I Was a Teenage Trombonist

Monday, November 22, 2010 - 10:31 AM

Sounds like a horror movie, doesn’t it? Well, for my family and friends, perhaps it was -- but this isn’t their blog post, now, is it? So my trombone tale is very much a happy one, except for the beginning.

You see, I really wanted to play the flute. But my school band director – L. Dean Maxwell, where are you now? – was probably plugging a lower-brass-section hole he saw in the future of his ensemble when he recommended the instrument that would become mine. I do distinctly remember him grabbing my lower lip and saying, “You need a big upper lip to play the flute,” and thus was the trombone thrust into my hands.

It didn’t take long for me to appreciate the instrument – its gleaming brass beauty, its grand brash sound, and its slide – a unique quality among instruments. I played in concert band, in the pep band at ballgames, and in the marching band – the only possible way I would ever legitimately be seen on a football field.

The trombone has been around since sometime in the late 1400s. The English for a long time called it a sackbut, and that smaller, mellower version of the instrument is still played in some early music groups. The difference between the two is chiefly one of scale. Trombones have a bigger “bore” – that’s the diameter of the coiled pipe that makes up the instrument. Because they have more pipe to fill, they need more “hot air” to play – and they make a significantly more powerful sound.

In the instrument’s early years, trombones were used not to stand out but to supplement the sound of choral singers. They were supposed to be soft. But a bit later, composers realized the potential in the instrument, and wrote to bring out what I think is their best quality in an orchestra:  Muscle. Trumpets race and shimmer; horns blaze and shine; tubas stand firm with a wall of sound; but trombones... trombones get in your face. They are the sound of strength, and the sound of menace. If the symphony orchestra was a busy nightclub, the trombones would be the bouncers.

Mozart used the trombone to announce the Last Judgment in his Requiem (“Tuba mirum”). That’s no ordinary trumpet; it’s the sound that wakes the dead. And that growl that opens Sibelius’s Finlandia?  Sure, the whole brass section is involved, but the real threat is coming from the trombones. Berlioz, Dvorak, Brahms, and Wagner also wrote wonderful parts for the trombone section. 

A famous trombone solo in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is a good example of the instrument’s no-nonsense nature, and the whole section teams up at the end of the passage. Listen to it below, in the 1961 New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein performance.

On the other hand, can any orchestral instrument croon as well as a trombone? Exhibit A: Tommy Dorsey’s theme song, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” No further evidence need be supplied. (You can see Tommy play a bit of it in this video, at a minute-and-a-half in. It’s a short clip, but sweet.) 

For something in that line from the classical repertoire, hear the solo turn in Ravel’s Bolero below, from a London Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas performance. 

How trombonists play jazz will always be a mystery to me. The physical movements between notes on the trombone are bigger than the distance covered in closing the holes on a woodwind or pushing a valve on a trumpet or horn, so you can’t play trombone notes rapid-fire as you can on other instruments. But somehow, jazz players do it. Check out this video of the great West Coast session trombonist Dick Nash, playing with his son Ted at the opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2004. All those notes – and the right ones, too – out of nowhere.  It’s just amazing.

Right here in New York is one of the greatest classical trombonists in the world: Joseph Alessi, Principal Trombone of the New York Philharmonic. He has commissioned and premiered new trombone compositions, is a well-known clinician around the globe, and has led a trombone choir at Juilliard. Below you can hear the 12-member choir of 2009 playing Vaclav Nehlybel's Tower Music for Eight Trombones at a concert in the Chapel at West Point.  It's an unusual, exciting sound.

My trombone playing didn’t continue much past high school, but – as so many listeners who responded to Midge Woolsey’s blog post empathized – my band days were a fantastic experience. Thanks to good ol' L. Dean Maxwell and a supportive school administration, I played the trombone in Europe:  My high school concert band went on a three-week tour of the continent in the summer of my sophomore year. Our marching band even played a halftime show at a Denver Broncos game, which was very memorable, but not for entirely positive reasons; in fact, I endured a brass player’s nightmare that cold December afternoon. 

During the game's first half, the air temperature dropped to below freezing -- dangerous conditions for brass players, because your instrument freezes. You have to keep the mouthpiece (pictured, right) warm, either in your pocket or by carefully blowing air through it, because if you touch a frozen metal mouthpiece with wet skin – say, just as an example, your lips – unless that metal is warmed to above freezing, the skin will stay on that mouthpiece when you take your lips away. 

Well, try as I might, between staying in formation and carrying the horn in the proper position, I couldn't keep the metal warm enough in that freezing air. I didn't really feel the pain until after we were finished, and I noticed the water from the spit valve was running red. My frozen mouthpiece claimed some skin that day.

