As a person with an active yoga practice that has changed my life, I am quick to offer yoga as a comprehensive method of training the body to move and “be” in a way that eliminates occupational injuries and enhances overall health in a way that therapeutic treatments simply are not designed to.

Therapeutic modalities, including chiropractic, massage therapy, acupuncture are often very effective in addressing pain that is symptomatic of body imbalances, joint and bone degeneration, sports injuries and occupational injuries.

On the other hand, the physical intent of a rigorous yoga practice is to train the body, by adding strength, flexibility and teaching correct ergonomics of moving/sitting/standing, for the purpose of eliminating the underlying cause of pain, as well as for the purpose of enhanced muscle/organ/joint operation.

The result of a commitment to work hard at a yoga practice under the guidance of a good teacher is a level of well-being, actualization and personal power that one often (as was in my case) cannot otherwise really envision.

What Does Yoga Do?

As with Alexander Technique, a practice used by many musicians, a general description of what yoga can do is to create space and flexibility in regions of the body, relieving chronic pain, increasing circulation, balancing imbalanced muscle groups and generally improving body position and function.

What happens as we grow older and lose subtle flexibility in different areas of the body (the hips is the most common area in middle-aged men, the shoulders are probably the second most common) is two things; one, the adjacent joint takes up the slack in terms of flexibility, and two, the muscles tendons, ligaments and organs in the afflicted area become compressed, and the circulation to the area likewise becomes constricted, which reduces the ability of soft tissue to withstand the compression.

Many times the result of these factors is tendon/ligament irritation, muscle weakness, pinched nerves, organ disfunction, bone spurs, arthritis, etc. etc.; really the list goes on and on.  Many of these disfunctions tend to lead to other, often more serious and degenerative, conditions.

Yoga has proven to me to be very effective in educating me in changing the way I sit, stand and move so that I am creating space and flexibility where my body needs it to be, while taking stress away from the regions where it causes problems.

Example: The Lower Back

I’ll try to use the lower back as an example, since this is the region of the body that has plagued me since my early twenties and almost ended my career in my thirties.

It is common that humans, upon approaching middle age, begin to lose flexibility in the hips.  There are many reasons for this, the primary ones relating to the fact that a) people today sit on chairs rather than sitting on the ground as they usually did 1,500 years ago, and b) people don’t move around as much as they did even 100 years ago.  

Because of differences in physical structure, loss of flexibility in the hips is much more of a problem in middle-age men than women.

This loss of hip flexibility and loss of suppleness in the hips produces a domino effect in the body.  First, the connecting tissue between all of the bones and muscles in the pelvis begin to lose flexibility and strength, and all of the bones, joints, cartilage, tendons and muscles that comprise the pelvis begin to collapse inward and crowd together.  

As this pelvic structure crowds together and loses flexibility, it crowds the tailbone and limits the circulation of blood and fluid around the base of the spine.  But even more profoundly (in my case) the loss of flexibility due to the hips crowding in forces the lumbar area of the spine to exert far more than the amount of flexibility and strength it was designed for.  

The back muscles, which are completely inferior to the hips in terms of strength and suppleness, cannot begin to carry the load.  When the flexibility is lost in the hips, it is an awful lot to ask for the system of vertebrae, cartilage and disks in the back to provide the flexibility lost in the hips, in addition to the work it was designed for.  

So, in the moments throughout the day wherein we make movements that exceed the back muscles’ ability to absorb the forces put to it, the muscles begin to fail in their primary mission of supporting the spine.  Then, the cartilage and disks, already stressed by the additional flex and torsion load, begin to absorb force that it cannot withstand, and often the result over time is that the disks lose their ability to circulate fluid, and often begin to shut down, resulting in atrophied, herniated and even ruptured disks.

Disk problems and bone spurs often manifest themselves in pinched (and sometimes even severed) nerves, which directly cause pain, and moreover cause muscles to spasms, which further pull backs out of alignment, which further pinch nerves.  It can be a horrible, painful, self-replicating situation.

