A smooth singing legato style is perhaps one of the most sought after skills, besides an impeccable and robust tone, by trombonists. I myself have put much effort into achieving such a legato and, while I have achieved a very nice legato, I still would not say that it is something I have mastered. In fact, many world renowned trombonists say that your legato is a technique you will continue to work on and develop throughout your playing career and that it is never truly “mastered”.
There are many opinions on how the perfect legato should be executed. I’ve had lessons where I was instructed that a perfect legato should sound no different than a natural slur (going across partials) does on the instrument. I’ve also been instructed, early in my playing career, that it should be executed as if you’re connecting two notes with as little tongue as possible. I guess the style you decide to go with is a matter of personal choice. However, if you listen to performances of some of the best trombonist in the world, you will see why I tend to lean this way. Joseph Alessi, in the eyes of many trombonists, is arguably the greatest trombonist of the modern era. His legato style is a true embodiment of how a “singing style” legato should be executed. Alessi’s legato style is smooth and seamless with the end of each note vanishing into the beginning of the note succeeding it. Watch the video below of Alessi as he plays at the beginning of Ropartz – Piece in E-flat Minor for Trombone and Piano and you will hear exactly the legato sound that I am describing.
Beautiful, is it not? Alessi is one of the greatest trombonists of our era and undoubtedly worked very hard to achieve such a refined legato style. Here in this post, I want to lay out a few tips that will help you reach such a level of refinement to your own legato style.
Keep the Air Moving and Tongue Lightly
I can’t stress enough the importance of good air support for any technical application of trombone playing. Good air support is the foundation of everything you do on the trombone and without it your playing will never be any more than mediocre at best. Now that I’ve gotten that off of my chest, good air support and developing an even and consistent air flow are where I suggest you start in the process to refine your legato.
A good way to develop an even and consistent air flow is to work on long tone exercises. When practiced efficiently, long tones help develop air support and consistency in air flow. Click the link below to view a long tone exercise that will help you develop a consistent air flow.
Now that you have developed an even and consistent air flow, you can now move on to the next step of developing a smooth legato style, developing the tongue to articulate lightly. This is one of the most standard flaws I see in legato playing. You want the tongue to ever so slightly, and briefly, break the flow of the air enough to where a glissando is not produced as you move the slide but also not to the extent that the articulation sounds heavy. Using the syllable ‘da’ or ‘doh’ instead of ‘ta’ will help with executing a lighter articulation. A good way to work on your legato articulation is to practice legato style articulation on one note. For example, you might take the note F and, using a metronome set to 60 bpm, lightly articulate the note trying to make each note as connected as possible. Focus on keeping the air flow consistent and even. You can practice this legato exercise using any note of any length (whole, half, quarter, etc.). As you finish one series of notes, breathe and move down a chromatically a half-step to the next note and repeat the exercise. You can see an example of this by clicking the link below.
Precision and Slide Control are Essential
So, you have developed a consistent and even air flow and legato articulation? Good, you are now two-thirds of the way there. It is now time to combine this with precision slide movement.
Precise, controlled, and coordinated slide movement is essential to a good legato. The slide must be quickly moved just as you are articulating the next note and must precisely land in the correct position. Any lag in slide movement between notes will result in a glissando.
One method I like to use to work on slide precision and timing involves playing scales or passages WITHOUT articulating the notes. This method helps improve your control of the slide. Initially, in trying this exercise, it will sound like you are playing nothing more than a bunch of glissandi but, as you improve control over your slide movement and precision increases, you will begin to hear the beats and rhythms more distinctly and less glissando.
When developing slide control and precision, it is imperative that the thumb stay directly in contact with the back of the slide brace. Not having the thumb in contact with the slide brace is a bad habit of many amateur trombonists. This is a detrimental error as good slide control cannot be maintained with the thumb off of the brace. Without the thumb, index, and middle fingers properly securing the slide brace it is impossible to exhibit the control and precision needed for exceptional playing. When these fingers don’t properly secure the slide, the slide’s momentum has a tendency to cause the slide to drift past the position desired instead of precisely stopping in that position. Also, you don’t have the control needed to change positions between notes with the necessary speed, resulting in a slight glissando between notes.
Putting it All Together – Practice!!!
So, you have learned to maintain a steady air flow, tongue lightly, and have developed exceptional slide control. It is now time to combine these three technical skills to produce a beautiful legato. The best way to accomplish this is through consistent practice. Below is a link to a resource that contains several exercises that will help you improve your legato playing. With due diligence and consistent practice you too will soon develop that smooth, singing, legato style that so many of the greats have achieved. Happy practicing!
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