Articulating Cold

Hitting a note dead clean out of the blue, especially one in the medium-high register, is like hitting a golf ball. 

If people rely on lip strength and being warmed up to succeed in situations like this, they will never develop any consistency. It’s like golfers who try to muscle the ball – unless the mechanics are solid, the club head will not strike the ball dead center with no torque, and follow through the center of force.

How does this translate to trombone? Well, let’s take a fff A3 as an example.

I. Vibration

There are quite a few elements that have to be vibrating a strong A3 before the note even starts in order for one to put themselves in the best possible place to achieve a clean solid attack. One is that every cell in the brain has to be hearing that A – the note has to be sounding cleanly in the head in the moments before articulation.

Then, after inhalation, just in the moment the breath turns around and the torso muscles begin to push the air out, there needs to be a giant tube that says “A3”. This tube consists of the lungs, throat and mouth, and what is critical is that the last 1/3 of the tube be tuned to a A3 at this point.

II. Air Focusing for Proper Air Velocity

(Focusing air with the throat is a controversial topic to beginners and intermediate players, so I’ll leave that one. Suffice to say, however, that top pros have the ability to shape their throats with an inner expansion and an outer constriction that smooths the inner throat while focusing the airstream. It is an extremely subtle and yogic muscle action and takes many, many years to master so I will leave that one.)

Next element of the air tube is the mouth cavity. The jaw position, combined with the position of the tongue and cheeks, forms the final focusing element of the airstream. At this point in the articulation process, we are using using drawn-in cheeks and a long, narrow, relatively flat, and slightly elevated tongue to effect the top of an air funnel with a very long spout. The mouth as a spout.

At this point of the note, in the instant before the tongue has even necessarily moved to the point of articulation, the quality of the note, the odds of it being executed in the manner desired, are likely 85% determined. In other words, even before the articulation process starts, what is happening in the head and body has likely already determined one’s success.

And now, the articulation: the end of our long, narrow tongue quickly moves to the articulation point (which for many playing an orchestral-quality fff A3 would be located dead on the top teeth) just as the inhale is turning the corner and in the instant that pressure reverses.

III. Articulation

At this point, there is a critical sequence that takes place in the lungs that will determine another 10% of the likelihood of the note sounding the way we wish. This is the fleeting pause that occurs the instance the air pressure in the lungs reverses and the tongue moves to the articulation point.

This misunderstanding and mis-timing of this pause is epidemic among beginning and intermediate trombonists. For example, what cannot occur is that the tongue moves to articulation *before* pressurization in the lungs starts to reverse. And (as is most common) the tongue cannot pause at the point of articulation too long while air pressure is building behind it. 

A common error is to attempt to use an explosion of air behind the tongue to achieve the air velocity in order to make the note sound. This approach results in many, many problems ranging from quality of articulation and sound to intonation, but moreover is a fundamentally flawed approach that undermines endurance and consistency.

So there is this instance that the tongue moves forward to the articulation point that begins the instance that the inhale ends and the exhale begins. The character of the exhale, then: another common problem is exploding air from the diaphragm to achieve air velocity. The problems with this approach is that an explosion of large-mass air from the bottom of the column physiometrically overwhelms the ability of the top of the “tube” to maintain the spout. The throat, mouth, tongue, everything breaks down to accommodate a sudden, too-large body of air being pushed out.

So there needs to be this modulation of positive air pressure that occurs at the beginning of exhale, not a sudden “explosion”. This modulation takes place in, I would say, the first 1/3 of a second of the attack. The tongue moves to the articulation point in the instance the modulation begins, and releases from the articulation point approximately half way through, so that when the tongue releases one is not yet blowing at full intensity (!!).

The timing of the articulation, of course, determines not just the quality of attack (and sound and intonation and consistency…) but determines the degree to which one can harness the full strength of the driving muscles in the belly without losing the precision air velocity produced by the throat and mouth at the “top of the funnel”.

All of it adds up to a set that has the best chance of consistently producing a solid orchestral-quality A3 with great, authoritative sound.

What is not mentioned is the position of the embouchure, and the quality and strength of the lips and facial muscles. As widely as these factors vary from player to player, they are best left to the individual and his/her teacher, since the embouchure is, by far, the least significant factor in consistently executing fff notes in the medium-upper register.