A Chromatic/Intervalic Approach to Trombone Technique and Intonation

On February 13, 2005, Subliminal wrote:
I’m tired of messing up scales. I play piano as well as trombone and I have all the scales memorized for piano but I’m having trouble playing them from memory on trombone. Anyone have any tips for how I can better associate the notes with the positions?
On February 13, 2005, waynenickoli replied:
This is a little esoteric but as a former piano player it may make some sense to you. I find every angle of seeing something helps to at least deepen my understanding.

A major scale follows that old T T st T T T st pattern (T= full tone, st= semitone). On piano this pattern is quite obvious: one key away is a semi tone and two keys away is a full tone. On trombone each position moved changes the pitch by one semitone. So a major scale would follow a pattern of 2 positions, 2 positions, 1 position, 2 positions, 2 positions, 2 positions, 1 position. 

This is exactly how I approach playing music on the trombone.

I start from a chromatic understanding of the trombone, and then I think in half steps, whole steps and minor thirds. Then all I have to do is learn one scale, for example super locrian being half, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, and as long as I am solid with my chromatic foundation I know that scale in every key.

The challenging thing is to then move to bigger intervals, like fourths, major sevenths and minor ninths.For me it is a matter of relating to the horn as a completely chromatic instrument instead of a series of certain kinds of scales. Then I identify a written or unwritten scale, arpeggio or pattern as a series of intervals from my ear to my “body as instrument” (meaning the pitch extending from my brain through the airstream into the buzz).

When everything is working right, I am translating the written material (or improvised idea) into a series of intervals, and the slide position being dead on (while important) is secondary to the actual note I am buzzing into the mouthpiece.

This is all rather abstract, but the simple way of putting it is that I strive for the horn to appear (in the part of my head that makes music) as a piano. The piano, in terms of the geometric visualization of the instrument is that while the piano has black keys and white keys, the geometry of it is rather linear.

If we are to approach the trombone without being locked into certain scales in certain keys, one can learn to interpret the instrument as chromatic; it’s just that the adjustment for the geometry has to happen in the process.

It’s best if that adjustment happens by rote, in my opinion. (Not that western tuning chromaticism is everything! There’s a whole different world out there beyond approaching music chromatically, however this is a big part of the musical world many of us live in…).

So the number one scale I have to know by rote is chromatic. If I have this down, 99% of material is just a sequence of intervals. Just like a pianist sees it!

It makes switching keys much easier; in fact  I have a problem that I’m not really sure of the standard key of tunes. In other words, if you called “If I Should Lose You” right now, I don’t have the foggiest notion what the standard key for that tune is. But since I hear tunes in intervals, I guarantee I could play the head and solo in it no matter what key we did it in.

Furthermore: relating to the tones as members of a chord or a scale or a family; hearing the tone and imagining it being the thirteen, then the major seven, then the third then the tritone, etc etc. Or playing a “C” and imagining it as the first note of the Tip Toe soli, then as the first note of “Polka Dots & Moonbeams”, then as the first note of “Lush Life”, etc etc.

In fact, hearing a pitch this way is the very kernel of the chromatic approach to music. Trane was the one who took the art of overlaying entire harmonic structures over music with just one note. Just cursory analysis of his cadenzas is a primer on chromatic approach — David Liebman, in his wonderful book “A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody” takes this approach and runs with it.

Q: What’s so great about learning to play a scale by interval?  It seems so complicated compared to simply learning the position numbers or the names of the notes…

A: If you have to think of notes or position numbers when you play scales, there are 12 different major scales you have to learn, 12 different melodic minor scales you have to learn, 12 different harmonic minor scales you have to learn, 3 different diminished scales you have to learn, etc. etc. etc.

If you learn scales by interval, there is one major scale, one harm minor, one melodic minor, one dimished scale, etc. They just transpose.

AND in the process it develops the player from being locked in to certain keys when playing material or improvising. You begin to approach the trombone like a piano or guitar.

This approach is the key to unlocking a part of the musical brain that improves technique, pitch and sightreading. It is a very advanced approach. If any of you here are able to wrap your minds around any it, I urge you to give it a try.

Q: OK, so how do I learn this way?

Step 1:

– Drill the chromatic scale until you are so conversant and comfortable with it that it is second nature. Learn it linearly: ascending and descending, through the entire range of you instrument.

Step 2:

Drill interval patterns: play the chromatic scale in major seconds, minor thirds and major thirds, ascending and descending, i.e.:

Once you become comfortable with this, mix up the patterns: whole step up, half step up, whole step down, half step up, rinse, repeat. Then, mix them up even more: minor third up, half step up, whole step down, half step down, repeat.

Step 3:

As you play an ascending Bb major scale, rather than thinking about the actual notes, think about the harmonic space between the notes. You change from the Bb to the C, but that’s not two notes, it’s one whole step interval. And so on up the scale: another whole step, then a half step, then whole, whole whole and finally the half step from a to Bb octave.

So you have visualized the ascending major scale as WS, WS, HS, WS, WS, WS, HS.

Now, start on B natural and play the exact same series of intervals. If you sufficiently drilled your chromatic intervals in steps one and two, the B scale is just as second-nature as the Bb. If it is not, go back to step one!

That’s the major scale. Analyze all of the other scales as interval patterns, and each scale transposes in just the same manner as we have done the major scale.

Q: I don’t know.  This looks like a lot of work.  It makes my head hurt.  I want to take a nap.

Establishing a relationship this fundamental is a lot of work. However, if you are committed to the trombone in the long term, this approach will serve you much more than simply learning note names or scale degrees or position numbers.

If, on the other hand, you goal is more short-term, like learning a certain major scale, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But it is a superficial way to learn the horn if you have expectations of being involved with the trombone for a significant portion of your life.

For those willing to commit themselves to internalizing the fundamentals of interval relationships as they lay on the horn, there is a tremendous pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.