Tenor clef – a crash course

A tenor clef at the beginning of a new piece of music can be a frightening symbol to face if you have never seen one before.  It looks a bit like a schematic of the crossbow that the conductor might use to fire his baton at you if you stuff it up.  Fortunately, learning to confidently sight-read tenor clef does not need to be a daunting task with some preparation and practice.

A pallet of clefs

Most lower brass players learn to play music written in bass clef.  However, there will be situations where the music will be written in other clefs.  An advantage of tenor clef is that the notes are lower on the staff. This avoids using two additional ledger lines for higher notes. 

Alto clef is less common but certain pieces of music use it.  The alto clef and tenor clef share the same symbol but the alto clef is placed a ledger line lower on the staff.  Therefore, all the notes are written a ledger line below where they would appear on the tenor clef staff.  The middle of the alto/tenor clef symbol indicates where middle C is on the staff.

tenor clef vs alto clef

Brass band arrangers write their music in Bb treble clef for all instruments, with one exception. The bass trombone part is in bass clef in C.  This treble clef heritage makes it difficult for brass bands to recruit lower brass players who can only read music written in bass clef.  Learning to read tenor clef can help lower brass players to bridge from bass clef to Bb treble clef.  Let me explain…

Is treble clef really tenor clef in disguise?

As it happens, tenor clef places the notes in the same place on the staff as Bb treble clef. Composers always write trumpet music in Bb treble clef.  The nuance is that the key signature for tenor clef will be the same as the bass clef key signature. Both are in C pitch.  To read Bb treble clef, think tenor clef with 2 flats removed (or 2 sharps added).

Clear as mud? 

This comparison chart shows the same note, a middle C, written on staves with the 3 different clefs:

So, if you can read tenor clef, you will also be able to read trumpet music by mentally adjusting the key signature. 

Bridging from theory to reality

Now that you know the basics, you’ll need to put them into practice before the feeling of terror will completely evaporate.  To help ease the frustration of learning to read tenor clef like a pro, Brendan Collins has written a well thought out set of practice exercises for a very reasonable cost.  Pick up a copy using this link…

Tenor Clef In 30 Days By Brendan Collins – Digital Sheet Music For Individual Part,Score – Download & Print S0.868013 | Sheet Music Plus

“Tenor Clef in 30 Days is designed to help intermediate students of the trombone overcome one of the biggest hurdles they will face in their formative years – reading Tenor Clef. The exercises are short and progressive and can easily be adopted into a student’s daily practise routine. Within a month, students will have a good knowledge of tenor clef and feel confident when reading and performing some of the extensive trombone repertoire that is written in that clef.”  

Brendan Collins

After you’ve mastered Brendan’s exercises, give your local community brass band a call to let them know that you’re finally ready to help out.

Still confused? Leave a comment or post a question.

Role of the Bass Trombone in a Big Band

Role of the Bass Trombone in a Big Band

How is the role of a bass trombone in a big band any different to the other trombones in the section? Is it simply the 4th trombone part, or something more? Listen to any good big band and you will hear the difference. In a big band, the bass trombone part should be approached by the player as a principal chair.

Good arrangers will pair the bass trombone with the baritone sax to deliver a crispy punch to the bottom end of the band. The lines will often be a counter-point to the rest of the band, or be joined with the bass to emphasize bass punctuation points. The bass trombone player should treat these as solo lines and bring them out, in spite of how loudly the trumpet section complains during rehearsals. (Just remember, on a gig, the trumpet players will most likely be positioned behind the trombones and won’t have a clue what’s going on in front of them anyway).

At other times, the bass trombone part will literally be written as a 4th trombone in a harmony, and we would want it to blend nicely with the rest of the section. That means no blats or over-blowing. Match the section and support the harmonies with the lowest voice.

So, the bass trombone player needs to be aware of his/her changing role in different circumstances. Blend when required in sectional harmonies and play like a soloist when written differently to the rest of the section.

Seat instruments together who play together

Ideally, the bass trombone should be seated next to the baritone sax. If the bass player can be nearby too, that would be even better. These three instruments will often feature together and provide the bottom-end support for the entire band. Note that the lowest common note the bass trombone and baritone sax have is a low Db. Any lower and the bass trombone is on his own.

