To avoid awkward slide motion and play faster, trombonists use alternate slide positions that make technical passages easier to play. They are based on playing the same note on different parts of an overtone series, and there are dozens of alternates.
In this article, I'll explain when to use alternate positions, why they are used, and how to use them.
What are alternate positions?
A note appearing in different overtone series allows for alternate positions on the trombone.
On the Bb trombone, we have seven series: on Bb, A, Ab, G, Gb, F, and E.
Alternate positions make it possible to play the same note in different positions. This can make your life as a trombone player much easier, allowing for faster playing, better articulation, and more "fluency".
Why do you need alternate positions?
Unlike other brass instruments, the trombone does not have valves. The alternate positions on our instrument make it possible to have a technical facility close to that of the valved brass. Alternate positions are really essential to trombone playing and perhaps we should stop referring to them as "alternate".
I personally use them all the time - without even thinking about it.
There are at least three reasons why alternate positions are important:
They allow you to play faster
They limit awkward slide motion back and forth.
Natural slurs and grace notes
They need to become an integral part of your trombone playing as soon as possible.
How to find and use alternate positions
I could go on and on about partials, positions that are slightly high or low, etc.
I am not going to do that.
Instead, I am going to give you a couple of examples of the ones I use the most and encourage you to experiment whenever you have the chance.
Experiment when practicing or when playing with others. You might not find that perfect combination of positions on the first go. If a line feels awkward to play, try to alter a couple of positions. Try multiple variations and don't be afraid to change things up.
Practice using alternate positions every day. Start by playing slow and then gradually speed up. After a while, you will notice that you have developed a new sense of fluidity.
Intonation and tone quality
Intonation when using alternate positions can be tricky. Some notes are going to be high, other a little low. Use your ears and adjust with the slide. There is no shame in that.
In time you will know which notes are high and low and adjust without thinking about it.
The key thing here is to practice, both in the practice room and while playing with others, and develop your ear.
Alternate positions on the trombone are an essential part of learning to play the trombone.
Fortunately, it is not hard to learn, it just takes a little practice.