While teaching at Prairieland Jazz Camp in Regina last summer, I heard a wild sound coming from a practice room: long swooping glisses into the upper register of a trumpet. I peeked in and found Dean McNeill, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, warming up on a slide trumpet, sometimes called a soprano trombone. As he demonstrated a few exercises, I became convinced I had to have one too! A call to Alex Kundakcioglu at Jupiter Music recently made me a proud owner of this cute little instrument. My students and I are having fun and learning a lot from it.
The technical advantages of valve instruments were instantly recognized by all classes of brass instrumentalists except the trombone players.
… Vincent Bach
Many trumpet players have difficulty finding the center of the pitch on each note, where the vibration of the lips and the vibration of the pipe are in sync with each other. To illustrate: buzz an Ab on the mouthpiece and slide the horn on, keeping all the valves up. The horn will pull you down to a G, but the note will not have much vibrancy, because you are buzzing a different pitch than the instrument wants to play. Now buzz a G and slide the horn on. This time the note will ring, because the vibration of your lips and the resonant frequency of the pipe are the same. The center of the pitch is the path of least resistance, and produces more sound with less effort.
Mouthpiece buzzing is very beneficial for developing accurate lip vibration, and allows you to practice smooth siren-like glisses, vibrating your lips at all frequencies. Playing on the leadpipe, as espoused by Bill Adam, teaches you to work with the resonant frequencies of the pipe, producing maximum vibration and sound on specific notes. The slide trumpet allows you to combine these two practice techniques by playing slow glisses between 6th & 1st position and 7th & 2nd position. This covers the range of a fourth, and can be heard as a dominant to tonic resolution (V - I). In order to maintain a full resonant sound throughout the entire gliss, the embouchure and the airstream must continually adjust to the changing slide length (never trust an instrument that changes shape), otherwise the sound will become thin, or you may slip to another harmonic series.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the slide is it makes you very aware of the various harmonic series. For instance, as you go higher, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid flipping up or down a partial during the gliss. You must maintain the ideal balance of air pressure and embouchure tension, which will increase your ease and accuracy. The slide also presents a variety of alternate positions. On the valve trumpet, these are false fingerings, and most are too out of tune to be useable. Because of the infinite tuning capacity of the slide, many alternate positions from different harmonic series are available. Each feels and sounds slightly different, and one may work better than another in the context of a line.
Pitch is also a revelation with the slide trumpet. While this is a difficult instrument to play in tune during a fast passage, it is wonderful to be able to tune a sustained note so precisely with the slide. This allows you to blow right down the center of each note and focus on maintaining the best possible sound without having to worry about lipping the pitch up or down. The concept of lipping the pitch is so ingrained in trumpet players that it is hard to remember to you don't have to do it with the slide trumpet. When you return to the valved instrument, you feel handicapped without this efficient way to adjust intonation!
Finally, a brass instrument with a slide probably gets closer to the sound of the human voice than any other instrument. Listen to a great trombone player (Al Kay springs to mind) and hear the way he seems to 'sing' through his horn. Maybe the slide is not such an impediment after all!
Dean McNeill and I share an insatiable curiosity for all things related to brass playing, and I'm indebted to him for introducing me to the charms, such as they are, of the slide trumpet. He has written an excellent article on it in the current issue of the International Trumpet Guild Journal. My slide trumpet is available from Jupiter Music and is quite inexpensive. For more information on Prairieland Jazz Camp, contact Brent Ghiglione.
Chase Sanborn is a trumpet player based in Toronto. He is a member of the jazz faculty at the University of Toronto, writes the brass column for Canadian Musician, and is the author of Jazz Tactics and the new Revised Edition of Brass Tactics. Chase is a Yamaha artist. Find out more at www.chasesanborn.com.