The bass trombone is in a class of it’s own in any band or orchestra. Although usually part of a trombone section, it often behaves and sounds like a principal instrument. In a big band, a well projected bass bone can cut through the whole band as much as a lead trumpet. It often has independent parts which feature it’s low range.
Playing a bass trombone can be a rewarding experience when it sounds great, however, it is quite different to playing a straight tenor trombone in several respects;
Three key differences when playing a bass trombone
Firstly, to get the bigger sound on the lower notes, you’ll need a bigger mouthpiece. Getting the right combination between the instrument, your lips and the mouthpiece can be quite tricky. It could require some trial and error experimentation to get the best combination. If the mouthpiece is too small, it may be difficult to make the lower notes ‘speak’. A larger mouthpiece can reduce flexibility, endurance and upper range. If the combination isn’t right, you may feel like the bass trombone just isn’t for you. Finding the sweet-spot for you will be well worth it when you find it. Some retailers will let you try mouthpieces before buying them. Some will allow you to buy a few and return the mouthpieces that don’t suit you.
Secondly, you’ll need more air to play a bass trombone.
The larger mouthpiece and bore will suck air out of your lungs like a vacuum cleaner.
Your fitness level and lung capacity become even more important when playing a large bore instrument like the bass trombone. Conserving air to make it through an entire phrase will become a focus that you may not have worried too much about when playing a tenor trombone. The louder you play the more air you will need. So carefully managing volume throughout a phrase will be a critical aspect of playing. Finding strategic spots to breathe may require some forethought. Being able to project your sound will become even more critical. A good projection technique will allow you to play softer, but sound louder to the audience.
Thirdly, modern bass trombones usually have two valves which open up additional tubing. These added tubes are primarily used to extend the lower range of the instrument beyond the tenor trombone’s range. The tricky part is when you add the extra tubing length via the valves, the usual slide positions need to change to keep your notes in tune. For technical reasons, each slide position becomes slightly longer than usual and it will take practice to place the slide in the correct position for any combination of valves that are pressed.
There are other differences, such as the shear weight of the instrument which may be difficult for a younger player to deal with. You’ll also need to become familiar with notes on the lower ledger lines of the music.
Much of your practice will need to focus on
- producing great sounding notes in the lower register
- being able to move between low notes with ease
- automatically moving the slide to the correct position when the valves are opened.
More information about playing a bass trombone
For more information on playing the bass trombone, check out my ebook How to Play Trombone. It contains a special section section on how the valves (triggers) work – just for the bass trombone player. It also explains why the slide positions need to change when the valves are used and how to find where the new positions need to be.