Improving Tone on Trombone

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 bow 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 chops). 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 are. 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. 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–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 pressure of the top vs. the bottom lip. With some players, this balance can really affect overall tone.

6) Tension–Too much overall physical tension can really affect tone. 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. 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) Priority–Finally, as I mentioned earlier, tone has to be a big priority. 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. It doesn’t count unless it’s with good tone!

Comments

  1. Thanks this really helped, i have braces and was really concerned as i had a really nice rich tone before i got my braces on but now as i have them on my tone is really airy especially in the middle range

  2. Thank you so much. I have braces too and it really messed my tone up. I have always asked people for help and everyone says long tones but I see no progress with it. I have occasionally tried buzzing without the mouthpiece and it is HARD! I gues it makes since to work on that. Im sure it will help me improve with more than just tone. Seriously… Thanks!

    • Kyle,
      You’re very welcome! I should mention that buzzing is also good when you have braces because it often puts less pressure on your lips (particularly buzzing without the mouthpiece).
      Will

  3. Yeah, thanks for this. I too have braces and was looking for a way that I could see what was wrong with my playing. Not that the fact that braces make an airy sound gives any excuse to allow it, but it’s comforting to know that I’m not really this bad.

    For the first commenter, my middle range is where I get the most air too (D, Eb (especially), and F, to name a few).

    Thanks again.

  4. im going to try this, thank you. i have had such an inconsistant tone some days its amazing an other days its horibble i have no idea what to do anymore.

  5. Im currently using a rental trobone from my school my tone is great but I feel that I need to change my mouth peice it is pretty banged up so my tone might be worse or better not sure. This helped a lot thanks so much!!!

    • Darvin,
      Great! I’m glad it helped. I don’t know what mouthpiece you’re playing on now, but I recommend Bach 6 1/2 AL up until high school age or so.
      Best,
      Will

  6. All of this is very helpful, but i was wondering if you have had any experience with the bass trombone, if so, I was wondering if you could possibly recommend some tone exercises for that.
    Thank You

    • Zach,
      Yes, I would recommend basically the same tone exercises for bass trombone. In addition, I would add some mouthpiece buzzing on a tuba mouthpiece (any make/model is fine). This will open things up, relax your chops, and help you get that fat low sound.
      Best,
      Will

      • thank you so much, these excersizes have helped so far. Now I need to get my air capacity up. Could you recommend some excersizes for that? Thank you so much

  7. for me its too hard to play a trombone but i always do my best to show that i can play it easily..
    thank you for the information that you gave to me, i hope i can do it someday.

  8. I just got some rubberbands on my braces and the pull of the rubberbands has made my mouth more use to being less open when I play. Now my tone has just completely left me. What should I do?

  9. I could use some help on the bass trombone, you see, those double trigger notes really get to me. its very hard for me to hit those the way i would like to, and even when i do hit them im not able to tounge them or else the notes dies. I dont know if its the fact that im not useing enough air or whats going on. but i need to know why im having so much trouble with those notes.

  10. i also recently got braces and my sound was terrible. I knew it was going to be bad but i havent heard a difference in my sound for a month. should it be getting better or should i keep doing free buzzing? is there any way for me to play up high again because i need to play high G and A in my songs and scales.

    • Jeffrey,
      Yes, keep with it. There’s normally a 2-3 week adjustment period, then you slowly start getting better (both tone and range). Keep free buzzing and don’t give up!

  11. Thank you so much! Everyone always said i had an airy sound and i tried so many ways to fix it! Who would’ve known it was the braces on my mouth. -_-

  12. Ummm…. hi ive always had an edge in my tone and i dont know what to do. My Band director says try easing up in my lip muscles but i have tried that and I still have that edgeiness. My section leaders says its bad but the jazz band loves it and they say i can use it on my bass that i play during concert season. If you could please give me some advice on what to do i would be very happy thanks.

    • Try relaxing both your throat and your embouchure. Also try putting a little more space between your lips. Buzzing on a tuba mouthpiece will help give you the right feel.

      • Thank you very much, the tips helped and now I am principle bass trombone player at my high school.

  13. I am having lots of trouble with my tone quality. I came across your webbsite hoping to find good recondmendations. I haven’t tried anything yet but I do take private lessons and my teacher told me i need to improve on my tone because it’s bad. I do long tones and i buz all the time but its just not getting better.

    • Adele,
      What is it about your tone quality that your teacher says you need to improve? Is it too airy? Too small and pinched? Too blatty? More specifics would help.
      WK

  14. I am a rising senior in high school and my private teacher says I need to open my throat when I play. Should I feel a difference in my throat when i am playing? I ask because I’m not feeling a difference (I tried touching my throat when I am not playing and also while I am playing). I wouldn’t say my my tone is pinched or airy, but more or less “closed.” I get told that my tone “just needs to open up,” but I’m not sure what is going on. I also do tuba in marching band and that might effect my tone, but this tone issue is still around in the months I’m not constantly switching from trombone to tuba daily. What would you suggest?

