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The Pyramid of Trombone Playing

Jim Tempest

Jim Tempest

A pyramid is a strong structure, built from the bottom up. Each layer sits on top of the one below and relies on it to provide support and stability. This model is the one I suggest we think of in our approach to developing the basic skills needed to play the trombone and to make the "sonic engine" run efficiently.

In the pyramid of trombone playing, each layer cannot work if those below it are not properly developed. As a result, the beginning trombonist should approach building his or her pyramid of playing like any good engineer; from the bottom up.

Just like a pyramid made of stone, the pyramid of trombone playing relies on the bottom layer to support the rest of the structure. Although all of the elements are important, those at the bottom have greater importance than those at the top. The base of the pyramid is the largest layer because it is the most crucial to playing.

The Pyramid of Trombone Playing

In our pyramid, the bottom layer is Tone. Tone is the sound we produce when we blow air through the trombone. It is the foundation of all trombone playing and the creation of good tone is the most important skill a beginning trombonist must learn. Good tone relies on lots of wind. Wind is moving air and air is the fuel the sonic engine we call the trombone needs to make a beautiful sound. Many of the primary exercises and studies professional trombone players practice as part of their daily routines concentrate on wind and tone production.


The next layer of our pyramid is Intonation. Intonation, or playing "in tune," is playing each pitch so that it fits into the scale the piece you are playing is based upon and agrees with the pitches made by other musicians in a band or orchestra . Good intonation is one of the most important skills the young trombonist must develop; it is what separates good musicians from bad. The trombone is the only wind instrument that can play perfectly in tune all the time because the hand slide allows the trombonist to tune each pitch exactly. Trombone players pay for this remarkable gift by learning to listen carefully all the time. Unlike other instruments, the trombone has no keys or valves to operate and the slide's position is determined by the player's ear. Exercises that deal with intonation train the beginner to develop his or her ear and slide position accuracy.

Slide Technique

The next layer of our pyramid is Slide Technique. Slide technique is how we move the slide between notes. If the trombonist operates his or her slide properly, the sound will be smooth and even. The motion of the slide will not interfere with the sound and there will be a minimum of smearing or "glissando" between notes. Exercises that deal with slide technique will concentrate on the development of fast, accurate, relaxed and efficient slide movement (F.A.R.E.).


The next layer of our pyramid is Articulation. Articulation is sometimes referred to as "tonguing" because we use our tongue to articulate each note. Good articulation works in cooperation with good slide technique and provides clarity to the beginning of notes. Exercises for this skill will concentrate on the development of clear and uniform attacks on notes.


If all the layers of our pyramid are in place, we reach the peak; music. To make music, a trombonist must use his or her air properly to make a beautiful tone, place the slide in the correct position to play with good intonation, use excellent slide technique to avoid disturbing the tone or smearing notes together while playing and articulate properly to provide clear and precise notes.

Like any system, all these skills work together all the time. As the beginning trombonist works through the initial exercises of any method, he or she soon learns how each skill as defined in the pyramid relies on the others and how they interact to create beautiful sound. If all the skills are not present, the beginner will be unable to reach the top of the pyramid and create music that is enjoyable to listen to or to play. Just like a pyramid, a layer can not exist if the ones below it are not there.

About Jim

Jim Tempest holds a Master of Arts from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, an Advanced Performance Certificate from the Vancouver Academy of Music, and a Bachelor of Music (Performance) from Western Washington University. His teachers include Edward Kleinhammer, Denis Wick, Peter Gane, Philip Brink, and Douglas Sparkes. He is currently on faculty as the trombone instructor at Vancouver Community College and St. George's Boys School.

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