The Bass Trombone Sound

There is a big difference between playing bass trombone in an orchestral situation and in a big band. To begin with, the sound will be significantly different and that is primarily due to the difference in roles in these different situations. An orchestral bass trombone should have a darker sound to allow it to blend with the brass section and the rest of the orchestra.

The role of the bass trombone in a big band is different. In a big band, there are fewer instruments and the bass trombone needs to carry more of the bass-end responsibility. We do not always want the bass trombone to blend with the rest of the trombone section. You’ll often hear a bass trombone in a big band have a brighter sound than an orchestral bass trombone. Three primarily factors impact the tone:

  1. The mouthpiece. A shallower cup will help produce a brighter sound with more punch. Finding the right mouthpiece for you can take some experimentation.
  2. The instrument. Different models will produce different timbres of sound. Some say a darker rose gold color will produce a darker sounds, while a brighter yellow brass color will produce a brighter sound. Check out which brands and models your favorite bass trombone players use and try them out for yourself.
  3. The player. Finding the right embouchure to consistently produce the sound you want will be a critical element to your playing. The basics need to be there, such as proper breathing, breath control and posture. Be aware that the louder you play, the more air will be required. So, learning to project your sound efficiently will allow you to play softer and conserve air, while delivering sufficient volume to the listener.

Great bass trombone players

See the video below for a terrific bass trombone feature with a big band by Martin van den Berg. Martin does an outstanding job – making his instrument speak consistently across the register with a great sound. Note that the bass doubles his solo line. You’ll also hear him play counter-point lines during the ensemble sections. Listen carefully as he occasionally drops an octave with a pedal grace note – a technique made famous by George “Mr Bass Trombone” Roberts.

You playing the role of the bass trombone in a band band

When everything comes together, playing bass trombone in a big band can be a very satisfying and rewarding experience. When done right, the audience will notice the difference. The bass trombone will poke right through the whole band when needed and blend back into the band when expected.

If you have the opportunity to play bass trombone in a big band, don’t waste the opportunity by simply treating as a 4th trombone part. Make a difference to the overall sound of the band.


practice time

Make your lesson and practice time count

Most students find it challenging to remember what was said in a lesson. Perhaps conveniently, they sometimes find it even more difficult to remember what they should practice prior to the next lesson. Keeping a journal will make a student’s practice time more effective.

Keep a simple journal of key learning points in a lesson and write down items to include in the student’s regular practice routine.

It will help jog the memory. It can also serve as a valuable record of progress.

Lesson and Practice Journal

Download a full year of journal pages from playingbrass.com.

The weekly Lesson and Practice Journal is a template that the tutor and student can use during lessons. Students make notes during practice time.  Use one page each week.

Music students and teachers use the top half to record key take-aways. The students can then refer back to these during their practice time.

The student can use the bottom half of the journal page during practice time to record:

  • what the student should practice over the coming week,
  • what the student actually practiced during the week (tick marks),
  • how long the student practiced on each day.

This example shows what a completed journal page might look like.

practice time

Students should focus their practice time on those areas that will provide them with the most benefit towards improving their playing ability.

A Tool for Students, Parents and Teachers

Keeping a journal is a great resource for students, teachers and parents to support a regular and frequent practice routine.  Ideally, students should use the document daily.

Teachers and parents might consider using a reward system to encourage students to practice frequently.  you can reward younger students with stickers in their journal, or special treats, for a solid week of practicing.

If a student returns to lessons week after week without any evidence of a practice routine, then the journal serves as an objective basis for a frank discussion about the student’s level of commitment.

If you use a journal effectively, it will help the student retain the key points being taught and encourage them to practice the right exercises frequently. 

Other Resources to make good use of your practice time

For some terrific videos on how to practice, check out Harry Wtter’s youtube channel

Also check out Christopher Bill and his resources.

Both Harry and Christopher have some fantastic video on their Youtube channels where you can listen to some expert playing.


It’s all in the head

Having intellectual knowledge discussed here at playingbrass.com is an important start. However, head-knowledge will be useless if it can’t be applied when you are performing music.  Performance situations can become very stressful unless you are confident in your abilities.