But that's the only time my trombone caused me any serious pain. Even though I was never a great player, I had great experiences thanks to that instrument, and I thrill to the trombone's sound today. And I don't regret one bit not getting to the play the flute. Oh, by the way, flutists -- is there any truth to that upper-lip thing?


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Comments [20]


Christian Lindberg, the great Swedish trombonist, is one of the greatest classical musicians alive.
JJ Johnson will never be surpassed!

Mar. 19 2017 05:41 AM
sharon gray from Manhattan

Dear Jeff, Listening to you talk about music
is almost as good as listening to it. you express so well what this wonderful music can do for all of us. Wqxr has been my constant companion . I often wonder who can take the credit for the amazing
selection of staff every last one of you is a gem and I am sure a good part of the station excelence, kudos to all of you

Mar. 08 2011 02:19 PM
Phyllis Sharpe

I wrote previously that my 80 year old brother-in-law was playing trombone with a dance band in Florida, mostly golden oldies for golden oldies. But today I learned that he is playing trombone with the Naples Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. He was so proud!
I wish that instead of being a soprano, I had learned an instrument. Until this "daughter of song was brought low" with age, which is how you become an alto, I had never heard the tenor or bass parts.
When do instrumentalists feel part of the whole? Or do we all need El Systema?

Jan. 04 2011 06:53 PM
Marcia from Brooklyn, NY

Jeff, your comments and music choices never fail to lighten my day. I'm a long (very long) lapsed accordian student, but thanks to ebay, have an instrument waiting to be picked up again and played. Any suggestions for finding a patient instructor?

Dec. 05 2010 02:43 PM
Vincent Calabro from Totowa, New Jersey

Jeff, I neglected to thank you for keeping us company in the mornings on the ride to work, and for all your insights into the music, artists and composers. Your story about the trombone was excellent and your description was perfect, great listening!

Dec. 03 2010 11:48 AM
Vincent Calabro from Totowa, New Jersey

Jeff, you lucked out, my Italian Grandparents had different aspirations for their grandson.. Have you heard the expression, "Welcome to Heaven, here's your Harp" How about "Welcome to Hell , here's your accordian!" After weeks of anticipation prior to Christmas, and taunting from my parents, "Wait till you see what Nana got you!!!" Then finally finding that big box under the tree! I couldn't imagine, what it could be, it was so heavy, I ripped open the wrapping paper to expose the handles and latches on the carrying case, my heart leapt! I thought it wass a Victrola! Wow! Then the grand opening............a red accordian.
The last thing on earth I would have expected (or wanted)

Why did J.S. Bach ask Antonio Vivaldi to borrow a couple of $$ ??

Because he was Baroque!

Happy Holidays!

Dec. 03 2010 11:38 AM
William from Westchester County, NY

I too was a teenaged trombonist. I really wanted to play french horn, but my grandfather - the music force in our family - brought home a t-bone instead of a horn for me so,...that was that. I wasn't particularly happy with the instrument at first but I came to like it as years passed. I studied it and played in college at Syracuse U and even afterwards. One commenter above mentioned the band version of Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral. Yes, that is one of the primo parts for 'bone, as is anything by Gustav Holst, Vaughn-Williams or Sousa. But don't overlook orchestral works by Shostakovitch, Dvorak, Bruckner, Mahler and a few others. Two of my favorites: Dvorak's 8th Symphony and the Great C Major by Schubert. Magnificent!

I recommend next time you get a chance to hear a professional orchestra (jazz or classical), pay close attention to the most talented section there: the trombones.

Dec. 02 2010 07:09 PM


Nov. 27 2010 01:45 PM
Phyllis Sharpe

I offer this as a challenge. In high school my brotherinlaw really wanted to work up to first string QB, but failed the physical -- leaky heart valve. So at the games he played trombone in the band and was a cheerleader. At KU (premed) he was in the marching band. He earned money for med school playing in dance bands. Now 80,
this retired physician still practices everyday and plays in a dance band - mostly golden oldies by golden oldies.

Nov. 26 2010 12:42 PM

Hi Jeff!
My younger sister Nikki and I were among the first female trombonists in our 315 member Boardman [OH] High School Marching band 30+ years ago.

Why trombone you may ask? My Mom in one of her not-to-be-trifled-with shopping sprees got 2 for $25 at a garage sale. The rest, as they say, is (a rosy) history! Thanks for the post! j

Nov. 24 2010 02:44 PM

Happened to hear your estimate of your trombone expertise and smiled -- I played clarinet in LSU marching band but could not learn the show fast enough to march and play at the same time -- so I had to count steps instead of watch for cues in the music. Thanks for the tale of your musical background.

