The final chapter of Trombone Improvisation Savvy was titled The Inner Game. It contained some thoughts that don’t normally appear in jazz instrumental method books but I think playing the trombone well involves more than just getting the horn out and periodically blowing notes through it for a while.
Let me share some personal thoughts I’ll call three life hacks for better trombone playing. Actually, these three apply to any instrument, but let’s relate these to trombone for the moment.
- First, be committed to playing better. At first glance that may appear simplistic. After all, you wouldn’t have made it this far into the post if you didn’t want to play better. But I very deliberately used the word “commit” instead of “wish” or “want”.It’s easy to wish you played better. But committing to play better demands action like consistent focused practice and the determination to not let obstacles allow for excuses. “I’ll be traveling for the next few days, so I’ll get back to playing when I return.”The first step toward any fundamental change or improvement is commitment. In fact, if this idea feels a little out of your comfort zone, write it down. Something like “I’m commitment to doing what is necessary to improve my playing.” Even better is to write down something more specific and measurable. “I’m committing to spending 10 minutes every day for the next 30 days working on the ear training exercises in Trombone Improvisation Savvy.” “I’m committing to practicing a different scale in a new key each day for 30 days.”
If you’re committed to improving, make yourself that promise and write it down specifically and
- Develop a more capable physical you. Yes, that can be interpreted as code for getting in better shape or getting healthier. I wanted to use those first six words to ease you into the idea. Sorry.The trombone is a very physical instrument. The more effectively your body performs, the better you will perform your trombone. I just don’t think there’s any getting around it.Be honest with yourself. How healthy and in shape are you? Any by the way, those are two different things. You can be one and not the other. Eating raw sprouts while existing 16 hours a day on the couch or behind a desk is not the formula for whole body efficiency. Neither is daily jogs on a steady diet of fast food.
As we get older exercise becomes both more important and more challenging, especially if you have never made it a life habit. Start by committing (there’s that damn word again!) to a daily routine that you can maintain and grow. Walks around the block, then up a hill, then biking up mountain trails, then whatever else you can consistently maintain.
On the other side, eat what I’ll call “clean” foods. I don’t mean wash your french fries. I mean eat as much “live” fruits and vegetables as you can. Minimize sugar, eat moderate portions, and stay away from junk. I’d add “minimize alcohol” but I realize I talking to fellow trombone players!
- Practice well. I disagree with the old adage, “practice makes perfect”. Actually practice can make you worse if you practice the wrong things. Practice can also make you worse if you listen poorly to what is coming out of your bell.Here’s a great test of your practicing: record on your phone the next 15 minutes of your routine practicing, then listen back to it. How’s it sound? As good as you thought at the time you were playing? No? Then identify what you hear than needs improvement. Create a practice routine for that.For example, let’s say that you’re not in love with your tone. What can you do? There is a lot of advice for that on the web including the on Trombone Forum. Here, I’ll give you some.
Start with your air. Go outside and hold a note with only your mouthpiece. Long tones. Put the mouthpiece back in your horn. Play a long note for as long as you can before the tone starts to thin out. Do you notice any improvement in tone? Do it again on another pitch. What are you hearing? Maybe you need to do this in front of another player or a teacher. Listen to it as if your life depended on it.
The beauty of playing outside is that there is less resistance. The walls aren’t feeding back the sound to you. The waves aren’t bouncing around the surfaces and reinforcing a sense of fuller tone.
One more: perhaps when you recorded yourself, you heard pitch oddness “notes were out of tune”. How could you work on that? Yes, you could use a tuner app on your phone, but that goes only so far. It’s a machine telling you the pitch. Instead, how about putting on a piece of simple music and recording yourself playing basic tonic pitches with the music. This will also help with your listening. Can you play the tonic or tones that follow along with the basic song? Trombone Improvisation Savvy has some nice drones that make for great pitch exercises. Play along with other things, but don’t start out with Giant steps or Rite of Spring. Play Vivaldi, a standard or simple Bach piece and record, record, record.
You can improve your playing with or without a teacher. Yes, it’s helpful to have someone in the room guiding you and giving you good coaching, but you can greatly improve your playing by 1. Committing to getting better, 2. Being conscious of and making good decisions surrounding your health, and 3. Consistently effective practicing that involves active and present listing