Newsletter of the American Brass Band Association
Volume IV Issue II
The trombone is the only relatively conical bore instrument in use in the standard instrumentation of the Brass Band. Some would refute this, because of the tendency towards greater bore diameter in modern instruments.
There are several species of trombone, the soprano, and the alto will be mentioned here only to complete the list. The history of the trombone is fascinating. Those interested are referred to the article by Anthony Baines in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The history of the trombone derives from the medieval sackbut and continues its evolution today in the many forms and varieties of tubing utilized trying to achieve the gap between the tenor-bass and the true bass trombone.
Honorable mention must be made of the valve trombone, which will suffice in brass band work, but lacks the fluid lyrical quality and intonation of the slide instruments. I have recently met an interesting species, a valve trombone with rotary valves!
The two species utilized in the Brass Bands are the Tenor (B-flat) trombone and the Bass Trombone. The latter is scored in Bass Clef and is non-transposing. The B-flat instrument is a transposing instrument scored in the Treble Clef. If the B-flat trombone is scored in alto or tenor clef (both C clefs) it becomes a non-transposing instrument. Please read this again and understand it! Most of the time one encounters Tenor trombone in treble clef and Bass Trombone in Bass Clef. In Brass Band scoring, bass trombone is the only C instrument, and the only instrument in bass clef. (So look here for concert key!)
We will talk about the “Tenor-Bass” trombone as well. This term refers to the many evolutionary species that have tried to bridge the gap between tenor and bass trombone. There seem to be reluctance to produce a true bass trombone in G as in the older English tradition. Perhaps this derives from most professionals having to have multiple instruments for different scores, and trying to combine all into one.
Some in brass banding feel trombones have been imported from the symphonic genre, and therefore are not true brass band instruments as are the larger bored saxhorns.
I would like to insert at this point a brief annotation to give credit to authors who have contributed excellent information on the trombone.
Baines, Anthony. “Trombone.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music
and Musicians, Edited by Stanley Sadie. Macmillan. London.
Dearling, Robert. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Musical
Instruments , Shimer Books New York, 1966.
Fink, Reginald, Trombonists Handbook. Accura Music. Athens Ohio. 1977.
Kleinhammer, Edward. The Art of Trombone Playing.
Summy-Brichard Evanston, Illinois. 1963
Yeo, Douglas. “The Brass Trombone: Innovations on a
Misunderstood Instrument.” The Instrumentalist.
Glen Ellyn, Illinois. November, 1985.
The trombone is of ancient origin; the slide, or the principle of elongating a brass instrument by tubes within tubes, has been credited to Tyrataeus in 685 B.C. The advantage of the trombone over all other brass instruments is the possibility of perfect intonation in its entire range, because of the slide.
The trombone is used in ensemble with other instruments and combinations of instruments in the brass band to depict heroic emotions, sacred calm, martial glory, and tragic episodes. Its tone can be noble, grand and organ-like or somber, or even threatening. In solo work, it can be lyrically beautiful and technically brilliant.
The alto trombone (in E-flat) is a perfect fourth higher in pitch than the tenor trombones. Its lower tones are of inferior quality and probably it is this fact that limits its use in the brass bands. I have seen one used primarily as a novelty solo instrument. The valve trombone is more conducive to rapid execution of musical figures, but this advantage is offset by its inferior tone quality.
By far the most common trombone is the B-flat tenor, two required in a three-man trombone section of the standard 25-piece brass band.
The Bass trombone, pitched in B-flat with a rotary change to F, and recently improved with rotary changes also to E, is used for Bass trombone parts.
Many varieties of tenor-bass instruments have been devised and marketed, although the true old-fashioned G Bass trombone (frequently with a slide extension bar to reach far positions) is rarely seen.
There is a contrabass trombone also (contrabasso) which is not discussed here. It requires a mouthpiece similar to that used by a tuba. Its slide extension rests on the floor and rotary valves provide pitch differential.
The B-flat tenor trombone, treble clef, is the mainstay of the trombone section of the brass band. It seems to me, that the Conn instruments seem to be preferred over European models. The reason for this I do not know. Perhaps ease of playing, intonation, etc. are all considered. Even in the most staunch “Sovereign” outfitted brass bands, the Conn Trombones, seem to be in demand.
The tenor trombones can be utilized in combination with other instruments for effect. And this should be experimented with. The trombone fits in well with tenor horn passages, and can be used as a low cornet part in a section dominated by cornet ensemble.
Being an import to the brass band from the symphonic brass, the trombones must be aware that they can easily overpower the saxhorns. The edge they provide to the sound of the brass band is fine, but easily overdone. A truly sensitive trombonist is already aware of this.
It has been previously mentioned that the true “old English” Bass trombone in G is rarely in evidence in brass bands today. This author has never seen one except depicted in historical references. What we do have today is any number of “Tenor-Bass” trombones, which have added tubing to approach the desired range, tonal quality and effect of the true bass trombone instruments.
The difference between a tenor trombone with an F attachment and a bass trombone depends on the size of the bore and darkness of the tone quality. The article by Reginald Fink in the Trombonists Handbook goes into detail on the slide positions, advantages and disadvantages of the F attachments.
It should be remembered that the valve on an F attachment instrument is for the lower register. It should never be used for the performance of the higher partials. The upper register tone quality of the valve is muffled, the intonation insecure and in legato passages there is an audible slap as the valve is engaged.
Any trombone which has an additional section of tubing mounted in the bell section which lowers the first position pitch a perfect fourth is considered an F Attachment trombone. Historically, a bass trombone was pitched with its fundamental in F or G and looked like an extended version of a straight tenor trombone. The extreme positions had to be reached with a handle attached to the upper and outer slide tubing.
The invention of the rotary valve made it possible to build an instrument, which was a combination of the tenor and bass trombone. This is the instrument the length of the tenor trombone, with the additional tubing of the bass trombone installed in the bell section. Originally these were referred to as tenor-bass trombones, but now are simply labeled bass trombones. These instruments retain the TONE QUALITY of the original bass trombones, according to Fink.
The Bass trombone has a bell diameter of at least nine and one-half inches and a bore of approximately .562 inches. Instruments smaller than this, having a bell diameter of eight and one-half inches and a bore of .547 inches must be considered large-bore tenor trombones with F attachments. These smaller instruments are played by first and second trombonists in American symphony orchestras. Although these trombones have the same range as the bass trombone and have a more penetrating pedal tone register, they cannot equal the large sonorous quality of a true bass trombone. One can use the large bore tenor trombone with a large mouthpiece to play the bass trombone part in medium and even large bands, but the large bore tenors become raspy and cutting when playing the bass trombone part.
The F attachment does not make the trombone completely chromatic to the low-pedal B flat. A low B natural is not available on either a bass trombone or a tenor trombone with an F attachment. More and more composers have been writing low B naturals for the bass trombone and the players have developed several methods of producing that pitch.
In summary, the utilization of the trombones, both tenor and bass in the brass band has been fruitful, and to the advantage of the genre. They seem to add an appropriate edge to the organ like sound of a brass band, and may be utilized as a section, as a solo instrument, or in various combinations, especially with the cornets and tenor horns.
Shepherd’s Crook Newsletter
Vol. IV No. II Autum 1999
American Brass Band Association