“An elegant weapon… for a more civilized age.”

by Paul Von Hoff

One of the things that I love about playing concerts with the Gaudete Brass is the opportunity to talk to the audience members after the music is over. Often, as part of sharing their concert experience, some audience members will ask questions about our instruments and mutes. The interest in instruments is a natural part of chamber music. I recently attended an exhibit at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix that focused on the Cremona violin makers, sharing what players and audiences have enjoyed about those string instruments for hundreds of years. If some of our audience begins to be curious about brass instruments in the same way, then I think it is wonderful and an essential step for brass chamber music.

There are, to be sure, some unusual instruments in the group; 1960’s French flügelhorns made by Couesnon, Scott’s Swiss made compact F tuba, Bill’s Eb trumpet with the diagonal lead pipe, and my trombone — a small bore tenor trombone with no rotor valve.

When we play for audiences who are used to seeing trombones in an orchestral or wind band context, my instrument stands out as strange because of its size and lack of rotor. Most trombonists today who perform primarily in large ensembles choose equipment that is significantly larger than the trombones that would have been found in recording studios, leading dance bands, and playing live music during the early and mid 20th century. The larger trombones of today excel at being able to provide a foundation for a large ensemble and are designed to sound rich while being played at very loud volumes.

Since most young brass players get their largest amount of early experience performing in large ensembles (school bands), most players are encouraged/required to learn and play on large bore horns with the addition of a rotor valve that adds 4 notes below the bass clef staff to the range (as well as a bit of extra weight). I played a large bore trombone for about 21 years — all through high school, my collegiate studies, and my early career. At the same time, I was very fortunate that my high school had an old King 3b, a small bore trombone from the 1950’s that I was able to start learning how to play. Having access to that horn encouraged me listen to players who played smaller instruments and helped me discover a lot different styles of music.

Today I play a trombone modeled after the great mid century smaller trombones. It is made by Steve Shires, who builds trombones outside of Boston, and designed in collaboration with the great trombonist Michael Davis (tech specs .495 bore slide lightweight 7.5” yellow brass bell).

Four years ago, Gaudete was touring in the Southwest and Southern California when we had a half day free and stopped at Steve Ferguson’s excellent music shop “Hornguys” in L.A. I picked this horn up, played a few notes and never wanted to put it down. It was like a visit to Ollivander’s. We tried it in the quintet, and although it was different than the larger horn I had been playing, the response of the group was very positive. I decided to try it, and I have played it on every Gaudete concert since.

I am one of the few trombonists today playing on such small equipment and that seems strange to many trombonists. This instrument does however offer some advantages for quintet playing.

1. Articulation — In a brass quintet, the articulation of the trumpet is the gold standard for the beginning of the sound. The trumpets usually sit in front and because of their range they will naturally sound clearer and more immediate. Having a trombone with a quick response helps match that clarity. That’s not to say that you can’t get it in a larger trombone, but you usually must work harder to do it.

2. Characteristic trombone color — In Gaudete we strive to present our group as true chamber music. To this end, there are times when we are looking for a large brass ensemble sound — but not very often. Even then, it is only one of the many colors we hope to use on the concert. One of the things the early brass quintets playing in the mid 20th century (also often using smaller trombones) celebrated was that the brass quintet could maintain distinct individual instrument voices that would allow them to excel at conveying complex polyphonic music as well as have a unified sound that could at times still at times present a unified color. I find that the smaller trombone allows me to maintain a distinct trombone color and not blend too much into the horn sound.

3. Endurance and Ease — Playing a smaller and lighter instrument helps with endurance when we are playing full concerts. We commission several pieces of new music every year, and some of the composers have written challenging and fun trombone parts that have a lot to play. The last thing I want to do on a concert is sound tired, and having an instrument that is easier to play is a very nice thing.

4. Mutes — Mutes, which we use a lot in quintet seem to work slightly better in general on the smaller horn in both response across the range and color change. More of them stay in the bell more successfully, although the dreaded mid concert mute drop can still happen.

5. Matches the trombone sounds I love — This is perhaps the most important reason. When I think of the trombone sounds that I love I think of players like Dick Nash, Tommy Dorsey, and Lawrence Brown. As a student I always struggled to get theses sounds out of the larger equipment. It can be done, but to do it for long periods on the bigger equipment is to to invite playing less efficiently and with more tension. Matching the trombone to the sound I have in my head allows me to practice easy playing with less tension. I also believe that this smaller sound is more compelling. When trombones were a popular instrument, it was this sound that captured the imagination. As Gaudete looks to build the audience beyond the core fans of brass music, we will take every musical advantage we can get.

The last aspect of the horn to address is the lack of the rotor valve mentioned above for those 4 notes below the staff. I do sometimes miss it, but with a tuba in the group those notes almost never come up in the tenor trombone part. Since we commission music regularly, I ask composers not to write them. For the very few times they come up if it is once or twice in a piece I will play them as a kind of pedal tone. If they are all over the piece I will pull out my old King Bass Trombone like I did when we played Zhou Long’s Five Maskers, where the trombone part is below the staff for much of the piece.

The trombone is a an elegantly simple design that has been around mostly unchanged for 550 years. In the age of the revival of LP records, 8 bit graphics and single speed bikes, the idea of simplicity still attracts people. Sometimes the older style tools can be remarkably effective. There are 19th c. daguerrotype panoramic images that are so perfect that it would require a modern digital camera of 140,000 megapixels to be able to match the detail. (http://www.wired.com/2010/07/ff_daguerrotype_panorama/) Sometimes the older tools are at least worth considering. Or perhaps a as recent moderately popular movie reminds us, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed… “