Out of the Case: A New Approach to Alternate Positions

By Sam Burtis • May 01, 1997 • 12 min read

In my previous columns, I have offered an approach to the process of intergrating slide technique, embouchure flexibility, and tonguing into a smooth, fluid way of playing the trombone. Another important aspect of perfromance I have not yet covered is choice of slide positions. That is the topic of this month's column.

Almost all trombonists are aware of the concept of "alternate" positions: the idea that fifth partial (first position) D can be played in the sixth partial (fourth position). Fourth position D (and other extended positions) are usually called "alternate" positions, a name which infers that the first position D is the "primary" position; the position in which that note should "normally" be played. For a number of reasons I disagree with this whole concept.

Are "alternate" positions really "alternate"?

First, and most importantly in terms of mobility on the horn, the closer the slide position is toward either end of the slide the fewer position choices you have for your next note. In first position, for example, you can only go out to second or third position with any real rapidity. In fourth position you have available third, second, fifth, and sixth positions, twice as many choices. In both sight reading and improvisation, the ability to stay around the middle of the slide, in third and fourth positions, lends an enormous advantage in terms of being able to physically manipulate the slide to the next position, whatever that note may be. Even in music you can practice and plan ahead, orchestral situations, chamber music and the solo repertoire; intelligent use of extended positions greatly enhances the smoothness and elegance of performance possible on the trombone.

Secondly, real comfort and familiarity with notes in the so-called "alternate" positions lends the player timbral options unavailable in any other way. Every partial of every instrument has its own characteristic coloration and resistance. Creative choices of positions can enable the trombonist to color solo notes and blend with other instruments. For example, one trombone I often play has a substantially brighter sound on the fifth partial than on the sixth. When I play a D above middle C in octaves with trumpets, I use the fifth partial (first position) D; when I play the same note with french horns or fluegelhorns, I use the sixth partial (fourth position) D.

Also, in first position, unless you play what I call "long" positions (meaning first position is some distance from the stop at the end of the slide. . . Conn slide springs are for this purpose [tuning in first position], and many small bore Tommy Dorsey-style trombonists do this to enable them to play with a good slide vibrato in first position.), you cannot pull a note up in pitch with the slide, which is often a necessity when playing with habitually sharp musicians or when your embouchure is beginning to get fatigued.

How To Get There

You've read this far and all this sounds pretty good. You've been playing the trombone "X" number of years; you're playing pretty well, practicing, working, but you tend to stay in the positions you first learned. The middle and upper registers below third position feel like foreign countries, and when you play familiar notes in unfamiliar positions they sound "funny". How can you learn to use that vast uncharted area of the horn?

The first step is to identify which notes in which "alternate" positions can be of some help to you. The second is to formulate an approach, some general idea, which will help you to know when to use them and when not to. The third is to create some sort of practice routine that will help you to learn these notes well and naturally.

As far as the first step is concerned, here are the "alternate" positions I use most often. I do not consider them "alternate", but use them, depending on key and context, as often and with as much freedom as I do the "normal" positions.

* Above this partial I almost never use seventh position. I find it just as limiting as first position and much more awkward.
** These notes are often very difficult and turbulent depending on the instrument. I find them very important and choose my horns with them in mind
*** I rarely use any notes on this partial if I can avoid it, preferring to play high F and E in the thirteenth partial whenever possible. They seem to "lock" better.

Past the thirteenth partial, I play F# in sharp third position, G in third or sharp second position, G# in second position, A in third position, Bb in second position, and it doesn't seem to matter much WHAT I do with the slide after that. (Even up in this range [especially up in this range] I avoid first position like the plague. It just seems to work better that way.)

(Here I must add, for players with an F-attatchment, that Bb and A at the bottom of the bass clef should be played regularly as trigger third and fourth position notes, for ease of motion. I notice many really good trigger players neglecting those notes, and they make things SO much easier when used properly.)

Remember, every instrument, mouthpiece, and player combination is different. Search around and find the positions that work best for you on each instrument you play. That pretty well takes care of the first step, knowing what notes are available and useful in positions other than the ones you were taught you in junior high. Now the second step: formulating an approach or a philosophy regarding the usage of these notes and positions. This can be summed up in one sentence: When performing or rehearsing real music (music to be performed), always play as musically and naturally as you can.

This means if you're not yet comfortable playing C# above middle C in fifth position, don't do it (outside the practice room). If you're playing a fourth partial (first position) Bb, and the next note is Db a minor third above, don't play it in fifth position just because you want to see if you can. Save it for the practice room. Even then, try to get in the habit of using extended postions in service to the music, not as a trained-dog circus trick. (A good rule to follow regarding any "technical" aspect of the horn is to try to make the actual playing of the trombone transparent, so that the audience isn't tempted to say, "Oh what a wonderful trombone player!!", but rather, "Oh what wonderful music!" The trombone should almost disappear, become something subsidiary to the music itself. It should not be the primary focus of interest. Think of the trombone as the cup, the music the water: it's always nice to drink from a fine cup, but the quality of the water should be of primary concern.)

Always try to make sense of these position choices, and never get yourself in trouble with them if you can possibly avoid it. The conductor, your fellow musicians, and the audience don't generally care how you play any given note, as long as it sounds good. Once you've spent time with these new positions in the practice room they will start to appear naturally in your playing. Be patient.

