The trombone slide is one of the simplest means of changing the pitch of a musical instrument. Push it out, the pitch goes down; pull it in, the pitch goes up. The simplicity of the slide can be a technical liability but also a musical asset.
Whereas the trumpet player has only to depress three valves to extend the length of the instrument fully, the trombone player must move the slide all the way from 1st to 7th position. The large physical range of motion can be a handicap when executing tricky technical passages. Trombonists often favor the upper range, where the movement of the slide is reduced, thanks to closer harmonic partials.
On the plus side, the trombone slide offers opportunity for enhanced musical expression, tone and pitch.
Sound Situation. A valved instrument “pre-measures” slide lengths, helping the player quickly find the right length for a given note. The player, however, has limited ability to fine tune the instrument on each pitch. While slides and alternate fingerings provide some adjustment, the player has no choice but to “lip” certain notes up or down in order to play in tune. This situation adversely affects the sound.
Since the trombone is in effect a giant tuning slide with infinite capacity for adjustment, the player can always play in the center of each pitch where the sound is most resonant.
Pitch Exercise. A good exercise for trombonists is to play a descending gliss while extending the slide all the way to 6th or 7th position, then return to 1st position. Maintain a full resonant sound as the pitch falls and rises. This technique requires constant adjustment of the embouchure to match the changing slide length. Trumpet players can try this with a slide trumpet (soprano trombone).
When it comes to musical expression, the slide trombone reigns supreme. Unhindered by any pre-determined slots for the pitches, the player can get in the cracks between the notes. In this way, the trombone is arguably the closest instrument to the human voice. So sing, you trombonists!
About the Author
Jazz trumpeter and author Chase Sanborn is a session player based in Canada and a member of the jazz faculty at the University of Toronto. His instructional books & DVDs (“Jazz Tactics,” “Brass Tactics” and “Tuning Tactics”) have garnered worldwide praise for their insightful and entertaining approach to playing and teaching music. Chase is a Yamaha Artist. For more information, visit http://www.chasesanborn.com/.