Trombone versus Euphonium and Tuba: The Most Basic Differences in Approach

Although my graduate-level training was primarily as a trombonist, for the majority of my time teaching at the university level I have also taught euphonium and tuba. For a college or university to have a “low brass” professor rather than separate trombone and tuba professors (much less a full-time euphonium professor!) is not unusual—in fact, I would wager that most tertiary-level teaching positions for low brass players involve teaching at least two if not all three of these instruments. It is thus incumbent upon low brass players pursuing a career in higher education, regardless of major instrument, to learn the best approaches to playing and teaching both trombone and the conical low brasses*, and to understand the similarities and differences between these approaches.

These thoughts come as I am beginning to prepare a lecture for the South Central Regional Tuba-Euphonium Conference, which will be held at Louisiana State University later this spring. My working title for this presentation is “Preparing to teach ‘Low Brass’ at the College/University Level: A Primer for Tuba and Euphonium Players.” While the following thoughts will constitute just a part of that presentation, let us consider briefly some foundational ideas for best approaching both playing and teaching as an “all low brass” musician. In addition to current and aspiring university professors, pretty much all of these ideas will be applicable to players and teachers outside of the higher education “realm,” and, with perhaps some modification, to teachers at the secondary level, as well.

(*The term “conical low brasses” is simply a “catch-all” term I sometimes use for low brass instruments like the euphonium and tuba that are constructed primarily of conical tubing on the main bugle, and thus share certain characteristics with regard to tone quality and overall approach.)

What the Biggest Difference is NOT

The first thing that one must understand when beginning to work with both the trombone and the conical low brasses is that the biggest difference between these does not lie in the “slide versus valves” question. A middle school trombone player can figure out that there is a correlation between the slide positions on his instrument and the valve combinations on the euphonium and tuba, and on that basis experience some rudimentary success on one or both of those instruments. With perhaps a bit more effort, a euphonium or tuba player can do the same with the trombone. Why do I say that? Because I once was that middle school trombone player! At age 13, having never practiced the euphonium or tuba a day in my life, I could pick up either instrument, press the right “buttons,” and play a scale or maybe a couple of exercises. Did it sound good? Of course not—I had a lot to learn before I would be able to produce a characteristic sound, read music effectively, etc. on either instrument (and I’m still not that great at the tuba). Sadly, though, there are those players that declare themselves “doublers” ready for professional work simply because they understand how trombone slide positions and euphonium and tuba valve combinations are related. As you might imagine, the result is almost never good. Understanding this correlation is, of course, necessary, but it is a surface-level understanding that does not mean one is prepared for professional work as a “doubler,” either as a player or as a teacher.

The Two Differences That Must Be Understood and Mastered

So if the difference between the trombone slide and the valves on euphonium and tuba is not the most important difference between them, then what is? Let us consider two items that are very closely intertwined yet perhaps best discussed separately. The first has to do with the characteristic tone quality of each instrument. If you’ve ever heard a euphonium or tuba being played by a trombonist that doesn’t understand how a good euphonium or tuba sound differs from a good trombone sound, then you know that the sharp, too-focused, “laser beam” kind of sound that results is quite unpleasant. Likewise the “woofy,” uncentered sound that euphonium and tuba players sometimes produce on the trombone. Avoiding these opposing pitfalls requires a solid mental concept of each instrument’s characteristic sound, and how the characteristic sounds of the trombone and of the conical low brasses differ.

I find it easiest and most immediately productive to explain these differences with reference to other instruments. When teaching euphonium or tuba players to double on trombone, I sometimes tell them to think of a trumpet sound. As a cylindrical brass instrument like the trumpet (as opposed to conical like the horn, euphonium, or tuba), the trombone should produce a sound that is brighter and more direct than what the euphonium or tuba player is accustomed to producing. A characteristic trombone sound is, of course, not as bright as a trumpet sound, but given “where they’re coming from” it is unlikely that a euphonium or tuba player will produce an excessively bright trombone sound when told to “think of a trumpet.” Instead, this comparison will help to “break” him of playing the trombone with a “woofy” sound and move him toward producing a characteristic trombone sound.

For trombone players approaching the euphonium for the first time, I work in the opposite direction, telling players to think of the instrument as a “small tuba” (which it is), with a “tuba-like” sound. This goes a long way toward banishing any “wannabe valve trombone” sounds from the student’s playing. Because the tuba is already at the extreme low end of the spectrum for conical low brass instruments, I don’t have a way to teach its sound quality by comparison to a related instrument “further down the line.” I can, however, teach the student how to “blow” correctly on the tuba, which brings me to my next point.

Besides the differences in tonal concept between our two groups of instruments, the way that one uses the airstream in order to achieve those tone qualities is also different. When trombone players begin to play the tuba or the euphonium for the first time they tend to play with an airstream that is much too focused and compact. In other words, they change nothing about their way of “blowing” when moving from one instrument group to the other, and the desired tone quality is not achieved. When playing the euphonium or tuba one should think of blowing a relaxed, warm stream of air through the instrument, an airstream that even seems to expand as the conical tubing of the instrument expands. This visualization doesn’t quite match what is actually physically happening, and of course there are times when tuba players especially need to “punch it.” Still, in practice, provided that the individual has a good sound concept as mentioned above, this approach yields pretty good results.

The tuba or euphonium player playing the trombone for the first time has the opposite tendency. The habit of blowing a relaxed, even diffuse stream of air through the instrument is difficult to overcome, and when a trombone is “blown” in this way the resulting sound might be superficially pleasing, but not at all characteristic. As mentioned above, the trombone is essentially a “big trumpet,” and must be approached in that way, with a method of “blowing” which is free of excessive tension, of course, and yet is energetic, direct, and powerful.

Summary and Conclusion

A trombone, euphonium, or tuba player seeking to either play or teach one or more of the other low brass instruments obviously needs to grasp “notes and fingerings,” but that is only a surface-level understanding. More importantly, one must have in mind the characteristic sound of each instrument, and the approach to the airstream that must be used in order to produce those characteristic sounds. Those that wish to work with members of both the trombone and tuba/euphonium “families” must take particular care to understand where the similarities and differences lie between these groups, and to modify their playing and teaching techniques as needed for each group.

Of course, I have explored just barely “below the surface” with this little article. So many areas of nuance have been left untouched, such as distinctions between the euphonium and tuba (which for my purposes today were intentionally minimized) or even between bass and contrabass tubas. The differences between members of the trombone family went entirely unmentioned. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that once one has the “mechanics” of a given instrument in hand, if he can establish a correct mental concept of that instrument’s sound, and a correct understanding of how he must move air through the lips and instrument in order to achieve that sound, he will be in the right position to increase his playing skills on that instrument and to guide others in doing the same. If either the “sound concept” or the “air concept” is missing or inadequate, then nothing else matters. These two items and their application must be understood if one is to become a successful “low brass” musician.

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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