This brings us to the third step. How patient should we be? What's the quickest, most efficient way to learn how to use these positions? The first thing I would suggest is to start using the alternate positions in simple legato etudes like the first Rochut book. Get a fresh, unmarked book, and begin to work through it, examining which positions really make sense to you. Be particularly attentive to the notes from C# above middle C upwards. Try to make positional choices that minimize slide movement and direction change and at the same time let you play longer notes where they are most resonant on your horn. When you find a note that makes sense to play in a position other than the one you habitually use, mark the new position lightly above it in pencil.

Be particularly aware of D a whole step above middle C in fourth position, and how it can relate in the same partial to C# in fifth position and Eb in fourth, E and F in sharp fifth and sharp fourth positions in the next (seventh) partial, F# and G in fifth and fourth positions in the eighth partial, and A and Bb in fourth and third positions in the ninth partial. This constitutes a whole line of new positions that can potentially free you from dependence on first and second positions, which in many keys can be really awkward as far as slide movement is concerned.

Another approach is through the use of scales and arpeggios. To demonstrate I'm going to use a randomly created scale, as I did in the previous "Out Of The Case" columns. Today I choose the key of Eb major with an added chromatic note Db, starting on Bb. Play this scale at an easy eigth note tempo, and notice the awkward slide movement from D to Eb, Eb to F, and Ab to Bb when using the "normal" slide positions.

Now play the same scale at the same tempo again, only this time use the following positions:

Notice how much more natural, how much smoother the slide movements are. You still have to move two positions to get from first position Bb to third position C, but after that the only other two position move is from Db in second to D in fourth. Since you're coming to that move from one position below (C in third position), you're already comfortably positioned to make the move. Essentially, once you get to the third position C you will use that position as a pivot point, playing one position above and below it for all the rest of the notes in this scale scale. The same principle holds when playing the scale down from the higher Bb.

Experiment with this scale. Try starting on fifth position (fifth partial) Bb below middle C. Try playing that Bb and moving to C in sixth position (sixth partial). Also try playing it as a two octave scale, from Bb at the bottom of the bass clef. Which position for the Bb below middle C works best when approaching it from a third position Ab?

You can also try some repeated patterns like Bb->C->Db->D->Eb->D->Db->C->Bb four times as easy eighth notes, then C->Db->D->Eb->F->Eb->D->Db->C, and on up. Examine these and other scalar patterns, trying to see which slide positions are easiest and most natural for you. Try extending the scale higher, above Bb above middle C. If you play that Bb in third position, doesn't the C above it appear easily on third position, the Db in second, the D in sharp third, and the Eb in sharp second? Improvise (in any idiom) in the scale. Try playing the chordal arpeggios that are suggested by the scale, triads, sevenths, ninths. See if the positions that work as scalar positions work equally well as arpeggiated positions. Try playing your arpeggios STARTING on the positions you've begun to favor as SCALAR positions, but playing the other notes in the arpeggio wherever they are easiest to play. Use your imagination. In short, learn to play the scale in a new way.

After a few days (or weeks, or months, whatever it takes) on this scale, certain slide positions will begin to recommend themselves to you. You can then take the same scale, and start on a different note. Are there any changes in your position choices?

Substitute other chromatic notes for the Db: Cb, E, Gb, A (maintain the 8 note scale, however, using only one chromatic note at a time, at least for now). How do these notes change your positional preferences? Transpose the scale down a 1/2 step, keeping the same relative slide positions as much as possible. How does this affect your choices of positions? Try it up 1/2 a step. Use your imagination.

When you begin to get tired of this scale, make a new one and go through the same process of examination. If you play other exercises, try as much as possible to play them in or near the key you're examining, always trying to use the most logical positions. Don't leave one scale until you've pretty well learned what positions are best for you in that scale.

Remember to be particularly mindful of the sixth partial (fourth position) D. I consider it my pivot note. If I play 200 middle Ds in a day, 198 of them will more than likely be in fourth position. Especially in the common keys of D, G, C, F, Bb, and Eb, the middle D in fourth position is the most important note, the key to playing those keys smoothly and well. As soon as you're forced to play that note in first position, 50% of your ensuing positional options are lost, and there you are banging around in the closed positions, trying to figure out how you can get free again.

Mastery of that D (and the fifth position C# below it, the sharp fifth and sharp fourth position E and F above it) alone will give you an enormous advantage as far as slide technique is concerned. Get those notes happening, then the fifth partial (fifth and sixth position) Bb and A, the fourth partial (sixth position) F, and the eigth partial (fourth and fifth position) G and F#, and you'll be well on your way to an entirely newfound freedom on the horn. That's only 9 new positions (plus trigger third and fourth position Bb and A at the bottom of the bass clef for those of us with an F trigger) to learn. . . not such a hard job, when you consider the possible rewards in your playing.

Have fun trying...and remember, if any of this stuff doesn't work, DON'T USE IT UNTIL YOU'VE MASTERED IT!!! Many fine trombonists NEVER go past third position if they can possibly avoid it, and they sound good WITHOUT any of this. This is useful only if you want to try to take that extra step, if you enjoy dancing around in the great unknown every once in a while. Again, have fun with this.