Dem ‘Bones, Dem ‘Bones, Dem Trombones
60 Years Behind the Slide… I’m Dudley “Slide” Schwartz and these are my observations from 60+ years (and still going) as an amateur trombonist. My brief dose of “music theory” dates from my days in junior and senior high school and then, many years later, my experiences in the trombone section of the Rockville (Maryland) Brass Band, a true British brass band. I’m a graduate from Professor Harold Hill’s “Music Theory Thinkology College,” so I have little formal knowledge of the technology of music theory.
My experiences include playing the trombone in Jr. and Sr. high school, college, AFROTC band, summer recreation department concert band, and then 30 years in the Rockville Brass Band. For 15 of those years I also played in a klezmer/ folk music band. Most recently I’ve played three great years with the New Horizons band in Durham, NC. Throughout this period, I’ve played the classic B-flat tenor slide trombone – the way the horn was intended to be!
So what’s the trombone all about, anyway? Well, I believe the horn is a member of the trumpet family and as with any brass instrument, players can change pitch on the horn by changing the frequency of lip vibration. But there is a fundamental difference between the slide trombone and valved brass instruments. The tones that can be coaxed out of valved horns are tied to valve combinations, which when depressed alter the length of the overall tube of the horn. Pushing down different combinations of valves results in a different series of distinctly defined notes with each combination. This is more of a digital model (pardon the pun).
But with the slide trombone you really have more of an analog model. Like a valved instrument, there is still a series of notes that can be played with each slide position, but the trombone lets musicians play a literally infinite number of notes by moving the slide above and below the standard positions. In other words, with the slide trombone the player can add schmears and glisses to the music, as well as simply play the series of notes that correspond to any given position of the slide. This ability to “slide” into and out of the written notes opens a whole world of styles that beckon to the slide trombonist.
Are there different types of trombones?
Sure. There’s a valve trombone, which is typically a version of the Bb tenor trombone. These horns have three valves along with tubing copied (I believe) from the Bb tenor trombone when the slide is in first position. This horn does solve the problem of fast, long slide movements like from sixth to first position, but to my ear it lacks some of the beautiful warmth of the slide trombone.
Forcing the vibrating column of air to make tight bends while traversing the tubing associated with the valves has an unavoidable limiting effect on the resonance and the warmth of the horn’s overtones. If you compare the sound of three tenor trombones playing harmony with a trio of trumpets playing the same music, the trombones (again to my ear) will have a warmer, richer sound. I believe this is because the overtones produced by the trombones are easier to hear than the corresponding overtones coming from a trio of trumpets.
Moving on, we also have the tiny soprano trombone (sometimes called a slide trumpet), the bass trombone and the enormous contrabass
trombone with its double slide. In my opinion, the larger, deeper pitched trombones lose some of the “luster” that the Bb tenor trombone can produce. (In fact, the contrabass trombone is more of a “slide bullfrog” than a horn capable of producing warm, gorgeous, shimmering sounds.)
Nothing can do this like a trombone!
As mentioned before, the slide trombone offers one very special feature that allows the horn to be used for many specialized roles that no other brass horn can offer: the schmear, the glissando, etc.
What a powerful sound effect! It’s used in klezmer music to “give the music an extra kick in the tuchas,” similar to how it’s used in Dixieland, ragtime, swing, etc. It lets you hit all the notes in between the standard notes for special emphasis and effect. Listen to the extended schmear in the Kenny Ball band’s recording of Midnight In Moscow, where the band changes key and the transition is via what sounds like a three second long, 6th position up to 1st position gliss.
Another good example, but with a different aim in mind, are the ‘bone schmears in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, for which the schmear is not just a musical style/accent, but also to my ear the musical depiction of early bi-planes climbing, diving and looping.
But not all is perfect with the slide trombone. If the music calls for a fast switch between notes played, for example, in the first and sixth positions, the trombonist may have to move the slide a long distance very rapidly. For most of us, that time interval is longer than it would take a valved instrument to make the equivalent change in pitch.
Some trombones have a trigger valve that allows the player to shorten the distance the slide has to travel, which alleviates the problem by making notes otherwise played in sixth position playable in fourth position. A much shorter distance for the slide to travel in a hurry!
Here’s something very special and little known about the slide trombone: it is, I think, the only musical instrument, which by a simple rotation of the bell section of the horn, can be turned into a mirror image of the standard trombone. The trombone is typically played holding the horn with the left hand and the slide with the right hand. Inverting the horn can be handy for lefties to hold the horn with their right hand and the slide with their left hand. (Yes, lefties have rights too!)
Finally, while valved instruments have an old pop song praising their features The Music Goes Round And Round, the elegant slide trombone has a song all its own – Fillmore’s famous trombone rag, Lassus Trombone!