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The Art of... Slide Trombone

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Q: How many trombone players does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Only one. But he takes an hour deciding which position to use.

Get it? If not, chances are you are not a trombone player. The brass instrument, ubiquitous in summer parade marching bands, attracts a very specific type of musician: funny ones.

"Most trombone players that I've met have a good sense of humor," says trombone teacher Stuart Carter — corny lightbulb jokes notwithstanding, presumably.

Carter, 57, owns and operates Octavemode, a Burlington-based music school that offers a variety of horn lessons both in studio and online via Skype. He started playing at age 5 and began teaching trombone after graduating with a master's degree from the Eastman School of Music in 1982. He says the trombone's unusual design offers students a unique challenge compared to other wind instruments.

"It's a good instrument for a student because it has the slide," he says. "It's a tenor instrument. But it is also very melodic and expressive." He adds that trombone is a utility instrument, too. "It can be used to complement, or for special effects," he continues. "You have to have or develop a good ear to play the trombone."

It also requires precision. There are seven slide positions on a trombone, each of which can produce roughly eight notes — get the joke now? Finding the right position on the slide is of paramount importance. Miss the mark and you'll be off key.

How a player blows into the instrument is also crucial. Carter notes that the ability to do so correctly can reveal the musical talents of a young player.

He adds that the slide lends itself to a variety of articulations unique to the trombone — think swoops and falls in jazz and funk, or shakes and trills in orchestral music.

"The trombone is a great instrument to bring natural musicianship out in a person," he says. "And that makes it a lot of fun to play."

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