Fast Trombone Slides

Micah Everett | March 2018

    Sticky trombone slides are a major inconvenience for trombonists, directors, and their fellow band members. When the slide does not work correctly, playing quickly and accurately becomes impossible, with poor intonation and sloppy execution being the inevitable results. Perhaps more importantly, a sluggish slide makes playing cumbersome for the student, adding one more cause of the retention problems which can plague low brass sections. The tips below will help your trombone players to keep their slides fast and playing enjoyable. 

Keeping the Slide in Good Repair
    Learning how to clean and lubricate the trombone slide properly is important, but if the slide is in poor repair even the best efforts at maintenance will be ineffective. Sadly, there is little a teacher can do in the band room to repair a slide once it has become dented or misaligned, so frequently remind students of the importance of proper care. This includes taking care to avoid dropping the outer slide and resisting the urge to engage in trombone swordfights. The tolerance for error in a trombone slide is measured in thousandths of an inch, so even the smallest dents, dings, and bends must be avoided. 
    One way of avoiding dented and bent slides is using instruments made of plastic and fiberglass with beginning students. Such products are now being marketed under several brand names. These instruments are impossible to dent and difficult to damage but also do not yield the same quality of sound as their brass counterparts. Their use is not recommended beyond the first year. A better solution for avoiding slide dents is to cover the outer slide tubes with plastic sleeves, which can be purchased from music retailers or perhaps made from materials found at home improvement stores. More advanced students might not want to deal with the weight added by these sleeves, but they can save younger students many trips to the repair shop.
    While advanced students are usually in less danger of accidentally damaging their slides while holding or playing their instruments, how they place their instruments on the floor or elsewhere during breaks can cause problems. Perhaps the most egregious of these is placing the instrument on a chair, with the bell in the seat of the chair and the end of the slide on the floor. Not only does this leave the instrument poorly balanced and in danger of falling (either on its own or when bumped by another student), but the slide is bearing some of the instrument’s weight, which can lead to small bends in the tubes. 
    It is preferable to place the instrument on the floor or on a table, but there is a correct and an incorrect way of doing this, as well. Rather than resting the instrument entirely on the handslide, the correct way is to place the instrument on the floor or table in such a way that it is resting on the mouthpiece receiver, bell, and tuning slide.

Incorrect: Trombone is resting on slide.

Correct: Trombone is resting on bell, tuning slide, and leadpipe.

    The handslide is thus off of the ground and not bearing any weight. Remove the mouthpiece so it does not get dirty. The most ideal solutions are purchasing a trombone stand or placing the instrument in its case when not in use.
    As with most brass repairs, the ability of directors to repair dented slides in the band room is limited with the tools usually on hand. Those with training and experience in dent removal and the proper tools might be able to remove minor outer slide dents, but inner slide dents should be examined by a professional repair technician. In many cases removing inner slide dents can create elevated spots that worsen slide function. Ad­ditionally, correctly aligning trombone slides requires several specialized tools beyond those used for mere dent removal. In short, if you want to avoid a trip to the repair shop, avoid damaging the slide.

Trombone Slide Cleaning
    Even a slide that is in perfect condition will require cleaning much more often than the moving parts of most other instruments. This is true because of the length of the slide and close tolerances mentioned earlier, but also because of the types of lubricants most trombonists use. Unlike the petroleum-based oils or synthetic equivalents used on both piston and rotary valves, the cream-based lubricants normally used on trombone slides do not evaporate or trickle down until emptied along with the condensation that collects in the instrument. Instead, these creams tend to build up around the slide stockings over time and create a residue that ultimately impedes slide action and, if left long enough, hardens to the point that a professional chemical or ultrasonic cleaning is needed to remove it. It is thus important that the trombone slide receive at least a cursory cleaning every time new lubricant is applied, both to remove the residue of old lubricant and to remove food particles or other debris that might collect in the slide.
    For these regular cleanings, the following materials are needed:

    •  Trombone cleaning rod with cheesecloth, strips of cotton (cut from old t-shirts), or toweling sheaths that can be purchased from music stores
    •  Bassoon swab (optional)
    •  Paper towels (preferably shop towels)
    •  Spray bottle filled with clean water

