To Alto or not to Alto


trombone family


It’s a bit of geeky brass player post this week I’m afraid…

A big topic in the classical world in recent years has been the thorny subject of the Historically Informed Performance.  This is when conductors and players strive to perform a piece in a way that is as close as possible in style and sound to the way the piece was  performed when it was originally composed.  The intention being that this is the best chance we have of hearing the music as the composer intended it to be heard.  I joked with our conductor the other week that if we were to do a historically informed performance of the first outing of the Rachmaninoff symphony we were playing, we would need a drunk conductor, an orchestra that couldn’t play half the notes and a composer in therapy for the next three years.

Generally historically informed performances concentrate on 2 aspects:

  1. How the notes are played – speed, articulation, vibrato etc
  2. The choice of instrument the piece is played on.

The first aspect ought to be relatively straight-forward to achieve with a certain level of technique, commitment, listening ability, adherence to direction from the conductor and musicianship. The second is often less achievable, particularly in the amateur music scene – even at a high level – as it can require investment in new instruments (expensive),  and new techniques (expensive in practise time, which for many is limited to the occasional evenings.)

With regards to playing style, I have a whole number of bugbears concerning a lot of orchestral trombone playing.  Some require a bit of historical knowledge and context; others just require a player to use their ears! (Warning – rant coming up):


Richard’s Historically Informed Bugbear Number 1

The great nineteenth century composer, Anton Bruckner peppers his trombone parts with this symbol above the notes:  ˄

Now, any musician worth their salt knows that symbol as a marcato, a really strong, loud accent.  In other words, hit the note hard and then come away from it quickly – imagine hitting a bell hard with a metal hammer.  We trombone players are great at that sort of punch in the solar plexus sound.


Bruckner, as you all know, was an organist.  His music looks and sounds like organ music.  When he writes a trombone line, it’s like the organist has pulled out the Posaune stop.  So he wants a loud sound, but with no ‘smack’ at the beginning of it, but also no reduction in volume.  That’s just the way an organ works.  He probably should have put this symbol above the notes: – the tenuto (play the note for as long as you dare), instead of the ^ but he didn’t. It sounds terribly ugly if it’s played as written. So, trombonists, use your ears and bear in mind the context of the piece.

Richard’s Historically Informed Bugbear Number 2

Fortissimo (very loud) in a Schubert symphony is not the same as fortissimo in a Shostakovitch symphony. Schubert uses the trombone as part of the general texture of the piece, much like he would the bassoon or clarinet, whereas with Shostakovitch the trombones have been held back for moments of earshattering chaos and despair! Playing loud on the trombone isn’t that difficult.  Playing the appropriate volume – well…

Trombonists get an awful lot of stick from conductors/ fellow players for playing too loud.  For what it’s worth, I think more often than not the real problem isn’t trombonists playing too loud in the loud bits, but woodwind players failing to play soft in the quiet bits – but that’s another whinge for another post on another day…

Rant over for now.



Back to what I really wanted to talk about…

Choice of instrument.

When it comes to historically informed performance, trombonists do seem to have slightly more choices on offer than other classical musicians.  Baroque oboes and bassoons, gut strings and short bows on violins really are the preserve of a few specialist players – but even in the amateur world most of the trombonists I know own more than one instrument.  When I tell you that the majority of trombone parts in the orchestral repertoire are playable on the standard tenor trombone, you may ask why?  Well, maybe we are a bit geekier than other musicians.  Maybe we’re lucky that a good quality trombone costs a good deal less than a quality oboe or bassoon, and a massive deal less than a quality violin or cello.  There is also the wide range of music styles that trombone plays a part in, and the fact that the standard instrument used in the jazz band has more in common with the instrument used in the early nineteenth century orchestra than the instrument used in the modern symphony orchestra.

So we can play around with instrument choice a bit more than some of the other sections of the orchestra.   If we look at the development of most of the orchestral instruments, the tendency has for them all to move towards louder richer sounds.  In the case of the trombone this has been generally achieved by designing instruments with wider bores (tubing) and using larger mouthpieces.  As mentioned above, jazz and pop players tend to stick with narrow bores and smaller mouthpieces. This allows them greater agility, range in the upper register and a brighter sound, but loses them volume and richness of tone.  For example, take Darth Vader’s theme in Star Wars and compare that with the sound of the trombone solo at the opening of Dinah Washington’s recording of “Mad about the Boy”. The difference between the 2 sounds from the two different instruments is marked.

