This article provides basic knowledge for all trombone players, and can be a helpful starting point for assignments and projects in other subjects.
The trombone is a beautiful instrument played by some of the most musical people in the world. It is a wind instrument and a member of the brass family. The modern trombone descends from the ancient ‘sackbut’ – really. The distinct sound of the trombone is familiar as the ‘voice’ of the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons. The trombone is capable of a great range of tone, power, and emotion.
The trombone itself is a two piece instrument with a slide assembly which must be connected to the bell section. Once assembled, the instrument is played with a special mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is made from a large piece of brass which is machined on a lathe into a ‘funnel’ with a large end and a narrow end. The large end has a rim and a bowl.
The shape and contour of the rim and the bowl affects how the mouthpiece feels to the player and the tone of the resulting sound. The small end is called the shank which fits into the receiver of the trombone. The most common trombone mouthpiece is the Bach 6 1/2AL, although there are many other manufacturers and models available.
The trombone, like all brass instruments, changes pitch by changing the physical length of the tubing the air passes through. The trombone changes length when the player extends the main slide. As the slide gets longer the pitch goes lower. While the trombone is durable, the length of the main slide makes it fragile. The player must be careful to avoid denting the slide or twisting it out of alignment.
The most common trombone is the tenor trombone which has a single main slide. This is the trombone most beginners learn to play first. Trombones can also have an extra length of tubing and the addition of a valve operated by a thumb trigger. These ‘trigger’ trombones provide notes using alternative slide positions. Using the trigger allows the player to avoid the longer slide positions.
Brass musical instruments have metal components which need to be lubricated to move smoothly. Much like a well oiled machine, brass instruments with a smooth action are easier to play. The products available to lubricate brass wind instruments include oil, grease, and water based cream. Each product is meant to serve a particular component of the instrument.
Viscosity is a word used to describe the thickness of a fluid. Water is of lower viscosity than pancake syrup, and syrup is of lower viscosity than honey. Of the brass lubricants, water based cream is of lower viscosity than oil which is of lower viscosity than grease. To say it another way, grease is thicker than oil which is thicker than water based cream.
Trombones have at least two slides and may have additional valves. Every additional valve adds an additional slide. The shorter tuning slides do not need to be moved very often so using a higher viscosity slide grease is the best choice. Valves use oil which lasts longer than water based cream but provide high viscosity. The main slide moves the most and uses the low viscosity water based cream to move smoothly. As the trombonist moves the long slide while playing the instrument, the water based cream tends to dry out. The player can use a spray bottle to spray water on the long slide to reactivate the cream and keep the action working smoothly.
Over time, all brass instruments get dirty and should be cleaned. The instrument must be disassembled to be cleaned properly and the best way to clean the inside of the tubes is to use the correct cleaning brushes. If you have ever used a bottle brush, you know the value of the right size brush. Using the right brush makes the job quick and easy. Brass wind instruments have tubing of different sizes which are best cleaned by brushes of the appropriate size.
The most useful cleaning brush is the mouthpiece brush. If you keep the mouthpiece clean, the instrument will stay clean. The mouthpiece brush is tapered to reach inside the shank of the mouthpiece. If you only get one cleaning brush, get a brass mouthpiece brush. Really.
Flexible ‘snake’ brushes are made to clean the curved slides and come in different lengths and diameters to match each brass instrument. A long cleaning snake brush will get all the way around the outer trombone slide. Valve casing brushes are also very handy and made to specifically clean the valve casings of trumpets and low brass instruments.
The long trombone slide presents a unique challenge when cleaning. Because it is so long, extra care should be taken to avoid twisting the inner slides out of alignment. When you take the long outer slide off, the two inner slides are very susceptible to damage. The slide will only move smoothly if the inner tubes are perfectly aligned. Experienced players often use a cleaning rod and cloth to clean the inner slides.
How To Assemble
The best tip for beginners to avoid damaging the trombone: Learn to assemble the instrument correctly.
- Set the case ON THE GROUND. Trusting the case to stay in place on a bed, table, or chair is just asking for trouble.
- Open the case with the handle facing you. The big end of the case should be on your left.
- Use your left hand to pick up the bell section and remove it from the case.
- Use your right hand to stand up the slide section and remove it from the case.
- Assemble the bell to the slide and tighten the hand screw.
- Hold the instrument in your left hand with the bell pointing toward the ground.