In my last post, I mentioned long tones as an example of the kind of thing that can benefit from practice with a drone. I did so with some amount of resignation: I’ve never liked long tones. They may be the most boring part of my practice. By definition long tones are slow to get through, without any musical interest. And, you can’t even multitask by paying attention to something else. It’s not like your embouchure will exercise itself while you’re otherwise occupied! Each note takes constant care and maintenance to keep the pitch and timbre steady.
The reason it’s so hard is a matter of simple physiology. Our muscles are designed to contract – to move. When a muscle tries to hold a position without moving, it starts to shake. Think about trying to hold up something heavy for an extended period of time: after a while, your arms simply can’t stay steady anymore. The same thing happens when you try to hold your embouchure in an engaged but unmoving state.
However, long tones are important to suffer through, and not just for their own sake. There isn’t a professional trombone audition in the world that doesn’t include applied long tones. Perhaps the most obvious example is in the excerpt from Brahms’s first symphony. The hardest part isn’t entering on the high A – it’s holding the sustained middle C near the end:
I could go on, but you get the point. Trombones are not known for playing fast – they’re known for playing long, beautiful notes. Since that is what composers write for us, that’s what we have to be able to play.
The best advice I can give, of course, is to practice long tones regularly so that when they appear in literature, you’re prepared. Do them with a drone, or at least a tuner, to make sure your pitch doesn’t drift. Also, do them with a metronome so there’s an external time framework. If you set the metronome on 60bpm, of course, you can count each note’s duration in seconds. Like any exercise, practice at many different dynamic levels and in many different ranges. Don’t limit your technique by short-changing your practice!
When long tones appear in a piece, it pays to be a little bit strategic. It is the lack of motion that makes long tones so hard on the muscles. We can’t create motion by going to a different note, obviously, but a subtle crescendo or decrescendo will allow the muscles to move a little bit, and that will make the note easier to sustain. That will require its own practice so that the dynamic change can be even and controlled, but I find it’s far more reliable than trying to hold any note absolutely still. And, with a little planning, the subtle dynamic changes can turn into phrasing and add a layer of musicality onto the performance.