If you’re thinking about enrolling your child in marching band, selecting an instrument is part of the process–and the trombone is a popular choice. The trombone’s ancestor was a medieval instrument called the sackbut, which looked a lot like the trombone except its bore was narrower and its bell wasn’t as wide. In the 17th century, the popularity of the sackbut was revitalized and it became known by its present-day name: the trombone. If you (or your child) is an aspiring trombonist, you’ll want to learn everything there is to know about the trombone, including becoming familiar with the different parts of the instrument. From the bell to the tuning slides, here’s an introduction to the different parts of the trombone.
Since the bell is the largest part of the trombone, even those who aren’t familiar with the instrument can probably point out the bell. Essentially, the bell is where the sound waves emerge from the trombone, which is why it’s widely flared in nature. Since the bell is where the trombone’s sound is produced, it’s also where mutes are placed. If you aren’t familiar, mutes are an accessory that alter the sound produced by the instrument by making it slightly quieter. Once your child starts playing the trombone, care must be taken to never set their trombone on the floor or leave it balanced on the edge of a table. The polished surface of the bell scratches quite easily, and a horn left on the floor is a recipe for disaster. Over time, you’ll notice that the metal of the bell can collect dirt, dust, and fingerprints. To keep your instrument in tip-top shape, wipe the bell with a lint-free cloth after each playing session.
Although the bumper doesn’t contribute to the instrument’s sound, it does help keep trombones protected from harm. The bumper is a small piece of rubber at the end of the trombone that prevents it from hitting other things as it’s being played. With an instrument that’s as long as the trombone, it’s highly likely that the trombone will come in contact with other objects as the instrument is carried or played. While the bumper’s sole purpose is to reduce the impact of a collision, the best defense against a broken or damaged horn is handling it with care and using some common sense. When playing, be aware of objects and people around you, and do your best to avoid hitting them in the first place.
As mentioned above, the trombone’s awkward size can make it a difficult instrument to handle. Fortunately, the counterweight is intended to help trombonists’ balance the instrument while it’s being played. It looks like a small hockey-puck, and it fastens directly onto the brace that’s furthest behind the player. If a counterweight isn’t attached, some trombonists find that the instrument is uncomfortable to hold and play for long periods of time. Although some players don’t think a counterweight should be use, it’s a useful piece of equipment for smaller children or for those who may be new to the instrument. While counterweights tend to darken the sound of the instrument due to the additional mass the counterweight provides, most trombonists find that handling the instrument is much easier when they use a counterweight.
The mouthpiece is one of the most important parts of the trombone. It’s a cup-shaped attachment that’s found opposite the instrument’s long slide, and it is blown into in order to produce a sound. Composed of a rim, cup, and a throat, variations in each of these parts can alter the tone of the instrument. For this reason, most trombonists own a few different types of mouthpieces and find that they must experiment before they find the mouthpiece that’s right for them. Since the trombone mouthpiece is large and deep, many players find the trombone to be one of the easiest brass instruments to produce a tone on, even as a beginner student. For more information about this part of the instrument, check out The Anatomy of a Trombone Mouthpiece.
The Tuning Slides
Used to make micro-tuning adjustments to the trombone during play, the tuning slide is found on the heel of the trombone. It can be moved in and out with a small amount of pressure, allowing the trombonist to make adjustments to the tuning as needed. Similar to valve slides, the tuning slides should be lubricated from time to time with a small amount of slide grease. Because the slide is located behind the sight line of the player, the trombonist should always check behind them before lifting the trombone to play. Get into the habit of occasionally glancing over your shoulder during play and practice to ensure there’s nothing behind you that your trombone could accidentally collide with.
The Valve Slides
Similar to how the tuning slides help trombonists make tuning adjustments, the valve slides allow the trombonist to change tones by changing the length of the trombone’s tubing. When it comes to valve slides on the trombone, there are three: the first valve slide, the second valve slide, and the third valve slide. Each branches off of a valve casing, so when the trombonist depresses a valve piston and opens an air channel to that slide, the pitch changes. Although the slides are fitted tightly, tuning can also be changed by moving them in and out with minimal effort. Valve slides should be removed, cleaned, and re-lubricated periodically, just make sure you AREN’T using slide grease for your valves. If the valve slides become stuck, take your trombone to a technician right away–don’t try to force them loose with a pair of pliers!
The Water Key
It may sound gross, but during play it’s common for small amounts of spit to accumulate in the trombone’s main slide. This is where the water key comes into play. The water key is a small metal lever found on the trombone’s main slide. The lever can be pressed to open a small hole in the slide that allows water to escape. In short, moisture can be removed by pressing the key and blowing sharply into the trombone’s mouthpiece until the water has been emptied. The water key has a small round disc that seals the hole when the water key is closed. During routine maintenance and cleaning, inspect the disc and make sure it’s clean and providing a good seal. If the disc needs to be replaced, take it to a repair technician right away.
Need to buy a trombone? Check out our Trombone Buyer’s Guide first!