When you are talking to a close friend, you’ll be unaware of all the technical aspects of producing coherent sentences.  For instance, you won’t be aware of

  • how and when to breath in between words or
  • the pitch or volume of your words needed to convey the desired expression or
  • how you should move your tongue to produce each syllable needed for each word or
  • how to pace each word for the optimal effect. 

Instead, you’ll be focused on the ideas you want to convey and you’ll unconsciously rely on your brain to automatically take care of the detailed tasks needed to participate in a conversation.  You’ll even have enough processing power left over to assess how you friend is reacting to what you’re saying and, in response, adjust what you say next – on the fly!

Keeping your head when performing music

Now, transport yourself into a large auditorium filled with people – all staring at you, waiting to see what you’ll say next. 

performing music

If you are like most people, your stress levels will rise, you’ll become nervous. Many of the tasks needed to produce coherent speech that your unconscious mind previously took care of for you, unexpectedly now require processing by your conscience mind.  Suddenly, your brain needs to take care of these additional elementary tasks in addition to keeping track of the big ideas you want to convey. 

This feeling can become overwhelming which can then trigger new adrenalin-induced responses such as a dry mouth, a quivering tone, lack of projection, physical shaking and the inability to ‘be in the moment’.  You may forget to breathe.  Negative self-talk can consume your already constrained mind space.  You’ll then be unable to express yourself freely and your delivery will lack the confidence and emotion needed to convey your message convincingly.  You may even forget your message entirely. The focus of your audience will shift from listening to your message to watching you squirm with everyone in the room, including you, wishing it would just end now.

The same scenario can apply when performing music.  If you are focused on the technical fundamentals of playing your instrument, it will almost certainly detract from your musical performance.

Nerves when performing music

“Use nerves for good rather than for evil.”

To beat nerves, be confident in your abilities.  Uncontrolled nerves can have a devastating effect on your abilities in that moment.  To gain confidence, prepare well. Practicing your technical skills so they become second nature – so they are deeply embedded in the unconscious mind.  But this alone won’t be enough. A level of “match fitness” needs to be maintained so your body can execute what the unconscious mind is telling it to do.  This is the purpose of practice – to develop;

  1. Skills – training the brain,
  2. Strength – training the body.

A lack of anxiety can be nearly as bad as being too nervous.  Well channeled anxiety can fuel a sizzling performance.  A lack of anxiety or excitement can result in an uninspired, even a boring presentation.

“Perform like you’re practicing.  Practice like you’re performing music.”

When practicing, play like you have an audience. This rehearses the feeling of playing in front of people and gives you the opportunity to practice your performance in a safe environment.  You’ll play at your best without the intrusion of stage-fright.  However, when performing music, contain nerves by imagining yourself back in the practice room. Remember when you were playing in your most relaxed state and bring it to front of mind.

Being relaxed on stage may make you feel more comfortable, however it may not produce a better performance.  We need to learn to channel our nerves into our performance to make it memorable – for all the right reasons.

confidence in ability graph

In Summary

  • Prepare well by practicing the right things the right way so you become confident in your ability to play what’s required.
  • Create low-key performance opportunities to become comfortable in front of an audience.
  • Expect yourself to be nervous and deliberately direct that energy into your performance.
  • Play confidently and recover from any mistakes quickly.  Expect to make some mistakes. Take some risks to keep it exciting.  Worrying about making mistakes will result in a tentative, uninspiring performance.  A wrong note played confidently can sound better than a right note played tentatively.  Think: “if I play like I am frightened, every note will sound like a mistake.”
  • Keep in the moment by focusing your mind on expressively making music. Look past the intrusive thoughts and calmly concentrate on the music you want your audience to hear.  Take some deep breaths and slow down your mind to allow it to focus.
  • Remember how you played in your practice room – how good it sounded – how you wished the world could hear it.  Reproduce that performance.
  • Let your audience feel how much you enjoy playing your instrument.
“Performing music needs preparation – it’s your choice whether you do it in your practice room or in front of your audience.”


trombone trigger

Single trombone trigger

Some trombones have a trigger or “F” attachment. When you press the trombone trigger, it makes the instrument longer by 5 semitones (equivalent to 6th position).  The instrument will produce a low F in the 1st position instead of a Bb when you press the trigger (or valve).  Therefore the trigger is often referred to as an “F attachment”. 

