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Brass Questions Answered

Jay Friedman | May 2010

    Editor’s note: Jay Friedman writes a monthly article on his website (www., and he occasionally uses that space to answer technical questions from visitors to his site. Here is a recent sampling.

A question from a trumpet player.
    Players talk about fast air and resonant sound in almost everything brass-playing related. I still have no idea how to change my playing to make my air faster and more resonant. All of my teachers have tried to explain it and I still don’t get it. They tell me when I produce a more resonant sound and point out when I don’t, but I am clueless as to how to change things on command. Maybe I’m just thick-headed and stubborn. Anything you could pass along would be very helpful.
    I have had very few instances of players talking about fast air. Maybe I just haven’t been around those people. You don’t want to have the same speed of air all the time, although generally fast air is better than slow. How about this for an idea? When I play loud I try to use the whole cup of the mouthpiece. When I play soft, I try to aim my air right into the throat and bypass the cup. When I do that my air will speed up because I narrowed the aperture and it sped up on its own.
    To get fast air, as an example, take the first note of the opening of Mahler 5, concert C#. Play a bunch of extremely short, but fat, low C#s until they speak instantly. You will have to cut them off with your tongue to make them really short. When you can do this with a good sound, and they speak instantly, play a long C# with exactly the same start to the long note as the short one. That will get the air moving quickly. You will have trouble at first because the long note always starts with a slower air stream than the short one, but it shouldn’t.     Then practice playing four or more short ones, and then a long one with the same start. Maybe start with middle C, because low C# is a hard note to start on. I was just using C# to demonstrate fast air problems. I have my students also practice playing a short low C# forte and then a piano one with the same start and tone quality to the soft one as the loud one, an extremely difficult task. You’ll find you have to think about fast air more in the piano note than the forte note.
    Fast air means a note starts instantly, and at full volume and resonance on the downbeat. Then 80-90% of the work is done. When a note starts with a slow, soggy air stream, you will have to push more air in the middle of the note, and this ruins the sound and the style. When you get to the point that it feels like notes are jumping out of the horn, you will have fast air.

Now for some trombone queries.
    I agree with what you state about there being too much written about moving the slide as quickly as possible. I wonder if this has stemmed from beginning students who tend to have very slow slides. Do you have any thoughts on how to teach an amateur student to move the slide without going too far either direction?
    I also have found very little written about two other points I find imperative to the discussion. One is when to tongue on tongued slurs. Do you believe the tongue should bump the air from the beginning of the slide motion or when the next note is played?
    The other thing is changing partials when the slide moves in the same direction as the pitches. Do you consider this a natural slur in all cases no matter how far the slide must move from position to position?
    I have answers that few ever talk about, and I don’t know why, because it’s obvious with a little thought. The reason why people are taught to move the slide as fast as possible is when a teacher tells a student he is not using enough air, which is all the time, the student, young or old, jerks the slide quickly in order to activate the air. The teacher says, “good,” and doesn’t notice that the slur got hard and mechanical sounding, only that the student used more air.
    The answer to your question is that trombonists should not move the slide slower or faster but instead move it smoothly so that the air and slide arrive at a position at exactly the same time. The whole reason for loss of sound is when the slide gets to the position before the air, there is a blank in the flow of sound. If you have a fast air stream, move the slide with that air stream. If you have a slower air stream, move it with that air stream. The slide must move with the air stream, not by itself. When things are working well it should feel like the air is either blowing the slide from place to place, or the slide is dragging the air from place to place. Both of those mental images work well.
    To your next question, the tongue should bump, as you put it (I prefer “making a dent in the air stream”), right in the middle of the slur so there is an equal amount of legato on either side of the change of note. This means using the legato tongue a lot earlier than most people do it. This also means moving the slide at different speeds according to the length of a shift. If a slur requires a shift of 4 or 5 positions, the slide will move faster than a shift of one or two positions, because the object is to make every slur contain the same amount of legato, and to do this you must do different things. The way to accomplish this is to have a mental image of the slur you want and then tell your brain and ear to search through trial and error until you find the perfect slur. My rule is to produce as much sound between notes as possible without a smear.
    As for the last question, I consider a long shift of the slide as a chance to produce an even smoother slur than a shift of one position. If a change of partial is needed, then it is a natural slur, even in the same direction as the pitch. The secret is to go across the partial early in the shift. If I am slurring from a middle B Flat to an E flat above the staff, I will start going across that partial as soon as I begin to move the slide. It is as though I am going to play an E a half step above the E flat with my embouchure, but because I don’t stop the slide in 2nd position, the E is not heard. What this does is make a smooth, secure natural slur, with the partial change right in the middle of the two positions, and with a continuos flow of sound between notes. If you perfect this, I guarantee you will never get a blank again.

    Are there times when you tongue natural slurs or do you always let nature take care of the shift? Do you use more than one syllable for legato tonguing in different musical settings or tessituras?

    I’ll give you a perfect example of using tongue on a natural slur. In an audition or performance of the solo from Saint-Saëns 3, when you come to the last note, the A flat to D flat slur, and you are dying to hang on, I tell my students to softly tongue that slur to make sure the note speaks. There are other spots like this in the repertoire, but generally I advocate to trust your air and rely on it to carry you through.

    How can we best describe how firm the corners of the trombone embouchure should be? For example, in describing the embouchure to a beginner, some teachers ask them to flap their lips like making a horse sound, but this doesn’t produce firm corners at all.
    I have also read articles in which teachers describe a developed embouchure as having very firm corners. Should the corners be very firm for beginners or are the corners very loose at the beginning and develop more noticeable firmness over time?
    I would rather have firm corners than tension somewhere else. I think beginners probably make this mistake. If the corners aren’t firm enough, the torso will provide the needed firmness and this will ruin the sound. The corners should be firm enough to direct the air as straight ahead as possible. This depends on mouth structure. Having beginners buzz the mouthpiece to get a resonant sound is the best way to start. This should get the right amount of firmness in the corners. The corners should have the same amount  of firmness as if the student was spitting a spitball a moderate distance without using the diaphragm. 

Jay Friedman has been a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s trombone section since 1962 and was appointed principal in 1965. He is also trombone professor, head of brass, and principal guest conductor at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Friedman is music director of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest. In 2000 he was chosen as Conductor of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras.