Trombone Mutes: The Basics (For Trombonists)

This is intended as a resource for trombonists.  In future posts I will go through each type of trombone mute individually and talk about its quirks and uses, here I will explore the many things that are true of all of them:

1. “Mute” is a misnomer.

Despite their name, mutes don’t actually mute.  In fact, many times, a muted brass instrument will sound louder than an open (unmuted) one.  Mutes are filters: they amplify, pass or attenuate (emphasize, do nothing to, or de-emphasize) certain frequencies.  A mute that removes the low frequencies and emphasizes the high can seem to project more than an open horn.

That said, some mutes will make the instrument decidedly softer: it’s impossible to play very loudly with a practice mute and, while penetrating, solo-tone mutes are not very loud.  In the end it takes knowledge of each mute to know which will suit your needs.

2. Practice with mutes.

The only way to understand how mutes will affect your sound and playing is to practice with them.  You’ll find that:

  • All mutes affect your pitch (which you should compensate for by manipulating your tuning slide).
  • Mutes respond differently in different registers (how so varies from mute to mute).
  • They can tire you more quickly (practice with them for extended periods of time to become accustomed to the resistance).

Practice scales with various mutes (a different mute per day can give you some serious insight) and you’ll quickly figure out their tendencies.

3. Learn how to make mute changes as quickly as possible.

Composers have a habit of writing impossible mute changes.  While they should do their best to give us adequate time we should do what we can to make the changes as quickly as we can.  That means, first and foremost, practicing the mute changes.  Many times, simple repetition will allow you to anticipate the change and pull it off.

If speed alone is not working (and you will be performing seated) try the knee/lap technique where you prepare the mute by putting it in the crook of your leg or in your lap.  This technique can shave some time off the change. Or if the note before the mute change or the first note of the muted passage is in first position you might be able to do the one-handed mute change: hold the trombone and slide in first position with one hand and grab and insert the mute with the other.  This technique can be seriously fast (especially when combined with the lap/knee) but requires the music to be just right to make it useful.

Adams Excerpt

I find this mute change from John Adams' "Son of Chamber Symphony" to only be possible if I put the mute under my knee at the beginning of the piece, insert the mute with my right hand and play the middle C in first position with the trigger.

Birtwistle Excerpt

I ready the mute with my left hand to make this change in Birtwistle's "Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum."

Unfortunately, these techniques will not always work: if you are standing for a performance you surely can’t do the knee/lap technique and if the mute change doesn’t involve notes in first position you’re out of luck.

4. Make mute changes as silently and securely as possible.

Metal clanking on metal or dropping to the floor at the wrong time can seriously ruin a piece.  Simple enough: try to insert/remove the mute quietly and do so firmly.  Give the mute a little twist to ensure it’s in place and, most importantly, never trust a harmon mute.  Those things are bound and determined to fall to the floor.

5. Figure out a good way to travel with mutes.

Trombone mutes are awkward to carry but it’s our responsibility to deal.  I suggest finding a bag large enough to carry several mutes.  I use a large backpack style bag in which I can fit a good number.  The bag is big when full but it gets the job done.  Until someone develops a collapsable mute there’s not much we can do.

Mute Bag

5 thoughts on “Trombone Mutes: The Basics (For Trombonists)

  1. Anonymous

    Great post, Mike. Re: your comment about “until someone invents collapsible mutes…” I abandoned using Stone-Line brand bucket mutes about 10 years ago in favor of Soft-tone mutes, which is kind of like a spandex hat for the end of your bell. It weighs nothing, can be rolled up and put in your pocket, sounds exactly like a bucket mute and can double as a warm-up mute in a pinch. The Jo-Ral bucket sounds great but weighs even more than a harmon (the bass bone size is totally unmanageable) and costs a fortune… But for $30, I’ve had nothing but success with the Soft-tone.

    1. Michael Clayville

      Funny enough, I had just bought a Soft-tone the day before you made this comment. (I had left my bucket at home while on tour.) The sound and response was excellent, I’m going to continue messing around with it to see if I like it as much as my Jo-Ral.

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