The trombone trigger is equivalent to a 4th valve on a valed instrument

The trigger provides further options when playing notes in 6th or 7th position.  The trigger make the trombone much longer when used in combination with the slide by adding another 6 positions in length to the 7 positions on the slide.  The player uses the trigger to continue playing all the way down to a low C (just above pedal Bb) from a low E in 7th position.  With only 1 trigger, the instrument still can’t be made long enough to reach a low B natural.

Double trombone trigger

double trigger

The 2nd trombone trigger on some bass trombones opens several more semitones of tubing.  By combining two triggers with the slide, the trombone can be made much longer than usual; allowing it to play much lower notes, including the low B natural.

Length of positions

When you press a trombone trigger, you are lengthening the whole instrument. The length of the instrument determines how long each position should be to reach the next semi-tone. When you press a trigger, you make the slide positions become so long, that the slide is only long enough to cater for 6 positions, instead of the usual 7 positions. 

To find the new longer positions when the trigger is pressed, do the following;

  • Play F in 1st position, press the trigger and tune the trigger to sound the same.
  • Play E in 2nd position, press the trigger and find the same note using a long 2nd position. Use the trigger and this long 2nd position to play the E an octave lower.
  • Play Eb in 3rd, then find the longer 3rd by pressing the trigger, and so on until you get to C.

Find the (even longer) positions using a double trigger using the same method.

Why does the slide only have 6 positions when the trombone trigger is pressed?

To lower a note by 1 semitone, the overall length of the trombone needs to increase by 6%

As the instrument becomes longer, the additional tubing needed to produce 6% becomes longer.

When the first 6 positions are played using a trigger, each slide position need to be further apart than usual to change the pitch by a semitone.  The slide is then only long enough to accommodate 6 positions.


Using articulation to shape sound

Using articulation to convert notes into music

Notes can be produced quite differently by using articulation. 

A player produces various articulations by combining the use of the tongue and the air stream in different ways. 

Tonguing techniques

A player will use his tounge to shape each note to achieve the desired effect. An accomplished brass player will master each of the techniques below.

  • No tongue – slurring (legato) across partials and glissing  (blowing while moving the slide, or pressing the valves down half way)    
  • “Da” – or soft tongue allows for smooth playing – essential for slurring (legato) on trombone
  • “Ta” – gives a clean attack.  Imagine there is a tea leaf on the tip of your tongue – spit it off.
  • “Ta Ka” or “Da Ga” – double tonguing used when the speed makes single tonguing impractical
  • “Ta Ka Ta” or “Ta Ka Ka” – triple tonguing – useful for rapid triplets
  • Flutter – rolled “R” tonguing creating a raspy sound

A list of articulations

This is a list of common brass articulations that are used frequently in music of all genres:


Tenuto – Full note lengths – legato playing. Notes are broad and connect to subsequent notes.

Staccato – Short and detached. Start the note with the tongue but stop the air to stop the note.

Accent – Use “Ta” to produce an explosive start to the note.

Marcato – Short accented note. To exaggerate the effect, start and stop the note with the tongue.

Rip – a quick gliss up to a note with an indefinite starting point.

Doit” – Establish the base note, blow hard and upwards. Trombone players can shoot their slide out towards 7th position while lipping up through the partials.  The partials become closer together as the pitch goes up and as slide becomes longer.

Fall – Opposite to “Doit” – down instead of up. Trombones should slide out on the same partial.

Trill – Alternating quickly between 2 distinct notes. Trombones slur 2 notes in the same position.

Shake – Rapidly moving between the base note and the note on the partial just above it without moving the slide.

Vibrato – A subtle undulating pitch change produced by moving the chin up and down slowly.  Trombone players can also produce vibrato by subtlety moving the slide up and down around a note but should favour shifting above the note to keep the vibrato sounding bright rather than flat.

Altering the sound quality

Mutes – Used to alter the sound of the instrument by changing the tone and lowing the volume. Each type of mute produces its own distinctive sound. The most used mute is the straight mute. A jazz player uses the toilet plunger to great effect to make the trombone ‘speak’.

mutes produce effects which can be combined with articulations

Articulation is like punctuation in grammar – it brings music to life.


trombone hazard

This chart shows how to play each note on a trombone using it’s slide position.  Pitch is controlled by blowing a note on the correct partial combined with moving the slide to the correct position.

