The Trombone – ‘Too Sacred for Frequent Use’

trombone angel

Phew – It’s snowy isn’t it…

So with last weeks blog post, I tossed a tiny pebble into the ocean that is the internet and somehow ended up with¬†800 or so views – such is the power of the Queen/Adam Lambert fanbase.¬† Somehow, I imagine, this week’s blog on the role the trombone plays in the nineteenth century symphony orchestra may be somewhat less popular… But playing trombone in a symphony orchestra is what I do an awful lot of, so I thought I’d waffle on a bit about¬†it.

I’m halfway through rehearsals for the next concert with the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra, an all Russian programme.¬†And the orchestra is sounding uncommonly good.¬†Perhaps there’s something about this fiery dramatic writing style – wearing it’s geographical origins, one foot in the enlightened cities of central Europe, the other in the mystical exoticism of central Asia and beyond on¬†it’s sleeve – ¬†that suits the temperaments and playing styles of the amateur musicians of North Cheshire.¬† Or perhaps, says he a little cheekily, it’s because the programme is a particularly busy one for Wilmslow symphony’s extremely fine trombone section…

As the title¬†of this week’s essay suggests, the trombonist is one of the few members of the symphony orchestra that spends more time with the instrument on the stand than actually playing any notes, and there are solid historical reasons for this.¬† Whilst I’m inclined to think that¬†the quote about being “too sacred for frequent use” was probably said by some oversensitive conductor who didn’t want this (let’s face it) frankly noisy and cumbersome instrument getting in the way of some intricate and delicate string playing, the phrase has actually been attributed to the great German composer, Felix Mendelssohn.¬† Beethoven himself described the trombone as ‘the voice of God’, and, well¬†quite frankly he’s right!¬† But in all seriousness, before it’s relatively late inclusion into the symphony orchestra, this remarkably ancient instrument (the basic design has remained unchanged for over 500 years) was found primarily in the church. They were often used to accompany the choir.¬† Different sizes of trombone would play the alto, tenor and bass lines allowing the singers to listen and sing along to their individual parts.¬† The tone of the trombone provided a sonorous solemnity to the proceedings and thus composers outside the church reserved the trombone for similar moments of religious fervor¬†or unearthly weirdness. Therefore, you have Mozart reserving the use of the trombone in his opera ‘The Magic Flute’ for moments of masonic mysticsm.¬† Beethoven, in what is often said to be the first use of trombones in a symphony, reserves them for the final movement of his 5th Symphony. The final movement is to all intents a triumphant choral anthem¬†emerging from the¬†darkness of the previous movements. When¬†the trombones join in, they¬†basically represent the missing choir.

It has to be said that composers’ use of the trombone’s godly qualities has tended to fall down on the side of Particularly Angry Thunderbolt Flinging Deity, so we do spend a lot of time representing death and hell and doom.¬† In Mozart’s greatest opera, Don Giovanni, he¬†reserves the trombones for two short moments when the murdered Commendatore returns from the depths of hell to haunt the Don.¬† They’re great moments, but there’s awful lot of sitting around in the orchestra pit waiting for them to come.

There’s one bit of doom laden music that comes up time and time again for us at the back of the orchestra.¬† Composers can’t get enough of a little bit of¬†13th century Gregorian Chant¬†from the Latin Mass for the dead, called¬†the ‘DIES IRAE’ (pronounced dee-ez ear-ah)¬†or ‘Day of Wrath’.¬†Cheerful stuff. It sounds gloomy enough when it’s intoned by a bunch of monks, and it’s¬†frankly terrifying when tanked out by a bunch of trombones, tubas and church bells¬†as it is in the final¬†‘witches dance’ movement of Berlioz’s¬†Symphonie Fantastique, especially having followed immediately on from the equally cheerful ‘March to the Scaffold’.¬†¬† Over the years¬†the Dies Irae has¬†become a musical shorthand used by composers when they want to represent a general all gone tits up moment¬†– and it’s more often than not it’s the boys and girls at the back of the orchestra that get to play it.¬†¬† Notable examples include Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre; almost certainly some shit by Liszt;¬†Steven Sondheim’s trombone-heavy masterpiece Sweeney Todd (“swing your razor high Sweeeneee…”),¬†‘The Empire Strikes Back’¬†and a whole other¬†bunch of film scores including this notable example:



So, anyway – where does this all fit in¬† with the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra Russian programme?¬† Well, the first¬†number of the concert, Russian¬†Easter Festival Overture by Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov¬†is a piece made up almost entirely of tunes taken from Russian Orthodox liturgical chants.¬† Quite frankly, these plainsong melodies aren’t a great deal more cheerful sounding than the Dies Irae above.¬† In fact when the music appeared on the stand, the part didn’t look a whole lot different from the aforementioned Symphony Fantastique.¬† Makes you wonder what exactly how much celebrating was being done at these nineteenth century Easter funfests. ¬† Having said that, it’s a really fun piece of music!¬†So, religious subject matter? Tick!¬† Ancient, somber melodies? Tick!¬† It all adds up to a whole lot of trombone! Yay!

