The first trombones started showing up in royal courts around the 15th century. For the first 300 years of the instrument’s life, it was called a sackbut or a saqueboute, depending on if you were English or French.
Although the reason why it got this name is up for debate, the term “sacquer” comes from the French word to draw out a sword.
Since musicians must use the trombone slide to create different tones, the playing movement was similar to removing a sword from its sheath.
When we look at the instrument’s current name, it follows more of the German description, which is a “posaune,” or a large trumpet.
In the 18th century, the trombone switched away from secular to religious music. Since it has a range similar to that of the human voice, the instrument became part of oratorios and masses.
Beethoven changed this instrument’s fate by including it in Symphony No. 5 in C minor. He’d use it in two more compositions, helping society see the benefits of the trombone in any musical setting.
Is It Hard to Learn to Play the Trombone?
Trombones work like most other instruments found in the brass family. As the musician pushes air through the device, lip vibrations create specific notes. When the slide positions get lowered, the resulting sounds change. This process allows players to develop solid tones up and down the scale.
Although it seems challenging to play the trombone because of the slide, the only reason why it can be challenging for some is that there aren’t valve fingerings to learn. You have six different primary positions, which is similar to what people who play the trumpet, baritone, tuba, French horn, and other brass players learn.
It usually takes about 10,000 hours of authentic practice and engagement to start developing enough competence to take your individualized skills on the trombone to the professional level. If you can start playing the instrument around the fifth grade, you’ll reach that level with steady practice by the time you graduate from high school.
Although you can teach yourself how to play the trombone with the DIY videos found online, your progress will be better when working with a knowledgeable instructor. Their expertise can help you develop faster because they already know many of the questions you’ll need to answer.
■ How Does a Trombone Player Figure Out Their Slide Position?
Although you only have six basic positions for the trombone’s slide (some instructors would say seven), the professional player knows that you have over 170 specific spots to target when particular notes need to get played.
That flexibility makes the trombone the most flexible member of the brass family. It’s much easier for the instrument to be in tune, but it also requires a lot of positional knowledge as you move up and down the scale.
Some music teachers will say that players need to learn how to arch their tongues to play the higher notes on this instrument. It’s usually easier to visualize a vowel sound from your language set.
- If you need to reach the highest notes that a trombone can hit, try to visualize making a long “E” sound in your mind while increasing air output levels.
- When you’re on the upper end of the spectrum, more intonation is helpful. You might think about making a “Dee” sound, with the “E” components staying long.
- Should your sheet music want you playing in the mid-range, the best sounds are like a “Daa.” It should be an intonated idea similar to how a toddler would say “Dada.”
- On the lower notes, start thinking about a “Doo” sound. Extend the “ooh” component while loosening the vibrational profile your lips create.
When you need to reach the high notes, you want rapid air movement coming through your lips for a thin airstream. Although it can be helpful for some players to tighten up their face to accomplish this goal, the trombone sounds better when you can maintain a small, roundish aperture.
What Clef Does a Trombone Player Need to Read?
The trombone typically plays off of the bass clef. A few exceptions might apply for a trumpet player who decides to switch over to this instrument after learning the treble clef. Still, the transposition work would be challenging for a composer.
That’s why most trumpet players switch over to the baritone instead of the trombone. When you’ve learned the treble clef, the TC Baritone pieces have the same valve fingerings as the trumpet to create a clean transition.
Even if you play the four-valve instrument after the switch, you can still use the three-finger configuration successfully until you’re ready to learn the alternatives.
With the slide positions already a switch from the other instruments’ valve-based construction, it’s usually easier to have someone learn the trombone from scratch while using the bass clef.
■ History of Using the Bass Clef in Music for Trombones
When the Romans and Greeks started making music, they used letters from their alphabet to designate specific notes. Although this methodology’s first documented use comes from around the 5th century, it could be over a thousand years older than that.
The first scales consisted of the initial 15 letters of the alphabet. When those ancient composers looked for ways to simplify things, they switched it to the seven-note scale getting used today.
If you went above the initial scale, the second octave became small double letters. If you had to go lower, the term “Gamma” was used to describe them instead.
As time passed, the music evolved to the point where the gamma notes got featured on their own scale. Composers would use an “F” to represent the notes that fell below middle C. That is how the mark eventually changed to what it is today.
What Are the Different Slide Positions on the Trombone?
When you start learning how to play the trombone, you’ll need to understand the different initial slide positions to play the notes correctly. Unlike all of the other brass instruments, there are no valves involved to change the pitch between the different harmonic tones.
As you increase or decrease the vibrational buzz from your lips, moving the slide forward or back ensures that you can play the correct note.
Here is a look at the different positions that you’ll start learning when playing the trombone.
- First Position. This slide position is the easiest one to learn because you’ll have it all of the way back to the starting point.
- Second Position. You’ll extend the slide approximately three inches to achieve this result, which is approximately halfway between the end of the bell and the start of the slide.
- Third Position. When you hit this spot on the slide, the start of your handle should line up with the bell’s edge.
- Fourth Position. You’ll extend the handle just beyond the bell to hit this spot when playing the trombone. The distance from the bell to the back of your grip is about the length between your first knuckle and the end of your fingertip.
