Techniques: Demystifying Trombone Legato A Simple Approach

Mike Lawson • • March 7, 2016

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Micah EverettThe development of legato articulation is one of the most vexing problems encountered by both beginning and advanced trombonists. While players of other wind instruments usually grasp the concept of slurring with relative ease, for many trombonists the achievement of an equally smooth articulation remains an elusive goal. Happily, while legato can be difficult to execute because of the required coordination of air, tongue, and slide, conceptually it should be quite simple. When armed with a correct concept of what legato is and how it should sound, students are much more likely to experience success.

Sadly, many errors can become ingrained early in students’ playing experience. The explanations of legato provided in many beginning band methods explain it primarily in terms of means of execution rather than in terms of a sound to be achieved. This leads to students seeking to achieve a certain feeling or sensation, rather than a desired sound. Students develop a vague idea of what they think legato should feel like, but are unaware of what it should sound like, and erroneous would-be “legato” articulations are the result. Therefore, when considering how to teach legato articulation, our first question needs to be not “How does one play legato?” but rather “What is legato?”

What is Legato?

When new trombonists enter my studio I always ask the question “What is legato?” during the first lesson. The usual initial answer has something to do with soft tonguing, rather than the sound students should seek to create. Seeking to expose the fault in this way of thinking, I then ask “How does a violinist or a pianist play legato?” The tongue is not a concern on these instruments, yet they do play legato, so there must be a definition of legato that is independent of the mode of execution peculiar to the trombone. Once students understand this, they can begin to develop a concept of legato that is not bound to the technique used to play legato on the trombone.

The New Harvard Dictionary of Music defines legato as “Played smoothly with no separation between successive notes; the opposite of staccato.” Notice that this definition describes how legato should sound without reference to how it is executed. The goal of all legato articulation is to produce this smooth, connected sound, not to achieve the physical sensation of light tonguing. The truth is, a trombonist can tongue very softly and still have separation between the notes. Thus, constructing a concept of legato based on tonguing technique alone leads to a faulty result.

The Secret to Good Legato: Constant Air

If students are to produce a good legato articulation, they must cultivate a correct aural concept of how legato should sound. Demonstration is one great way to help them to do this, whether through live examples or via recordings. Besides demonstration, emphasize the actual definition of legato, which, again, is “Played smoothly with no separation between successive notes; the opposite of staccato.” If there is going to be no separation between the notes, the beginnings of the notes must not only be articulated softly (and, granted, they usually are), but also the end of each note must connect to the beginning of the note which follows. No amount of skillful manipulation of the beginning of a note will make the end of that note connect to the following note.

The solution to this problem is quite simple, and is the same as that for slurring on every wind instrument: if legato playing is to take place, the airstream must remain constant and uninterrupted throughout the passage. This perhaps seems obvious, but judging by the playing that I have heard it is clearly not so, and this concept is missing from every beginning method book I have examined— even where it is implied, it is not explicitly stated. If we want our students to play smoothly, we must teach them to maintain a continuous, uninterrupted flow of air throughout legato passages.

The Tongue is Not an Enemy

Furthermore, we must eliminate the fear of the tongue that trombonists sometimes seem to develop with regard to legato. In fact, if legato playing is to be both smooth and clean, proper tonguing is absolutely necessary. Think about it: legato playing requires that a steady stream of air be maintained throughout the passage, and yet if vibrating air is passing through the instrument while the slide is in motion there will be a smear every time. This is where the tongue comes into play. While from the “perspective” of the breathing apparatus the airflow must remain constant, the air and buzz are briefly disrupted during legato passages— every time the tongue strikes. While legato tonguing is usually softer than normal tonguing, it must be sufficient to disrupt the airstream for a split-second at the beginning of every note, giving the player time to move the slide so that the smear is avoided.

The difference in the use of the tongue between legato tonguing and normal tonguing should not be overemphasized. After all, the difference between a “t” and a “d” consonant is really quite minimal. Better to explain legato primarily in terms of constant airstream, to demonstrate it either by live examples or recording, and to mention the concept of soft tonguing without exaggerating it. If students have a good concept of how legato should sound, and know to keep the air moving, chances are they will figure out how to make the tonguing sound right.