As for the other two pieces, well they’re both by another great Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninov.¬† As well as being a phenomenal pianist and writing some of the most compellingly beautiful tunes in the repertoire, Rachmaninov also happened to have a minor obsession with the Dies Irae.¬† It turns up in almost all of his major orchestral pieces, even the more light hearted ones, get a sneaky dies irae in there somewhere…played by, yup, that’s right….

So when is all this ecclesiastical solemnity happening?¬† Well, Valentine’s Day of course!¬† Now, aside from an oft quoted ‘hilarious’ gag about trombonists doing it in 7 positions, no one has ever described the trombone as the voice of love.¬† Aww….:) – picture credit


Gig Guide

A quick heads up this week for the Manchester Beethoven Orchestra concert, next Saturday 7th February in West Didsbury.

It is being guest led by my¬†lovely and talented¬†wife, Susan Harris and is a superb programme of pieces including the 3rd Symphonies of both Brahms and Sibelius –¬†2 phenomenal works, linked really only by the fact that they both have the words symphony and 3 in the title….

…which I think is probably a good enough random topic for¬†a blog. Everyone loves a list, especially on the internet, so – next time – best (and worst) 3rd Symphonies.¬† So, if you have your own favourite, let me know.¬† And if you don’t know any symphonies, go ahead and pick a 3rd one at random, it’s as good a way as any other to try something new…

Queen is Dead – Long Live Queen


A bit of a sideways glance for this week’s blog.¬† Whilst my intention with the blog is to highlight my experiences as a performer this week I’d like to chat a little about the gig I went to.¬† All time rock legends and national treasures, Queen brought their tour to Manchester this week and Susan and I were there in the¬†two hundred and thirteenth row. (Actually, our seats were pretty good, considering the size of the arena). I’m sure Queen really¬†need no introduction to anyone reading this blog (nor pretty much anyone else for that matter).¬† They are one of those curiously British¬† phenomena like James Bond, Doctor Who, pantomime,¬†Monty Python, the Beatles where a genre (action movies, science fiction, theatre,¬†rock n roll) is taken and subverted¬† to produce something unique and compelling¬†and – yes unmistakably British.¬† With Queen, a standard 70s rock band format and songs is twisted just enough to become a heady mix of operatic theatricality, cheeky sexuality and an endearing campiness whilst all the time ensuring a superb commitment to phenomenal songwriting, instrumental playing & singing.¬† Whilst humour and a knowing wink to the audience are often to the fore, without a doubt this a group of musicians to be taken extremely seriously.

I’ve been thinking back to my younger years and my first memories of the band – certainly I have very distinct recollection of their videos on Top of the Pops.¬† The video for I Want to Break Free particularly¬†was¬†an eye opener for a na√Įve 10 year old.¬† “Dragging up” – that great British panto tradition – was certainly nothing new, but Freddie Mercury’s take on it, even to my 10 year old eyes, suggested a sexual world extending beyond what school and home taught me!¬† That particular video was banned in United States – here in Britain we were, and still are, far more progressive and grown up about-¬†well- most things…

queen 2

It was at high school when I got further insight into the band, as one of my friends, Chris was a massive fan.¬† He introduced me to the albums, regaled me with little tidbits of info like the fact that Brian May built his guitar he always plays out of an old fireplace and some motorcycle springs; their rather luddite insistence on ‘no synthesisers’ on their records; controversies surrounding songwriting royalties; the Marx brothers etc.¬† So, Queen became a not insignificant part of my early teenage years (not as big a part as that other regally monikered rock artist, Prince, but that’s another story).

And then one Friday it was announced that Freddie was sick…and¬†by Sunday he was dead.

It was a big enough event in our lives for our school chaplain to talk about Freddie’s death in our next assembly.¬† I still remember how he started his address, with the pronouncement that is made in this country when a monarch dies -“The King is Dead – Long Live the King”.¬† And then – “Queen is dead – Long Live Queen”.¬† Of course, what he meant was that in the modern world of media culture, movies, records, music videos, an artist becomes truly immortal – the records and films made, to all intents and purposes mean that to an audience they never age or die.¬† And this would be the case with Queen.

