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The Ballet Bass Trombone

By Dave Gordon,

Orchestra of the Birmingham Royal ballet

Whilst not having the glamour and exposure of playing on stage, life “down the pit” can still be a most satisfying experience – I know I’ve been doing it now for nearly 30 years!

As a musician perhaps the hardest thing to accept is the required subservience to the stage – in the UK at least. Tempi, dynamics, pauses and even sometimes the order of symphonic movements are out of the conductor’s control! This does seem a little hard to accept ( especially if you happen to be a conductor ), but that’s the way it is, ballet is not an even combination of music and dance… sorry I mustn’t rant!

Having said this, the best ballet conductors manage to compromise and make real music, or sometimes simply ignore the stage!

Our repertoire is wide and varied, ranging from all the big “classical” ballets, through the more “modern” Stravinsky and Prokofiev scores to basically any piece of music a choreographer feels like using! Our company also commissions new scores from the likes of John M cCabe and recently Glen Buhr. So what we have to play ranges from nothing, to ( in the case of Buhr ), virtually unplayable!

In his article “The Bass, Third or BASE Trombone.” Benny clearly defines the role of the orchestral Bass Trombone. The section covering the use of different sounds ie. “power octaves” or “chamber style” is most relevant to ballet work. We however, as ballet trombonists have a problem of our own, – playing in a chamber size orchestra in a confined space. With the exception of certain prestigious occasions in large theatres such as the Royal Opera House for example, the standard size of the Birmingham Royal Ballet Orchestra is; 8 first violins, 6 second violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos and 2 basses. In the case of say Sleeping Beauty these few strings are “up against” full symphonic size wind, brass and percussion. Add to this, players literally on the end of your bell and a small noisy pit and you can see our problem. As a section, in loud passages we try to be as “big” as possible – but certainly not as loud as possible! By taking some of the front off the notes, and giving them plenty of length we can at least get some way towards giving the excitement required without “taking the orchestra out”. I personally play a Conn 62H, finding it to be flexible in the sounds that I can produce on it, especially at lower volumes. The use of smaller bore instruments has been discussed - I’d be up for that, but it could create problems when depping work out , and also the edge produced, all be it at a lower volume would not be to everyone’s taste.

So if you’re coming in to the ballet band for the first time, is it any different? “Not really”, is the answer. Simply use your ears, as you would in any section. There are lots of “power octaves” especially in Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, but even in these big scores there’s lots of bass trombone alone “chamber moments” as well.

The best tip I can give is; Watch like ****** especially at the end of numbers, so many loud final chords happen when the dancer lands after a jump, ie. Out of time!