Originally written for the launch of Planetbrass.net
In a youth Orchestra rehearsal many years ago the Conductor addressed me as “Third Trombone”. Being a rather naïve and petulant young man I quickly piped up with something like “I’m not the Third Trombone, I’m the BASS Trombone”. The man with the white stick replied with equal speed “Yes, BASE Trombone!” referring more to “base” as in social status or behaviour, rather than “solid base on which to build something”. Needless to say as a testosterone charged teen, I was mortally wounded, but as I really appreciate any witty play on words this has always stayed with me.
As I have gone through life I have come across many, rather ill-informed people, who believe that a bass trombonist is nothing more than a failed tenor trombonist. While it is true that there are people who start out life as a tenor player, and (wisely) make the switch, it is also true that many people, like myself, have never played the tenor trombone, and actually started out musical life as bona fide bass trombonists. In my case on a real G Bass Trombone! We are people who really enjoy what is offered to us musically at the bass end of the brass section, and are not there under sufferance. I hope, in this piece, to give you an insight as to why, and what it is all about.
As bass trombonists, we are lucky to lead a multi-faceted and interesting musical existence. Obviously, we have the opportunity to play in most musical genres, from Brass Bands, Orchestras and smaller ensembles to Big Bands, and of course as soloists. What may be less obvious is the diversity of styles that we get to enjoy using during our music making in these ensembles.
Let’s start by looking at Orchestral life. It’s true that we exist both as a third trombone and as a bass trombone. These differences can be as subtle as they are enjoyable to try to master. In the loud, explosive tutti sections of the music of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, and in much contemporary music we are employed primarily as a specialist Bass trombonist. We produce a large sound (hopefully), using a large instrument and operate in this symphonic setting, enjoying a very close working relationship with the Tuba. There are many “magic moments” where these two instruments power octave themes through the orchestra together.
At the same time, we work carefully with our tenor counterparts, hopefully producing a seamless flow of sound from the tenors down to the tuba. This is probably the most familiar role of the instrument, and you may think that the playing methods used here, will be the same for all orchestral music. That is definitely not the case…
At the other end of the spectrum, playing the bass trombone in a good “chamber style” is a completely different art. We have a much more gentle existence in the music of Haydn, Rossini and Mozart. No room here for the big aggressive sounds of the “edge machine”, which must be locked away in it’s cage. In fact for this music, I personally will use a smaller bell and leadpipe to really help make a different sound.
In this music we play much more as a Third Trombone. Yes, we are often still the bass note of the chord, but we must play much more as an extension of the sounds of the alto and tenor trombone. The ultimate idea being to blend with the top two voices perfectly, merely acting as a downward extension of their sound, not introducing a different sound and character.
As well as acting as a third trombone, in the classical period, the bass trombone is often used to support or add weight the lower strings in pieces like the Thieving Magpie and the Mozart requiem, and also to Choral lines, such as the famous entry in Beethoven’s 9 th Symphony.
Many of these, so called supporting roles actually lead to interesting technical and quasi soloistic lines. An example of this is Haydn’s Creation. This gives us an opportunity to demonstrate a little nimbleness and dexterity in what feels like an important solo, but in reality, is no more than sharing musical lines with our friends in the lower strings and woodwind. It still needs to be practised though!!
As well as operating as a third player, and reinforcing strings or voices there are a number of Chamber Orchestra pieces, where the Bass trombone is the only member of the trombone section present, and has a totally different role to play. We play much more as a wind soloist.
In Borgeois Gentilhomme (R. Strauss) and the Nielson Flue Concerto, we still play in a smaller chamber style, but we get the opportunity to play much more as a soloist. Again, you must leave any ideas of edge and domination in the locker room, while working with the reduced orchestra, but we can play with more flair, projection and freedom.
As a total contrast to all of the above there are the styles that we use while playing with a big band, or jazz ensemble. You will read many things from jazz experts in these columns I’m sure, but believe it when I say that there are many different styles to enjoy here too. Different articulations, note lengths, vibrato and sounds help us produce styles from the different jazz eras. Playing the music of Glenn Miller is as different to the music of Stan Kenton as Wagner is as different to Elgar. The one that I enjoy the most is trying to emulate the sound of certainly the most celebrated bass trombonist in this genre, “The Guvnor” – George Roberts.
The area that I’m going to mention last, but certainly not least is the Brass Band. I’m going to be really controversial here, and say that (you guessed it) there is definitely more than one style of playing to be used in playing the bass trombone in a brass band. A wag once said that there are two very distinct styles – ON and OFF!!
Obviously in the band we work as a trombone section, and also, as an edge machine. Now I say that with all sincerity. The role that we as players in bands are best known for is supplying a generous layer of edge, sitting nicely on top of the basses. While I agree that this is very important, and in no way would I wish to change over a century of tradition, I believe that every bass trombonist should have an “edge switch”. I also firmly believe that every GOOD player should be able to hear when to turn the switch off!!
Believe it or not there is much more you can offer a band than just “knocking ten sorts out of it”.
I was playing with a band recently, rehearsing a test piece, when it occurred to me that my part really didn’t seem to be very important. It certainly didn’t require playing forcefully with lots of edge. The piece was Chivalry, by Martin Ellerby.
Other than a few bits that are obviously for showing off trombone section work, and the rather tricky, unnecessarily high solo, there are large sections where it is not obvious what the part is about. This is where we can totally change our sound, and instead of using that penetrating sound that the bass trombone is known for in bands, we can latch on to where our notes belong in the chord progressions going on around us. Listen carefully, and you may well find that your notes are written as a third euphonium or baritone, or even as a bass to the horn section. The point being, that if the part obviously doesn’t require mindless grunt, it is not necessarily boring, and the composer may well be using you to bolster the sound of the middle of the band.
You can make a real difference to the core sound of a band, with a little thought. Listen and blend and you can really help produce a quality sound to help your band on the contest platform. Especially if your band is not a top flight band, and the middle of the band is a little weak, you can take some responsibility and help by making a significant contribution, and helping to bolster the “wudge” at the heart of the band, rather than just mindlessly blasting away.
I hope that, in this brief article, I have managed to portray some of what we find interesting and exciting at the bass end of the brass. We may not have the Boleros and the Mahler 3s, but we do have a fascinating existence with a smorgasbord of interesting styles and interesting musical relationships with other instruments in our music making.
Oh yes, there is one thing that I nearly forgot – PEDALS!