My old trombone teacher, Chris Stearn – principal bass trombone with Scottish Opera – recently had a moan on the trombone forum about the section being asked on occasion to play narrower bore instruments for reasons of authenticity.  Why should the trombones be singled out for special treatment when the rest of the orchestra are quite happily playing modern instruments?  With much respect to Chris, I do think that this difference in trombone sound is marked enough to have had an effect on the way composers wrote for the instrument.  It takes quite a practiced ear to discern the difference in sound between a German rotary valve trumpet and modern American piston valve trumpet, or the difference between a Viennese Oboe and a standard oboe.  We used narrow bore trombones for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantasique recently.  The razor sharp edginess of the sound compared to the usual warmth of sound I like to think we produce was quite terrifying – noticeable enough for it to draw comment from audience and orchestra alike.


Back to what I really, really properly wanted to talk about…

The Alto Trombone.

I’m now about to completely contradict what I said above about composers writing for specific instruments, particularly with regards to the trombone (and the tuba – but that’s for another even geekier blog post).

When a wind player sees the words bass clarinet, or tenor saxophone or alto flute at the top of their part they can be reasonably assured as to what instrument to play the part on.  If you are a trombone player this is not the case. In earlier music, things were pretty straight forward. The parts would say alto trombone, tenor trombone and bass trombone and would be played on the equivalent instrument.  This was mainly in church music, accompanying the equivalent choral part (see my previous post, “The trombone, too sacred for frequent use”). The tenor trombone is the standard instrument that most people would visualize when they think of the trombone.  The alto is two thirds the size of the tenor, pitched in Eb. The bass was a cumbersome instrument pitched in G or F with an extra-long slide, which was so long that it required a handle to reach the lowest slide positions!   Despite the different sizes being in different pitches, the trombone has never been treated by composers as a transposing instrument. This is unlike, say, the saxophone which can be pitched in either Eb or Bb allowing the different sizes of instrument to be played by the same player without them having to learn an entirely new fingering.  So a concert pitch Eb is written as C on the alto sax and a concert pitch Bb is written as C on the tenor sax.  On the trombone a C is a C which I think makes things conceptually easier to think through.  There are, of course, exceptions – brass bands treat the trombone as if it were a transposing instrument in Bb – but let’s leave that to one side for now.

However writing for all three different sized instruments in C does mean that the location of the notes on the slides of the different trombones are all completely different, which is a pain if you are a tenor trombone player who occasionally has to play the alto.

Anyway as I said, for a whole bunch of music up to about 1850, the parts would say alto, tenor, bass, the pitch of the parts would more or less mimic the equivalent singing voices, and the appropriate clef would be used for the parts. Most people are fully conversant with the treble and bass clef, but other clefs exist so that parts of a certain range fit comfortably and are easily readable on the 5 line stave.  The picture below shows the same C major scale (bass clef 1 octave down) written using 4 different clefs.


By the mid nineteenth century, the alto trombone began to fall into disuse.  The invention of the valve meant that horns and trumpets could now play chromatically, so the need for a higher pitched trombone was less apparent.  The cumbersome bass trombone in G with the extra-long slide also began to fall out of favour although plenty of players carried on using it throughout the twentieth century.  The modern bass trombone wasn’t really invented until about 1960 and is based on the standard tenor trombone.  It has the same length of slide, but has a much wider bore of tubing, a larger mouthpiece and a valve section to extend the range downwards.  It is a truly impressive instrument.  However (warning – rant coming up):  If you are trombonist asked to play for example the bass trombone part in Mozart’s Requiem, please do not turn up to accompany a chamber choir with an instrument that has been designed to support a full modern symphony orchestra from the bottom of a Hans Zimmer film score.  The choir and conductor won’t thank you!  The tenor trombone will do the job far better.

And here’s the crux of this rather rambling post – often we just don’t know what the composer’s intentions were with regards to instrument choice.  I rather think that often their intentions weren’t necessarily realized and that they were stuck with whatever instruments the players they were writing for had and could play.  But often their intentions aren’t clear on the part.  The driver for writing this post was a performance of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony I was involved with and I was genuinely unsure of what instrument to play it on.

The part says Alto Trombone.  It’s written in the alto clef.  The range of the part is consistently in the high register, including rather too many top Ds (a note I don’t care to play too often the tenor trombone if I can help it).  It’s a no-brainer; it must be an alto trombone part mustn’t it?