Slide Position chart

slide positions
Note: There is a fundamental partial one octave below the 1st partial. This is where the ‘pedal’ notes reside.

Pulling the slide up makes the instrument shorter and the note goes up in pitch (sharper).

For example, to produce a B;

the player must blow a note on the 4th partial while placing the slide in the 4th position.

Although these mechanics may seem complicated on paper, they become very natural after a little practice.

Mastering the co-ordination between the slide and the partials is key to mastering the trombone.  Slurring without tonguing can be achieved by crossing partials.

Not all slide positions are equal

Slide positions are not equal in length.  They become further apart as the instrument becomes longer!  So the distance between 1 and 2 is shorter than the distance between 2 and 3, and so on.  To go lower by 1 semitone, the length to the next position needs to be 6% of the current length of the instrument.

How to check your positions

A tuner is the best way to check your pitch on any note, however, here is a quick way to check the accuracy of your positions by ear; 

To check your 6th position, play an F in 1st position and then make it sound the same in 6th


To check your 5th position, play a Bb in 1st position and then make it sound the same in 5th


To check your 4th position, play a D in 1st position and then make it sound the same in 4th

Tip:  Notes on the 6th partial (starting with Ab in 1st position) are naturally flat so all positions on that partial need to be shorter than usual (e.g. high G is played in a short 2nd position). The high Ab in 1st position is not usable for this reason. There are as many partials on a trombone as a player can buzz. The sky is the limit.

Bass trombone slide positions

Bass trombones and some tenor trombones have an additional “trigger” or valve. The use of the trigger will change the slide positions. More on this in a future post.

Find the slide position by listening

Exercise:  The best way to determine the exact slide position for any note is to listen. Learning where a position should be is just a starting point. To play in tune, a player must listen to every note and make micro adjustments while playing. Learn the characteristics of your trombone. Many are slightly sharp on the 5th partial. Is yours? If so, every position on that partial should be played slightly longer than usual. Use a tuner to double check the positions for each note.



Practice Imperfectly

Practicing the wrong thing will help you play wrongly more consistently. If we practice perfectly, our practice helps us to play our instrument correctly.

Purpose of Practice

The purpose of practice is to develop your skills and strength. Practice is needed to maintain familiarity with your instrument and will help you achieve your full potential regardless of natural ability.

To play a brass instrument confidently and well, the lip muscles (“chops”) must be trained and the player must maintain a level of ‘chop fitness’.  This means playing both regularly and frequently. 


Ideally, a player should skip no more than a day of practice.  Roughly 2/3rds of a practice session should be spent on building and maintaining basic skills and 1/3rd on playing pieces of music.  Use a lesson and practice journal (see an example at end of this book) to record your progress.

Tip:  At home, leave your instrument out of its case, in a safe place.  When you walk past, have a blow.  Twenty minutes of playing over 6 consecutive days is much better than playing for 2 hours on only one day each week.


Athletes don’t train by only practicing their event, they work on all aspects of their skills – just like us.

Here is nn example practice routine. Always playing with a full sound, both soft and loud:

  1. Have a warm up – long notes – keep the air moving – breathing – filling the lungs to the max!
  2. Flexibility – lip slurs with a full sound on every note.
  3. Slide/valves – play scales fluidly so they become automatic (tongued and slurred).
  4. Single tonguing while constantly blowing air (use both Ta, Da).
  5. Range – produce full sounding high and low notes.

Next, play as musically as possible (play like you would sing). Don’t just play notes – make music!

  • Rehearse musical pieces that you want to master
  • Sight-reading – accurately play music you have never seen before.


Always play passages as slowly as needed to play them accurately, then gradually speed them up.

The Effect of Effective Practicing

The difference in capability between a student who practices regularly and one who rarely practices is enormous.  If a student is familiar with their instrument and can play it confidently, the entire experience is far more enjoyable for everyone, but especially for the student. Students who don’t practice at all will improve so slowly but the musical experience will often become frustrating for them and everyone around them.
Tip:  Use a Lesson and Practice Journal.
You can download one for free here.



The Importance of Sight-Reading Well

A confident sight-reading ability opens up new worlds of music for the player and allows them to easily play with others.  Sight-reading, at its most elementary level, is a combination of (1) pattern recognition, and (2) concentration.