Many people think the way to address lower back problems is to add flexibility and strength to the back.  Make no mistake, back strength and flexibility is important.  But if the back is a Porsche, then the hips are a Mack Truck, and if you ask the Porsche to do the work of your broken-down Mack Truck, you are liable to break the Porsche.

Ergonomics For the Working Musician

Additionally, what a very good yoga teacher teaches is not just the exercises that work to develop the small neglected muscles that promote flexibility and space in the minute corners of the anatomy (such as the rotator cuff) but also teaching the basic art of being; learning, by feel, to place and carry limbs and loops in anatomical neutral at all times, to move consciously, using movement as a way to create space in the body.

For the musician, one of the profound improvements realized by the recovered space in the thoracic cavity is the ability to breathe fully and freely, and some of the biggest benefits for the musician in proper limb mechanics is the ability to operate our instruments with our arms with flexibility and strength, while removing the constrictions and crowding that set the stage for occupational injuries.

By taking the shoulders back and resting them on the shoulder blades, we create space in the shoulders, allowing good blood circulation in the shoulder socket, and free operation of the joint.  Good blood circulation and free movement is critical, since poor circulation and lack of flexibility puts stress of the rotator cuff, and misaligns the arm, which causes injury in the shoulders and elbows.

In Summary…

Gravity is hammering at us 24/7, and I spent about ten years in my twenties and early thirties injuring and reinjuring my back and being confined to bed rest for weeks at a time. My Air Force career was, frankly, in serious jeopardy.

Then I figured out that my hips had lost all of their flexibility and my back was taking up the slack. I initiated a rigorous yoga practice in 2000, and after about a year, the horrible back problems disappeared. Certainly, I experience back pain somewhat regularly as I have some broken cartilage in my back that won’t ever heal. But compared to what life was like before, it’s nothing at all.

Yoga has changed my life – I strongly recommend it.

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.

If we were to assemble the great trombonists of the world in a room and poll them as to the “common denominator” of what makes a successful player, we would quickly discover that none of these accomplished professionals have a single, overriding behavior that has made the difference for them in terms of overcoming obstacles in their playing career.

The reality is that there are a multitude of habits or behaviors that give players what they need, not to become great players, but to put them in the best position possible to overcome obstacles and constantly improve their craft.

In this article, we will look at some of the habits we have observed many of the accomplished players have in common. By no means is this a complete list, but it can represent a starting point for all of us in our lifelong quest to improve as players.

I. Listening

Music is a language, and our ability to express ourselves musically can only grow as we develop in our ability to understand and “speak” that language. Let’s carry the language analogy a step further: experts have always claimed that the best way to learn and to integrate a new spoken language into our lives is through immersing ourselves in speaking it and hearing it spoken. Why is this? Because what is truly critical in mastering a language is not the words and phrases anyone can learn in a book; it is the expressions, tempo, gestures, tone and rising and falling pitch that supply the critical nuances of verbal communication. So the vital habit of those who seek to effectively communicate as musicians is to listen to music.

Whether the musical “dialect” is the one heard spoken at the Lincoln Center on Philharmonic night, the Light House at Hermosa Beach, CA, or at an all-night bar in Tijuana, immersing ourselves in the language by attending as many live music performances as we can is an important habit in the attainment of musical literacy.

Going to the recordings of the masters is another invaluable resource, especially when the opportunities for live performances are rare, or in the event that the standard-bearer(s) of that particular style (or “dialect”) lived in earlier times.

And finally, we cannot underestimate the significance of “cross-training” our ears: learning to recognize the language of music through as many dialects as possible presents ways to crash through impediments to our own art that we may not have even dreamed.

II. Feedback

As a natural consequence of cultivating our ears by integrating ourselves into the music of others, we start to hear our genuine “inner self” emerge within the framework of a common musical culture: this is the essence of being a musician! And as any accomplished professional or amateur knows, it is a lifelong process that consists of overcoming an endless series of obstacles: technical & musical. An absolutely critical habit in creating a mindset of overcoming such obstacles is seeking feedback.

Feedback can be found pretty much anywhere we look for it, and the task of the musician is to seek feedback that is valuable and useful to us. One source, lessons from accomplished teachers and performers, provide a direct and concentrated manner of feedback on specific issues that challenge us.