But, we get plenty of trombone parts that say alto on them and clearly aren’t. For example, the aforementioned Bruckner – trombone writing of epic proportions – the part asks for the baroque and dainty alto trombone. And he is by no means the only one. Why?  Well, there are all sorts of theories, most of them wonderfully prosaic and banal. One is that the pre-printed manuscript came with alto, tenor and bass already there. Another is that the convention was to call the highest part alto and the lowest bass. Another is that the copyists and publishers edited and published the parts as alto, tenor, bass and the instructions remain today.

Often the parts hedge their bets altogether and call the parts trombone 1, 2 and 3. Hmmm, is that  2 tenors and a bass? 3 tenors?  Even a composer as exacting as Mahler (who on occasion writes for a four trombone section) hedges his bets.  2 tenors and 2 basses?  3 tenors and 1 bass?

And as for that pesky alto clef…!

Composers can’t seem to agree on what clef to write the instrument in.  This is partly because the instrument is blessed with a large range but it does leave us in the awkward situation of having to learn music in up to 5 different clefs: bass, tenor, alto, occasionally treble and the aforementioned Bb transposing treble clef.

So, back to the Dvorak 6.  Everything on the page points towards it being written with Dvorak intending it to be played on the Alto.  But, in my gut Dvorak just doesn’t seem like an alto trombone composer.   Certainly the later works – the Cello Concerto and New World Symphony in particular – are most definitely for tenor trombone, but this piece is earlier, with a more classical feel. The trombone parts are more like the sort of parts I would see in a Schubert or Mendelssohn symphony.   Hmm, perhaps the internet can help with a definitive answer?  Well, not really. Because there is a lot of interesting debate amongst some of the top players from top orchestras about what the correct instrument should be – resulting in a pretty much 50/50 split between tenor & alto.  In fact, the Internet tell me that those Dvorak symphonies may have played on some new design valve trombones, so a different instrument again.

In the end, I played the part on the tenor and just squeezed my buttocks a little harder together for all those top Ds on the final page.

So, if there is a point to all this rambling, and a counter to Chris’s moan about the special attention trombones sometimes receive, perhaps it’s this.  The trombone is a huge sledge hammer of instrument.  A wrong dynamic or articulation can have a massive, and obviously negative effect on a performance. Therefore we do have an obligation to our fellow players, conductors and audience members to get the subtleties right (well, as subtle as you can be blowing into 9 feet of brass tubing).  Ladies and gentlemen of the trombone section, you wield great power.  Use it wisely!


In anticipation of the even geekier tuba entry (don’t worry, not for a while) – check out this low brass version of The Game of Thrones Theme…




Gig Guide

I’m playing Mozart C Minor Mass for the Stockport Grammar School Chorus and Chamber Choir, Saturday 14 March at the Grammar School.  This one’s definitely written for the alto trombone! Hopefully there’ll be some sensitive playing on the bass part too…







6 thoughts on “To Alto or not to Alto”

  1. Enjoyed your geeky brass post Richard. I must say that certainly amongst amateur trumpet players they change instruments more to make it easy for the player than for the authenticity of the performance or the whim of the conductor. For example I recently heard of a player using a piccolo trumpet for one movement of the Britten Sea Interludes (written for trumpet in D so admittedly quite high) but almost certainly not the instrument the composer intended in 1945.

    Also a couple of years ago I had a revelation. Why was the conductor telling the brass section to play softer in Mahler for goodness sake. And we certainly were not playing at full paint-stripping mode on that occasion. It then struck me that what the conductor was hearing was an OUT OF TUNE moderately loud sound that was pretty unpleasant. Since then I’ve concentrated on getting the section to play more in tune with the consequence that the conductor has allowed us to play much louder. Result all round!

    1. Hi Elliot! Hope you’re well – long time no see! Love your comments re differences between why trumpet and trombone players change instruments and agree absolutely. One thing I meant to make clear in my post was the fact that ( and I’ve yet to meet a trombonist who disagrees) the alto trombone is REALLY HARD TO PLAY! It’s difficult to tune and pitch. You always need a good bit of time on it to get your lip back in – and, to add insult to injury, it doesn’t make the high notes come a great deal easier! (it easier to play with the appropriate quality of sound though). Unlike trumpet players, you’ll never see a trombonist swap between instruments mid piece – far to precarious!
      As for your comment about out of tune playing – yes! – no one wants to hear you in that case! It’s a real reminder that orchestral and brass section playing is a real team sport – you’re only as good as the weakest player…

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