But in Queen’s case there has been more.¬† Despite the loss of one of the most unique front men in the history of rock, Brian and Roger (and initially John before his retirement) have carried on recording and performing now for a longer time without Freddie than with him.¬† And despite a continuing roster of guest singers, the legacy of Freddie’s¬†performance¬†has not in any way felt diluted. Undoubtedly the best of these performers is their current singer, Adam Lambert.¬† On paper it sounds like a disaster.¬† An American?!¬† He’s less than half the age of the rest of the band!¬† He’s a reality tv show runnerup?!¬† But, arguably Adam is the finest male singer of his generation and its wonderful to see him get his teeth into a back catalogue of songs worthy of his skills.¬† This wasn’t a Freddie impersonation but¬†it was a stylish compelling performance that stood up in it’s own right and¬†was a worthy and touching tribute.¬† He really sold it.¬† And he can get round those songs, and believe me they are a hard sing.¬† In another life, in my student days at St Andrews University¬†I used to be part of a close harmony¬†group called the Hangovers – a great bunch of lads and really quite a good bunch of singers.¬† We used to sing at balls at parties in and around the town, a mixture of trad barbershop and arrangements of current pop tunes.¬† I’m not quite sure why, but I put myself forward to sing a couple of Queen numbers and I – Was – Awful!¬† The rest of the guys would gamely back me up as I, a skinny goofy teenager in a cheap bow tie and ill fitting¬†tux¬†would try¬†to get my voice round¬† Fat Bottomed Girls (of all things!)¬†with none of the swagger and style of the original.¬†¬† Here are the boys below looking young fresh faced and thin!


Anyway, for what it’s worth, finer performers than me have fallen foul of living up to the Mercury magic, but Adam knocked it out of the park – as did Roger and Brian – a special night. So on that note, Freddie, Brian, Roger, John, Adam – thank you and Long Live Queen!


Gig Guide A quick heads up for the very fine Northenden Players and their next play of the season, Agatha Christie’s The Hollow from 1 – 7 February, details at the link below: This is the directorial debut of my friend and musical writing collaborator Mr Ross Keeping (Musical, I hear you ask?¬† Have you written a show Richard?¬† Why, yes I have!¬† Check it out at – its available for performing!) – but I digress -Northenden Players always put on a highly entertaining, extremely high quality performance, and knowing the director and the cast as I do, this will be no different.¬† Get down there -the front of house folk are always really welcoming too!

Finally, a couple of dates for my ¬†Funk band, Lostock, talked about at length in my previous post – 24 Feb at Night & Day (if you put your name on the list in advance, you get reduced entry, no obligation, so drop me a message if your interested) and we’re back at the Blue Cat Caf√© on 27 March.¬† See you there!


Credit – photo

Uptown Funk/Urmston Funk

Lostock 1

So – this week I did something new. I wrote an application for a band to be considered as an act at a festival.¬† The band was the funk band I joined towards the end of last year, Lostock (named after the roundabout near where we rehearse – no I’m not wild about the name either) and the festival is the well regarded Manchester Jazz Festival.¬† I think our chances are pretty small, but I have a lot of affection for the MJF (check it out, 1st week in August, a really eclectic programme, and not expensive/a lot of gigs are free¬† ) so nothing ventured….

Anyway, for your amusement – the PR blurb I was asked to submit (the brief was no flowery language or clich√©s – oh well¬†…)

Featuring the songs and vocals of Phil Steele, this is straight up old school funk combined with Northern grit & humour, Lostock is the band Manchester has been waiting for. Lostock were formed last year by 8 experienced Northwest musicians drawn together by a love of funk and great live performance and they look forward to bringing their big band sound to the city and beyond.

