Thoughts on the Alto Trombone

A 2nd Trombonist airing opinions about the alto trombone!! How dare he! He must be a witch!!  Now don’t be getting your skivvies in a bunch just yet – at least read on a bit.

In the last few months, I have been asked by a number of college trombonists about my approach to the alto trombone. Naturally, I was quite flattered that someone actually wanted my opinion on something, and furthermore, on a topic that is near to my heart. I’ve put a few videos up on this site and on YouTube that apparently got some plays, so I’m thrilled that someone enjoys them. The alto trombone is something I am rather passionate about, and I often say the worst part of playing 2nd Trombone is that I rarely – if ever – get to play alto in the orchestra.

To be clear, this post is not going to be a history lesson, as there are numerous other resources for in-depth historical information: anything involving Jay Friedman or Ken Shifrin is usually a gold mine – check out this discussion between both of them: http://jayfriedman.net/articles/j_and_k_talk_trombone_history).

The first point of my own concept that I’d like to address about the alto is that it is a separate instrument from the tenor. While it is still a trombone, it has its own unique voice, and this is something I believe many modern players overlook.  Each voice of trombone has it’s own pedigree and evolution, and I believe one must first acknowledge this before and during study of the alto trombone. It is not just a tool for playing high notes!  I’m sure you’ve heard/read people say that if you can’t play the range on tenor, it’s not miraculously easier on the alto.  Certainly, it makes some passages easier, but rather from a timbrel perspective.  More accurately, it makes many passages not necessarily easier, but appropriate. To repeat, acknowledging that the alto is not just a small tenor is the first step!

Listening to players who have a concrete, informed concept of the alto trombone is my next point. Just because someone is a monster tenor player does not make them a defacto alto virtuoso. As you would with any instrument, find multiple recordings and artists to sample, and evaluate why you like one over the other. Think in terms of sound, style, and nuance, rather than just technical ability. Does it sound like a tenor, or is there something different to the sound: smaller, brighter, more translucent, vocal, buoyant, etc. My personal favorite alto recordings (including YouTube) are those by Christian Lindberg, Jorgen van Rijen, Michael Mulcahy, Ken Shifrin, and Steve Witser. Each one of those players has a crystal-clear concept of the alto sound and style, and is unmistakable from the timbre of the tenor trombone. In 2005, I had the fortune of playing the Mozart Requiem with my teacher, Michael Mulcahy. He played first trombone, as well as the Tuba mirum (I did not mind one bit – it was inspiring!), and the alto playing left a timbrel imprint on my brain that I shall never forget. It has served me quite well as my model whenever I pick up the alto.

Note: I’ve actually had a few people compliment me in the past that my alto trombone sounds big; “like a tenor” was a phrase often used. At first, I was horrified, though I took the compliment graciously. Upon further thought and self-analysis, I realized that I always received that compliment when playing a particular instrument (more on that later), but also the fact that it was sound density they were hearing. The sound was still smaller than a tenor, but this particular horn – in conjunction with my concept of the piece – yielded a much denser sound than they may have been accustomed to hearing from an alto trombone. I digress.

My third point is in regard to gear. Finding an instrument/mouthpiece combination that matches your concept is critical, as it would be with any instrument. Often I see students with the small shank version of their tenor piece, or another small shank mouthpiece that simply does not compliment the horn. Get a pile of small-shank mouthpieces, and try them all. It might surprise you that the 12C on your shelf actually has a practical use!

When I began alto trombone studies, I had a Conn 36H and a small-shank Bach 5G. It took me a few years to realize the 5G was simply WAY too big for my concept, which would partially explain why pitch was never consistent! It’s OK to play a small mouthpiece – no one is judging you on size! I eventually replaced the Conn with a gold brass, dual-bore Glassl alto, which is one of my favorite instruments. I also have a sterling silver Glassl alto, which is the trombone that has the aforementioned dense sound. It is quite appropriate on Brahms Symphony No. 2 when you want some elements of the tenor sound, and on certain solo repertoire or trombone choir pieces. My colleagues adoringly nicknamed it “The Panzer” since it packs a punch when pushed. I use two different mouthpieces depending on repertoire: a Glassl 7C for most late-Classical/early Romantic orchestral repertoire and solos, and a Bach Mt. Vernon 11C for Mozart, Beethoven, and certain chamber music.

Continuing on the gear thread, there are a few players who advocate using the same rim on all your mouthpieces, regardless of what horn you are playing. Jim Nova, for one, is highly successful at this, and no one can say it doesn’t work for him! However, I find that downsizing everything helps me maintain the concept; a “match the instrument to the concept” approach. The physical stimulus of the smaller rim also reminds my brain that I want a smaller, more compact sound. Yes, the concept should always trump equipment and physicality, but why make it harder on yourself? Furthermore, a larger mouthpiece offers more ‘wiggle room’, while the smaller alto trombone affords less. I draw the comparison to beginner tuba players: they are all over the place without even pushing down the valves!! Of course, one must experiment and choose what works the best.

My last comment goes without saying…but I will anyway: practice the alto trombone (or any secondary instrument) like you do your main horn! This means all those scale, long tone, drone, articulation, slur, etc. exercises need to happen. It is very easy to break out the alto only when needed, but over time these skills atrophy. I’ve also found that some of the scariest passages in the repertoire often expose the alto trombone (usually soft, high or low chorales with awkward position shifts) and without regular exposure to scales, drones, soft slurs, one is setting oneself up for embarrassment. Being in shape chop-wise is also so very important, as many of the “alto-heavy” pieces are quite demanding on endurance: Mozart Requiem, Schubert Mass in Ab, Beethoven 5 & 9, and many of the lesser-known chorale works.

I found myself in an embarrassing situation once while performing the Mozart Vespers. It was a very heavy program of chorale works at a small church outside of Chicago about 10 years ago, and the trombone parts were quite demanding. Of course, the chorus was tiny so anything above a p dynamic was offensive to the conductor. Mid-performance, my endurance was sputtering and I literally started falling off notes. The tenor and bass trombonists starting laughing, and they started falling off notes since they couldn’t keep their embouchures together. This was, naturally, the point that the conductor noticed and shot us nasty glances. I look back and chuckle now, but man, I would have traded anything to be in better condition that day!

Thanks for bearing with me, and I hope my ideas resonate. Keep your eyes and ears open for a new sonata for alto trombone and piano over the next year: I’m initiating a consortium to commission an exciting young composer on such a work!

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Alto Trombone

  1. Pingback: Double, double toil and…trouble? | Tim Smith - trombonist

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