Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Trombone Slide: A Mystery Solved

By Becky Ciabattari

For most wind instruments, it is easy to see the keys, buttons, or valves that are pressed to make different pitches. The Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone and Trumpet are all examples of instruments that utilize keys or valves to change pitches. Yet, there is one wind instrument that uses a slide to change pitches. It is called the trombone.

Because there are no valves or keys on a trombone, it may seem like a mystery as to how a trombonist can create different notes. People have often asked me, “How in the world do you know where to put the slide?” Others have asked, “The trombone looks so hard and you’re such a small person; how do you do it?” Read on to learn how to dispel the mystery that lies behind the trombone slide.

The trombone slide is divided into seven positions that are created by extending the outer slide. The easiest trombone slide position to find is called first position. First position is when the slide is all the way in; seventh position is the farthest position, found by extending the slide out almost as far as it will go. The inner positions (2-6) are often found by using the trombone bell is as a reference point, in addition to careful listening. For instance, third position is found by placing the outer slide cross brace slightly above the rim of the bell. Fourth position can usually be found by aligning the top of the outer slide slightly below the bell. The trombone course through viaAcademies offers clear explanations, graphics, and videos describing how to find all seven positions on the trombone slide.

Once you are able to locate the positions, it is also important to be able to buzz your lips more firmly for higher notes and more relaxed for lower notes. The lips and air are important components to changing pitches on a trombone. In addition, listening to the sounds you make will help to encourage excellent trombone playing while making changes in slide positions and buzzing.

You may be thinking, “This seems like a lot to learn all at once!” Or, “I can’t play this instrument because I am small and I won’t be able to reach all of the positions.” Be assured that you will learn one slide position at a time, then move on to the next. As far as size is concerned, I always tell my students that it doesn’t matter. There are tools that can be purchased to help a student reach the longer positions if you choose, and in most cases, your arm WILL grow! Also, fortunately, most music you will play in your first year will require little use of sixth and seventh positions.

I hope that this information has helped dissolve the mystery behind the trombone slide. As you learn to listen to the sounds you make on the trombone, this instrument may become less mysterious, but rather more tangible and enjoyable. Learning to play the trombone is not only well within the "reach" of most students, it is definitely fun!


  1. Great job addressing the mystery of the slide. It is good to know that even a smaller person can play a larger instrument. I didn't know there were tools to help with the lower slide positions until I saw Becky using one.

  2. Becky -- can you point folks in the right direction on when to add a slide extender, where to get them etc.? What are the considerations around using one or not?


  3. Hi Becky,
    Great article... I'll have to send my curious parents and eager students to this page as it addresses a lot of questions for someone who's never played!

    Thanks for posting this!


    Keith Fiala