I’ve written a section about pitch in my upcoming book on alto trombone. As I wrote, the trombone is basically a glorified tuning slide and therefore, good pitch is our superpower! Here’s an excerpt from the book along with the exercise files (PDF and audio). Let me know what you think. I’m looking for feedback on everything prior to publishing.
Improving your intonation
I’ve heard it said that the alto is more difficult to play in tune but I think it depends on the horn (and the player!). Pitch not just a matter of slide position, but of ear. Keep in mind that there are two systems of tuning. When you play with a piano or guitar for example, you are playing equal temperament, meaning each note is one fixed pitch regardless of harmonic context. When you are playing with your trombone choir or brass quintet, you are tuning (subconsciously) to more of a perfect tuning called just intonation where the various intervals are more perfect. The piano cannot accommodate that because of its fixed tuning.
Someone once remarked to Pablo Casals at how accurately he landed on the perfect pitch of notes. “No”, he replied. “I simply adjust very quickly.”
Here is an exercise to help you adjust quickly. Play the audio file below. For each four bar phrase, you will hold one note that falls somewhere within each of the eight chords. If I recorded a perfectly in-tune choir, this would be more difficult.
For this, I have recorded the chords from a synthesizer under equal temperament, so once you find the pitch, you should be good throughout the four bars. The trick, however, is to find the pitch and remain in tune throughout the four bars. These chords are not meant to be awesome progressions, but rather random chords chosen for the placement of the held tone. And remember as you listen to them and find them somewhat lacking, they are missing the held note – mostly an important note.
The first chord is the root so that you can more easily locate the proper pitch. The sixth position F and seventh position E may be more difficult if you are starting out on alto. By hearing the various placements of the single note, your ear should get better at directing your arm to the right place on the alto slide. Then think about what part of the chord you are on. Can you hear it? Hit play for the chords.
You might find this to be a good warm-up exercise. It may have the effect of centering you on the alto slide positions. Yes, you can always use a strobe or single note (drone), but especially for jazz players, I believe that tuning to various pitches within chords is better.
Last, I sometimes see trombone players with tuning slides very far extended. I haven’t done any detailed research on this, but my sense is that an overly extended tuning slide is not ideal. It could be due to several things:
- A mouthpiece shank inserted too far into the lead pipe
- A poorly built horn
- Playing too tight – not relaxed
- A habit of thinking that’s where it belongs while not realizing that you are perpetually playing flat.
Remember that as a trombone player, you are basically performing on a glorified tuning slide. Good pitch is our superpower, right? I believe that one of the hidden results of good pitch is a more pleasing tone. When your tone is truly centered, you and others will hear that you just sound better.
Every horn has a sweet spot where the tuning slide is ideally positioned. There is no one place for the tuning slide. I do suggest, however, that if yours is extended most of its length, listen to the consistency of your pitches as you go up and down the various partials. Also, push it in and see if you hear a difference in tone. Push it all the way in. Does the horn feel more centered?
You may have difficulty hearing your own pitch. Have you ever experienced playing the tuning note in your ensemble, and subconsciously lipping the pitch up or down to match it. Catch yourself doing that, and instead, play a centered note regardless of its intonation. Hear where it falls relative to the tuning note and make the adjustment. Realize that as you warm up literally and figuratively, your pitch center will change. Go ahead and adjust.
Last tip: play your tuning note by slightly glissing up to it rather than hitting it hard and dead-on.