Brass players talk about lip slurs and flexibility to describe mastery over a simple concept: buzzing the right pitch. Band directors are all too familiar with a brass player buzzing the incorrect harmonic partial while fingering the correct notes. The result is the wrong pitch. Things get worse in the upper register, where partials are closer together and more accuracy is required.
Missing a Partial
This section is for people who aren’t brass players.
On a brass instrument, sound is produced by vibrating your lips into a long metal tube. This tube is specially-designed to amplify the sound. (It also makes it sound less like a kazoo and more like Mahler). Next, the precise pitch is modified by making that tube longer. A longer tube means a lower pitch. What if you need a higher pitch? The lips need to vibrate at a higher frequency. Brass instruments can only go as high as the player’s lips will allow. In some cases (like Maynard Ferguson), the upper limit gets pretty impressive.
What exactly is happening when a student misses a partial? Brass instruments are designed around a harmonic series. When students buzz a pitch, the instrument helps them “slot” that pitch into the harmonic series. On one hand, that’s great – the instrument helps students correct minor inaccuracies. On the other hand, students with developing ears can fail to notice that the instrument has slotted their buzzing into the wrong place (and therefore play the wrong note).
To combat missed partials, brass players have – since the dawn of time – been practicing moving between the partials without changing the length of the tube. Moving through the harmonic series helps them practice changing their lip vibration frequency accurately. Brass players have even advanced to the point where we practice the harmonic series without using our tongues to help start and stop notes.
The goal is a perfectly legato transition from one note to another. We refer to this practice as flexibility exercises or lip slurs because they improve our ability to move between different buzzed pitches and because we’re slurring between two pitches using only our lips. (It does not have anything to do with yoga, thankfully.) These exercises are a staple of brass pedagogy. Here are a couple of my favorite trombone lip slur patterns to assign to students.
(Click on the thumbnail examples to view multiple page PDF files.)
By assigning levels, I gamify the exercise. This is a fairly boring piece of work. It is the equivalent of shooting free throws for basketball players. Anything I can do to make it more exciting for students (or for myself) goes a long way. It is vital that you USE A METRONOME. Doing these with steady time feel is crucial for performance. The speed is less important than the consistency, especially for young players.
You’ll notice the patterns move down chromatically. These look “ugly” as engravings, but don’t get harder to play – each pattern uses only one fingering. The first two measures are played entirely in first position (or open), the next two measures in second position (or second valve), etc.
Dealing with Imperfection
After years and years and years of doing these, brass players recognized that our instruments are imperfect. (Don’t worry trumpet players, you’re still perfect. We promise.) This means that as the tube gets longer, we need to adjust. Air has to travel a longer distance, back pressure and resistance change, intonation can be affected, and more. Therefore, we practice lip slurs at every tube length to make sure we’re familiar with how those changes affect our ability to buzz pitches accurately.
A very long tube (7th position, all three valves down) means that the difference between the buzzed pitch and the sounding pitch is larger. As you can imagine, that makes the exercises harder. In first position (or with all valves open), the buzzed pitch and the sounding pitch are identical. In 7th position (or all three valves down), the sounding pitch is a tritone away from what’s buzzed. That’s a big gap to overcome.
The last example also features a skip. This is a more advanced exercise designed to work on accuracy when skipping a member of the harmonic series. It’s very helpful for developing accuracy, but also tough to pull off successfully.
Going Against the Grain
These exercises have successfully won a lot of orchestra auditions, played a lot of bebop solos, and generally been brass players’ bread and butter for years. They’re great for improving accuracy (and warming up in general). But they aren’t very relevant to “real music.” We don’t often get the chance to perfectly slur while keeping the tube length the same. Composers, for whatever reason, don’t factor in the tube length when choosing their melodies. Instead, we have to adapt, often changing the buzz pitch and tube length.
The exercises I outlined above are great, and students should keep doing them. However, we should also have students practice changing the tube length and buzz pitch at the same time.
One combination causes particular trouble: making the tube longer (therefore making the pitch lower) while simultaneously buzzing a higher pitch. The instrument gets longer, which theoretically should make things go lower, but because we move up in the harmonic series, the pitch actually rises. This disconnect is physically visible on trombone – the slide goes out and the note still goes up – and that contradiction makes the movement feel unnatural, leading to less accuracy from the player. Because the slide goes out and the note goes up, this movement has been nicknamed going against the grain.
Professional orchestral trombonists go against the grain all the time. Two examples include “Tuba Mirum” from Mozart’s Requiem, and this chorale section from the fourth movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.
Mozart gives the trombone soloist a beautiful opening phrase that looks a lot like a basic lip slur exercise! At the same time, the piece requires many “against the grain” position changes. For example, in measure 13 of “Tuba Mirum,” slurring from Eb up to G requires the slide to go out (to fourth position). In fact, nearly every ascending in this line requires a contrary slide position.
You can see how crucial it is to be able to balance the pressure and resistance changes that happen when changing position with the ability to change the buzzed pitch accurately and quickly. This passage (called on nearly every orchestra audition, despite Requiem being an underperformed piece) demands incredible accuracy or it turns into a mushy slide whistle solo.
The Brahms chorale does the same thing. Each of these phrases includes a lip slur with a position shift. “Real life” musical examples require that we practice changing both!
Practicing “Going Against the Grain”
Jazz trombone players have been practicing these techniques for a long time. Navigating complex bebop and post-bop figures requires the use of alternate positions. On trombone alternate positions are, by definition, methods of playing the same note using more tube and a higher buzzed pitch.
Some examples include D in 4th position, F in “sharp 4th” position (between 3rd and 4th position to account for the naturally flat harmonic), and high Bb in 3rd position. These notes are all more commonly played in 1st position. To practice these alternate positions, “jazz” lip slurs often involve going against the grain. On paper, these lip slurs look like this:
These don’t have to just be jazz exercises! We’ve already seen how these same motions apply to orchestral repertoire as well. While the example above features a minor pentatonic scale (common in the blues), there are other options for practicing against the grain slurs that outline other scales and patterns. The second example also works for valved brass.
Brass players need to work on accuracy, and “going against the grain” adds depth and better prepares students for the music they’ll encounter out in the world. I hope you and your trombone players find these exercises useful.