And while auditions primarily fill the role of opportunities for employment, the degree to and way in which we succeed and/or fail at them provides a precious feedback resource. In the event that an audition did not result with a job offering, strive to seek feedback from the auditioner (ensure that your request is phrased as an honest request for feedback for improvement, and not appearing to be asking for a justification why the position was not offered!)

And finally, recording and listening to ourselves practice and perform provide an absolutely invaluable source of feedback. The final arbiter of a quality or a performance is, in the end, the player. So for analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of a performance, the quality of projection, sound and articulation, the blend achieved in an ensemble setting, there is not a more critical or relevant source of feedback than the performer’s own ears.

III. Lots of Short & Varied Practice Sessions

As we move into the practice room, we discover that there are many, many methods and paths to improvements, and no one method or technique to improving one’s playing is going to be right for everyone. It is important that we find for ourselves the right practice methods that in essence become “our method”. But there is an underlying common denominator that spells success for many top professional trombonists: the habit of taking practice sessions that are numerous, short and varied throughout the day.

There are many, many luminaries in the trombone world that have told us again and again that once you get the horn out for your first practice session of the day, leave it out and in plain sight. This will encourage you to pick it up and play more often. The great Jimmy Knepper advocates hanging the trombone by a hook on the wall.

Rather than play one or two longer practice sessions, many greats of the trombone advocate shortening the practice sessions and doing more of them, inserting rest periods between each one. The reasons for this vary from player to player, but the habit is widespread among those who have learned to maximize their practice routine.

And just as we learn to “cross-train” our ears, utilizing different trombone methods in our practice can facilitate breakthroughs in our playing. One weightlifter friend told me that when you do the same weight training exercises each time you work out, your body gears up specifically for what it knows it’s going to be asked to do. As in weight training, we must “shock” our bodies into responding to a practice routine or method that is unfamiliar to it.

IV. Equipment

Equipment is a touchy subject, because many of the experimenting and adjustment done by highly experienced trombonists should not necessarily be attempted by the beginner or intermediate trombonist. Given that, the habit of finding, “sticking to” and maintaining your equipment is an observed habit of the highly successful trombonist.

It is essential that the issue of finding the “right” equipment be scaled to the level player you are. For the absolute beginner, an intense process of auditioning different makes and models of professional-grade equipment is not appropriate; simply getting a recommendation from a trusted teacher or pro as to an appropriate student-grade setup is perfectly adequate. But for the college-level trombonist on up, taking the opportunity to reevaluate or “re-audition” their equipment is a vital element in the lifelong quest to move towards the sound and feel that most authentically represents them as players.

We have known many great players who have, through decades of professional experience, honed their sense of sound, projection and feel to such a fine point that they can pick up trombone after trombone and know exactly how the horn would feel once they became accustomed to it. But for the college student or the young professional, it is highly recommended that the audition period be extended to weeks, even months.

And once a horn/mouthpiece combination has been chosen, the habit of sticking to that choice through thick and thin is absolutely vital. In fact, the temptation to and propensity for many players to embark on a life of equipment quests is so rampant that many professionals encourage students to avoid them altogether and simply stick to what they have. Clearly, while periodically looking to improve one’s equipment situation is an important element of the overall improvement process (especially for intermediate and advanced players) the pitfalls of not sticking with equipment choices over the medium term are clear.

Another element of solid equipment habit is that the working order of a player’s equipment and the effort a player puts forth in keeping his or her equipment properly maintained has a strong correlation with the player’s view of themselves as players. Beyond the simple logistics of how a well-functioning slide adding technique and intonation benefits, the appearance and condition of equipment used by the great players always seems to be exemplary.

V. Conditioning

While it is certainly true that there are notable players who do not place exercise, & proper diet as high priorities in their lives, the evidence does seem to indicate that players who are capable of withstanding the rigors of daily performances or touring (especially in middle age and older) have taken measures to develop the habit of proper conditioning.