Funk, has long been a style of music which I have loved to listen to so it has been a real source of excitement for me that I have finally been given the opportunity to play it with a group of musicians who understand the form and are serious about creating a well rehearsed quality product.¬† What is it about funk that appeals to me¬†so much?¬†If I may – an extremely brief and simplistic potted history of the form.¬† Funk basically originated in the US in the late 60s/early 70s when rock and soul musicians started hiring jazz musicians for their bands.¬† Most famously, the ‘godfather of soul’ James Brown was extremely exacting and restrictive with regards to what he allowed these musicians to do in performance.¬† Artists who followed ¬†such as Sly Stone and George Clinton were a lot freer and allowed these instrumentalists the flexibility and freedom to play their strengths.¬†(A small¬†aside – I was given the evil eye- from the stage to the balcony-¬†by¬†George¬†Clinton at a gig¬†in the Bridgewater Hall.¬†Terrifying.)george clinton

The result, is a type of music where the melodies and harmonies are extremely compelling in their simplicity whilst being played and embellished by the most virtuosic of playing.¬† It’s also extremely rhythmic, and because we’re listening to human beings producing these sounds rather than computers and drum machines, the result is something wonderfully organic, dirty and – well – funky!¬† There’s a fantastic documentary about the origin of funk¬†on BBC 4 which I’m sure you can find on iplayer if you want to¬†know more.

Anyway – it’s been a great learning experience for me, in particular, as a classically trained musician to be thrown into a world of no sheet music where everything is worked out and memorized in rehearsal by ear – particularly difficult in the horn section where¬†three of us¬†have to play¬† together sometimes extremely melodically angular and rhythmically exacting phrases. The reader versus non reader approach to music is an interesting one and probably worthy of it’s own blog post.¬† There is often very little crossover between the 2 types of¬†performer and, for what it’s worth I can see the pros and cons of both approaches.¬† Ultimately though, music is an aural artform and it’s never been easier, via the power of the web, to go out and listen to and try to copy the greatest performers in whatever your chosen medium is.

So – Lostock have been playing together for a number of months, we’ve performed in public a couple of times and are now in the process of sitting down and discussing seriously the direction we would like to take.

The first discussion we are having¬†concerns the types of gigs we would like to play.¬† It’s a fine line between putting ourselves forward for lots of gigs and, what should be an enjoyable activity, begins to turn into a bit of a chore;¬† too few, and the incentive to practice becomes less and our cohesiveness as a band is threatened.¬† For me, a musician who usually just ‘turns up and plays’ for gigs on a more or less freelance basis, being in a situation where performing relies on the whole band agreeing is a novel situation.¬† Anyway, the general consensus from the band is that we believe that we have a quality product to offer so we intend to ‘aim high’ – hence the jazz festival application, amongst others.¬† Obviously we’re not in a position to turn down gigs until we’re offered (!) but I look forward to keeping you posted on our progress.

The second discussion concerns the thorny subject of¬†‘cover versions’.¬† The band, as it stands, is essentially a vehicle for our singer and guitarist, Phil Steele’s own songs.¬† He seems to have an endless capacity for turning up week in, week out with another batch of catchy riffs, melodies and lyrics and we all¬†enjoy the process of turning them into (hopefully) slick performances.¬† However we do understand that audiences do like to hear something they know, so the occasional well known number is always welcomed warmly.

We do a couple already, including a funky take on pop diva and friend of the band, Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’.¬†¬† Check out¬†our live version below:

We have great fun with that one, as we do with our other cover, Starsky & Hutch, but the burning question (you should see the emails going back & forth) is what next?¬† Of course, we would¬†all dearly love to do one of our favourite funk heroes’ numbers- something by¬†¬†Parliament, Tower of Power or Steely Dan – but if no one in our 2015 Manchester audience recognises it, it kind of defeats the purpose as laid out above.¬† (and if you haven’t heard any of the above bands, may I suggest you head over to youtube after you’ve finished reading this to further your musical education and have your mind blown ūüėČ )

So where does that leave us?¬† I’m inclined to go with something extremely current and ontrend – Ed Sheeran anyone? (yes I know… but I’m always grudgingly truly blown away by his performances!)¬† “All About That Bass” (no treble) has also¬†been mentioned (yes I know…but you’d be all¬†singin’ along wouldn’t you!) Anyway – over to you – all suggestions gratefully received!

If current and on trend is the way forward then it has to be said, funk is where it’s at – yes funk has returned to the top of the charts with a vengeance.¬† (That’s right¬†kids, the hit parade. Cast your minds back to those heady days¬†when you used to listen religiously every Sunday, taping your favourites).¬† If you haven’t heard Uptown Funk (definitely funk- it’s in the title) from Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars check out the Michael Jackson inspired video below.¬† It’s hilarious and brilliant (I’m particularly amused by the appearance of Mark Ronson in the back of every shot looking a bit goofy… look below, there he is¬† grimacing at the ¬†back on the left…)

So, perhaps we’ve found our cover – could Uptown Funk become Urmston Funk?¬† Could we really be that funky?¬†¬† Whatever the outcome, you can be¬†sure that we’ll be doing our utmost in helping to¬†fly the flag for ¬†the funk revolution up here in our little corner of Manchester. Watch this space!


