Taming the 4th Grade Beginning Trombonist

Chip De Stefano

Instructing the fourth grade trombonist is not much different from teaching the older student. Their age, however, does present some unique challenges. Keep instruction simple and spend a considerable amount of time on fundamentals, especially during the first year and a half of instruction. The fourth grade beginner has one commodity that we can all be envious of, time. Use this time to help your student create a strong foundation upon which the rest of his or her playing skills will be built. Otherwise, habits will form that will take countless hours to correct latter in life.

EQUIPMENT

Nothing is more frustrating, to a musician of any age, than poor equipment. The young student, however, is not able to distinguish the cause of problems and often blames himself for the issue. After all, everyone else seems to be able to play correctly. Obviously the tuning slide must be properly greased and the spit valve must seal correctly. Maintaining the slide is made more difficult by instrument manufactures and music stores who insist on placing “slide oil” in the cases. This oil should immediately be discarded and students should be taught how to lubricate the slide using your preferred slide cream (Trombotine Slide Cream, UMI Slide O Mix, etc…) and spray bottle. The typical fourth grader, routinely lacking self-awareness, can be rough with their instrument. Any dents, regardless of severity, that interferes with slide movement should be fixed immediately. Slide Savers can save your most clumsy student several dollars in repairs. Slide maintenance must be a high priority for the young trombonist. Their slides should be periodically checked to ensure that they are keeping up with maintainance properly.

It can be beneficial for the beginning fourth grader to begin on mouthpiece larger than the typical 12C provided with the entry-level instrument. A Bach 6 1/2 AL, or equivalent, provides more room for lip response and enables the student to get a more open and characteristic sound sooner. Your music dealer should agree to make this mouthpiece substitution with no charge at the time of rental or purchase. Although the larger mouthpiece requires more air, it’s never too early for students to learn how to breathe properly. Keep a handful of the smaller 12Cs on hand just in case a student in not capable of handling the larger size.

THE BASICS

Mouthpiece BuzzingMouthpiece buzzing should be the cornerstone of each lesson and the beginner’s practice routine. In addition to strengthening the embouchure and improving tone production, buzzing can be used to increase lip flexibility and most importantly develop ear-training skills. 90% of what students buzz should be music! Keep other exercises simple. Glissandos (up and down), echo exercises, and long tones should be sufficient. Buzz along with your students to provide an aural model and to help them hear the pitches they are trying to play. Help your students develop the habit of buzzing their method book lines as well.

With a proper embouchure, developing a characteristic tone should not be difficult. Providing your students with a quality model of sound is essential. It is this sound that your students should hear in their head while they are playing their instruments. Teach this concept of “inner hearing” early in the first lesson. Do not be surprised if you need to repeatedly remind your youngest students to keep their teeth apart while they are playing.

  • Include simple breathing exercises to the beginning of each lesson:
    • Breathe: In for 8 counts; out for 8 counts (repeat four times)
    • Breathe: In for 4 counts; out for 4 counts (repeat four times)
    • Breathe: In for 2 counts; out for 2 counts (repeat four times)
    • Breathe: In for 1 count; out for 8 counts (repeat four times

BreathingStudents should perform these exercises with their hands on their heads. This forces the air to the bottom of the lungs and provides an example of the proper breath to mirror when they are playing. Ask them to “remember ” what a big breath feels like and make sure they are using the full allotted time for each exercise. Do not underestimate the importance of these exercises. For many, this is the first time they are being asked to control their breathing.

Hand Position Left hand position can be a particularly difficult stretch for the young trombonist. Certain entry-level trombones are worse than others in this regard. Adjusting the slide slightly closer than perpendicular can slightly ease this problem. Have the student experiment with index finger placement to find a more comfortable hand position. Typically, the student will be reluctant to let the instrument rest on the shoulder adding further strain on the left hand and tension in the left arm.

Do not let the short arms of even the average sized fourth grader discourage you from working with young students. One thing is certain with these youngest musicians: They will grow! Tolerate the slight sharpness of sixth position periodically reminding your student to stretch more for those pitches. Rewrite or transpose any exercises that require the use of seventh position. Make sure the sharpness is not exaggerated by improper right hand position. This is usually caused by the student is using too much hand to grasp onto the slide or bending the wrist back to rest the palm on the slide.

Within the first couple of lessons, students should begin to practice the rising Bb major scale in whole notes. Since reading musical notation may be new as well, write the name of the note and position number above and below each note. Demonstrate the scale for your student and make sure that they hear that each note is higher than the previous note. Have your student try the scale, stopping if they hear themselves drop down in pitch. Stress the importance air speed and hearing each note in their head as the scale gets higher. Although it may take a few weeks before he/she is able to reach the top of the scale, you will notice significant muscle memory improvement in their embouchure almost immediately.

Simple lip flexibility exercises will keep tension and mouthpiece pressure from creeping into their playing. As with the scale, they may not be immediately playable by some of your students. Emphasize that the embouchure must remain relaxed and that the air should do all of the work. Your student will quickly realize that they will be unable to perform the exercise through mouthpiece pressure.

HOW TO PRACTICE

There are not many secrets left. If you want your students to have a good sound, they must have good embouchures, breath support, a mental image of a quality sound and they must practice long tones and lip slurs. For better technique, they must diligent in their practicing of scales and arpeggios. To play more musically and stylistically, they need full command of all articulations and must listen to the finest recordings and live performances. Even with our youngest trombonists, each one of these performance aspects must be practiced every day.

Teaching our students how to teach themselves may be one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Practice assignments must be clearly written in a notebook or marked in the method book. Since parent involvement is crucial to your students practice success, make sure they are aware what their child should be working on as well. Suggest that they practice at the same time each day. Thirty minutes, six days a week, should be sufficient for the average fourth grader.

Even our youngest student must never be reluctant to mark their music. Difficult passages should be broken into smaller pieces. Technical sections must be slowed down to the point the student is able to perform them accurately. Maintain this slower tempo for several repetitions instead of gradually increasing speed. Motor memory and tempo are mutually exclusive. It will be easier for the younger player to repeat the technical portion several times without error if the tempo remains slow. When the passage feels “automatic” to the student, return to the original tempo. If more work is needed, it should be done at the slower tempo.

Teaching the fourth grade trombonist is extremely rewarding. Their desire to excel and ability to absorb new information make them ideal student. With proper instruction we not only foster their love of the trombone, but start them on their journey as life long students of music.