We live in a world where there are as many approaches to physical fitness and levels of commitment to those approaches as there are people, and it seems fair to conclude that the right regimen is just as much up to the individual as is the right trombone method. But at the very least, many who have been able to maintain themselves at a professional level for a number of years have discovered that some kind of cardiovascular work (walking, running, biking, swimming) and some sort of expansive work (yoga, Alexander Technique, Pilates, stretching) offer benefits that put our bodies in the best place to physically support the physical and mental stress of trombone playing.

With regard to diet, again there are a good many approaches to proper nutrition, and there are many physiologies and individual dietary considerations that make a one-size-fits-all answer impossible. Given that, attention to how our bodies react to what we eat, and altering our diet in order to maintain the best body chemistry and preserve a good “playing weight” is vital.

One aspect of conditioning our bodies that does not vary from person to person is hydration. Between sweat and saliva loss, playing the trombone is, at it’s heart, a “wet” proposition. Beyond the need to replenish fluids after playing, proper hydration also supplies the blood and organs with needed fluid, and flushes toxins from our bodies.

And finally, on a serious note, there is no end to the tales of great musicians who have had their careers, and often and more importantly their lives, wrecked by alcohol and drugs. Excess in these areas could very well be characterized as the most demonstrable occupational hazard of the music profession.

VI. Rest

Closely tied to the habit of properly preparing our bodies to be better instruments is to give our bodies the time to recover from the daily stress of playing and living by developing the habit of undertaking proper rest.

While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, the majority of long-term professional players give themselves time between performances to allow their bodies to recover. And in the event that we have multiple performances in consecutive days, that may even mean we do not maintain a full practice schedule. In fact, many have found that cutting out all but short, easy slur or long-tone sessions between frequent gigs give them increased energy and endurance come show time.

Proper sleeping habits are absolutely critical in giving our bodies the rest they need. Often, performances and tear-down go into the very late hours, and the time we need to “spin-down” enough to sleep take us into the wee hours of the morning. In these cases, if work or other commitments do not allow us a full night’s sleep many have discovered that a short late-afternoon or early-evening nap provide huge benefits in terms of recouping the lost sleep time. Likewise, oversleeping should be avoided.

And last, many players swear by the value of taking a week or two off from playing once or twice a year. The speed with which a player is able to come back from such layoffs varies widely, but the mental and physical benefits of the time off are plentiful. Again, it is up to the individual to decide whether these “decompression” periods are right for them.

VII. Professionalism

Last, but certainly not least, one of the most valuable habits of the highly successful trombonist is a high level of professionalism: collegiality, promptness and self-respect.

There is a saying I have heard from many hard-working pros: people will tolerate someone who is a jerk and plays great, or someone who plays OK and is terrific to be around. But the great player who is a joy to work with will always get the first calls. When it comes down to it, musicians and contractors are people who want to be treated with respect, and it is an awful lot to ask for to expect that our playing speaks for itself. Strive to be the complete package: someone who shows up to the gig, is generous and respectful of others, and plays their behind off!

Second (but pursuant to collegiality), there is no greater fundamental sign of a lack of professionalism than someone who shows up just in time to begin the performance, or (shudder) is late to the gig. Make every effort to arrive at the job site with plenty of time to spare.

And finally, a vital element of maintaining ourselves as professionals is to always think of ourselves, carry ourselves, and respect ourselves as professionals. There is a critical time in a young trombonist’s life where they transition from being a student to being a professional; the obvious sign of this is when they do their first job for money. But the transition to professionalism truly begins when the player begins to carry with them the self-image of a person whose art is worth money. Self-deprecating humor aside, we must always realize that there is something about us as musicians that is special, that no other person in the world can offer. And it is that precise thing that makes us valuable.

(Excerpts from “Jake’s Method, the Trumpet Method of Don “Jake” Jacoby” surrounded by “**”)

Stan d in the middle of a fairly large room.  You are going to play a middle “F” in the staff. 

