When it comes to playing trombone, it’s not always clear what you need to do to improve. In other words, unless you have a teacher, it can be hard to get feedback. Fortunately, there are several things you can do now to get better at trombone.
In short, there are few technical tasks you can do right now like practicing your scales and performing breathing exercises. In addition, it’s a good idea to invest in a tuner and a metronome. Then, join an ensemble! If none of that helps, try recording yourself and comparing it to your peers or professionals. Finally, you may just need to take better care of your horn.
For more details, dive into the list below.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s because you’re genuinely interested in getting better at trombone. Luckily, getting better is pretty straightforward. You just have to put in the work.
Unfortunately, it’s not always clear what you should be practicing. In this list, we’ll take a look at 7 tips you can follow to improve your current abilities.
Practice Your Scales
One thing you’ve probably heard a million times is “practice your scales,” but the reality is that it works. After all, scales are about as fundamental as you’re going to get. And as anyone who has ever played a sport can tell you, you should be practicing your fundamentals.
Now, lecture aside, I don’t always practice my scales. In fact, I can probably only play of few of the major scales from memory (i.e. B♭, E♭, A♭, F, and C). However, speaking from experience, knowing your scales can be immensely helpful.
For example, how many times have you seen a string of eighth notes in your music and thought “I’ll have to practice this.” Well, chances are that those notes are a part of a scale. If you had already built up the muscle memory for the scale, playing a section or permutation of it wouldn’t be an issue.
In addition, practicing your scales is the best time to improve other aspects of your play. For example, you can use a scale to practice techniques like tonguing and dynamics or styles like swing and bebop.
Do Breathing Exercises
As brass musicians, most of our technique boils down to breath support. After all, we can’t buzz without a proper stream of air. In addition, playing a wind instrument is all about managing airflow.
For example, if we want to connect bars, we have to be aware of how much air we have in the tank. Of course, being aware of our remaining air capacity takes practice. That’s where breathing exercises come in.
Personally, my favorite breathing exercise involves busting out a metronome. Pick a tempo then try a few sets of the following sequences:
- In for 4, out for 8 or 16
- In for 2, out for 4, 8, or 16
- In for 1, out for 4, 8, or 16
Each of these sequences should give you an idea of the corresponding dynamic As you get better at managing your air, try different sequences like in for 4 and out for 32.
When performing these exercises, it’s important to be conscious of where your air is going. When you breath in, you want your air to only expand your gut—not your chest or shoulders. If it helps, place a hand on your belly. In addition, you may find it helpful to physically blow the air through your mouthpiece, so you get used to the resistance.
If you’re interested, I’ve found a couple resources which you should give you additional help with breathing exercises:
- Breathing Exercises for Brass Players by Gabriel Langfur
- Breathing Exercises for Brass Players by Deanna Swobada
In addition, I may put together my own breathing exercise resource in the near future.
Use a Metronome
When it comes to playing trombone, one thing I often neglect is practicing with a metronome. After all, the tool is fairly annoying, and it can sometimes be used as a crutch—why should I count if the tool is going to do it for me?
That said, I think we can all agree that a metronome can be immensely helpful in identify sections of music where we tend to slow down or speed up. For example, if we’re playing a piece and we start to rush or drag, we should feel that in contrast with the metronome.
In addition, metronomes can be used to help get us up to speed when we’re practicing a hard part. In other words, a metronome is a nice indicator of progress. If we start at 80 bpm and need to get to 120 bpm, then we can always be sure how close we are to reaching our goal.
Finally, I’ve heard that recording in a studio requires the use of a click track. If you’re used to using a metronome already, then recording shouldn’t be an issue.
If you’ve ever had the displeasure of watching a video of yourself, you know how painful it can be to hear your own voice or watch your own behavior. Naturally, that cringe you feel is from your own perception of yourself not matching up with reality.
If you take that philosophy and apply it to music, you’ll find that the cringe you feel will guide you to being a better musician. After all, you are your worst critic. If you can identify issues in your playing, you can learn from them and improve on them going forward.
Personally, I’ve only tried recording myself playing trombone once, and I haven’t done it since. However, I do make coding videos, and I find that recording myself does help me identify issues in my presentation. As I’ve recorded more videos, I’ve become more polished and required less takes. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw similar results as a musician.
Listen to Professional Trombonists
To be honest, I probably don’t have to tell you this, but if you listen to professional trombonists, you’ll learn a lot. In fact, I recommend going through the effort to see some of your favorites live. That way, you can hear exactly how they sound in person, so you can try to replicate that.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start, here are some of my favorites:
- Glenn Miller
- Tommy Dorsey
- J. J. Johnson
And, I’ll even throw in my old instructor, Paul Ferguson. Obviously, you won’t be able to see most of these guys live, but there are literally hundreds of recordings. In addition, I’m sure all of these guys have tribute bands, so you can at least listen to a profession trombonist try to replicate their work.
Maintain Your Trombone
If you want to ensure your trombone continues to have great sound, you need to take care of it. After all, there’s no use in fighting with a beat up horn. That’s no way to get better.
In terms of maintenance, you should be regularly cleaning the slides and applying the proper lubricants. If your slide is not moving smoothly, it’s probably time to clean it and reapply your favorite lubricant. Don’t have a favorite? Check out this list I put together of the top three trombone lubricants.
Likewise, make sure you take care of your tuning slide. If not, you won’t be able to play in any groups because you won’t be able to adjust your tuning. For those of you who haven’t been taking care of your tuning slides, I recommend an article on how to grease one.
Outside of slide maintenance, it’s never a bad idea to give your trombone a bath. With a regular cleaning, you’ll be able to clear out any debris in the tubing that could be making the trombone more difficult to play. If you’re not sure how to clean a trombone, I have just the article for that.
Finally, you should be ensuring all moving parts (i.e. water keys, triggers, slide locks, etc.) work as expected. If you’re having any problems, it’s probably a good idea to visit your local repair shop.
Use a Tuner
As mentioned previously, your trombone has a huge tuning slide. Of course, it also has a smaller one that needs to be taken care of. If you typically play alone, you might not have used it much. However, once you join a group, it’s important to be in tune.
With a tuner, you’ll be able to adjust exactly where you want the horn to be in your current environment. For example, here in the west, you’ll want to tune an A to 440 Hz. Of course, for trombone players, a normal tuning note would be a B♭ just above the staff.
To actually tune the horn, you’ll want to direct your horn at the tuner. Then, as you blow, note the measurement. If you’re too high, you’re sharp—pull out your tuning slide. Otherwise, you’re flat, so push in a little bit. If you want more information about tuning, I’ll make another article shortly.
All that said, sometimes tuners are not all that useful. For example, if you’re out in the sun or snow, you’ll never have enough tubing to tune your horn. In these environments, it’s better to tune as a group.
Join an Ensemble
If you’re not already playing in a group, I recommend joining one. If you don’t know where to start, I have a list of my favorite ensembles. To summarize, there are tons of great groups you can join such as:
- Concert bands
- Jazz ensembles
- Pit orchestras
- Ska bands
Of course, feel free to make your own band with your friends. For instance, make a quartet or join a church band. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll be a better player because of it. There’s nothing quite like playing in a group.
At this point, you should be more than ready to improve your trombone playing. The only thing left to do now is put in the work.
If you need a quick reminder of all the tips mentioned in this list, here’s a summary:
- Practice your scales
- Use a metronome
- Record yourself
- Maintain your horn
- Use a tuner
- Do breathing exercises
- Listen to professionals
- Join an ensemble
As always, thanks for taking some time to read my work, and always remember to respect the brass!