Out of the Case: An Approach to Improved Chordal and Scalar Flexibilities

By Sam Burtis • March 01, 1997 • 14 min read


At the end of last month's column on slide technique, I promised to continue focusing on aspects of trombone playing that would enable a player to develop a smooth, flowing approach to the instrument. I referred to the importance of understanding alternate positions, having a well educated tongue and a flexible, well timed embouchure as aspects of playing which, when combined with good slide technique, would provide a trombonist with the basic necessities needed to build a graceful, fast, and accurate set of techniques to get around the horn. I would like to clarify this idea a little before going on to the next topic.

What's Possible?

You can only play as rapidly as your physical setup allows. Rapid and repeated 16th notes from second partial Bb to third partial (seventh position) Cb without the aid of a trigger are not going to happen very smoothly or quickly; the slide has to move too far. Nor can the same figure be executed between pedal Bb and twelfth partial F. There is too great an embouchure movement, no matter how well your embouchure is developed. Finally, no matter what tonguing technique is used, a scale or arpeggio that doesn't consistently pass over a break for every new note cannot be played evenly if it's attempted faster than you can cleanly tongue . In order to develop real technique on the instrument, each of these aspects of performance must be studied and mastered individually, and then combined one with another.

Your physical limitations in each area must be pushed to the limit, so that you know what you can and cannot do on your instrument. It is of the greatest importance for an improviser to know at an almost unconscious level just how rapidly various areas of the horn can be traversed, so that in the heat of improvisation he doesn't run into the brick walls of physical limitation and lose the flow of the music. (At least not too often. Trying to do the "impossible" is one of the things that makes improvisation interesting.)

Last month we covered slide technique; this month we will discuss embouchure technique and the beginning of an approach to attempt to combine the slide and embouchure in a well timed manner, without the use of the tongue. Next month, we'll look at ways to add the tongue to this mix, as a device to further time in and thus smooth out the changes from note to note.

Before we get to the flexibilities, however, I would like to suggest a method for randomly building and choosing scales for use when practicing. Almost all of my exercises focus on one scale at a time, both as a limiting device so I don't spend too much time in one area of the horn, and as a musical device. The vast majority of our playing is in one key or another, and you can master various scales, modes and passing tones subconsciously while working on more technical aspects if you try this approach.

A Key a Day, A Key a Month

The following three-step activity allows the player to synthesize a random scale form. This is a cinch if you have a music keyboard handy. If not, get twelve index cards and mark each of them with one of the notes of the chromatic scale. First, either by dropping a pencil on the keyboard or shuffling and picking out a card, choose a note. I just chose E. We are now in the key of E major.

Second, randomly choose another note, one that is not in the key of E major. Let's say that we chose F. We are still in the key of E major, but now with an added chromatic note, F.(If the pencil or card chooses a note that is in the key of E, choose the next nearest note not in that key.)

The third step is to choose another note by dropping the pencil or drawing a card. This last note can be either in the chosen key (E major), or the chosen chromatic note (F). Mine came out to be B. We have now created a quite interesting scale which happens to fit very well over a B13(#11) chord:

Example 1: Practice scale.

At one time I would construct a scale like this and practice all my exercises in it for as long as it took to feel as if I could play it through all the available ranges of my instrument without thinking at all, completely reflectively, just hearing it. I once played the same scale for over two months, but that's a little extreme. You decide how often to change.

This approach will take you places harmonically and in terms of scales that you normally would almost never go. Those of you who are jazz players will immediately recognize how a certain bone-deep familiarity with a scale that will work well over a II->V like F#7 -> B7 will help you flow through a set of changes that lay mostly in a more familiar key, rather than that one II -> IV being an obstacle because of its relative unfamiliarity. Another advantage of this kind of scale is that it plays in patterns of four, so a sixteenth note scalar pattern begins and ends on the same note.

I wanted to establish that idea because we're going to use that kind of scale to approach the following flexibility exercises and many of the other things we'll cover in the coming months.

It's the Motion!

