The legato tonguing style is one of the hardest and most important things we learn on the trombone.
From the exquisite sounds of jazz ballads softly played by Tommy Dorsey or Bill Watrous, or a lush Jay Friedman performance of Tuba Mirum, the trombone is inherently an instrument capable of the most lyrical and sublime sounds. In the modern classical setting, legato has become even more important in many orchestras as trombonist increasingly apply legato beginnings of notes to even marcato figures. And beginning in the modern Jack Teagarden/Lawrence Brown jazz trombone era, legato tonguing became and today remains *the* default mode of tonguing.
Unlike many other important skills on the trombone, the ability of a trombone performer in the legato style cannot be measured by tempo, or range. It is a purely aesthetic aspect of playing, and is inseparable from and integrated in the overall quality of sound of a player. Many, many trombonists can produce a full, pure and wonderful sound holding a note. Far fewer players can produce a full, pure, natural and seamless sound whilst changing notes.
I have heard the goal of how the legato trombone articulation should sound described as the seamless sound of a baritone or euphonium changing notes with the valve only. Certainly this describes a seamless articulation; however the legato trombone style can be so much, much more. In many musical situations this may be precisely what we want the articulation to sound like, but in others, perhaps a Lawrence Brown or Trummy Young wants a touch of slide into, around and out of the notes – these are subtle yet vital stylistic prerogatives of the performer which merely illustrate the importance of the art of the trombone legato in the musical palette.
The four keys to developing a beautiful legato style on the trombone are simply, the ear, the air, the tongue and the slide. The ear, because as with the development of most technical skills on the trombone, legato tonguing is best informed by listening to great performers and broadening and deepening the ear and mind’s conception of the “perfect legato sound”, and evaluated by listening to one’s self to determine the ultimate success of a given technique or approach.
On the technical side, the beauty and difficulty of improving legato technique are largely due to the fact that the tongue, air fast slide movement are *completely* dependent on one another in legato playing. One can learn the perfect legato tonguing technique and separately have excellent air support and control, yet if the two cannot meet, intertwine and “play” with one another, the final results are often far less than what the instrument is capable of. So how the ear, the air, the tongue and the slide interact is what produces the “best” sound to our ears.
As pointed out above, one very basic essential description of the legato tongue on trombone is to closely imitate the sound of a euphonium changing notes by depressing a valve. If so, this would comprise a “level one” education of the ear towards the legato concept. And as we continue to develop our concept, we reach for deeper and richer forms of musical expression to inform our musical selves.
One of the preeminent sources many players utilize in the development of legato style is the Marco Bordogni Melodius Etudes compiled by Johannes Rochut. The Bordogni Etudes are vocalises, originally written to be performed by the human voice. Tuba Mirum is an obbligato accompaniment to a vocal solo. The revolutionary approach to jazz ballad playing revolutionized by Tommy Dorsey was highly influenced by the vocalists of his era. The genesis of jazz was based largely on 19-century spiritual music sung by slaves in America. Are we drawing a common theme yet?
Based on these examples and many others, we can conclude that the tradition of legato trombone musical expression owes a great deal to the sound of the singing, human voice. As trombonists, we can observe this historical fact, and then *stretch* our personal sources of vocal music influences to include almost any form of vocal musical expression. From operatic performance to the jazz vocal tradition, from the chants of Tibetan monks to the soulful lyrics of a modern blues/rock performer, the human voice as an instrument provides an almost limitless source of music we can use to expand our ears.
The cornerstone on which a player builds a rich legato art is always air support and air management. We can envision and illustrate the characterization and feeling of strong air support and constant and managed air flow using performances of Marceau Symphonique played by Alain Trudel or I’m Getting Sentimental Over You played by Tommy Dorsey. We can hear that while the air stream may provide for dynamic ebb and flow within the phrase, the essential basics of air flow over these phrases is the production of one continuous air stream which does not start, stop, or otherwise pay any heed whatsoever to the changing of the notes. The nature of the air support should at all times have a strong foundation at the lowest reaches of the air column, the area of the lungs that comes closest to the diaphragm.
The quality of the air stream through the body should be completely unhindered in the upper lungs, the chest, and the throat. Many players stress complete relaxation in these areas, many other great players retain a firmness in the throat and chest as to maximize the dilation of these areas. The bottom line? The airstream cares not one whit whether the muscles in the walls around it are completely relaxed or slightly tensed – only when the airstream feels the “walls closing in” (vis-à-vis constriction in the throat or chest), does the ultimate quality of the legato sound suffer.
So: the goal is steady and smooth air, supported strongly from the bottom of the belly, resulting in a firm, broad, and consistent quality of air flow to the aperture.
The action of the tongue in the legato trombone style is an art unto itself.
One of my early teachers, now-Seattle Symphony bass trombonist Steve Fissel, would describe the action of the tongue as “flicking” to a spot on the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth. Other players have used the shape of the tongue (soft, slightly rounded at the tip), the quality of the “touch” of the tongue to the articulation point (“duh” or the Simpsonian “doh”), or used various ways of describing the actual action of the tongue.
Many advocate the action of the tongue as quickly moving to almost, but not quite, interrupt the airstream, thereby resulting in simply pulsing the air enough that a quick slide movement results in the desired sound. The action of my tongue in legato style is that I make actual contact between the tip of my tongue and a point on the roof of my mouth approximately 4-5 millimeters back from the teeth (a relatively far-back position), while never achieving a complete seal around the sides of the tongue. In other words, I use what could almost be described as a “Luh” tongue just at the moment of the note change.
Again, the ear must be the final arbiter of what tongue movement/shape/technique produces the final result that most suits us as performers. There are many tonguing techniques; the “Best” one is merely the one that works best for us as individuals.
The characteristics of effective slide movement in legato style do not seem to vary among players as much as tonguing technique – the theme of several key characteristics seems constant among the accomplished lyricists, that is, fast, efficient slide movement that is in perfect sync with the tongue.
The concept of a quick slide often seems at odds with the overall concept of a smooth and liquid legato technique to the younger player. Nevertheless, especially in note changes that span two or more positions, a lightning-fast slide movement timed just at (or maybe a fraction of an instant before) the moment when the tongue articulates the note is a vital ingredient in producing the smooth, clean change of note many players desire in legato playing.
Unfortunately, one of the byproducts of a fast slide movement is that the shock of the fast arm movement can potentially manifest itself in the shoulder area and ultimately produce an audible “waver” in the tone. While in some styles of playing (such as Dorsey slide vibrato) the stiffening of the shoulder can be used to *accentuate* the manifestation of the slide arm pulse in the actual head/embouchure/mouthpiece area, legato playing should strive for the opposite goal of reducing shoulder tension, utilizing the wrist as much as possible, and otherwise using the slide arm to absorb as much of the shock of the rapid slide movement as possible.
While several aspects of legato trombone technique have a high degree of agreement among accomplished trombone lyricists, the reality is that it is up to each performer to determine the techniques that work the best to produce the legato sound that best suits their ears without causing undue negative impact on other aspects of playing. And the ultimate guide to what comprises the “best” legato sound is the sound concept we have all developed as trombonists.
So it should come as no surprise that the single most important aspect of legato playing we can exercise the most control over as students of the horn is the amount, degree of variety, and depth of quality of music that we expose ourselves to in order for us each to cultivate our individual lyrical voice.