For basically the entire year from May 2016 to May 2017 I moved from my usual practice of treating the large tenor trombone as my primary instrument to placing the bass trombone in that role. While for the entirety of that time I continued to play alto, tenor, and bass trombones, euphonium, and tuba in teaching and performance, an unusually low-note-heavy performing schedule for an extended period of time made this a sensible change. As I discuss in my 2014 book The Low Brass Player’s Guide to Doubling, I have found through experience that keeping multiple instruments on more or less equal footing does not work well for me. I am a more successful doubler when one of the instruments is treated as “home base” in terms of practice time and fundamental approach, while the other instruments are treated as departures from that primary instrument. At the same time, I do think that which instrument occupies the primary role can change as circumstances dictate. This was not my first time moving the bass trombone to the “top spot,” but it was the longest period of time for which I have done this.
At this point circumstances have changed somewhat and moving the large tenor back into the primary position is most prudent for my upcoming performing obligations. I’d like to reflect briefly on both positive and negative effects that I experienced from this extended shift in priorities.
On the positive side, the primary benefit was that I was better able to meet the performing obligations I had, including several bass trombone solo performances in prominent venues. The extra time focusing on that instrument’s sound and range yielded small but significant improvements, particularly with regard to tone quality and response in the extreme lower register. There was a bit of associated improvement in my tuba playing, as well. On a more conceptual level, the experience has reaffirmed my overall approach to doubling, especially the primary instrument/secondary instruments paradigm that I discussed above but also the idea that as long as all instruments are practiced regularly and the same tonal range is maintained on all one can enjoy reasonable success performing on multiple low brass instruments in the midst of a very efficient approach to daily practice. For the most part, any decline in my capabilities on the higher-pitched instruments was felt by me more than heard by others.
Nevertheless, there was some decline, particularly with regard to extended playing in the upper register. While I explored a full tonal range in excess of six octaves in my daily practice throughout this period, my efforts were still focused in the lower part of the range. I noticed that I was working a bit harder in my regular monthly gig as an orchestral first trombonist, but where I really noticed the change was playing lead trombone in a big band in late March/early April. Several hours per day of loud high-note playing took their toll, not so much in terms of embouchure fatigue (though there was some of that) but in excessive muscular effort throughout the upper body. I don’t think we realize just how much muscular effort is recruited from the back and torso for this kind of playing until we become out of shape in that way. As a back pain sufferer anyway, this experience was unpleasant, but also made me realize that more time in the upper register not only enhances my playing ability in that part of the range but likely also has a slight strengthening effect on muscles that are used for maintaining posture and other functions. Finally, recovery of my previous approach, with the large tenor as primary instrument, took a little longer than expected; it was a month or so before this once again felt “natural” to me.
On the whole, this balance of “positives and negatives” was precisely what I expected. I moved the bass trombone into the primary position precisely because I expected some moderate improvement in my skills on that instrument as a result, and I also expected a moderate “felt but not heard” decline in my upper register work. The only significant surprise was that a single occasion of extended high register work was more challenging than expected, but even then I was foolish for not spending extra time on my small-bore tenor trombone in the couple of weeks or so leading up to that engagement. The experience has vindicated the approach to doubling on multiple low brass instruments which I have used for nearly 20 years and which is presented in my book. It works!
(So why not go buy a copy for yourself……?)