Slowing the difficulty curve of Trombone Improvisation Savvy

I received an email the other day from a very earnest guy working his way through Trombone Improvisation Savvy.

His main question was, “The book quickly becomes advanced—that is, the book progresses faster than my ear! I probably could use more steps. It makes me think that I probably should go back and take some lessons so I can be guided more personally. But the book is GREAT.”

He also shared with me that “I’m getting better feeling the pitches. I find I improvise better when I relax, play only what I can hear (and not what I imagine), and play simpler. I need to not get discourage when I hear what other players seem to do so effortlessly.”

Here is my answer to the first

Let me address the comment that the book gets advanced too quickly. Think about variations on exercises that you could do that provide intermediate steps and therefore, slow down the progression of difficulty. Be creative in making more difficult exercises easier and easy exercises more difficult. After all, the book is on improvisation, so try improvising how you use the book.


I mention in the book about playing Happy Birthday. Play it starting in easy keys and then begin moving through the cycle of fifths: on A, E, B, F#, etc. Another step is to play it as fast as possible. The faster you play it, the less you have to think about it, which is the goal. In the easiest key, can you play it fast/automatically?

Do the same with any of a thousand other tunes: a Rochut that you know well, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Three Blind Mice, Deck The Halls, Flintstones theme, Amazing Grace, etc. You could spend a great deal of time working on this exercise alone. Can you play them fast starting on any note? Personally, I could work on that for the rest of my life. See page 11

For the soundfile “Basic trombone phrases for ear training”, is this exercise in itself too difficult? If playing the exercise as instructed is too difficult, play just the first note.

Also create an intermediate variation on the exercise at the bottom of page 13 if that becomes easy. Instead of just playing the single note after you hear me play it, play two more notes above or below it as triads or sevenths (or ninths). For example, the first note over the Bb7 (page 13) is Bb. So instead of playing just Bb, play Bb, D, F. The second note over Eb7 is C. So play C, Eb G. One more: The note of the third bar Bb7 is D. Play D, F, Ab. Train your ear to hear the extensions above the given notes. Go up and go down. Or start by playing only one additional note up or down. That might be an intermediate step before turning the page.

Last, on page 15, if repeating the phrases is too difficult, just find one note within the chord with and play it without looking at the chord designation.

Treat the entire book as a sandbox and be creative about how you use the sound files and exercises. I’ve given you certain specific ways to use the material within the book, but I could write a whole new book on variations of every exercise – easier and more difficult.

Glad to know your ear is improving. I can’t imagine that if you regularly do the exercises and variations like I described above that it wouldn’t! Just be patient. It won’t come over night, but it WILL come.

My answer to his second part

One of the most important things I can say to you is this: It does not matter what others sound like. Yes, we can learn by listening to others, but it’s not productive to compare ourselves. There is a sea of sameness in the trombone (and other instrument’s) world, and I believe it comes from believing that there is basically one way to play–the way (name of some famous person) plays.

I played on the last night of the International Trombone Festival last month. Bob McChesney asked me to sit in with him, Scott Whitfield, Bill Watrous and Dick Nash. I could have chosen to be intimidated by comparing myself to these great players and the expectations of the big room full of trombonists, or I could be comfortable with who I am as a unique player. It was quite a contrast being an alto player with the other tenors, not playing a thousand notes, and while all of them close-mic’d, as is their style, I filled the room with no mic. I ended up playing my best and enjoyed the experience.

If I had compared myself with what is typically thought of as the standard of jazz trombone playing, I would have been lost and I would have played poorly. Remember the meme on page 167 of the book: Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

I really appreciate your feedback. Let me know if the above helps you.


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