There are 3 “non-negotiables” in trombone playing: 1) tone, 2) intonation, and 3) time/rhythm. If a player is in good shape in all 3 of these areas, chances of success in almost any performance, audition, or competition are high.
Tone, of course, is the first of these priorities. Without good tone, nothing else you can do really counts. Below are some suggestions for improving tone and attending to this highest of priorities.
1) Ideal Tone—Be sure to have a clear ideal sound in your head. Listen to great recordings and live performances. If you have no real idea how you would like to sound, your chances of ending up with great tone are pretty low. For recordings, I recommend Joseph Alessi. Flood your brain with good sound!
2) Air—Feed the sound with lots of air. Air is the equivalent of bowing technique for strings. Relax, take in a little more air than you think you need, and exhale that air freely as you play (don’t try to meter the air with your lips). Generally speaking, most people simply don’t use enough air to give their tone a full, robust quality.
3) Small or Nasal Tone—The most common tone problem for beginning and intermediate trombonists is a small, nasal sound. To move toward a thicker, more robust tone, relax in general, use less “squeeze” in your lips, and try opening up the aperture (the hole in the embouchure) a little more. The problem of squeezing the embouchure too much is common even in college players. If you’ve ever heard a tuba player play a few notes on trombone, for example, the sound is beautiful! This is because they have a more relaxed approach to embouchure and they’re in the habit of using more air than trombonists generally use. In fact, I often recommend that my college students who are trying to get a bigger, thicker sound take a semester of tuba lessons. It really helps! Let your chops, particularly the middle of your lips, be as “floppy” and free to vibrate as possible.
4) Fuzzy or Airy Tone—The problem of fuzzy or airy tone is sometimes the result of not warming up or of basic fatigue at the end of a lot of playing. However, if you notice that you still have fuzz in your sound even when you’re warmed up and not fatigued, I recommend mouthpiece buzzing or “free” buzzing (buzzing without the mouthpiece). Orthodontic braces often cause extreme airy sound, and I heartily recommend buzzing to improve tone problems associated with braces. Excessively puffing your cheeks and/or bunching up your chin can also lead to airy tone.
5) Mouthpiece Pressure & Angle—Many of us use too much mouthpiece pressure, which can stifle tone. Every trombonist gets a little bit of a ring around their embouchure when they play; however, if you notice a deep red ring after only a few minutes of playing, you’re probably using too much pressure. All you need is enough to make a seal. Using too much pressure keeps vibration from freely occurring, stifles the sound, and often causes endurance problems. Also check the mouthpiece angle or pressure on the top vs. the bottom lip. Experiment with this top vs. bottom lip pressure a little, adjusting the overall angle of the horn, and see what happens. With some players, getting the best angle and balance of their instrument can have a surprising effect on overall tone.
6) Tension—Too much general tension can affect tone very negatively. This is one of the biggest problems in loud playing for many trombonists—we get excited and intense, and we let that lead to physical tension, which leads to a “blatty” loud sound. It’s not necessarily that you’re playing too loud; it’s that you’re playing with the wrong kind of loud sound. See how relaxed you can be in general when you practice and perform. More than likely, the more relaxed you get, the thicker and freer your sound will be. When you’re practicing, if your sound is not good on a passage, relax, take a big breath, and try it again!
7) Forget the Soft Palate—Forget trying to push the soft palate up. You’ve probably been told by various people to push up your soft palate like you’re yawning or fogging up a mirror. It’s an old misconception. Forget it! It causes a weird kind of unnecessary tension in your oral cavity and sometimes leads to a tight, compressed, nasal sound. Instead, relax your mouth and throat without trying to push anything or manipulate anything. Just relax and blow. Things will gently expand on their own and your tone will be much better. Over the years, I have had several college students who were trying so hard to push up their soft palate that it was causing this problem. When they learned to relax their mouth and throat, their sound finally improved.
8) Priority—As I mentioned earlier, tone has to be a big priority in your playing. It’s at the very top of the list! If you’re practicing and you get the right notes and rhythms on a passage but the tone is bad, go back and get it with good tone. Keep paying attention to your sound. It doesn’t count unless it’s with good tone!