How to use a toe to play trombone

How to use a toe to play trombone

Or: Improve your embouchure with one word

Unlike non-wind instruments, trombone playing is deeply connected to your physical body. This means that when you get it right, the trombone will feel like an extension of yourself. And when you don’t get it right, the horn feels like an alien object from a hostile planet. Man, have I been jealous of saxophone players many times: “This reed sucks, I will get a new one.” I would love to have a solution like that for those rainy embouchure days!

As a trombone player, you can be pretty sure that your mouthpiece has not degraded overnight, so the problem is probably you… Or more precisely, how you use your body.

What about that toe?

I had the pleasure of playing some concerts with Canadian trombone master Al Kay a few months ago. He is a really nice guy, and has amazing chops, with annoyingly few limitations in range and dynamics. 

The one tip he gave me that really stood out for me was how to use a toe when playing. Well, not an actual toe, just the word. Try saying the word toe and notice how it shapes your mouth and embouchure. Now try playing with your newly discovered toe-embouchure. Does it help? I have tried this simple trick both on myself and several students, with instantly noticeable improvements. 

If you are already used to playing with a toe in your mouth, you might not notice the difference. ? Try this:

  1. Pick up your weapon of choice
  2. Say the word toe out loud
  3. Hold on to the way it shapes your embouchure
  4. Make a few tu-attacks without your weapon of choice
  5. Notice how the airflow feels – free and relaxed?
  6. Play a few single notes on your weapon of choice
  7. Listen to your sound – bigger/smaller/better/yellower?
  8. Tone response – improved or the same

If this simple little trick makes a difference for you, remember that this is an extremely easy and fast way to maintain your chops, and it can be done on stage without anyone noticing it. I do πŸ™‚

Good luck with your slide toebone!

Al Kay’s custom Yamaha trombone

I also had the opportunity to try out Al’s Yamaha YSL-897ZCA signature jazz trombone. It is a really nice horn, easy to control and with good precision and a nice full sound. I wouldn’t mind having one of those as well next to my small-bore Shires. Al told me, that the model YSL-897ZCA has a narrower slide tolerance than the YSL-897Z. I haven’t compared the two, but my money would be on the YSL-897ZCA. Give it a shot if you see one! Or sell me one dirt cheap…

Yamaha YSL-897ZCA


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