Gig Guide

Okay, if this blog goes to plan I intend to put out a post roughly weekly.¬† I also intend to give you news of any upcoming gigs myself and my friends are involved with which I think may be of interest.¬† Also please feel free to let me know about anything you would me to bring up.¬† If you’d like to write a blog entry, even better.¬† Anyway, first up I’d like to bring to your attention a chamber orchestra¬†gig this Saturday evening (17 January)¬†in Cheadle Hulme.¬† Musica Nova are a ¬†great little orchestra, led by my friend Jem Bradley, who are known for their high quality performances and a convivial informal atmosphere at their concerts.¬† This Saturday’s programme features the harp playing of Alex Scott Young in some really interesting pieces.¬† Some such as Vaughan Williams’ Dives and Lazurus and his take on Greensleeves will be familiar, others such as Debussy’s Danses Sacree et Profane, less so.¬† All, in all, an orchestra and programme worth checking out.¬†Details below:

Till next time…




Happy New Year! – made any resolutions then?

Well – A good day and a happy new year, 2015 to all of you who have stumbled across this page… and welcome to the very first post of my brand new blog!¬† I find myself staring at a blank computer screen after, on a whim, deciding to register my name as a domain, downloading some blogging software, and typing in the rather wordy title ‘Thoughts and musings of an amateur Manchester musician’ (might change that later when I come up with a better one…)

Needless to say, that title pretty much sums up what I’d like to blog about.¬† I’m just about to turn 41 and it occurred to me that I’ve pretty much spent over 30 of those years involved in music making of some form or another.¬† Like countless others, including, I hope, some of the readers of these articles, I’m not talking about a mere hobby or relaxation.¬† No, as many of you will entirely understand, this is an all encompassing lifestyle which truly colours your day to day existence.¬† No, we can’t go on holiday that week,¬†I’ve got an opportunity to play¬†Mahler’s 3rd Symphony…¬†Sorry, can’t come to your wedding, there’s been a gig in my diary on that date for the last twelve months…¬† I’m still a little disappointed that me and my wife’s trip of a lifetime to Australia coincided with my friend’s theatre group’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’… and it was even a bit of a consideration about whether we would start a family.¬† Who’s going to babysit when we both have a gig on the same day?¬† (Susan’s a very fine violinist – out at a rehearsal as I type). (We did have a baby by the way, he’s called Eddie, he’s one now and pretty fab – here’s a picture of him playing piano duets…Eddie piano

So, the plan is to try and put pen to paper and come up with a few thoughts about my musical life, past, present & future, hopefully a few interesting anecdotes, some words about the projects I am involved in currently… snippets of minutia that come to mind that I think might be worth sharing.¬† And hopefully I’ll get to hear the same from you!¬† So many of you are involved in exciting projects – concerts, gigs, recordings,¬†theatre productions.¬†¬† Lets make this a place where we can share our excitement!¬† What are you involved in now?¬† Let’s hear about it.¬† Going to a concert, gig or whatever is great but I love hearing about the journey to that finished product, the behind the scenes toil, the craft and art behind it.¬† That’s what I intend to write about and I’d love to hear the same from you too.

I realise that, if¬†you are¬†reading this at all, chances are you already know me and probably already have an idea about the sort of music I’m involved in.¬† But- in case you have just¬†stumbled across this – a little bit of background.

My musical life is and has been pretty eclectic and has involved a bit of singing, piano playing, composing, conducting and mainly (as can be seen from the dubious photo of me in a hat, probably to the left of this article) trombone playing.¬†¬†The eclecticism also extends to the types of music I have been involved with, ranging from classical through jazz, swing, opera, music theatre, light music, pop & rock.¬†I’ve always been particularly interested in the way that musicians schooled and trained in these different styles differ in the way they work and have enjoyed learning from them – so hopefully I’ll be able to talk about that a little too.

Currently I’m playing in a number of local symphony orchestras, a swing band and a funk band and I look forward to¬†writing more about them all in due course.¬† I am also on course to finish writing a short opera which I hope I’ll be able to find people to sing/play through later in the year (there – I’ve¬†said I’ll finish it in black & white now….my librettist will be happy).

And then there’s this blog, a chance to tie it all together and spread a bit of¬†positivity and excitement about this lifestyle that has been chosen for us.

And that’s my resolution.¬† Would be lovely to have you along for the ride!