Fundamentals for a Good Tone

It goes without saying that the greatest asset of a trombonist, aside from technical ability, is a good tone.  You can have the best slide technique, an impeccable sense of rhythm and timing, and an extensive range in both the high and low register, but if your tone is crap then everything else might as well be crap too.

Good tone quality is something I have focused on rigorously, and have spent years working on.  Even now, it is one of my top priorities in my practice.  Tone is such a beast because producing a ‘good’ tone relies on the alignment of several different factors.  Here, I want to outline some of these factors and provide a few tips that will help you obtain that robust tone that is possessed by so many of the greats.

Proper Posture

It should go without saying that it is impossible to produce a robust tone with bad posture.  Good air support is essential for a good tone and you cannot maintain good air support if you don’t provide maximum space in the body for the air to go.  Bad posture impedes your ability to take in the maximum amount of air possible by restricting the degree by which the diaphragm can contract, and consequently the amount of air you can take in.  Not only will this lack of air affect your tone, but it will also affect your musicality as you will lack the air needed to execute proper musical phrasing so the affect is two-fold.  Below are steps to achieve proper posture, either sitting or standing, for playing trombone:

  1. Sit/Stand up straight with your back slightly arched, feet flat on the floor.
  2. Keep your chest raised and shoulders back but relaxed.
  3. Keep you chin up as not to restrict the air flow in your throat.

Proper Breath Control and Air Support

Without a doubt, breath control and air support are the life blood of a good tone.  An inadequate air flow will not provide enough air to the embouchure to support the buzz enough to produce a good tone.  It is imperative that the proper amount of air reach the lips at the right speed to produce the right amount of buzz needed to produce the note the player is attempting to play.  This air must reach the lips as unimpeded as possible, and the breath must be fluid and relaxed.  Below are a few ways to improve breath control and air support:

  1. Use your diaphragm! The largest capacity of air is maintained in the lower part of the lungs. Failure to breathe from your diaphragm to expand this lower region means that you are using only a portion of your total lung capacity.
  2. Breathe freely with no tension in the mouth or throat. Think of how the mouth is formed to say the syllable ‘O’.  This should provide the space in the mouth and throat for an unrestricted breath.  Allow your lungs to expand freely.
  3. Let the breath you take be dictated by the requirements of the music you are about to play. Don’t under-breathe but don’t over-breathe.
  4. The air should be exhaled as freely as it was inhaled. Be sure to avoid tension in the throat and mouth, and keep the tongue low to avoid obstructing the air flow.  Remember, you airflow’s first point of contact should be the lips of the embouchure.

Proper Embouchure Control

We now get to the second most important aspect of producing a good tone, embouchure control.  Every note we play on the trombone is created by the ability of the player to vibrate the lips at the frequency required for that pitch.  That being said, proper embouchure control boils down to understanding two fundamental concepts.  The first concept is understanding the muscles involved in controlling the embouchure.  The second concept involves the vibrating portion of the lips, being that this portion of the lips should always be as supple as possible and free to vibrate no matter what.

When the lips are allowed to vibrate freely and uninhibited, maximum resonance is produced, and the result is a good tone.  Below are a few steps that will help improve your embouchure control:

  1. Mouthpiece buzzing – some of the most meaningful and exponential improvements in my tone and playing ability have happened when I have been away from my horn and practiced with only the mouthpiece.  It is my opinion that mouthpiece buzzing is essential if you are to acquire a beautiful tone.  When mouthpiece buzzing, approach it in the following manner:
  • Place the mouthpiece over your embouchure in a position that feels comfortable to you. Make sure your placement distributes pressure evenly across the lips, allows for maximum vibration in the lips, and gives you freedom of range in both the high and low registers without requiring major shifts in the placement of the mouthpiece.
  • In forming the embouchure, keep the corners of the mouth firm and slightly pointed down. Be sure to avoid any tension in the throat or muscles of the face, relax.
  • Keep the vibrating parts of the lips supple and focus on maintaining your aperture and keeping it open. In the higher range, the aperture will constrict where as in the lower range it will expand.  In either case, be certain that it doesn’t close off as you move higher in your range, and that the lips don’t separate to the point that a buzz can’t be maintained as you move lower in your range.
  1. Free buzzing and rim buzzing – It is also my opinion that free buzzing just might be more important than mouthpiece buzzing. A properly executed ‘free buzz’ takes a greater degree of control of the muscles that control the embouchure than it takes for mouthpiece buzzing.  This is because you don’t have the presence of the mouthpiece to “assist” in producing the buzz.

Just as with mouthpiece buzzing, keep the vibrating portion of the lips supple.  Focus on what lip muscles are involved in embouchure control, how your lips transition throughout your range, and be sure there is no tension in the mouth, cheeks, or throat.  And as always, keep the air flow free and flowing.

A new trend that has surfaced in the world of buzzing is rim buzzing.  Rim buzzing is a technique that was made popular by the Boston Symphony’s Principal Trombonist Toby Oft.  Rim buzzing is essentially free buzzing with a mouthpiece rim.  It has been said to be one of the most effective techniques for developing embouchure control and improving tone quality and overall musicianship.  I have not yet given rim buzzing a try but it is definitely on my practice to-do list.

  1. Whistling – While whistling doesn’t involve buzzing, I put in in the list of items for embouchure control because of the other aspects involved. Whistling is of importance because it involves both aperture control and jaw movement, as the pitch changes, which are two components you must have control over to exhibit fine playing.  Whistling through a passage can give you a sense of the subtle movements of the jaw as you whistle through the passage.  It also allows you focus directly on aperture control.

Just as with mouthpiece buzzing, the aperture must get smaller as you whistle higher notes, and it must open up as you whistle lower notes.  By whistling, you can focus on the muscles that “fine tune” the aperture, without the distraction of producing a perfect buzz.  Therefore, I am of the opinion that whistling is an invaluable musical tool that should occasionally be utilized by those seeking to become fine players.

A Few More Things

The items covered above are those I feel are the most important to the production of a good tone.  However, there are several other tools for the development of a good tone that should not be overlooked or left out of your daily practice routine.  I will briefly touch on these items now.

Long Tones – Make sure to do long tones every day and make sure they are long. Try to make your sound completely stable.  Start at pp and slowly crescendo to ff and back down to pp, doing your best to maintain a smooth and stable tone.

Lip Slurs and Flexibility Exercises – Lip slurs are the life-blood of brass players. You should do at least 15 minutes of lip slur and flexibility exercises every day.  Go slow and focus on producing a smooth slur.  Work on flexibility by slurring between intervals.

Pedal Tones – Play in the low register every day.  Playing pedal tones in the low register requires more air which helps builds your air support.  It also requires that you open your oral cavity, which relieves tension in the throat and mouth.  You should strive for that feeling in all ranges of playing.

Intonation – Nothing detracts from a beautiful tone more than bad intonation.  Make it a priority, take a tuner and adjust you slide so that the note is properly in tune.  Remember the position and internalize the pitch.  Know which notes have a tendency to be flat or sharp and adjust for this.  You will be happy you did.

Conclusion

To recap, the most important elements of good tone production are posture, breathing and air support, and embouchure control.  Good practice of these three elements should essentially guarantee you a beautiful and robust tone on the trombone.  As with anything, mastery only comes by consistent, efficient, and effective effort.  Practice!!! Make an effort to pick up the horn every day and get to work! Happy Practicing.

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