Category Archives: Mutes

Trombone for the Holidays

Top picks for holiday gifts.

General Accessories: 
Shar 3 in 1 Metronome and Tuner – An excellent clip-on device that can tune by vibration.
Boss BR-80 Micro Br Digital Recorder – Portable multi-track recorder.
Hercules Trombone Stand – A trombone stand that fits in the bell.  A little heavy but extremely convenient.

Trombone Maintenance:
Slide-O-Mix – I prefer the two bottle system but others like the Rapid Comfort system (one bottle).
Hetman Valve Oil – The rotary, linkage and ball joint lubricants are must-haves for valve systems.
Spray bottle – The most easily lost piece of equipment, a trombonist can always use an extra.
Spit valve corks – They seem to fall out at the most inopportune times.  Carrying a few extras never hurts.

Mutes:
Best Brass – On the pricey side but incredible quality.
Jo-Ral – Their brass bottom straight mute is my go-to.

Instruments:
Shires – I’ve been playing on one for almost ten years and wouldn’t consider changing.
Thein – If I had piles of cash lying around I’d buy one of their bass trumpets in a heartbeat and I might as well grab a contrabass bone for giggles while I’m at it.

Publications:
ITA Journals – A wealth of information stretching back to 1971.
Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697-1811 – A not inexpensive volume on the history of the trombone.  In all honesty I’ve never had the opportunity to read it but I’m extremely curious about it.

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

Trombone Mutes: The Basics (For Composers)

This is intended as a resource for anyone considering writing music that utilizes trombone mutes.  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. Budget plenty of time for them…

I’ve seen my fair share of impossible mute changes.  They probably tie with impossible glissandi as the most frequent “mistake” I see in parts.  Know this… the time you left me to put in (or take out a mute) is probably not enough, just saying.  If you want to test it out, just pretend: hold your imaginary trombone in your hands, reach to your imaginary mute with one hand while supporting the trombone with the other, pick up your mute and insert it into your trombone, give it a good twist, take a breath and play (it takes just about as much time to remove it).  Depending on the mute this can take even more time: harmon mutes, for instance, have a nasty habit of falling out; be kind and leave even more time so the trombonist can wedge that thing in the bell and not ruin your piece with a heavy hunk of metal falling to the floor.

There are certain techniques that can save a precious second or so.  If you’re really curious about these maneuvers you can check out my post for trombonists regarding mutes to see what they are.  However, your best bet is always to simply allow ample time for putting in and removing mutes.

3. …at the right time.

Which brings me to when your mute change happens.  As hard as we try we to put mutes in silently it’s not always possible, especially when rushed to do it.  If possible, avoid quiet moments for mute changes.

Additionally, the visual element of the mute change can be distracting.  Seeing a player fumble with a mute (again, this can be especially awkward for quick changes) during a particularly soft or solemn moment can really destroy a mood.

4. Mutes change pitch… add even more time.

When a mute is put into a trombone the length of tubing is changed and consequently the pitch is changed.  Usually it gets sharper (shorter pipe – higher sound) but occasionally it will actually go flat.  Some of these pitch shifts can be quite drastic.  I’ll discuss details when I go in depth on each mute but know that if you want your mute change done right (ie. the trombonist to adjust his/her tuning slide) you need to leave even more time… and yes, that also means more time to put the tuning slide back after the mute is removed.

5. They are a pain to carry (especially on long trips).

Trombone mutes can be rather large and take up a lot of space in luggage making them difficult to carry around.  Carrying one, two, or three is absolutely no problem but asking the trombonist to carry a larger mute bag than his/her suitcase may be asking too much.  For local gigs a large number of mutes may just be an annoyance but for distant gigs the arsenal becomes another checked bag to pay for and to lug around in the foreign land.

Personally I’m usually happy just to have opportunities to perform and understand it’s a professional responsibility to travel with the tools of my trade but I humbly ask you, the composer, to try to realize your vision with fewer than seven mutes.

6. Terminology and notation.

We can thank 19th and early 20th century symphonic repertoire (music that involved one mute that would be used for a few notes) for much of the mute terminology.  Now that parts require multiple mutes and switch between them freely a simple con sord and senza sord may not be sufficient.

A list at the beginning of the part with the required mutes is exceedingly helpful.  A quick look at the part lets me double check, when packing, that I have everything I need for the performance.

Instead of con sord use the name of the mute; senza sord or mute out work to notate the mute removal (which you should always do).

I’ll discuss open and closed symbols (+/o) when I do individual posts on the mutes that utilize them.

Unremixed Excerpt

Stefan Freund has an excellent system for notating mute requirements and changes.