    Thank you,
    Adam

    • Adam,

      I am much more of an advocate of relaxing your throat and letting it expand on its own as a consequence of being relaxed than trying to force it open by raising your soft palette. In other words, just relax your neck and your throat, like you’re falling asleep. That would be part of what I would look for if your tone seemed “closed.” I would also make sure you aren’t squeezing your lips together too much (too much “squeeze”). Buzzing on your tuba mouthpiece, then playing on trombone immediately afterwards will help you relax your lips in general and lead to a richer, more open tone. I would make sure your teeth aren’t too close together. And I would make sure your tongue isn’t arched up high in your mouth. So, to review, this is what I would recommend for getting a more open tone:
      1) relax your neck and throat (relax, not open)
      2) put more space between your lips
      3) relax your lips more in general
      4) put more space between your teeth
      5) make sure your tongue is not arched high in your mouth

      I hope that helps!
      Will

      • The tips you gave me helped very much. Thank you. Your tuba mouthpiece trick especially helped my lips to relax. However, I have hit another snag: Since my school had back camp last week (and this week), i have only played tuba. Yesterday and today, when I picked up my trombone to practice it, my tone totally went out the window. My lips were relaxed and my tongue was out of the way, but I sounded like there was a dead rat inside of my bell. Would the switch from a Yamaha contra (with a Helleberg mouthpiece) to a Getzen small bore trombone (with a Bach 6 1/2 mouthpiece) be what is affecting my tone? Or is it something different?

        Thank you,
        Adam

      • Adam,
        Good, I’m glad the tips helped! I think the problem with your trombone sound after only playing tuba for a week was just a matter being away from trombone for so long. I would have to hear your sound in person, but my guess is that it will clear up after a day or two of playing trombone again. If not, try some buzzing on your trombone mouthpiece.
        Best,
        Will

  15. Its been a year since I got my braces but I have come up with a weird dilemma. Why is it that my tone is dark and rich in big rooms and in small rooms or corners my tone is all airy? Can anyone tell me which one I should analyse as an actual representation of my tone? S it that in a large room I get more over tones thus making the illusion that I sound great?

    • It’s really a function of the acoustics of the room, not your actual tone. What happens in a large room is your sound bounces around more, and as it does so, it loses some of the fuzz in the tone and the high overtones (the high overtones are the first to drop off as sound bounces around). It is normal for a player to sound darker in a big room that has lots of reverberation.

      It’s not as fun, but playing in a smaller room with less reverb is a better representation of your actual tone. If you really want to get technical, the most accurate representation of your actual tone without the influence of the acoustics around it would be playing in an acoustically-sterile chamber called an anechoic chamber, a specially-designed room that allows no outside sound and no reverberation.

  16. We just got more trombonist and i’m trying to get my range and tone up so i can keep my spot but nothing seems to help any idea’s for range

  17. Hi, I’ve been playing with braces for about two years and I am still not getting better. My tone is really bad. I’m not sure if my tongue placement is too high, but I slightly bite my tongue when I play, no matter how much I try to will my tongue down. How do i keep it down? Is slightly biting my tongue bad? It’s just been so LONG since I got my braces and I’ll likely have them until Junior year (I am a freshman now). I feel awful about playing and although I found trombone completely fun before, lately my tone has been taking a toll on me and I feel horrible about not being a good contributor to both Regular band and Jazz band. My tone is just….scratchy? And yes, airy. And I know if my tone was better and I could reach higher notes, I could become first trombone.. But I don’t know if it’s my braces that are hindering it or not. What do I do? I don’t press down hard or use a lot of pressure at all.

    • With tonguing, it sounds like your placement is probably too low, not too high, if you’re slightly biting each time you articulate. Try tonguing on the back of your top teeth where the teeth meet the gums. That should help you make a seal, so the articulation is clear and clean.

      For tone, it sounds like you are having the typical problem that many brass players have with braces. That scratchy, airy tone can be cleared up with mouthpiece buzzing (buzz your music, various melodies, scales, whatever). Sometimes some “free” buzzing–just buzzing on your lips without a mouthpiece (which is more difficult than mouthpiece buzzing)–will also clear up fuzzy, scratchy tone.

      • Sorry, when I meant I was biting down on my tongue, I meant the teeth in the back were biting down a bit on my tongue and I’m not sure whether that is normal or is hindering my airflow.

        I’ve been mouthpiece and free buzzing for a good month or two now and nothing has changed. If anything, my tone got worse. I don’t know how that happened, and I’m sorry if I’m being a bit too ignorant on the subject. I’ve tried opening my aperture and the space between my teeth, but I can’t find how exactly to get a better tone because I HAVE been doing long tones and mouthpiece buzzing. I know I should just be patient and stop complaining, but I just don’t know how to go about this.