    Begin the cleaning process by disassembling the slide, making sure to place the inner slide on a table or someplace where it will not be damaged. Cover the cleaning rod with a toweling sheath or wrap it in cotton or cheesecloth, and then swab out each of the outer slide tubes. This helps to remove lubricant residue and other materials that might adhere to the insides of the outer tubes. As you work the cleaning rod in and out, hold the tube that you are cleaning to avoid pushing the tubes out of alignment. After completing this step, place the outer slide on the table and pick up the inner slide.
    An optional step at this point is to clean the insides of the inner tubes using a bassoon swab. Drop the weighted rope or chain through the top of each tube and pull the swab through the opposite end. This helps to prevent even more gunk from collecting in the slide tubes and crook. While all slides will benefit from this step, it is especially helpful when working with slides with particularly close tolerances.
    Finally, spray each of the inner tubes liberally with water, and use a paper towel to wipe old lubricant off of the tubes. Grip the tubes firmly when doing this, but take care not to bend the tubes out of alignment.
    Completing these steps each time the instrument is re-lubricated (usually one to three times per week, depending on how often the instrument is played) will keep it quite clean, make the more thorough process described below a relatively rare necessity, and greatly reduce the need for professional cleanings, which can require harsh chemicals and the expense of a trip to the repair shop.

Deep Cleaning
    This more thorough process, which should only be necessary one to three times per year, requires the following materials.

    •  Warm water, preferably running water. If you have a sink or tub to which you can attach a hose, that would be best. Avoid letting the water get too hot, as hot water can sometimes damage or remove lacquer finishes
    •  Trombone cleaning snake (vinyl or rubber-coated)
    •  Dishwashing detergent
    •  Trombone cleaning rod with cheesecloth, strips of cotton, or toweling sheaths
    •  Baking soda (optional)
    •  Water-based brass polish (optional)
    •  Paper towels

    First, take the assembled slide, place a small amount of dishwashing detergent in each tube, fill with water, and then run the cleaning snake through each tube and into the crook. Then, pour out the soap and water (and materials loosened by the snake), and flush the slide with water until all of the soapy residue is removed. It is important that the snake be run through the inner tubes while the slide is assembled. Pushing a cleaning snake through the inner tubes of a disassembled slide will almost certainly push those tubes out of alignment. Next, remove the outer slide, place the inner slide on a table or in another safe location, and repeat the above process with the outer slide only.
    Take a small amount of dishwashing detergent in one hand, and, holding the inner slide under running water with the other hand, wipe each inner tube with the detergent to loosen any residue on the inner slide tubes, then continue to rinse until the detergent is all removed.
    Some players like to add extra steps to the above process. One method involves completing the first two steps with baking soda instead of detergent to provide a bit of extra cleaning power. Alternatively, a cleaning rod could be wrapped with a moist cloth with some baking soda sprinkled on it. In either case, the slide should be thoroughly flushed out afterward.
    Another optional step that can be taken at the beginning of the process is to place a small amount of a water-based brass polish on the end of the cloth with which the cleaning rod is wrapped, and then to actually polish the insides of the outer slide tubes. If you choose to do this make sure that you use a water-based polish rather than an oil-based one. The former can be cleaned out of the tubes when the remainder of the cleaning process is completed; the latter will be notoriously difficult to remove.
    After cleaning everything, you might want to dry the inner and outer tubes with a paper towel. This is not a required step.

Trombone Slide Lubrication

    There are a number of fine trombone lubricants on the market, but the ones that seem to best combine ease of application – even for the youngest players – and effective lubrication are those that contain some combination of liquid cream and silicone (or similar formulations) in a single bottle. Assuming that the slide has been cleaned, to apply these products place a four- to six-inch line of lubricant on the top of each inner slide tube, assemble each pair of tubes individually and work the slide up and down to distribute the product, assemble the slide, and spray with water if desired. Sometimes the lubricant will work fine with little or no water. 
    Some trombonists prefer the older slide creams that are applied manually; these also are very effective but are a bit more difficult to apply. To apply these creams take a small amount of product in the hand and spread it on each inner slide tube.  Next, work each pair of tubes individually, then together. At this point, I have always found it best to wipe off each inner tube lightly with a paper towel, as the amount of lubricant needed for these products to work best is extremely small. Optionally, one might want to add a bit of a silicone additive to each tube. Finally, spray with a fairly generous amount of water; the water will bead up and provide the actual lubricating function.
    Any of the above options is a better choice than the petroleum-based slide oils often included with student-line instruments. While similar oils work just fine on valve instruments, these oils provide uneven coverage and evaporate too quickly to make effective trombone slide lubricants.

    Keeping the trombone slide in good repair, along with proper cleaning and lubrication, is vital to keeping trombone slides moving quickly and thus enabling students to play their very best. While the maintenance steps described here might seem time-consuming, they eliminate many problems that can lead to damage, expense, and lost playing time down the road. Most importantly, when the slide is clean, properly lubricated, and in good repair, playing the trombone is much more fun.