Vibrato: An Overview for Trombonists

Whether you’re a new or seasoned trombonist, you’ve likely heard your band or orchestra teacher make reference to the term “vibrato”. Vibrato is a music embellishment that’s produced by varying a note’s pitch, amplitude, or both by going slightly above and below the note in a regular, repeated fashion. There aren’t many method books that focus extensively on vibrato, as it isn’t difficult to learn the mechanics behind vibrato production. What is difficult, however, is finding ways to incorporate vibrato into your musical style. From understanding the different types of vibrato to vibrato practice tips, here’s an overview of vibrato for trombonists of all levels.

What are The Different Types of Vibrato?

There are two types of vibrato available to trombonists: the slide vibrato and the jaw (or embouchure) vibrato. While some people suggest that there’s a third type of vibrato that’s produced by puffing air into the trombone, this isn’t recommended as puffing air can actually undermine the tone quality and disrupt the flow. Slide vibrato is most unique to the trombone, and is created by moving the slide above and below the desired slide position while playing the note. Many jazz musicians from the 1930s and 1940s used slide vibrato extensively, but it’s also used in classical music. If you’d like to take a stab at slide vibrato, make sure your slide is in good shape first.

As you’ve probably guessed, jaw vibrato is produced by moving the lower jaw up and down during play, all while keeping the mouthpiece still. Try saying the syllables “yah-yah-yah-yah” without the horn to visualize the action, then try it with the instrument in your mouth. Once you’ve perfected embouchure vibrato, you can increase the intensity of the vibrato by making an even bigger motion with your mouth. Many trombonists of all styles use this, but keep in mind that jaw vibrato can make notes in the higher register very unstable.

Which Type of Vibrato is Easier?

If you can’t already create a good tone quality in all registers of the instrument, don’t begin using vibrato until you can do so. Once you’re ready, start with jaw vibrato instead of slide vibrato, as slide vibrato takes a great deal of coordination and is more difficult to learn than jaw vibrato. Additionally, slide vibrato is usually reserved for the jazz genre so, unless you’re a jazz musician or have been told by your teacher that you’ll be applying slide vibrato in classical situations, it’s probably a better idea for you to stick with embouchure vibrato at first.

Regardless of the type of vibrato you choose, the first thing you should do is learn how to produce and control vibrato. Long tone exercises are excellent for this. Simply hold a note for at least eight slow counts, start adding vibrato after two beats. Add it gradually and taper back down for four or more beats, then back to a straight tone for two beats. Perform this exercise in all registers, and at any dynamic. Ask your music teacher to spend some time observing your vibrato so he or she can help you avoid forming any bad habits.

General Vibrato Guidelines

When it comes to vibrato, you should be able to turn it on or off, or use a different style depending on the piece of music. As with any musical effect or technique, the musician should be in complete control at all times. If you find that you can’t control your vibrato as effectively as you’d like, take a step back before attempting to use vibrato during a performance. If you’re playing the trombone in a section, listen to the lead and do it the way he or she does, only a little bit less. As a section trombonist, your job is to support the rest of the section, not overshadow it. One thing to avoid is using vibrato to cover up bad intonation. Since vibrato is going above and below the correct pitch, it can magnify the fact that you’re out of tune.

While vibrato can help you project sound without playing louder, it can also help center the tone and pitch in a section. Although early orchestra recordings feature quite a bit of vibrato, tastes are changing as orchestra styles become more uniform and the general consensus is vibrato should be barely noticeable. Finally, don’t use vibrato in passages where you’re playing in unison with other trombonists. Doing so will only make the section sound out of tune and wobbly. For more information about vibrato, speak with your band or orchestra teacher for helpful tips and advice.

Need to buy a trombone first? Check out our Trombone Buyer’s Guide. 

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