Best way I know to improve one’s trombone sound

Recently on the trombone forum, someone asked how they could improve their sound, which they “hated” and said was not at all pleasing. My answer was:

My best advice for improving your sound is to get out of the practice room. Practice outside.

I have spent my entire playing career practicing outside and believe that my sound on my little alto trombone is in large part due to my somewhat obsessive drive to play outside starting from high school and continuing to this day. This is easier for some than others, but there’s always someplace outdoors you can play. If there’s a will there’s a way.

I believe that without the sound bouncing back at you from four walls, blowing into an expansive distance and having to create an variety of articulations and the full sound necessary to fill the void will vastly improve your sound. It helps if you have some basic things going for you like a proper embouchure and good breathing, but then again, if you don’t, I think my advice still holds and can improve those things.

If you’ve never practiced outdoors, it may take some getting used to. I’ve taken trombone player friends to the side of my property where I play and for the most part they sound timid. Realize that part of the reason I bought my house in northern Phoenix is because from the top of my hill, I can play over the valley below. I’m not blasting into the yard of my next door neighbor! Anyway, for the most part, guys I take out there play like they’re still playing in their living room. They are not filling the space. The benefit of finding an expansive place to blow is so that you can BLOW. Does that mean loud? Sometimes. But, more than that it means full. Find your spot outdoors and play Rochut #1. Not at full blast, but at a full bodied, smoothly articulated, consistently full sound that fills the immediate area. If you have the means, record it off to the side. Play it back afterwards and judge for yourself how it sounds.

Listen for notes starting out full and then receding, both in volume and tone. Listen for the start of notes being blatty rather than crisp. That’s because you may be overcompensating for the absence of those four walls giving you quicker feedback. Listen for running out of breath quicker. You may be surprised at how much more air you’ll need, but that’s a good thing that will build your air. Without hearing you, my guess it that you’re not putting enough air into the horn. This will help.

At first, it should be hard to do. You’ve lost the crutch of the room reinforcing your sound. If Rochut is too hard, play long tones. Start low and work your way up. Take frequent breaks since this is probably a new experience for your muscles. I would expect you to get tired faster. That’s good.

Now, to do this with the consistency I recommend for you, you’ll have to find a spot you are comfortable with and that is somewhat convenient. “But people will hear me.” Maybe, but you may be surprised that in appropriate public places, people tend to enjoy hearing a musician play. I guess it depends on how well you play and what you play. In college at Arizona State University, I practiced for hours every day on the sidewalk outside the music building, in Boston, at the Charles River bank and at night inside the Hatch Shell, In New York, at the West Side Piers (I no longer recommend that for safety reasons!), and now in my beloved Arizona, off the side of my property, off the side of the Mogollon Rim and various other places up north, and in various parks and mountains in the surrounding valley.

I mention all that to show you that there are places to find that you can comfortably play that will get you playing outdoors on a regular basis. I’d love to get your feedback once you’ve done this for a while. Be brave and be consistent!!

P.S. If Rochut isn’t your cup of tea, play this: This is off my last CD, and I contemplated recording it outside, but the logistics with the recording equipment were too difficult. Overdubbed alto trombones with a little help from my good friend Gerry Pagano on bass bone. http://redlake.tv/ML_music/Amazing_Grace.mp3

4 Comments

  1. Hermann Otto on August 22, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    I like the outdoor advice.
    I also stress the point that the lips should not be pressed shut,unless you want to sound like Jack Teagarden,but w lips
    1/8th of IN apart you get a lot more air thru. You start the sound w your tongue in the gap.

  2. Dick Holt on September 7, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    GREAT ADVICE ! Living in apartments outside of Washington DC, I would put my horn in a backpack (made cardboard “case” for slide) & ride my bicycle out to a small patch of woods nearby. GREAT chops workout in half the time of Mannie Klein mute in the apartment!

  3. Tom Ervin on September 8, 2015 at 10:36 am

    Playing outdoors did indeed help me toward a bigger sound, and I had grown up mostly as a softer player, which was often “useless.” Outside is good stuff, you can’t really fill it up, and it’s fun to try.

    HOWEVER I must also suggest we also will benefit from blowing inside and Right At The Music Stand, to help “purify” our tone and help rid the horn’s voice of static, tongue noise, spit sounds, whatever. You hope to hear nothing but the beautiful sound of the instrument, not the sounds of your mouth, nor your breathing; but close up to the music you are likely to hear some stuff you would not wish to put into a microphone.

  4. Jim Winters on October 14, 2015 at 4:09 am

    Very nice essay here. I LOVE this blog. This made me thinking of basking, something which I have yet to try. But when I was younger I would do just long tones outside. I think I wanted to be be conservative about what I played knowing that people would be wandering by. I had this personality that worked against me where I was afraid to ever seem egotistical, let’s say. I wanted to seem sensible about what I was playing. Alone inside I would do my jazz improve. Outside I’d do my scales, but the harder scales had to be done inside and privately until I had them all set. I had numerous routines which I learned from a player in Las Vegas named Roy Wiegand. Getting back to outside acoustics, I like this idea. I sometimes played towards a reflective surface, too, like glass. But outside is a lovely idea and I think you made my day by reading this thread here. Some other time I’ll describe just how I would do my scale patterns.

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