**Put your mouthpiece on your lip where it always goes and then, TAKE YOUR MIND COMPLETELY OFF OF YOUR LIP. We are not going to try to play this F with your lip. We are going to put an attack on it and let the air vibrate your lip to produce the note. Remember, think only of the air and about six feet out in front of your horn. There should be no lip movement whatsoever. OK, try it. Try it again. Try it once more until you feel the air making the sound instead of trying to manipulate the note with your lip. When you get that feeling, then let’s do this:

Play the F exactly as before and when you slur to the “G” one step above, don’t change anything but just reach out about one additional foot and move the air just a bit faster. This will produce the “G”. It should feel exactly the same as the “F” and be just as free and full-bodied with no lip involvement. You should feel, at all times, completely relaxed and think AIR, AIR, AIR. Be careful not to use “more” air — just a little “faster moving” air.**

Start on the “F”, and slur to “G” and then to “A”, each time simply moving the air out in front of you one additional foot without changing your lip at all, and just moving the air a little faster. Repeat this until you are comfortable with the feeling of letting the air do all of the work, with no lip involvement whatsoever, then add another note in the “F” major scale. Feel free to use natural breaks of the horn and gliss or use a very lightly legato tongue – just ensure that the focus remains on driving the air faster and “out”, one foot at a time, to make the note change – with NO ADJUSTMENT OF THE CHOPS.

When you reach “C” and higher, **we add JUST A HAIR (no more) of the tongue slightly raised and forward. Remember, no more than a hair of tongue involvement and when it is put into that position, keep it there.**

When you have completed the entire “F” major scale, use this same approach to playing slurs: middle “F” to middle “Bb”, then down chromatically. Then try it with “F-Bb-D” and so forth. The important thing is not to rush through this as if it is a set of calisthenics – it is not. If you lose connection with the feeling of ignoring your lip and letting the air do the work, you must go back to the beginning of the exercise. 

The point of the exercise is that learning to play OUT (visualizing progressive points in space in front of you, adding a slightly raised tongue in the middle register) instead of UP on a simple level and gradually teaching the body to incorporate the technique in everyday playing is a very effective gateway to the very essence of air-based playing, which is a prerequisite for any brass player with aspirations toward becoming a professional. There are many ways that brass players learn to base playing the instrument on air (although some are born to it and have no need of single-mindedly focusing on air), but using air as the primary tool of playing is an absolute necessity for the professional brass player.

Aside from simply learning/improving/maintaining good fundamental trombone skills, learning to play in a jazz ensemble is largely a function of knowing what it is supposed to sound like and developing the EARS. The ears are the only thing that matter in jazz.

We often tell aspiring improvisers that the primary, numero uno thing they need to do is to put the horn away and LISTEN to recordings of great jazz, to submerge themselves in all kinds of jazz music — big band (Ellington, Basie, Glenn Miller, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Kenton, Woody Herman), trad/swing (Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Billie Holiday), Bop/Post Bop (Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Lee Morgan, Frank Rosolino, Bud Powell), Modern/Free/Post Modern Jazz (Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Art Ensemble, Charles Mingus, Wynton Marsalis, Jerry Bergonzi, Chris Potter, George Garzone, Nick Payton, Kenny Werner, Danilo Perez, John Scofield, – the list of greats today gets far too numerous to effectively thumbnail…).

And most significantly of all today: the great Elvin Jones.

So there is an initial outlay here of money (to Aebersold Jazz or Mosaic or Amazon or Barnes & Noble) or time and energy (going to the library). Much as the aspiring novelist MUST immerse him/herself in the great literature of the past, the aspiring musician CANNOT get past the profound, primary step of committing the great music of the past to his or her psyche.

But immersing one’s self in great live and recorded music is not merely a critical task for the improviser – it is also of primary importance to the big band section and lead player. One simply HAS to have the sound of a jazz line being played with great, swinging time and inflection completely ingrained in their head in order to be able to play in the big band style. So I cannot stress this step enough for ALL musicians learning to perform in a jazz setting.

Next, we can get the horn out again. Start to play along with some of the simpler jazz recordings we have heard, such as Miles’ solos on his “Dig” and “Kind of Blue” CDs, any Louis Armstrong or Harry “Sweets” Edison or Kenny Dorham or Paul Desmond (1950/60s Dave Brubeck) solos — there are also a variety of historical trombone figures whose solos are, relative to the other instruments of the period, reasonably accessible to the novice jazz trombonist: Trummy Young, Jack Teagarden, Lawrence Brown (Ellington trombonist) and J.J. Johnson. Pay attention to emulate the sweet subtleties of each player, the length of the notes, the character of the articulation when they play a line.