Tips for Making Legato Work

First of all, for a trombonist to master legato, the slide must be in great condition. If the student is blowing constant air, then he or she has only the brief split-second when the tongue strikes to move the slide. A slide that is dirty, poorly lubricated, or in need of repair has to be forced to move from one position to another, causing an articulation of sorts that is harsh, unpleasant, and anything but smooth.

Next, make sure that the student is using a proper right hand position. While there are a variety of hand positions advocated by professional trombonists, whatever hand position is used should allow the player to use all of the joints of the fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder in order to move the slide, making finer adjustments with the smaller joints, and larger adjustments with the larger ones. This helps to prevent jerky motions that often take place when the elbow and shoulder have a dominant role in slide movement, and also enables better tuning.

With the slide in good repair and well-lubricated, and the student using a good hand position, he or she can learn to move the slide quickly and accurately. Take care not to grip the slide too tightly, as doing so prevents moving quickly without compromising smoothness and intonation. Rather, an almost “throwing and catching” technique should be used, where the hand stays slightly ahead of the slide when moving. This is very slight— the hand will always remain in contact with the slide, but the grip is loose enough that there is some play between the slide brace and the fingers. This way, quick motions can be made without applying too much force, and since gravity and inertia rather than muscle force stop the slide at the desired position, stopping the slide does not cause a violent disruption to the sound.

The slide must always move quickly, but especially so during legato playing. Remember: if vibrating air passes through the instrument while the slide is in motion there will be a smear. Thus, the player only has the length of time when the tongue strikes to move the slide!

Once these concepts are understood, the student can begin actually learning to play legato. Ironically, one of the easiest ways to begin practicing is to have the student smear through a legato passage. If the student is using a smooth airstream, then the smear will be just that, a smear. If he or she is somehow “breath-impulsing” the beginnings of notes, or allowing the ends of notes to decay, this will be readily apparent. Have the student practice smearing legato passages until they are “disgustingly” smooth.

After having the student smear through a passage, have him or her play the same passage with a light staccato articulation. This might seem even more counterintuitive than smearing, but a good staccato requires, like much legato playing, a somewhat lighter than normal articulation. Thus, staccato practice can actually be useful in preparation for playing legato.

Lastly, have the student combine these concepts, using “smearing air” combined with a light tongue motion not unlike the one used when playing staccato. If the hand position is good and the slide fast, in good repair, and coordinated with the tongue, all of this should result in a good legato articulation. Much practice is, of course, required to master this—the concept is simple to describe but difficult to execute.

The Natural Slur

Thus far I have focused entirely on legato tonguing, and should mention the so-called “natural slur,” referring to those notes which can be slurred without introducing the tongue or causing a smear. Beyond the lip-slur exercises which are hopefully a part of the daily warmup, I do not believe it necessary to introduce the concept of natural slurs very early. Have beginning students simply use their legato tonguing technique whenever written music calls for a slur. This helps to avoid confusion and unintended smearing from young players.

As students become more profficient, the use of natural slurs should be introduced. To put it simply, when moving from one partial to another a natural slur is possible, since the break when crossing partials causes a disruption in the buzz sufficient to eliminate smears. The player should come to understand that these possibilities exist and how to use them judiciously. Remember also that just as in legato tonguing, natural slurs require the use of a constant airstream. Because of this there is very little difference in sound between a well-executed legato tongue and a well-executed natural slur, and students should be allowed to choose whichever of the two techniques sounds best in a given situation. You may find that sometimes the legato tongue gives a superior result even in cases where a natural slur is available.


The execution of legato articulation on the trombone is simple, but it is not easy; even with the best instruction much practice is necessary in order to master it. Without a correct concept of the sound and execution of legato, students’ efforts will meet largely with frustration. Hopefully these thoughts will help both teachers and students to better understand and develop this important skill.

Micah Everett is assistant professor of music (trombone/low brass) at the University of Mississippi, principal trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, and an assistant editor (audio-video reviews) of the International Trombone Association Journal. He holds the Doctor of Musical Arts and Master of Music degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


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