Today I am beginning what I plan to make a regular feature on this blog, entitled “Gadgets and Gizmos.” These posts will consist of short reviews of various “accessories” on the market that are intended to help low brass players in the pursuit of their craft. Today I will be discussing the instrument supports available from a company in Finland called Ergobrass.
Ergobrass is the creation of Finnish bass trombonist Jouko Antere, who developed his first support, the “Ergobone,” in order to alleviate tension in the arm, hand, neck, and shoulder caused by supporting the tremendous and poorly-balanced weight of a double-valve bass trombone. Following the success of this initial product, he has proceeded to create Ergobrass supports for all brass instruments except for bass and contrabass tubas, and over the past decade Ergobrass products have met with increasing acceptance within the brass playing community.
I recall quite well when these products were first advertised in the International Trombone Association Journal, and my reaction to them. Being then in my early twenties, and having never experienced any significant playing-related discomfort, I thought that the supports appeared bulky and clumsy, and questioned why anyone would want to use such contraptions. More than ten years later, and after experiencing issues with neck and back pain, I not only own both the trombone and euphonium supports, but have also written a short endorsement for the Ergobrass website. I have come to greatly appreciate these products and recommend them to those that are experiencing pain with playing or simply want to eliminate excessive tension. Still, no product or accessory is without its “pros and cons,” and so here I want to give a somewhat more thorough review of the two supports that I own.
Ergobrass Euphonium Support
The euphonium support was the first product that I purchased from Ergobrass, during the summer of 2009. At that time I had suffered from neck and back pain for about two years, and was looking for a way to improve my posture when playing the euphonium in order to both improve playing efficiency and relieve pain. As I mentioned above, my first reaction to the Ergobrass products had been skepticism, but given the awkwardness of holding and playing a euphonium even for one in perfect physical condition, which was only exacerbated by my pain issues, I found myself willing to “give it a try.”
The euphonium support did not disappoint. I find that, at least when playing while seated, the device places the instrument and mouthpiece at an ideal height. I am able to sit comfortably and breathe freely, without the weight of the instrument causing fatigue in the left arm and, even worse, leading to the tendency to support some weight with the right thumb, thus causing tension in the hand whose fingers need to be free to operate the valves. While I have received more than a little “friendly mockery” from students and others—my students at ULM called it the “lazy stick” while those at Ole Miss have referred to it as a “kickstand”—the greater ease of playing I have experienced using this support more than makes up for any grief I have received over it. I never play euphonium without it, at least while I am seated.
The Ergobrass euphonium support includes a “belt pocket” which allows the player to use the device even while standing, with the support resting in a small pocket attached to the player’s belt. While I have used this accessory on a few occasions, I have come to prefer simply holding the instrument normally when playing while standing. The weight of the instrument is more easily manageable while standing than while sitting (perhaps because the legs are supporting the upper body), so the support is less necessary. And, I have to admit, I am a bit uncomfortable having my euphonium being supported by the same belt that is supporting my pants—that always seems like a “recipe for disaster!”
Ergobone Trombone Support
While the trombone support was the original product available from Ergobrass, I purchased it several months after the euphonium support, following a particularly bad episode with my back. Like the euphonium support, the trombone support transfers the weight of the instrument either to the player’s chair, or to a harness which is worn around the neck and shoulders. Unlike the “belt pocket” on the euphonium support, the neck/shoulder harness is not at all “perilous,” and provides ease of use roughly equal to that experienced when resting the support on the chair. So, the Ergobone can easily be used either sitting or standing.
Nevertheless, I have not found the trombone support to be as helpful for everyday use as the euphonium support. For one thing, even the heaviest bass trombone is lighter and more ergonomically balanced than the euphonium, so weight and size management do not present as great a problem to be addressed with the trombone. Additionally, I have found that the relief offered by the trombone support with regard to the weight of the instrument comes at the expense of a certain postural problem, in that I always find myself having to crane my neck forward a bit when using the trombone support. This causes some unwanted tension in the neck, which is particularly undesirable for someone like myself with neck pain issues, but can cause a certain tenseness to the sound for anyone. This postural issue is less pronounced when using the neck/shoulder harness than when resting the support on the chair, so perhaps the problem is not as much with the Ergobone itself as with my own “rounded midsection,” which creates the need to place the support more forward than would be necessary if I were to lose some weight!
Still, the trombone support is worth having. When I have experienced back pain flare-ups the trombone support has provided considerable relief and the ability to continue performing more or less normally, and I have successfully used it with students experiencing similar issues following automobile accidents, etc. An unexpected use of the trombone support has been when using a Harmon mute with the bass trombone, as I had to when playing Daniel Schnyder’s (b. 1961) Trio for Trumpet, Horn, and Bass Trombone a couple of years ago. Given the weight of the bass trombone, freeing the left hand sufficiently to produce the “wah-wah” effect with the mute is particularly challenging. By using the Ergobone, I was able to free my left hand to operate the mute while letting the weight of the instrument rest entirely upon the chair.
Overall Analysis and Recommendation
The Ergobrass products can appear bulky or awkward at first, but in practice they are rather unobtrusive. The black and silver coloring of the devices makes them almost invisible to audience members when the player is wearing a tuxedo or other black outfit. Each player’s physiology is unique, as are the challenges that each individual might seek to overcome through the use of instrument supports. While I have found the euphonium support to be more helpful for me than the trombone support in most situations, another person might have the opposite experience. In any case, all of the Ergobrass supports are well-designed and well-made, and well worth the somewhat “steep” pricing (the present dollar-euro exchange rate is no help here, unfortunately). Brass players that seek to play with less tension, better posture, and relief of back, neck, and/or arm pain should try the fine products from Ergobrass.