      • I would say biting down on your tongue when you’re playing a brass instrument would never be a good idea. That could very likely be affecting all sorts of things, including your tone.

  18. The tip about taking a semester of tuba is great advise. I had forgoten about this until I read your tip. I played bass trombone in high school for a year, and I noticed that as I got used to playing the bass, my playing on the tenor felt easier and as a result was more relaxed and free. I felt like my tone on both instruments had improved.

    I’ll have to go back now and do some shedding on a bass trombone again.

  19. The trombonist in my orchestra has a constricted sound. It almost sounds as if part of his airstream is cut off. I would like him to have a bigger sound. What do you suggest?

    • I would have to make sure everything was working with his horn, but he probably is cutting his airstream off. It would help to hear/see him in person. I would check for throat tension, too much tension across his lips, and too much “smile” in his embouchure. He may also be arching his tongue excessively. Along with this, I’d have him do some breathing work to help him get the feeling of moving a lot of air freely. Hope that helps!
      Will

  20. Hi I play bass trombone and ive noticed as I play above a G in the staff my top lip tends to fold over my teeth. I’ve tryed to fix it but i really don’t know how to fix it at the same time. Do you have any tips or suggestions that could help?

    • I’m not sure because I’d probably have to see what you’re doing and hear how it’s affecting your sound, but you generally want to avoid letting your lips curl in/under. If it’s starting to happen at G in the staff, try glissing/smearing from F just below that (only played in 6th) to the B-flat above that, while keeping your embouchure setting the same (no curl). When that is easy, try doing the same thing, only articulate each note along the way.

  21. Really thanks a lot :) I also have braces and itreally is a pain.
    They don’t only mess up your zone they alao hurt a lot when playing tombone :(
    Your advice helped me a ton though :D

    • Sorry to hear about the pain, but I’m glad the blog post helped a little!

  22. I’m a french horn player turned trumpet player for jazz season. I am having problems pinching my high notes, odd because I can do high notes just fine with the french horn mouthpiece which is smaller than a trumpet mouthpiece…
    Anyway, these tips help bunches, even if you don’t play trombone. Thanks so much!

    • Trumpet does often play higher than horn, even though horn has a slightly smaller mouthpiece. I would probably try some things that would take you gradually into that higher range–scales, arpeggios, melodies in increasingly higher keys. I’m glad the tips help!

  23. I have had braces for about 1/2 a year now, and my tone in the low middle register is better, and the tone in the scales are better, but from the middle D up (right above the first ledger line) the tone quality is fuzzy ONLY when I play trombone etudes. It’s fine in a scale. Do you know what is wrong and/or how I could fix it?
    Thanks!
    (PS I have tried buzzing on a mouthpiece in fact last year when my wrist broke, I only did that for 5 weeks)

    • If it’s not fuzzy when you play a scale in the same range, the problem is that you’re not adjusting to either the faster speed of the etude or the wider leaps of the etude (or possibly the longer endurance of the etude). Try slowing down the tempo or making the leap smaller, then go gradually faster or wider (or longer). If you go gradually enough, you should be able to maintain the tone.

      • Thank you! I guess its slowly improving, but its hard to tell since I hear myself everyday.

  24. Dear Will, I play bass trombone for my high school band and have a question I was hoping you might be able to answer. As you know, most bass trombones contain two valves. My concern is that while I have both valves pressed, it seems like there is resistance and the notes don’t come out how I would like them to. All other notes including pedal tones come out fine. The problem occurs most prominently with the partial including low D down to the pedal B natural that you can only play in double valve 5th position. Could you maybe explain why this happens and if there is anything I can do to fix this problem?

    • It’s normal to have more resistance when you use a valve (and the most when you use both valves). This is because of narrowing as the air goes through the valve, as well as extra bends in the tubing when you use the valves. Modern manufacturers try to compensate for this by designing valves with less narrowing and tubing that doesn’t wrap as much (or as tightly). Most older bass trombones are going to be stuffier because manufacturers hadn’t figured some of this out yet (or they weren’t convinced it mattered). Also, if your valves are not aligned properly, resulting in a partial blockage when there shouldn’t be any blockage, then they will be unnecessarily stuffy and you’ll feel too much resistance. The same goes with dirt and grime in the horn. So what you can do that is under your control is make sure your horn is clean and make sure your valves are aligned properly. If you aren’t sure about alignment, take the instrument in to a repair person, and they can check it very easily.

  25. I realize this comment is a little late, but thank you so much for this article! I began trombone at the age of 9 and became very good at it. Unfortunately, I had a long period absent of practice. Last year, I received braces, which only made me more convinced that it would be “impossible” to become a good trombonist again! It’s now the summer before my sophomore year, and I’m excited to use your tips to get back to speed.

    Funnily enough, I played someone’s trumpet a few weeks ago at our last concert (I play percussion.) I was told I had good tone. Now considering taking up trumpet too.

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