The Art of Trombone Playing – Dudley Bright

In the sixth of the series in which some of the SA banding world’s pre-eminent players discuss the role of their particular instrument within the brass band, Dudley Bright, principal trombone of both the London Symphony Orchestra and Regent Hall Band, focuses on the role of the trombone.

It’s been a pretty intensive month or so for this orchestral trombonist, having been immersed in banding from most angles. I have sat ‘on the edge’ for a corps band festival and BBC Songs of Praise recording, I have been a listener at a couple of contests, including hearing some fine performances of my own music, adjudicated for the first time, and I have conducted an intensive weekend of rehearsals and a festival with a divisional band in Germany. Altogether I have sampled the situation of the trombone from most angles, but not all.

I do realise that Salvationist trombonists find themselves in all kinds of situations, from the loner in a small band to our section of seven at Regent Hall. In spite of our unique ergonomics, it has to be said that the SA band trombone player is subject no less to the same considerations as any other instrument: sound, articulation, intonation, balance and ensemble, to name just a few. However, I’m not sure that any other band instrument is required to be quite such a chameleon – one moment matching and blending with the lower cornets, the next providing a brilliant fanfare, now creating a blend amongst horns, baritones and euphonium, then providing the leading edge of the basses. The point to recognise, at any one time, is our function in the musical design and matching one’s note production, style and dynamics accordingly. The trombone section is perhaps most frequently by composers and arrangers to provide a dash of colour. It has to be acknowledged that this is not as easy as it once was with the use of modern large bore trombones and it often is necessary to increase the dynamic above that which is printed to make the required colour tell. The converse is true if, for instance, the section is providing harmonic support below the euphonium. In this case it has become easier to produce the most suitable timbre. This can be aided by adjusting the note production. Even without actually playing louder, a crisp, precise tongue action will tend to brighten the sound when required while a gentle, breath-driven production will help mellow and blend the sound.

A fine trombone section requires good internal balance. It is not enough to have a fine soloist on the end and a meaty bass trombone at the other end. The second trombone has a very important function in between. In fact, a slightly weak first but strong second can sound better than vice versa because the upper note tends to be heard much more easily than the inner part: the effect is exaggerated when there are two strong players on first. The bass trombone was once seen almost exclusively as providing ‘edge’ to the basses. Players with a satisfying rasp could fulfil their function quite admirably with little concern for the basic sound quality and were rarely found out until the advent of short but audible little solos! (e.g. On the Road by Howard Davis). Now, with trombone sections normally consisting of only three trombones instead of four or more, composers are more often scoring the bass instrument as a third harmony part. The present trend to ever bigger mouthpieces and instruments does not suit the bass trombone in this function. Neither is it helpful in giving a nice edge to the basses – the required volume and breath control becomes excessive. To don my composer’s hat for a moment, I cannot see the virtue of the bass trombone dropping down an octave to double the tubas. The effect is gruff and ineffective, whilst keeping an octave apart is both noble and can be extremely powerful. Bandmasters (or bass players) should be aware of this in the absence of a Bb bass, when even a lone Eb tuba dropping an octave below the bass trombone gives depth and richness to the full band sound.

The trombone has a few distinctive considerations as a result of possessing a slide. In order to match the valve action of the rest of the band, trombone players require an extremely rapid and precise slide technique. To do this, keep the arm and wrist relaxed so as not to transfer the energy of slide movements to the rest of the body. When it comes to slurs and legato playing, good slide technique is not quite enough: a well co ordinated and appropriate articulation is required. What is not often realised is that this soft tonguing must not only be firm enough to cover the slide movement; it must also be at the same time – therefore earlier than usual. Armed with this knowledge, careful listening and experimentation can work wonders. There is no need then to produce the nervy little swells and bulges associated with an inadequate legato technique, instead aim to produce a beautiful lyrical sound so characteristic of the finest trombonists.

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