I'm sure most of us have encountered long flexibilities like the Remington exercises that take us through several octaves rapidly without the use of the tongue. Likewise with short flexibilities; either played slowly and carefully through a small number of partials to develop control, evenness of air production and embouchure security, or more rapidly as trill studies, usually with very little slide motion.

The idea I'm going to present here is that every scalar pattern consists of two kinds of motion: motion within the same partial (tongued in one way or another), or motion across the breaks between partials. If we can succeed in evening out our reactions to the varying resistances between different partials, and also improve the coordination between slide and articulation, the two different kinds of motion will sound indistinguishable from one another. A smooth, rhythmically accurate approach to playing will ensue.

A Scalar Approach to Flexibility

So, after that long-winded but necessary preamble, let's get down to it. We will approach this from the middle register, but it works equally well from low or high. Let's start descending. Envision a fifth partial(fourth position) B. Envision those notes available in the partial below that belong to the scale which we have constructed. They would be A, G#, F#, F, and E. (Example 2.) I tend to stay away from seventh position notes here, except for second partial E and third partial B, but if your arm is long enough, go for it.

Example 2. Fourth partial B and the notes below.

Play the B, and without benefit of any tongue, slur down the to A and back up to the B in sixteenth notes at a comfortable tempo.(Play this as slowly as you need in order to have both accuracy and smoothness.) Gradually get faster, until you've reached the fastest speed you can play and still sustain real accuracy. (Example 3.)

Example 3: Gradually accelerate the slurred pattern.

A word of caution: Keep the air going smoothly; do not try to jerk over the breaks with your abdominal muscles. The air should feel uninterrupted and continuous, like an arrow in flight. The embouchure is what must be making the changes from note to note, almost as if it were riding that arrow. Also be aware of your slide technique. All these first patterns use a single motion back and forth, like rapidly combining two of the single note slide movements I presented last month.

Now go through the same procedure with B to G#, then B to F#, then B to F. You've now established the fastest you can play each of those intervals as repeated sixteenth notes, and your body has in some sense logged that information. Do it some more, trying to get a little faster. Don't spend too long here; we've got several octaves to cover. If you make this part of your daily exercise, you will cover this ground thoroughly many more times.

Now envision a fourth partial A, and the notes available in the (fifth) partial above that note that are in our scale. they are C# and B (and A also, but don't waste time on unison slurs unless you have a specific use for them. Play from A up to C# as a sixteenth-note slur, and speed up gradually to as fast as you can play it. Then play A up to B the same way. (Example 4.)

Example 4: Fourth partial A and the notes above.

Follow that with the G# up to B, G# up to C#, maybe G# up to A, F# up to B (I like to start each series with a fairly easily available note, then progress to the harder intervals.), F# up to A, F# up to C#, then F up to A , F up to B, maybe up to G# and C#. In short, cover all the slurs within the chosen scale that exist between the fourth and fifth partials.

Then go down, from the fourth partial to the third; A down to F, A to E, A to D#, A to C#, then G# to D#, G# to E, G# to F, G# to C#, maybe G# to B, etc. In the same manner, cover the third partial up to the fourth, the third partial down to the second, and the second partial up to the third. If you're really ambitious, include the pedal range in this exercise.

As I'm sure you've figured out by now, you should also do this exercise from the fifth partial B up: fifth partial up to sixth, sixth partial down to fifth, sixth partial up to seventh, seventh down to sixth. Keep going as high as you can sustain a workable sound. Decide in what positions you would normally play the notes of the scale you're using; start each sixteenth note exercise from those notes, but go to all the available notes in the adjoining partials, even ones in positions you normally don't use.

You can also (and should) play these exercises as triplets rather than sixteenth notes, or start them on the off-beat or the second or third notes of a triplet, and, as I said at the beginning, you can just as easily start at the top or bottom of your range as in the middle. Trombonists with "F" attachments can include the valve notes if they would like. I only slur to and from trigger notes that I normally use. The use of the triggers, however, introduces another timing variable in all this, so be sure you've got the exercise really together without the triggers before you add them.

A few weeks have passed and these slurs are getting pretty consistent. Perhaps there are a few areas of your range where you have more trouble than others playing them cleanly or rapidly (this indicates a need for embouchure work, another issue entirely). Where do we go from here? To three adjoining partials.