Pattern recognition

You can’t recognize a pattern if you haven’t seen it before.  To sight-read music confidently and accurately, it is essential to expose yourself to a wide variety of written music.  Practice passages that are unfamiliar, slowly at first to ensure accuracy, then gradually speed them up until they are at their normal speed, looking at the music every time.  The next time you see that pattern in a piece of music, it won’t take you by surprise.


Clear your mind of distractions around you (except for the conductor, if there is one).  If playing with others, listen to what they are playing to ensure the part you are playing fits in (there is no point sight-reading the music accurately if you are in the wrong place). Count rest bars diligently.

time signatures

If the rhythms look complicated, aim for the notes that fall on a beat and fit the other notes around them.  Count according to the length of the notes rather than trying to count according to which beat number you are currently playing, particularly if the time signature changes frequently. Watch the conductor for beat 1.

Read a bar or so ahead of where you are playing and aim for notes on important beats.

Before you play

When you see a piece of music for the first time, scan for the following;

  • The clef – especially for trombonists who may be called upon to read up to 4 different clefs.
  • The key signature – when flats or sharps are written in a key signature, they always appear in the same order.  Memorise the order of the flats and sharps. 
    • Flats:  B flat is always first, then E flat, and so on up to 7 flats.
  • Sharps: F sharp, then C sharp and so on (in the opposite direction to flats)

When you see a key signature with lots of sharps or flats, you will instantly know which notes are to be flattened in the music without having to study the key signature in detail.

  • Key “go to” markers in the music so you know ahead of time where you will need to jump to in the music.
musical symbols
  • The time signature – how many beats in each bar and which type of beat it is.
  • Dynamics and accents so you can play the music expressively.
  • Any tricky passages (‘play’ them in your head) especially any passages marked “Solo”.
Tip:  Practicing scales will allow you to play runs while on “automatic pilot”.


projecting sound

Projecting sound is not the same as playing loudly.  We want to project our sound as effortlessly as possible so the audience can hear the sound regardless of where they are sitting.

Brass players “buzz” their lips into a small cup-shaped mouthpiece. This mouthpiece fits into the tubing of the brass instrument. The tubing of the instrument resonates, amplifies and transforms the raw sound of the buzzing lips into the beautifully complex tone that comes out of the bell.

Projecting sound by finding the sweet spot

Sound Projection is produced by resonance. Centre your note in the “sweet spot” of the instrument by playing in tune with where the instrument is tuned for each note.  Technically, this means your lips must buzz at the exact frequency that matches the tuning of your instrument for each note.  Therefore, it is essential to be able to ‘hear’ a note in your head prior to playing it.

Producing a resonant note allows us to produce a quality sound with maximum efficiency.

We want the audience to hear the complexities of our sound, whether they are in the front or the back row.  Good projection keeps your sound intact while it travels from to the back of the room.  We want the sound to remain the same throughout its journey – regardless of the pitch or volume.

Trumpets and Trombones are directional instruments and need to point the bell of the instrument at the audience.  Don’t play into the stand, or into the player in front of you, or into the floor.  Doing so will kill your projection and the beautiful sounds you produce won’t be accurately heard by the audience.
Exercise:  Play to a person standing right at the back of the room, not to the conductor or front row.

Play each note in the sweet-spot of the instrument.

Find the sweet-spot by pushing focused air from full lungs through a good embouchure. Use all the techniques discussed previously – centering each note. Blowing a note at its perfect resonant frequency will cause much larger vibrations than would otherwise be possible.  In a lab, this wine glass was shattered by a speaker producing the resonant frequency of the glass.

projecting sound to shatter glass
Exercise:  While playing a note, pull the mouthpiece out to hear the buzz. Are you buzzing the exact pitch of the note you are trying to play?  If not, you are not playing through the centre of the note and the quality of your sound will suffer.
Tip:  Play through the centre of a note to achieve twice the tone quality with half the effort.

A by-product of resonance is efficiency which allows a player to use far less air to achieve the desired result. Efficiency is especially critical when playing long, loud and low passages which require a great deal of air. So, projecting sound efficently is the key to economic use of air while producing a fabulously rich tone.

Tip:  Don’t blow “into” your instrument, blow “through” your instrument.