly on the A and again accelerate until you reach the fastest smooth repeated tongue you can. It doesn't matter WHICH tongue here--single, double, toodle--this works equally well for all. If you're practicing in some kind of triple meter, do the original A->C# slurs in sixteenth note triplets, just like the single partial exercises.

Now play that A->C# slur again a few times and then add the same tongue to that slur. If the slur is faster than the tongue, slow down until you can combine both well with no deterioration of the sound and evenness when you add the tongue. Once you reach that balance, try accelerating until you reach the limit of what you can do using that combination of notes and tongue. Try to figure out: was that limit set by the speed at which you could TONGUE, or the speed at which you could SLUR? Whichever technique was the limiting factor, practice it for a minute; see if you can't get it faster and/or smoother. Remember not to sacrifice sound or smoothness here for speed. Sloppy or ugly speed is in many respects worse than no speed at all. Then try to combine the two techniques again.

After a short period--this takes longer to read than it does to practice--go on the A->B above slur, and practice it the same way. Remember, you've added another variable here, slide movement, so when you reach your speed limit you have to consider THREE variables, and practice (and then combine) THREE different techniques: tonguing, flexibility, AND slide movement. After examining this, if you wish, you can do the same routine with A up to fifth position A#, and A up to first position D. (I probably wouldn't spend much time on the A#, as that A# is available much easier in first position if it's not leading to a B.)

I must also add here, that if I were really using this scale I would probably be playing that A on the fifth partial, in sixth position. I'm not doing so here because most trombonists are really uncomfortable with that note in that place on the horn.

Now you can examine the fifth partial in a similar manner. As we are going up from that fourth partial A in this particular series of exercises, we will examine the possibilities from this partial (fifth), in both directions, both down to the fourth partial and up to the sixth. Play the fifth partial (fifth pos.) A#, slur down to the F# below it until you reach your fastest possible speed, add whichever tongue you're practicing, and go through the same routine of identifying which variable is limiting your speed. Practice that technique a little, and then try to combine the techniques. See if you get faster and/or smoother. Go on and do the same thing with A# down to G. Examine the same ideas down from B, C# and D in that same partial, then do A#, B, C#, and D up to the available notes in the sixth harmonic, using the same approach.

After a few weeks, or sooner if you wish, start working this with three adjacent partials. For example, start again on fourth partial A and slur up through the fifth and sixth partials. Start with A, up to C#, up to E, down to C#, down to A, as a sixteenth note pattern with no tongue, then add your tongue technique of choice; examine where the limitations are occurring; practice the technique that is contributing to those limitations, and try to play the sequence faster.

Try it with A->(fifth partial)B->(sixth partial fifth pos.)C#->B->A, then A->B->D->B->A. Go to the fifth partial, B->A->B->C#->B, then B->C#->B->A->B, and so on through the other notes available in the fifth partial. Try it up from the fifth partial through the sixth and seventh partials, and so on in as many permutations and combinations of this basic idea as you can find. Use four adjacent partials, or five, or six if you really get good. If you get good with more than five partials, give me a call--I'll want a lesson or two.

Variety is the Spice of Practice!

Start low, and go up; start high and go down. Make up your own combinations. Since you're always creating new scales, and learning new alternate positions, these exercises never become repetitive. As you become more adept at them, the tongue becomes nothing more than a subtle timing device to even out the minor variances in resistance and slide speed that inevitably occur in the playing of challenging passages on the trombone.

This series of exercises can be extended up and down on the horn as far as you are capable of playing. Players with triggers can add that as a fourth variable, although that starts to get rather complicated. Don't expect to get very far when you start, as this can be very tiring, especially in the high range. As you practice it, however, you will find your endurance growing along with your understanding of the exercises and the speed at which you can play them.

Have fun and remember, whenever possible, leave your horn "out of the case". It's so much easier that way to just pick it up and practice casually for ten minutes here, ten minutes there, and the average thief is too dimwitted to figure out how to put it back IN the case. I have scientifically proven it's almost impossible to hide a trombone under an overcoat, so no one will ever be able to steal your horn that way. Just a random thought or two to lighten up a necessarily wordy article.

In Closing. . .

Try not to be intimidated by the amount of information that appears to be being transmitted here; it's all based on several rather simple concepts, and once you get those, you can create your own exercises and forget about all this stuff. You can be sure I have.


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.