I wrote this out for a topic at the Online Trombone Journal discussion forum, and thought some readers at The Brass Tacks would appreciate it too! Let's start with a few suggestions for air:
Some Tips from the Masters
First of all, "When you blow, think of blowing directly into the hole of your mouthpiece." – Phil Teele. It's the last point in his long tone routine book. So simple, so effective. So easy to do something other than that.
"Blow through the notes, not at them." – Joe Alessi, attributed to his father, Joe Alessi Sr. Ditto.
Charlie Vernon talks about focusing on the sensation of air passing across your lips. Sorry, no catchy aphorism for this one, but just as effective an idea. He has another aphorism though: "Suck Air." I've considered having this one engraved on my bell, right next to "Subdivide."
Finally, do breathing exercises as part of your daily routine. In fact, do them before you play every single day and you will see a difference very soon.
The best ones I know of in print are in the Charlie Vernon book, originally called Daily Routines for Trombone (editor's note--it's now known as his Singing Approach).
A Daily Breathing Routine
Here is a routine that I often do. These are much better taught in person, but I'll do my best. This routine comes from a student of Sam Pilafian, the great tuba player and teacher at Arizona State.
Start with some simple stretches, particularly focusing on your upper body and maybe your neck. I won't go into the ones I do here, but any simple set of yoga stretches will be good. Then set a metronome at 60 and do the following series of exercises.
1. One Beat In, One Beat Out
Move air across your lips – don't worry about where the air is going inside your body – for the entire duration of the beat, without pausing at either end. Strive for an open "HO" sound in both directions. Do this at least eight times, or until you start to feel dizzy (the dizziness will go away after a few days).
I suggest using some sort of visualization that gets you thinking outside your body, so try sucking in your hand from down by your side and blowing it back out, or looking at a point across the room and imagine sucking in and then filling back up all the air in the room between you and that point. Or come up with your own creative visualization. This exercise is great with a breathing tube.
2. The Dozen Sips
Take a dozen little sips of air, either to triplets or 16ths, and then let the air fall out of your body over the next four beats. Repeat 3-5 times (or whatever feels good to you). This exercise is to explore your total capacity in a relaxed manner.
3. Six In, Six Out
Like the first exercise, only over a longer period of time. Move air across your lips for the entire duration without a pause at the top or bottom – easier said than done. If it doesn't happen the first couple of times, don't worry, just keep doing the exercise.
For this one, I use the following visualization: start with your arms down at your sides. Slowly lift them as you inhale, imagining filling up the circle your arms are describing and measuring the flow so that beat three occurs when your arms are parallel to the floor - at this point you are half full of air. At count six they are over your head and you can start your way down, with half empty at count three again. Repeat three times. Sam also does this exercise with seven and eight counts, three times each. I find one set at six counts to be plenty.
4. Three In, Six Out
This one is different. Inhale for three beats, sucking in your hand from your side. Then, over the next six beats, let the air fall out of your body. Don't measure or control the flow, just let gravity do the work. And when gravity is done and you would have to push to get more air out, stop and rest for the remainder of the six beats. You might stop at beat two or three – that's fine. Leave your hand in front of your mouth for the exhale, and you will feel the air flow. If it's bumpy, your sound will be bumpy – if it's a cool steady stream, so will your sound be. But don't try to control it. This is just feedback.
Keep repeating the exercise, focusing on the sensation of air moving across your lips, and the motion will become more relaxed. To promote a relaxed exhale, it can actually be very effective to introduce a tension-and-release action into this exercise, so I often do a variation where I create resistance at the lips during the inhale (purse them together and suck air through the tiny opening) and then let the air fall out just as before.
This whole exercise is also good with a breathing tube, and the tensio-release action can be done by constricting the end of the tube with your hand. Sam extends this to four & eight and five & 10 beats. I don't find those to be any more helpful, but extending the length of all these exercises is worth trying to see how it benefits you.
Incidentally, this kind of unforced, gravity-doing-the-work air makes for a surprisingly big sound. On trombone, it tends to be a big, warm mf that's great for a vocal style of playing. And this exercise increases your awareness of your particular standing air point in your lungs – the point at which your diaphragm goes into action for a normal inhale when you're not aware of your breathing at all.
5. Three Out, One In
This is the most like most of the playing we do. Imagine a 4/4 bar with a rest on the fourth beat. Take a big breath on the rest, and then completely empty your lungs over the next three beats. Repeat several times. Use a dynamic visualization that gets you thinking beyond your body.
That's my routine. I do it, or some variation on it, or the Vernon routine, every single day.
Related Web Sites
The Online Trombone Journal discussion forum
The revised version of Charlie Vernon's book is available at Hickey's Music
Gabriel Langfur performs as Bass Trombonist with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, and is on the faculty of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association.