As one’s technique progresses, one can move on to the more advanced Bebop and Modern players.

Of course, the improviser MUST spend a great deal of time actually playing jazz with a live combo or with play-along CDs, such as the Jamey Aebersold Play-A-Long Series. This is where you learn to actually find ways of applying what the ears have picked up from all of this intense listening in one’s own playing.

And one last, vast, fundamental jazz skill is the ability to read chord changes and standard notation in the jazz genre.

Jazz notation is a whole level of literacy unto itself. Learning simply what chords are and standard scale choices associated with chord symbols comprises an entire, two-semester class – but a good place to have all this material in one comprehensive reference is in Dan Haerle’s excellent The Jazz Language.

In order to develop your ability to read standard notation jazz charts, it is good to bug your band director to get some copies of trombone parts to jazz band charts to take home and practice. But don’t just pile into these pieces! Remember how the great musicians you listened to sounded when they played those lines? It is a good idea when playing these parts to periodically stop, walk to the stereo, and listen again to how Hank Mobley or Art Farmer sounded when they played simple, swinging jazz lines. Push yourself to match the relaxed and smooth style of these greats – the ability to play in this manner is a skill which will benefit you tremendously in any ensemble performance situation for the rest of your life.

While there’s really two parts of developing the high register, they both have one thing in common: extending the high range is 80% mental and only 20% physical.

Part one is that there’s really not a fast way to learn to make everything work so efficiently that you can play in the upper register with facility and versatility of tone and dynamics. It takes years and years.

So I suggest you go at it from the strategy of play in your regular range using good, strong fundamentals, and slowly work to extend your range with those good fundamentals intact.

(By good fundamentals, I am referring to a solid embouchure with good “meat” – whether pucker, corners in or corners down – and a strong-cored air column that has it’s bottom at the base of the gut. Pushing from the bottom, and focusing a clean, coherent air stream through massed lip tissue is the heart of strong trombone-playing fundamentals)

The second factor is the important concept of focusing on modulating the airstream to the proper size, intensity and shape for the range you are playing in, and pushing from the bottom to create an air column that has the large, stable muscles of the torso doing the hard work.

Push From the Bottom 

“Air support” is important for two reasons. The first of which is because air pressure from the bottom of the gut, combined with the small aperture described by Richard Corliss, = an air stream with the size and speed needed to buzz the lips for high register playing.

Also, solid air support from the bottom of the air column means you are using the big muscles to do the heavy lifting, and it means you are taking in and using more air, which increases the oxygen content in the bloodstream and means the blood getting to the facial muscles will be charged with oxygen, thus increasing the amount of time the face can support the higher mouthpiece pressure required by intense, high playing.

So strong air support from the bottom = increased endurance.

Air Focus at the Top 

Lest those who have a different approach take offense, I should say there are quite many ways to go about funneling or focusing the airstream for the upper register.

First I’ll tell you how I do it.

The closest analogy I can make to describe what I do is to just whistle and observe the size and shape of your mouth and the position of the tongue as you go back and forth between low and high whistling. That is the general movement of my mouth.

The big difference between the whistling and the actual playing is that the *front* of my tongue is not quite as elevated when I play.

Now the way I usually start younger students on focusing their air is the way Jake taught me, which is to push out with your air, and as you slur upwards, say past the   , you begin to change the syllable a bit from perhaps an “AUHHH” to an “AHHH” or even an “EHHH”.

Some have trouble with these syllables because they want their mouth to be in an “O” shape. I have decided that all this means is that they tend to pull their cheeks in in addition to dropping their jaw which is fine. This is actually what I do (as in the whistling analogy) is try to envision blowing air through a straw without hitting the sides (!).

Randy Purcell told me the number one thing he does to achieve a focused air stream is put your hand about 8 inches in front of your face and blow into it, trying to make the airstream hitting the hand the size of a quarter.