Nov. 24 2010 12:33 PM
Gabe from New York, NY

Jeff, I really enjoyed this. I too was a teenage trombonist. But the only reason I was a trombonist, and not a trumpeter, was because when it came time to choose your band instrument (4th grade), I confused trombone with trumpet, and a few months later was dumbstruck when they handed me a trombone. But I ended up playing through high school and college. Playing trombone was full of highs and lows. I had a fantastic high school program in Jersey. One time in college we had rehearsal after I pulled an all-nighter studying for an exam, and I was the only trombone who made it to rehearsal, yet I fell asleep counting a bizillion measure rest in Holst's Suite for Band before the big trombone solo. I woke up to the conductor pointing in my direction and screaming at me. But nothing can match the raw power of blasting a prominent trombone part. Favorite trombone part--the ending of the band arrangement of Wagner's Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral.

Thanks Jeff, and hi Mom!

Nov. 23 2010 04:57 PM
Roz Levinson from New Jersey

I was also a teenage trombonist - many, many years ago.
My parents moved from NYC to a small town in Southern New Jersey just as I was going into high school. I had already been playing the violin for several years, but this school didn't have an orchestra. They did however, have a great marching and concert band and I wanted to play music. I went to see the director on the first day thinking it was a great opportunity to learn the oboe or the french horn. I was handed a trombone and that was that. I got pretty good at the trombone, I thoroughly enjoyed the band experience both marching and concert although I did continue with the violin in All State and regional orchestras.
To this day, when I hear a band playing a piece, I either remember liking or not - totally based on whether or not it had an interesting trombone part!

Nov. 23 2010 02:06 PM
Alan Van Poznak from Tenafly NJ

What a wonderful blog and comments! You have enriched my life beyond description.
Many thanks!

Nov. 23 2010 12:47 PM
Judy from NJ

My son was a teenage trombonist...he had a fabulous experience in his high school band (marching, wind, jazz ensemble). He continues to be an adult pianist, and loves all kinds of music. We thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts, Jeff, and are ardent fans of your broadcasts on QXR.

Nov. 23 2010 09:17 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

When one mentions the trombone, the name Arthur Pryor comes to mind - at least it does for me! Mr. Pryor was the greatest virtuoso of the instrument (my humble opinion) and for 11 seasons, sat first chair with John Philip Sousa's Band. During Pryor's tenure with Sousa, he played over 10,000 solos with the Band via live performance and by means of the earliest recording techniques. To his credit, Pryor saw the value of recording where Sousa dismissed it. Mr. Pryor was also a big influence in the "ragtime" or syncopated music genre and played a major role in bringing ragtime to Europe during the Sousa Band's European Tour of 1900. Newspaper accounts of the period write of audiences "going wild" for ragtime with little or none of the credit going to Pryor - who would take the musicians aside and teach them how to interpret these new complex rhythms! Pryor left Sousa in 1903 to form a band of his own and while not a commerical success like Sousa's, his band was on the same performance level and held to the same high standards. Thanks to Pryor's foresight on the importance of recording, many of his pyrotechnic solos and band recordings are available today. An earlier blogger mentioned Mr. Joseph Alessi - how ironic! Currently, Mr. Alessi has teamed up with band historian and owner of Dillon Music, Mr. Stephen Dillon with a recording project bringing the genius of Arthur Pryor to light. When this becomes available, I hope WQXR will share the incredible talents of Mr. Alessi and the legacy of Arthur Pryor with their listening audience.

Nov. 22 2010 09:03 PM
Vicki from New Jersey

I am a teenage trombonist! I love the trombone because you can play anywhere, in a marching band, wind ensemble, orchestra or jazz band. Although the trombones usually don't have too much to play in orchestra (I'm really good at counting rests), when we do play, we always have great parts.

Nov. 22 2010 04:07 PM
Michael Meltzer

They say that Tommy Dorsey could hold a single note for a minute-and-a-half.
MY own favorite was Buddy Morrow, playing "Night Train."

Nov. 22 2010 03:25 PM
FL from NY

I am a flute player. Though I absolutely adore the flute, I have always said that if I had to start all over and pick a different instrument, it would DEFINATELY be trombone! Needless to say, I love this blog. I believe it was the Mahler 3rd Symphony (played by the NY Philharmonic with Joe Alessi) that made me truly appreciate the instrument.

Nov. 22 2010 02:58 PM

Well Jeff...I'm DELIGHTED you played trombone! But....not a mention of the march king?? So the obvious question is have you ever played ''Stars & Stripes Forever''?.......( I really do hope so)

Nov. 22 2010 02:44 PM

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