- Fifth Position. When you extend this far with the instrument, you’ll end up being about halfway between the bell and the stocking.
- Sixth Position. You’ll know that you are in the proper position because you’ll be just before the stockings on the instrument.
When you learn the seventh position on your trombone, you will discover that it is the trickiest one to master. Many youth instructors don’t teach it because the reach is too far for young children’s arms.
You’ll need to extend the slide all of the way out until it almost falls off. It feels loose in the hand there, and you’ve got to hit it with precision to prevent it from disengaging.
The only reason to use the seventh position is for the low E and the B natural since the alternative spots deliver a questionable tone.
Does It Matter What Metal Alloy Is Used for My Trombone?
When you choose a trombone, you’ll notice two primary options available: yellow brass and gold brass.
The yellow brass is made from 70% copper and 30% zinc, while the gold version is 85% copper instead.
If you play a yellow brass trombone, you’ll produce notes with a forceful timbre. The sounds are bright, with a crisp attack, allowing you to articulate with accuracy.
When you have a gold brass trombone, you’ll introduce a more expansive sound spectrum to the band or ensemble. It’s a full timbre with rounded notes, helping the instrument sound warmer compared to the other metal.
You’ll also want to choose your lacquer wisely when playing the trombone. An instrument with a transparent coating tends to sound more somber, delivering clear definitions while maintaining a reasonable volume.
If it has a gold lacquer coating, you’ll receiver a sharper, more full-bodied sound.
Your mouthpiece can also be made of different metals, but it doesn’t usually change the tone and quality of your notes.
The best way to find the right mouthpiece for your needs is to select one that is smooth and comfortable, such as the Yamaha 48 small shank model. It uses thick silver plating with a semi-wide backboard to create a balanced cup and playing experience.
What Cleaning Supplies Do I Need for a Trombone?
When you start playing the trombone, the first thing you’ll need after you buy a comfortable mouthpiece is some slide cream.
Although you could purchase a kit with all of the materials in it (including the cream), I recommend using Bach Trombone Slide Cream for your new instrument. When you apply it about once per week, you’ll keep everything functioning smoothly.
When you start playing the trombone, you’ll notice that the slide can sometimes stick during a performance. That’s why I love to have a product like Selmer’s Slide-o-Mix Rapid Comfort Oil in my case. It’ll get you out of a sticky situation quickly!
You’ll need a brush to get into the air passageways of your instrument to clean it. Trombones can store saliva in some strange places, and the moisture can often have an acidic effect from the inside. After draining it from your spit valve, use something like the Herco HE76 flex brush to eliminate anything that could promote mold and mildew growth.
As your trombone ages, you’ll notice that it can pick up some oxidation and tarnish. If you own a silver-plated instrument, Music Nomad offers a lovely polish that doesn’t leave streaks or residue behind. It will restore the shine and luster almost immediately.
If you have a brass or copper finish, try the Rolite Instant Polishing Cream instead to get the results you want. It might be intended for railings, pipes, and fixtures, but it will do a fantastic job of cleaning and protecting your instrument.
What Is the Best Part About Playing the Trombone?
The best part about playing the trombone is that it forces you to fill your lungs to capacity each time you play. It also needs controlled breathing, adding strength to your core for deliberate air movements.
You’ll get an effective exercise program as you work the lungs and diaphragm, increasing your air capacity with each practice session.
Playing the trombone requires coordination for a successful outcome. Since you have a free-flowing slide that requires positional awareness, the only way to get better is through practicing. Once you get the muscle memory right, it’ll feel like a natural part of your body.
You’ll find that the trombone is a social instrument. If you thought that playing the guitar made you popular, try picking this one up. Since you can do solos, play in jazz ensembles, or be part of a bigger band, you can join almost any group once you know how to play.
Although professional instruments are priced above $3,000, you can grab a decent student instrument for under $1,000. That makes it affordable and fun, making you the life of the party!
What Trombone Would I Recommend for Beginners?
Although you can find trombones for under $200 when shopping online, these cheap instruments are not something you’ll want to try using. They pick up dings and dents quickly, reducing the overall sound quality you can produce.
The metal’s thinness on these instruments works against what they can do.
If you’re unsure about wanting to play the trombone, consider working with your local music store to rent one for 6-12 months. You’ll get to know the basics of the instrument without paying a significant price.
When you’re ready to practice daily, I highly recommend getting the Vincent Bach Prelude TB711F. This instrument delivers a superior tone while still being friendly for entry-level musicians. It graduates as the player progresses, remaining easy to hold while contributing to a larger band setting.
The Vincent Bach Prelude uses a standard yellow brass construction to deliver bright notes with a deliberate attack. Its bright, lacquered finish contributes crispness, ensuring that the listeners in the back of the room can hear you play.
It might be tempting to buy a new trombone for under $200, but you’re almost certainly wasting your money if you do. Although this instrument wasn’t the first one I learned how to play, I know from experience that your skills progress faster when you have a high-quality product in your hands to use.
Is it hard to learn to play the trombone? It isn’t always easy to find some of the slide positions to play specific notes, but this instrument is lots of fun once you start understanding its language!