I like to employ the analogy of a ball player. A professional hitter in baseball (cricket for you brits) doesn’t hit with their arms. A player that uses their arms can barely clear a ball out of the infield. Power hitters and even finesse hitters use the large muscles of the legs, hips and torso to effect the proper biomechanics to have a swing with enough power to hit a ball hard; even the high average hitters use that approach because they can take a, 85% effort swing and have absolute bat control.

The same goes for playing trombone. The big muscles pushing the airstream from the bottom are where the power and intensity of airstream come into play; combining that with modulating the size and shape of the airstream in the mouth and you get great sound (the tone chamber goes deep into the body instead of just in the chest), a powerful ability to play at the dynamic extremes (obvious for the louds, but using the big gut muscles to drive a pianissimo sound produces a big and steady soft sound), a tremendous ability to make big interval jumps (a little more effort in the gut combined with a precise airstream adjustment in the mouth beats the heck out of trying to muscle it up with the little chop muscles) and good range with control and sound.

I think there are two kinds of endurance on the trombone, each having it’s own separate characteristics in terms of the nature of muscular duress and failure: short-term, and medium-term endurance. (Really, there is a third category of endurance, long-term endurance. But, as is pointed out in the Seven Habits of Effective Trombonists article, that is more about having endurance as a person and taking care of one’s body into middle and old age through a holistic approach to mental and physical health, than it is about a given set of techniques, as with the issues of short and medium-term playing endurance…)

1. Short-Term Endurance 

The first kind, short-term endurance, is that which is at issue in a given piece, or a high-intensity portion of a piece, wherein the set threatens to break down. By break down, I mean a generic state of muscular failure within which the risks run from strained pitch and tone, to not being able to maintain notes, to complete failure – not being able to make a sound at all.

I believe the primary way of improving the short-term endurance is through practicing high-intensity playing, that is the precise kind of playing that has a tendency to put us in a muscular breakdown situation.

There is that which automatically happens during such practice: the facial tissue develops strength as a result of the physical duress. However, this is but a small part of what improves as a result of practicing high-intensity material.

The most valuable thing that happens during this variety of practicing is when the body learns to make physiometric adjustments to control the airstream and position the parts of the blowing apparatus to make the playing part most efficient. I feel like I’ve already hammered home how important it is to adjust the size of the airstream during high-intensity playing a dozen times over, in articles such as Developing the Upper Register.Practicing high-intensity material (that is, music that poses physical challenges to us in terms of range, volume, articulation and weight of sound) is the ultimate laboratory within which to experiment with modulating the size and speed of the airstream. And the effectiveness and efficiency of that modulation is key to taking the heavy lifting away from the comparatively weak muscles of the lips, which is most critical in terms of developing short-term endurance.

2. Medium-Term Endurance 

The second kind of endurance is medium-term endurance, that is the ability to play for hours and hours, or the ability to play multiple gigs on a given day. The nature of stress or failure with this kind of breakdown is likely not as catastrophic as the short-term kind, it is more likely to manifest as a general feeling of fatigue, or numbness, or a feeling that the sound is spread, or an inability to maintain sound quality or intonation. Of course, a state of medium-term endurance stress can leave one much more susceptible to a short-term endurance problems, as we have all likely experienced from time to time.

And if you can believe it, the skill of solid medium-term endurance is even less based on physical strength than is short-term endurance.

Medium-term endurance is almost solely based on how well a player has learned to base his or her fundamental, physical approach to the trombone on a strong and efficient air stream. Again, the muscles that drive the airstream in the lower torso are comparatively large and strong when compared to the minute muscles of the face. Additionally, the force from the “gut” muscles is not fighting against the force of adjacent muscles; conversely, the complex small muscles in the face are often exerting opposing forces on one another.

The fatigue that results largely from asking the facial muscles to do too much, combined with the tendency of the small muscles to unconsciously loose coordination and begin opposing one another, is the cause of the overall facial fatigue that many players identify as a medium or long-term endurance issue. When in reality it is based on incorrect technique and reliance on the wrong muscles.

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.


