Seven Habits of Effective Trombonists

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.