Master Class with Robin Eubanks: Getting a Clean Attack

By Robin Eubanks • October 24, 2001 • 8 min read

Robin Eubanks
Photograph by Carol Steuer

This master class article was written by Bob Bernotas as told by Robin Eubanks.

When some people think of the trombone, they think of a big cumbersome thing that has to play whole notes. When they think of trombone solos, they may think of some sloppy, "it's-OK-for-a-trombone" kind of attitude.

I feel that the trombone is the most versatile of all the wind instruments. It's the closest instrument to the human voice. It's very powerful and it can be very pretty. It covers a range of emotions that a lot of instruments can't. It can get to a nice upper range and it covers the low range, and of course with the slide it gets all the microtones in between.

But if, as a player, you think of it as a cumbersome instrument, or if you think it's OK to miss notes here and there and to be a little sloppy, you just fall into the stereotypes and the limitations that people are placing on you. And I think that's been a problem with a lot of trombone players, particularly in regards to their improvisation.

To me, articulation and sound are two important factors in making the trombone more attractive to people's ears, especially mainstream listeners. I prefer larger bore instruments for the quality of the sound, because I think they are a lot richer, not quite as nasal. Even when you hear people talk, you like to hear a full-bodied voice - a little, whiny voice gets irritating. I think the same thing applies to the sound quality of the trombone. That's why I prefer larger bore instruments and larger mouthpieces.

Articulation is - besides sound - the thing that really separates trombone players. Articulation is not just tonguing. It's a broad subject and covers a lot of ground: slide technique, the air support stream that you have, control of your embouchure, as well as tonguing. Each area could be a "Master Class" in itself.

First, there's slide technique. In articulating notes, you have to coordinate your attacks with your slide. The problem with the trombone, which is unlike all the other wind instruments, is the distance from one note to another. On a saxophone, your fingers are already laying on every note, and it's just a matter of pushing down a combination of keys to produce the note that you want. On the trumpet, your fingers are already on the valves, so it's just pushing down a combination - you don't have to physically move anything more than an inch and a half at the most.

But on the trombone, if you're going from an F on the fourth line of the staff to the G on the next space, you have to move the slide from first to fourth position - well over a foot. Then up a step to A, it's about half that distance. To the next note in the F scale, the Bb, it's a lot shorter. So the distances between notes are not equal.

It's a physical problem that none of the other wind instruments have to deal with. You have to be able to move the slide a foot in the same length of time that somebody else moves something an half an inch on other instruments. It can be overcome, but it takes a lot of work, and you overcome it by practicing scales. Practice playing scales at different tempos, starting slow and speeding them up. I like to do a scale three times up and three times down without taking a breath to really insure that I have control over it.

I tell my students that there's an attitude you should develop when you're practicing. It's very important that you don't let things "slide." (I know shouldn't say slide when I'm talking about the trombone.) You should be hard on yourself in a practice session, because that's the only time you really have complete control over what you're doing.

When you're performing, once something is done, it's done. But when you're practicing a phrase and you miss a note, stop and redo the whole phrase until you play it perfectly. That way you train you muscles and your body to play it correctly, plus you train your ears not to tolerate mediocrity. That attitude, "Well, it's OK. I just missed one note here," that's not going to make it anymore. You may still miss some notes, but if your attitude is on a high level, your playing will be.

The air stream supporting the note is what makes it come out clearly. The slide and the attack may be there, but if there's no air stream supporting what you're doing, the sound is going to be totally sad. The note won't speak and you'll miss the attack - it won't even sound like an attack. All of these different areas have to support each other in order for each note to be clear.

So you have to coordinate these things. If you're doing a legato tonguing, you need a straight flow of the air stream. You have to take enough air so that by the time you get to the next note, there's still enough air to support it. It's done with abdominal control, mostly, and the embouchure - the aperture, actually. It's like putting air in the tires of your car. You just have to keep the air stream steady and strong.

For this, I recommend doing exercises like sit-ups, everyday. Playing a wind instrument is a physical activity. Athletes train the muscles that they use. We use muscles also - diaphragm, embouchure - so we have to train them exactly the same way.

I used to try everything, every exercise - anything that would help me play better. For my embouchure, I used to do an exercise with a pencil. Hold a pencil tightly in your mouth straight out - this helps to strengthen the aperture and control the embouchure.

To develop a strong, steady air stream, try holding a small, one-inch square piece of paper on the wall just by blowing on it. Don't let it move. Just pin it on the wall with the air stream. That focuses your air stream into one point, and it has to be constant. If it moves or if it weakens, the paper will fall.

Finally, there's tonguing. To me, the clearest tongue is the single tongue. I use single tongue primarily for everything - very rarely do I use any double tongue. I like to play very rhythmically. I approach the trombone almost like a percussion instrument, in terms of accents and the percussiveness of the sound. Using single tonguing, you can accent different notes within a phrase. That propels the phrase forward rhythmically, and adds contour and shape to the line. Where every note is not the same volume, and every note doesn't have the same emphasis, the articulation sounds cleaner. Instead of, "DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da," if you are accenting certain notes, it's like, "da-DA-DA-da-DA-DA-da-da-DA-da-DA-da-da-DA." You get different accents, and its funky.

I can do that best with single tonguing, because each note has the same potential. Double tonguing has a rhythm of its own - it's a strong/weak attack. You can equal them out so they sound pretty even, but you have to play softer. I'm from the school of hard blowersI'm into blowing through the instrument. I'm not somebody who likes to play real soft and "deep throat" the mike, putting the mike inside the bell. The sound that I'm interested in is about a foot away from the bellthe sound that people hear acoustically.

I do use a lot of lip flexibility stuff, like turns, to give my embouchure a rest. Obviously there's an endurance factor on brass instruments that other instruments don't have, like the saxophone. You can get three notes out, by just playing one and moving the slide. Tongue the first note and use the air stream and your embouchure and the slide technique to pop out the second note, and then you just return to the other note.

This gives the phrase a different direction and rhythm, plus it rests your tongue. And anytime you can rest your tongue it's good, because you're going to need it later. So I use multiple tonguing within phrases. And if I'm hearing a phrase that may start with a triplet, or have a triplet involved in the middle of it, I'll use a triple tongue for that (or a lip turn that will sound like a triplet). It's like, "necessity is the mother of invention." Still, most of the time I use single tongue.

The best tonguing exercises are scales and arpeggios, with the emphasis on making sure that each note is clear like a bell. Listen to J. J. Johnson - I think he epitomizes a clean articulation, fluidity of lines, speed, technique, concept and everything. J. J., for decades, has been the standard. So like I said, you have to strengthen all the different components that go into articulating on the trombone.

© Bob Bernotas, 1991; revised 2001. Used by permission. All rights reserved.