Come to grips with the fact that people like to laugh and have a good time, and whether and how much you want this to occur in rehearsal. It’s up to you, and be sure you take responsibility for everything that happens in rehearsal; because of the fact that you dictate the environment, you are.

If you want zero joking around and talking, simply make sure you never lose the floor, and the way you do that is by always thinking two or more steps in advance and knowing precisely what you are going to play and what rehearsal technique you are going to use. Then, whenever you cut the band off, jump right in with what you are going to do without waiting.

You can always institute programmed pauses, asking if anyone has any input, without letting go of the talking stick. Many times sections need to talk among themselves to fix things that don’t need to get on your radar. Be sensitive to this, know how to differentiate between this and merriment, and treat it accordingly.

On the other hand, if you are going to run rehearsals looser, be intentional about it and don’t get mad when there is talking, etc. Communicate exactly what you want. Never assume that everyone should know how you want them to act.

Remember, as much as people want to believe otherwise, the basic way rehearsing happens is through repetition. You can disguise the fact that repetition is occurring through rehearsal technique, but the more reps you get on music the more it improves, period (at least with good players).

Some good rehearsal techniques include breaking the music down by musical element or by section and then building it back up, slowing the music down, starting from the end of the score and working backward, and playing the music from left to right without stopping.

Things to pay attention to and address are, misplayed notes (obviously), balance, blend, intonation, time, playing together, accenting and driving the music, dynamics, interpretation and concept.

If you make a suggestion and then run it and they are not implementing the suggestion, tell them to exaggerate it until it sounds ridiculous. Then if the exaggeration is what you want, remind them that what sounds ridiculous in the section sounds great out front. If the exaggeration is too much, then it’s easy to back off.

Do not be afraid to make suggestions to individual people. If you do, do it very gently. If you are afraid of doing it, you will come off as strained and that will make it awkward. Make is sound completely friendly and natural, not like there’s something wrong: “Dave, maybe you’re just a little high on the Bb”. The tone of your voice has a lot to do with success of a rehearsal.

I never tell people what to do. I only listen and make suggestions. I ask that people simply try my suggestions, and if they don’t like them they can ultimately blow it off. It’s a good stance, because in reality no conductor can have control over the way people play. If someone wants to do something, they will do what you say in reh and then play it the way they want in the performance. So there’s no sense in setting up any false expectation when it comes to the degree of power the conductor actually has.

However there is, in reality, a hierarchy of creative license within an ensemble. Folks definitely have veto power when it comes to solos. They usually have veto power when it comes to lead or principal playing. If they know they have license they will respect you more and be more likely to listen to you. What I end up telling lead and principal players has to do with their responsibilities to play in a way that the ensemble can follow. I hardly ever try to correct a lead player based on my personal taste, unless there are style factors that influence the overall sound.

When it comes to section playing, the playing is more dictated by their responsibilities to the section sound. It is more cut and dried.

Expect to have the most interaction (at least the most critical interaction) with section leaders and soloists. That’s the nature of things.

And never, never, ever get angry in rehearsal. Every time you get angry you lose credibility. You can lose credibility quick and easy, but gaining it is slow and painstaking. Regardless of how you think you are perceived, start your “new job”, forcing yourself to believe that the group respects you and that you are seen as a credible director. The reason why is that you project the way you perceive that people perceive you, and if you start with doubts you will merely reinforce whatever doubts people actually have.

By automatically always acting like everyone in the room loves you, you project the self-perception of a loved person; you create a feedback loop that inevitably generates that good will, and even the elusive quality that all leaders seek – charisma.

Finally: bad leaders are unorganized, undisciplined and emotional in rehearsal, and oppressive and attention-seeking in performance. Good bandleaders establish firm structure and are super-positive in rehearsal, and they get the hell out of the way at the performance.

if a rehearsal leader is bad, nothing gets accomplished and there is mutual disrespect between the leader and players. If the leader is good, everyone knows he/she is in charge, and there is good progress on the music.

However, if a leader is great, the people have no idea they are being led, and the music magically comes together with fire and commitment on the gig. Under great bandleaders, players perform in a way that they or anybody never dreamed they were capable.

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.