Sunday, December 29, 2013

Little Trombonists. Can it work for them?

It just looks like it's too big!

It is a challenge to get elementary kids interested in trombones.  They are not out in the forefront like trumpet, saxophone, or drums.  They certainly don't fit into a locker like flute or clarinet.  Getting a kid to play trombone is almost always a result of changing someone's mind, as opposed to their following a dream, or even a hunch.

Any time I suggest trombone, the reason I am told that they would prefer something else is because it is big and heavy.  It's probably about the median weight for beginning instruments in all truth, but it does make a pretty good sized footprint.

While recruiting them serves to be an issue, I am very much also trying to decide how to best teach them once I've roped them in.  I don't think lung capacity or embouchure are major stumbling blocks, but in terms of the slide, fourth and even fifth graders have a legitimate concern.  There are seven slide positions, and at best, the average elementary school students has access to six of them.  Seventh is too far out there.

For the kids willing to give trombone a shot, there are several ways I have seen over the years in which people try to cope with this:

* Using all kinds of alternative body parts (feet, knees, etc.) to try and extend the geography of the slide.

* Leave out notes that use seventh position all together

* Play those notes in fourth position.  There is a decent  chance that the note you settle on will be in the chord.

* Suplemental equipment that extends the range of the slide, like a handle extension.

* Just play it as far out as you can reach for now.

I've never encouraged the first one, of course, but I think I've tried the last four at some point or another, and I have decided that my go-to is the last one.

There are only two notes in a simple full-range chromatic scale that even use seventh position: a low E, which is the lowest note in the second partial, before you get down to "pedal tones", and low B, which is the lowest in the third partial.  In a vast majority of band music that these kids will play in their first year, there will be very few occurrences of the B and likely none of the E.  If you encourage the player to keep a good posture and embouchure, and do as well as he or she can in reaching seventh position, then yes, those rare B's will be sharp.

Maybe you are in a program where that sharp B is a real problem in the sound of your band, but I think in my situation, more often or not, I have plenty of bigger fish to fry if we are playing in C, G or D major in elementary school, or music chromatic enough to use that note outside of those keys.  I trade that otherwise perfect intonation for a training that helps encourage good muscle memory, proper embouchure and playing position, and quite frankly I imagine that depending on how you handle to topic of the intonation issues, that conversation can be a good teaching opportunity in and of itself.

I am more than interested in hearing your take on this.  One of my goals for growth in the next year or two is improving the low brass culture in the younger grades.  In a later post, I'll talk about my approach to slurring with young trombonists.

Happy New Year to all of you!


  1. I started playing the trombone in 4th grade, luckily I was from a wealthy family and had one of the servants at hand for both 6th and 7th position. As the years went by the same man that helped me with extending the slide went on to turn pages for me during concerts and recitals.

  2. As a former "little trombonist", I used the "stretch and strain" method to reach sixth and seventh position (I have short arms). I wonder how Kevin McHale would have handled a trombone as a 9 or 10-year old.