Let's use the same scale, and start on the same note, fifth partial (fourth position) B. Envision playing that B as one of three notes, the other two notes being one in each of the two lower partials, all notes that exist in this predetermined scale...B down to A down to F up to A up to B (Example 5.), similarly B->A->E->A->B. B, G# and F in the same pattern, B, G#, E; B, A, D# (much harder to make two changes of slide direction, but valuable), B,G#,D#; B,F#,C#; B, F#, B; B, F, B; maybe B, F#, D#, or B F# E, whatever combinations seem reachable and of some practical use to you. Play each set as fairly slow 16th notes, getting faster within each group until you reach your (smooth, flowing) limit.

Example 5: Pattern spanning three partials.

As I mentioned before, be aware of your slide technique when you're doing these. All of these maneuvers use either one of the non-stopping patterns we learned last week. B, G#, F for example,or B, A, F. Or they use two discrete quick slide motions in different directions between positions: B, A, D# for example. Also remember to keep the air going smoothly.

You'll find that it's initially much easier playing any of these "against the grain" of your slide movement, ascending in pitch while extending the slide, descending in pitch while bringing the slide in. With the proper approach to air (smooth, well supported) and repeated practice, both "with' and "against" the grain become similarly easy. Well, almost. Next, begin on the middle partial, the fourth partial in this case, and go to the partials on either side of it: A->B->A->F->A; A, B, A, E, A; A, B, A, D#, A; etc. through the whole available series. (Example 6.)Then backwards from that: A, F, A, B, A; A, E, A, B, A; again through the whole series.

Example 6: Beginning on the middle of three partials.

Then ascending from the lowest of the three partials: F, A, B, A, F; F, G#, B, G#, F; etc. . .again through the whole series. (Example 7.) Now start on the 4th partial, and repeat the whole procedure down through the third and second partials.

Example 7: Ascending from the lowest of three partials.

Since you're all trombone players who are reading this (which means you're all very smart), and my general approach should by this time be starting to become clear, you've all probably figured out that I'm now going to say do this thing up, starting on fifth partial B and including the available notes in the sixth and seventh partials above, then fifth partial C#, all the possible permutations of that series, then on up to the next three partials, and keep on going until you can't play any higher. On first reading, this sounds like a lot of work, but once the principles on which it's based are clearly understood, it doesn't really take that much time, and it's very valuable practice on a number of levels.

You can, of course, extend the same principle to four, five, six, and seven neighboring partials, but don't go to the next series until you're fairly smooth and flowing on the one before it. I personally have never gone much more than five partials; after that I just have too many other things to practice, and if the truth be known, when you begin to factor in combinations and variations of these, say using two partials but playing fifth partial B down to fourth partial A, up to fifth partial B, down to fourth partial F#, up to fifth partial B again, or (again using the same two partials), B->G#->C#->G#->B, I rarely spend any time past four partials, mostly two and three is enough.

This opens out into an almost endless array of studies, and the nice thing about this approach is that YOU are creating the etudes, using a set of ideas that allow for almost infinite variation, and since they're not written down they're not static. They can easily change to include areas on which you particularly want to work. You can approach all of these as triplet as well as duplet phrases, or even in fives and sevens, just like the previous exercises. You'll never run out of keys or combinations.

Once you're able to play (for example)fourth partial A->fifth partial B->sixth partial (5th position)C# and back as a rapid and even slur, the addition of the SLIGHTEST bit of tongue defines the phrase into a very strong, very rapid and balanced part of any number of scales and phrases, and the facility to do that will translate into a similar facility starting further up or down the slide with the same intervalic relationships...Bb->C->(fourth position)D, or Ab->(fifth position) Bb->(sixth position) C. Patience pays.

This is NOT a quick study...I've been practicing it for well over ten years and I'm still just scratching the surface of its possibilities. However, beginning to get this approach together will impact every aspect of motion on the horn, and motion is the thing most trombonists can do least well. Have fun trying. Forgive the seeming complexity of some of the all gets very simple once you get into it. Give it a try!